Lower your impact: learn how to cook

As Michael Pollan famously quipped, America has a national eating disorder. We live in a country in which everyone can, and plenty do, eat without growing their own food, not care where it comes from or how it was grown, and never cook an entire meal from scratch.

On the other hand, if you do grow, care about, and cook your own food as Barbara Kingsolver recounted in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, you’re seen as a smug, privileged elitist who doesn’t need to have a day job and can go flitting around on a hobby farm. In other words, being able to connect with our food has become a luxury —  in terms of both time and money. We’ve lost most of our connection to our food and the planet and people that produced it.  To me, the local/organic/ grow-it-yourself movement is really about reconnecting through food and making conscious choices that are better for your own world and body.

It’s true that not all of us can afford to buy a farm and move there with accommodating work-from-home-when-we-feel-like-it day jobs. But all of us should care (can we really afford not to?) about our food, and everyone with a kitchen can, at least theoretically, cook. Basic cooking skills (or a long suffering spouse who cooks) are pretty much essential to a whole foods diet.

Can you really save the Earth by learning how to cook? Well, no. That’s going to take a whole lot more. But here’s what making the time to cook at least a few meals a week from whole foods will do:

  • Reduce use of resources required to process, package, and transport processed food.
  • Reduce money spent on restaurant meals and frozen dinners (which, pound for pound, are not such a good deal as the .99 price tag may seem — to say nothing of their impact on your health).
  • Reduce your exposure to a slew of chemicals: preservatives, additives, plastics like BPA, and pesticides (if you choose mostly organic whole foods).
  • Reduce the amount of non-compostable garbage you produce.
  • Probably (unless you really, really go overboard) reduce your salt/fat/sugar intake.
  • Probably increase your vegetable intake.
  • Improve your (and your kids’) life expectancy.
  • Make you more independent of the industrialized food system, which really doesn’t give a damn about your health or the planet we live on in its pursuit of profit.
  • Support farmers rather than processors and corporations. (Yup, the same ones who spend billions lobbying Congress against reform to protect consumer health.)
  • Teach you to slow down, reconnect with your food, and appreciate it more.

It’s actually not hard to learn how to cook. Help for tyros is everywhere — friends, family, internet. You don’t have to be a great cook, or ‘into cooking’ to be able to cook well enough to keep your tastebuds and body happy. You don’t even have to cook more than a few times a week (3x a week, with leftovers, salad, sandwiches, and fruit works for other meals works fine for me). And you definitely don’t need to move into your kitchen permanently; there are plenty of meals that can be thrown together from whole foods in half an hour or far less.

Cooking may not be a viable option for everyone. If you work two jobs just to keep the bills paid, spending more time and money on food may not be possible for you right now. But for most of us, it’s a matter of making food a bigger priority. Bigger than shopping, TV, or browsing the internet. Bigger than the big ticket items we spend our money on. Somewhere along the way, Americans decided that good food was less important than cheap, convenient food, and we’re only now starting to see the full impact — on ourselves and on the planet.  

Learn how to cook. It’s a small move, but an important one.

6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Emily on 06/17/2010 at 19:03

    Very thorough and convincing. As someone who is on a tight budget, I’ve found that buying and cooking with whole foods (from scratch) costs much, much less than processed foods. Indeed, whole foods come in minimal packaging reducing your trash output. If you recycle any recyclables and compost your veggie scraps, egg shells, and coffee grounds, you’ll barely have any trash at all.

    Many people forget that food is not only a source of carbohydrates, protein and fat, but also of essential vitamins and minerals. Processed and conventional foods are significantly lower in vitamins and nutrients than whole (preferably organic) foods. When people eat processed foods they often overeat because their bodies are craving vitamins and minerals, which are missing or in low doses. Also, fresh fruits and vegetables have a much higher water content than processed foods. Those you overeat on processed foods may actually be thirsty, not hungry.

    Yes, cooking takes time and requires patience and creativity. Gourmet cooking does not happen over night. If time is lacking, try working less. Work less, earn less, spend your money more wisely on whole foods, have more time to cook. Its that simple.


    • Posted by ailanna on 06/17/2010 at 20:41

      I totally agree that we should spend less time working and more time thinking, creating, connecting. Isn’t that why machines were invented? So we could work less? That didn’t work out. As I see it, humans devote entirely too much time and energy to things that ultimately make them less healthy and happy. I’m in a situation where I could work more and make more money, but I’m enjoying my non-work time so much (doing pottery, hanging out with the cat, reading, blogging, cooking) that I find it hard to see why I would make that exchange.

      Let’s swap recipes some time! I just made an interesting chilled squash and corn soup and have been on a cooking kick this week.

      P.S. I added your blog to my blogroll.


      • Posted by Emily on 06/17/2010 at 20:53

        The soup sounds good. But… errr… like I said, gourmet cooking doesn’t happen overnight. Although all of my meals are made from scratch, I’m not known to be the greatest of cooks. My bf calls me “The Burner.” I have a very poor sense of smell (so I don’t smell things burning) and therefore I think my sense of taste is also compromised. Also, I’m an athlete, so I’m always wicked hungry and I tend to rush my cooking. If I ever make a meal that is truly worthy of sharing, I’ll be sure to pass it along.

        Thanks for adding me to your blogroll!


  2. Posted by Emily on 06/17/2010 at 19:15

    Hey, you might find this blog interesting: http://valuethemeal.blogspot.com/


  3. […] As a cheapskate and occasionally obsessive DIY-er, my preference has always been for the latter. I cook my food from scratch, line dry my clothes, mix up my own moisturizers, bake my own bread, and even fold my own kitty […]


  4. […] Being able to cook is a critical life skill. Processed food is carbon intensive, produces a lot of packaging, and wastes a lot of money. It’s not good for your own body or the environment. Thanks to my mother, I grew up on mostly homecooked meals and still regard eating out and packaged foods as an indulgence. (See an older post, Lower your impact: learn how to cook.) […]


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