The other day, someone on a discussion group that I’m a member of asked what one thing they should do to start leading a more sustainable life. I have to confess that I didn’t respond, but it is a question that I’ve been pondering ever since. Of course there’s lots of things you could do, from saying no to plastic bags to catching the bus rather than driving the car, but on reflection, I think my advice would be to consider your eating habits.
In control of your own potatoes!
If you start thinking more about the food you eat, you will begin to wonder what’s actually in it and where it came from. The more your food has been prepared or processed before it gets to you, the more difficult it is to unpick its history, so you become less and less sure of what you are actually swallowing. Let’s consider two extremes, in the form of mashed potato:
- If you eat a potato that you have grown yourself, then you can be sure how far it has travelled, what chemicals have been applied to it, exactly what variety it is and when it was harvested. In addition, it’s pretty certain that it won’t have had any packaging, except when it’s parent seed potato arrived for planting. You can boil it and eat it without any additional ingredients, but any that you do add – salt, butter, milk, oil – will be under your control in terms of source and amount.
- If you buy pre-prepared mashed potato, you’ll have to look at the ingredients to know what’s in it (for example, Tesco Fresh Mashed Potato contains: Potato, Skimmed Milk, Whole Milk (9%), Butter (Milk) (3%), Salt, White Pepper). You won’t know how the potatoes were grown, and you may only have the vaguest indication of where they were grown and/or processed (the Tesco version states “Produced in the UK” and nothing else). There’s bound to be packaging (plastic and cardboard in this example) and there’s going to have been lots of food miles, because of transporting the potato to the processing plant, transporting the product to a central distribution centre and from there to the shop, before you can finally transport it home to eat.
Buying in bulk can mean less packaging
Of course, we can’t all grow our own food, and many people can’t grow any of their own food, but if you can (even a little bit), you can be completely in control of that part of your diet. The next best option is to buy direct from the producer – if you buy from the person who grows or makes your food, you can ask them questions about it. In addition, in my experience, small producers of non-luxury foods generally minimise their packaging as it costs them money: many small-scale sellers will aim simply for freshness and protection. Buying direct also reduces food miles because the supply chain is so short. The popularity of farmers’ and producers’ markets has given many more people the opportunity to buy direct, plus more and more small producers are selling online. This is encouraging, but still you’d be very lucky to be able to source all your food direct – almost all of us have to rely, at least to some extent, on third party suppliers, and then there is an element of trust in the relationship.
Over the years I’ve read so many labels on packets containing food. Sometimes, I just can’t face the disappointment of discovering that my favourite biscuits contain palm oil, so I don’t read the ingredients, but sooner or later I get round to it and often it results in me making changes to my diet. There are some products that I’ve given up not because of the ingredients, but because of the packaging (teabags, for example). As a result there are now only a few things that we eat that I haven’t made myself, and increasingly I find that I no longer enjoy the flavour of pre-prepared/processed things that I used to eat or drink often . This, however, has been a very gradual process. Twenty years ago we did almost all our food shopping in a supermarket and I didn’t think twice about buying a pizza or a bag of frozen chips. And this is one of the joys of focusing on food – small changes accumulate over time and because we eat every day, a little change can have a big impact over a whole year.
Some home-made food is fancier than others
I wish I’d kept better track of the way our food has changed – it would be interesting. I’m sure that stopping going out to work made a big difference. Since I now do all my paid work from home, it’s much easier to fit in cooking from scratch. My commitment to cooking has also meant that I have bought kitchen equipment that I would otherwise not have bothered with – for example, my Kenwood Chef sure does get a lot of use, and we like it especially because a single motor can run the coffee grinder, blender, ice cream maker and mincer as well as the basic mixer; it’s also possible to buy spares if there’s a problem. Having the right equipment makes a huge impact on the speed I can make things, although very few items are essential.
So, if you want to make a start on saving the planet, think about your food and make a few changes that fit your lifestyle. You may be surprised how your shopping and diet are gradually transformed without a huge traumatic shift in your habits.