The chill of the winter air, the comfort of staying in, and the allure of rich holiday treats all converge to create a perfect formula for overindulgence. At this time of year it can be most difficult to align ourselves with healthy habits and nourishing foods; instead, we can almost hear that iced sugar cookie calling our name. Yet, difficult does not mean impossible. There are some realistic ways to clean up and green up your eating for 2017.
When preparing for a new year, many people tend to put their eating patterns under the microscope and develop “resolutions” to do better. Sometimes, however, resolutions are treated like diets and the habits do not stick. Instead of a fleeting fix, consider incremental improvements to your daily routine. And, in lieu of focusing on just one shortsighted goal, like losing weight, think about making long-lasting changes for your health — and your environmental impact.
Is Eating “Clean” Really All That Great?
Hopping on the “clean eating” trend can mean different things for different folks. For some, choosing whole foods over processed fare may improve digestion issues. For others, cutting back on packaged foods helps with endurance at the gym. Whatever your reason for pursuing a cleaner diet, you will probably better off including more fresh, whole foods in your daily meals.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, 87 percent of American adults do not eat their daily recommended amount of vegetables and 76 percent are not getting enough fruit. As a nation who values the drive-thru, this should not be a surprise, but it should certainly be disappointing. Any improvement to these numbers is a step in the right direction, but it will require taking a hard look at our daily food habits.
Generally speaking, “clean eating” refers to replacing processed convenience foods with fresh, whole, and often organic fruits, vegetables, grains, and sometimes meats. This means cooking from scratch more often, scoping out the bulk bins, and getting more acquainted with your kitchen tools. Yet, eating “clean” is not the only consideration for those looking to improve their diets — there is also eating “green.”
How Big Is Your Food Footprint?
Take one peek at someone who is striving toward being “zero waste,” and we will instantly recognize how our own habits are hurting the planet. How often do we really think about how much waste we produce? The convenience of throw-away packaging and unseen landfills tends to eliminate our worries — but not our impact.
When it comes to our food habits, this can be where we create the most waste. Plastic, paper, glass, and metal packaging that gets tossed in the trash every month has to go somewhere. Food scraps that get smashed into plastic bags will not decompose when suffocated underneath tons of garbage. And, in another week, we all head back out to the grocery store to purchase even more materials that will end up in a landfill.
The Nature Conservatory offers a handy calculator to help you estimate how your overall carbon footprint stacks up against others. Amazingly, my own habits put me at 45 percent “better than average,” but that still leaves a lot of room for improvement. Where do we even start?
What to Eat
Not only are whole foods typically healthier for our bodies and the planet, cooking with them can reconnect us with our food in a way that no microwavable meal can. But not all whole foods are created equal.
When it comes down to it, plant foods tend to be the better choice for heart health and other common illnesses. They also have a significantly lower impact on the environment and are often cheaper than their animal-based counterparts. Plant-based meals can still pack a protein-punch and include all the fiber and micronutrients we need on a daily basis with some planning. Basing our diets on these foods is a good way to improve our own health and the health of our planet.
If organic eating is a high priority, following the rules of the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen will help you save some dough and put your mind at ease. Another good rule of thumb is to avoid stocking up on foods with unpronounceable ingredient lists. Eating mostly recognizable, whole foods will usually do the trick.
Greening Up Your Groceries
Many whole foods can be purchased packaging-free, making them fast favorites for the eco-conscious consumer. Your priority stops in the grocery store should be: produce aisle, bulk bins, and frozen foods. Here are some environmentally friendly accessories to bring to the store:
- Reusable cloth grocery bags
- Mesh bags for produce, dried beans, and large grains
- Glass jars for small grains, flours, nut butters, maple syrup, castile soap, or other liquids sold in bulk
- A well-planned grocery list
Many stores will let you weigh your glass jars before heading to the bulk aisle, so you can just take the products you want with you — not the unwanted plastic. Also be on the lookout for foods that are cheaper in the produce aisle vs. frozen foods. Bananas and other fruit can be easily washed, chopped, and frozen without buying the packaged variety.
Other Ways to Lower Your Food Footprint
- Invest more time in learning kitchen techniques. Bulk cook beans and grains in advance (they can be easily frozen). Try your hand at making your own condiments at home. Bake your own breads. What you spend in a little extra time will add up to awesome savings in budget and environmental impact.
- Research your city’s recycling standards. If you don’t have curbside recycling pick-up, be sure to include a drop-off day into your weekly or monthly routine. The plastic, paper, glass, and aluminum you do acquire throughout the month should not end up in the trash.
- Start your own garden. Even the tiniest of spaces can allow for some gardening. Whether it’s a small herb garden or a larger backyard plot, growing your own food will save burning fossil fuels on the way to the store and keep padding in your bank account.
- Look into composting your food scraps. Some food scraps are great for infusing a flavorful vegetable stock, but what do you do with them afterward? If you have the space, consider a backyard compost corner or a small, apartment-sized setup. Local farms also love when residents bring their scraps or compost so they can nourish next year’s harvest.
- Plan ahead for a few meals each week. When you know what you are going to eat — and how much of it — you will most definitely find that your family ends up wasting less food. Also, you will save yourself from having to clean out icky, rotting veggies from the back of your fridge.
Simple, Whole Food Recipes to Try
Breakfast. Overnight oats, avocado toast, and savory breakfast cereals are great ways to start the day off with a boost of fiber. For those with a sweet tooth, whip up some homemade granola to enjoy with a splash of almond milk or pile a bunch of fresh (or frozen) fruit in a blender with a handful of spinach for a vitamin-packed green breakfast smoothie.
Lunch. Hearty and comforting soups can be borne out of a little kitchen experimentation. Combine your favorite bean, grain, and assortment of vegetables with some veggie stock, fresh garlic, and crushed tomatoes. Pair with crusty bread and voila! A wonderful and filling lunch. If you’d rather eat your lunch with a fork, try creating a massaged kale salad with roasted root vegetables and toasted nuts.
Dinner. Center your dinner around stir frys and curries for a guaranteed burst of flavor. Pan-fry or bake some tofu for your lean protein, steam some vegetables, and pair with an incredible homemade sauce and dinner is ready. Alternatively, whole wheat or corn tortillas topped with refried beans, sautéed vegetables, salsa, and fresh guacamole make any night Taco Tuesday.
By making small changes to your everyday routine, you can easily clean up and green up your eating and food habits for 2017. Eat up!
Katie Medlock is a writer, mental health counselor, and educator on a quest to make the world a better place. Her writing has appeared on Headspace, Inhabitat, Care2, Ravishly, and Chic Vegan. On her days off, you will find her cooking, catching up on nerdy podcasts, blogging at The Offbeat Herbivore (https://offbeatherbivore.com), or lounging with her partner and rescue dachshund.
Let us know below or on Facebook and Twitter how you plan to green up your eating this year.