Good for you! You’ve made a commitment to a sustainable diet. That means you’re developing an eating style that is not only healthy for you but is also humane to animals, protects the earth and promotes fair wages for farmers and workers.
If that sounds like a big commitment, it is. Yet, it’s one that may be well worth the effort for you and your family, and for future generations.
So, how do you personally sustain your sustainable diet without making it just a “flavor of the month” at your house? It’s best to go into the process knowing that it does take effort.
Start with a focus – Pick one issue that you really care about. Is it cruelty to animals? Pesticides or genetically modified organisms in your food? Buying fair trade foods that treat the farmer fairly? Concentrate on making just a few small changes, like avoiding processed foods or buying organic for the “dirty dozen” (foods that have the most pesticides). At the end of one month, evaluate how you felt about the changes in your shopping patterns, impact on your budget and family’s overall health. Hopefully and most likely, the small changes will seem worth it.
Learn to cook – To eat sustainably, you need to go easy on processed meals. Think of it this way: the less that hands come into contact with your food over time, the less processing (and less chance for contamination). Foods obtained from sustainable sources, like farmer’s markets, have been minimally handled and are therefore minimally processed or adulterated. If you also begin to prepare more fully- or partially-homemade meals, you are part of the process, making it a more familiar and satisfying meal. That means somebody in the household must become confident in the kitchen. Making cooking a family event is a great idea and helps children learn about nutrition. However, you should make sure there’s also someone who’s willing to take the lead on busy nights when efficiency is key, to reduce instances of turning to processed, fast foods.
Learn to plan – Almost as important as cooking is planning your meals. Many people are concerned sustainable eating is too expensive, which can be the case if you’re not careful and intentional. The best advice is to plan your weekly meals before shopping at the local market so you don’t overbuy. Include staples in a few of the meals so you do not feel the burden of preparing 21 individual meals, but instead recycle ingredients in several meals such as 100% whole grains, sustainable proteins and vegetables. It’s easy to be lured into buying all sorts of expensive organic almond butters and hummus dips at the local farmer’s market, but if you have a list you’ll be more disciplined. Also, buy dry goods like beans and 100% whole grains in bulk. Consume animal products more sparingly and less often, and in their place substitute more beans, nuts, seeds, and organic tofu for protein. And cook in bulk, focusing on canning, dehydrating and freezing leftovers for those nights when being an efficient cook (see above) is important. I like to call it being “healthy lazy”--do the tedious work in advance so that everyday cooking isn’t a mission.
Find bargains – Foods in season will be cheaper at grocery stores and the local farmer’s market as they leave a smaller carbon footprint. Ask your local farmers and their sellers if they have any slightly damaged or less beautiful (but still tasty!) produce that they’re selling cheaper. Other shoppers wait to shop until the end of the day when sellers are more likely to offer bargains so they don’t have to haul leftovers back with them. Or, ask if you can get a discount if you buy in bulk.
Make sustainable foods visible – Family members often grab for processed foods because they’re convenient, either in a box or bag on the kitchen counter. When you buy sustainable foods, such as nutritious berries or snap peas, keep them washed, cut up and prepared, front and center in the refrigerator, or keep fruits and dehydrated veggie chips where you used to store chips and cookies. Over time, your family will start grabbing these instead of the processed options.
Grow your own – Again, start small with herbs (especially the super healthy herbs) or easy-to-grow-and-re-grow foods like lettuce and radishes. If you’re a renter, you can still grow herbs in pots, indoor vertical gardens, or small container gardens. Some cities offer local community garden plots to rent, which you can visit as often as possible to water and harvest the fruits of your labor. Plant organic, non-GMO seeds to use season after season. Trade seeds and grafted plants with friends to keep your harvest inexpensive.
Keep researching the lifestyle – You’ll find that you are certainly not alone in joining the sustainability movement. If you don’t find others adopting the lifestyle in your immediate area, there are many credible blogs and social media sites about sustainability. Examples include Sustainably Chic, Moral Fibres and Green Living Guy.
Go bigger when you’re ready - When you’re ready, consider a larger garden, trees or, for some, the ultimate step in sustainable eating--raising your own chickens. Again, this is an activity that takes a lot of commitment. Those who do build their own chicken ecosystem say there are big benefits in controlling the health and quality of the eggs they consume. Also, the byproducts (egg shells, chicken manure, etc.) can be added to compost and fertilizer to add more nutrients to crops.
Eating healthy goes beyond what you are putting into your body. Where it came from and how it was grown is also vital. The best advice is not to get overwhelmed. You’re not going to go 100% sustainable overnight, and buying those chicken coops can certainly wait. Make a few changes, and know that every effort is a step in the right direction for you and the planet.
Dahlia Marin, RDN is the Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Lead Health Coach at the Mission Hospital Wellness Corner - Sendero Marketplace in Rancho Mission Viejo.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.