Posts Tagged ‘whole food’

Bulk Binning 101

***Update: don’t forget to label your jars. If you’re tired enough, and it’s late enough, and all your jars are unlabeled because you think you’re that good…well, you might just end up putting farina (cream of wheat) in your bread instead of whole wheat flour. Oops.***

You can shop at the bulk bins even if you don’t have a trace of an inner hippie. Trust me on this one. I don’t have a cell in my body that likes the idea of free love. But lentils, sans plastic packaging? I’ll take that. Kevin and I took the plunge into bulk binning maybe a year ago. We used to use plastic bags for our bulk foods, but the cat decided that attacking plastic bags and eating and/or rolling around in their contents was fun. So we headed to Ikea, got a bunch of old-fashioned glass storage jars, and jumped off the packaged food bandwagon.

Kind of. We still get some things that come in boxes (you can take the Life cereal out of Kevin’s cold, dead hands) and shop at Trader Joe’s from time to time, but our jars of bulk food items are slowly taking over the bottom shelf of the kitchen cart.

Buying from the bulk bins has a number of advantages for you and the planet, including less packaging waste, less spoiled food because you can buy small amounts, and lower grocery bills. It’s also fun to try new foods and recipes without committing to using up, say, a full pound of buckwheat groats or amaranth. And buying from the bulk bins tends to mean that you’re making more of your food from scratch.  It’s probably better for you than whatever you were eating before.

Here’s what I usually buy in bulk:

  • flour (all types)
  • sea salt
  • rice (all types)
  • quinoa
  • lentils
  • beans (for when I actually plan my meals in advance)
  • olive oil
  • raw almonds (sometimes)
  • nutritional yeast
  • polenta
  • farina (cream of wheat)
  • dried fruit (apricots, cranberries)
  • popcorn
  • vegetable stock
  • couscous
  • oatmeal

I didn’t switch over immediately, and there are still things that I haven’t bought in bulk that I could. Peanut butter, maple syrup, sugar, tea, and spices, among others. As I bake more of my own bread, I have a feeling I’ll be making more trips to Whole Foods for grains and seeds. (Confession: I don’t really like Whole Foods. It’s just a little too smug for my taste.) 

Getting it all home

We usually bring our empty jars to refill, eliminating the need for bags and tags. Schlepping twenty empty glass jars to the store would be a major pain. However, we don’t typically run out of more than a few things at a time. I was nervous about how bringing empty jars would work, but it’s actually very easy. Take your empty containers to the customer service desk. They’ll weigh each, write the weight on masking tape, and stick it on your jar. At checkout, the clerk weighs your filled jar and subtracts the weight of the empty jar.

Or you could bring your own reused bags (plastic or cloth) or lightweight plastic containers. It’s not the end of the world if you forget and have to take a plastic bag. Chances are, it’s still better than the fully packaged version. 

Do you buy most of your dry goods from the bulk bins? If not, what’s stopping you?

Taking back our food

One of my favorite desserts is an incredibly simple recipe from Mollie Katzen. It’s a light fruit soup that calls for just a handful of ingredients: freshly squeezed orange juice, ripe berries, plain yogurt, a squeeze of lime juice, and a sprinkle of cinnamon. The ingredients are simple enough that the whole thing sings when made with fresh, ripe ingredients…and falls flat when you even glance at storebought orange juice or anemic greenhouse strawberries.

As a culture, we’ve experienced a sort of gustatory amnesia about how good simple, fresh food tastes. We’ve been persuaded by food scientists, our own busy lives, and our love for convenience that packaged, processed food tastes good. But it doesn’t, not really. After cooking most of my own food for a few years, I recently ate a frozen dinner (ironically, one by Moosewood) and was appalled. I finished it, but felt queasy afterwards. Yet I’m sure that plenty of people who eat processed food on a more regular basis than I do would have been fine with it, maybe even enjoyed it.

My mother loves fruit trees, so even in our small suburban yard, I grew up with the taste of tart-sweet raspberries eaten straight off the vine, pink-blushed apricots, fuzzy and still warm from the sun, and glossy mahogany plums so sweet that biting into them was a religious experience.  I no longer have a yard, but I still remember how food should taste. And so, after a brief hiatus during college in which I ate mostly processed junk, I’m back to making a good deal of my own food and being amazed at how satisfying fresh, made-from-scratch food is — not just the taste, but also the process of making it.

This weekend I made bread. It was a sunny Saturday morning on which I had nowhere particular to be, so during long, slow risings, I read a book, drank my tea, and played with the cat. The kneading was rhythmical and soothing, and the smells of yeast, flour, honey, and sunshine became their own wordless poem. And the bread, eaten warm with a generous dollop of homemade marmalade, was delicious. Not because it was awesome bread, made with utmost skill and proficiency, but because it was fresh, and I made it.

This is my challenge to myself for the next year: every month, I’m going to try making something new from scratch I usually buy. I want to take back my food from the food corporations and get away from plastic packaging.  I’m thinking I’d like to tackle canning my own tomato sauce, making my own granola bars, folding my own veggie potstickers, among other things. Want to join me?

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.

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