7 tips for a healthy kitchen
Understanding that food choices — and the quality of what you consume — contribute to your short- and long-term health can be key to appreciating the value of the best food you can buy. What you eat reflects your choices not only about food but also the environment and health. With Australia’s long history as an agricultural country, most of us (I hope!) know that milk comes from cows and carrots grow in the ground but how much do you know about the quality of the cow (or its life) from which you get milk or beef? How aware of the impact soil quality has on your carrots are you?
The kitchen is often described as the heart of a home and having a healthy kitchen means stocking it with clean, nutritious food. New understandings are emerging around the power of a shared meal in deepening family dynamics and establishing — and maintaining — healthy eating habits. Stocking your kitchen with clean, green and organic food offers health and wellbeing benefits to anyone lucky enough to linger it.
Improving the health of your kitchen and the food it stocks involves becoming an informed eater. Reading food labels is part of this (especially where eggs, meat and produce are concerned), but it also involves appreciating food from a holistic, cradle-to-grave cycle.
Healthy Kitchen Tip: Know what you eat
Food miles is a popular buzz word in the healthy eating movement. Your food’s miles refers to the distance it had to travel from the place it was grown to your table. The greater the food mileage, the larger the negative environmental impact of your food. Buying locally and eating in season are instant ways to reduce your food mileage and participate in sustainable eating. Extended periods in transit also have a negative impact on the nutrients available in food, especially fruit and vegetables, at the time of consumption. Reducing your food’s miles means better quality food and less damage to the environment.
Australia’s large size and long growing season means many fruits and vegetables are in season for extended periods. However, if you take to reading labels in the produce section of your supermarket, you’ll find that at those times when Australia’s growers can’t produce lemons or limes, they are flown in from the US or Mexico. Your out of season strawberries have spent hours in the belly of a plane to get here from California.
Buying locally may mean choosing Aussie grown strawberries or those from your local farmers markets over imported options. It also means eating seasonally, as no one region can supply the same foods week in, week out year round. Eating foods in season reduces food costs, as the fuel required for transports and storage is no longer a factor in the price you pay.
Exploring or learning traditional food preserving techniques, like making jams or sauces and pickling, allows you to stock up on what is in season, which is when produce is most affordable and most nutritious, (consider tomatoes in summer, apples in autumn or root vegetables in winter). Berries can be purchased for a steal in season and frozen for delicious berry treats when out of season. To freeze berries, place in a single layer on trays in the freezer for about 2 hours. Once hardened, transfer into an air tight container and store in the freezer until required. The juice of in season lemons and limes can be frozen in ice cube trays for later use.
Your local farmers market is an excellent source of seasonal, local produce with minimal food miles. The ultimate way to reduce food miles is to take a ‘grow your own’ approach. Many farmer’s markets stock quality seeds or seedlings to get you started. To find one in your area, the Australian Farmer’s Market Association runs a directory of farmer’s markets by state.
Healthy Home Tip: Buy food grown locally, when in season or from farmer’s markets.
The Biological Farmers of Australia (BFA) has this to say, “Organic food is not just chemical-free. Organic farmers take a holistic approach to food production and handling”. The BFA offers a list of reasons to buy organic, which includes better tasting food, supporting the environment, reducing the impact of genetically modified foods, increasing the nutrient value of the food in your diet as well as improving health.
Often associated with pricier food in the supermarket, organic food is grown sustainably, with little to no pesticide use. Organic farming practices honour the impact of each crop or livestock on its environment. For a family or cash strapped single, the price of an entirely organic diet may be prohibitive. Instead, consider spending your food dollars on the organic food that matters most – chicken, eggs and dairy products.
Consuming organic food also means you’re eating food that has greater disease fighting properties. Camille Kingsolver, writing in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Our Year Of Seasonal Eating, states, “Organic produce shows significantly higher levels of antioxidants than conventional produce because these nutritious compounds evolved in the plant not for our health, but for the plant’s”. She goes on to say, “Fruits and vegetables grown without pesticides and herbicides contain 50-60 per cent more antioxidants than their sprayed counterparts.”
Organic food is better food, because the plant had to become stronger to grow. The benefit to you is increasingly nutrient dense fruit and vegetables. You may consider the higher nutrient value of organic produce worth the extra price — after all, in food as in life, you get what you pay for. Extra food dollars may be offset by lower vitamin and medicine costs as your health improves on an organic diet.
According to Eric Ryan and Adam Lowry, authors of Squeaky Green: The Method Guide To Detoxing Your Home, the 10 off-the-supermarket-shelves fruit and vegetables that contain the most amounts of pesticides are:
If these heavily sprayed foods feature regularly in your diet, consider going organic. Sydney-based naturopath Kira Sutherland concurs, adding, “Berries are some of the most heavily sprayed fruits”.
Healthy Kitchen Tip: Start the switch to organic food.
The wide scale production of red meat has many environmental hazards, not the least of which is the methane produced as part of a cow’s digestive process. Cattle grazing has also led to huge amounts of worldwide deforestation.
In 2007, a study from the National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science in Japan showed that producing a kilo of beef created more CO2 emissions than a 3-hour drive taken while having left all the lights on at home. Grain rather than grass fed cattle produces more CO2, so simply choosing grass-fed beef ensures your food choices have less environmental impact.
Reducing red meat in your diet, aka the Meatless Monday’s movement, is better still. Meatless Monday’s is a global movement designed to reduce red meat consumption. An added advantage of going meatless is that alternative sources of protein, like beans, raw nuts and seeds, tofu and legumes, are cheaper, showing that opting for sustainable protein helps both the environment and your hip pocket.
Healthy Kitchen Tip: Reduce red meat and choose grass-fed beef where possible.
Herbs for health
Even the most space-challenged city dweller can clear a window ledge or corner on the kitchen bench for a box of herbs. Herb growing provides maximum reward for your gardening effort, as these tasty plants are also nutrient dense and vitamin rich. Add fresh herbs to soups, salads and meats, but be sure to add just before serving to preserve flavour and maximise nutrition.
Other than sunshine and regular watering, herbs need little attention as they grow. Habitual pruning (which hopefully comes as a result of regularly including the herbs in your diet!) encourages growth. Herbs can be grown in planter boxes, length ways or upright, depending on available space.
Easy to grow herbs include basil (great for digestion), garlic (boosts the immune system and is a natural pest repellent), parsley (good source of vitamin A and C, plus iron), mint (soothing on upset tummies, lovely in tea), rosemary (good for headaches), sage (contains antiseptic properties) and thyme (which is both antiseptic and antifungal).
Healthy Kitchen Tip: Add home-grown herbs for flavour and added nutrients and vitamins.
Chickens and eggs
Eggs are now available in most major supermarkets as regular, free run/range or organic. Mainstream farming practices for egg producing chickens involve cages, little sun or fresh air and a highly processed, additive diet.
Free run/range eggs come from chickens given some room to roam during the day, which provides slight variation in diet. However, chickens producing free run/range eggs are feed the same diet as caged hens, and have no restrictions on antibiotic use. Organic eggs come from chickens whose diet is 100 per cent organic, have strict standards about medication and antibiotic use, and who are raised in free roaming conditions 24 hours a day.
Dispelling the myths around chickens and growth hormones, Sydney-based naturopath Kira Sutherland comments, “It has never been — or at least has not been for a very long time — legal in Australia to give chickens growth hormones. However, chickens are given antibiotics to keep them alive and the antibiotics do act as a pseudo growth hormone. In Australia, ‘antibiotic free chicken’ is the label to look for, and this is what organic chicken usually is”.
One way to improve the quality of your eggs and reduce your food mile impact is to do what my parents did and keep a few backyard chickens for your family’s egg supply. Remember, the quality of eggs you’ll get is only as good as the food the chickens eat and the lifestyle they lead. Consider feeding your chickens quality kitchen scraps (helping reduce household food waste) or organic feed, and allow them plenty of time and space to roam (this also helps naturally control garden pests and bugs).
Mum and Dad had a chook shed erected in their suburban backyard, and while their six Isa Browns were slow to start laying, they now regularly produce between two-to-three dozen eggs per week, (some of which are bartered with friends for homemade bread). Free roaming chickens also provide dense compost for your vegetable patch, helping create a nutrient rich cradle-to-grave food cycle in your own backyard. And while omelettes at Mum and Dad’s are made with smaller eggs than store bought ones, the yolks are brighter yellow and breakfast more filling.
Check with your local council as to what regulations apply to keeping chickens in your area. Roosters, being quite noisy, are more of a problem. Aim to get your laying hens between 16–24 weeks of age and from a reputable buyer to ensure they are healthy. And if you’d like to try before you commit to buying, there are Rent-A-Chook services which allow you to do just that.
Healthy Home Tip: The egg-stra cost of organic eggs and chicken is more than worth it.
Home-grown foods are an ideal solution to improving the quality of your food and its impact on the environment. While home-grown produce is often smaller than what you see in the supermarket, it’ll have better flavour and contain maximum vitamins and nutrients. When “food miles” means eaten within an hour of being picked, you know you’re getting the best a plant has to offer.
Three easy to grow foods are lettuce, tomatoes and strawberries. You can start from seed or visit your local farmer’s or organic markets for already started seedlings. When you start to grow your own, you’ll also realise just how many different kinds of lettuce and tomatoes are available. Heirloom tomatoes, which range in colour from yellow through the familiar red to deep purple, provide variety in the Garden, giving you something to watch as they ripen. They’ll also grow comfortably in a sunny balcony spot in a pot.
Lettuce grows from seed in about 3-4 weeks; sowing seeds weekly ensures you have a steady supply. I took the plunge and planted strawberries as a ground cover last summer and delighted in eating the juiciest, sweetest berries right up until the start of winter. Strawberries also grow happily in a sunny pot.
Healthy Home Tip: DIY food and try growing some at home.
Food takes up a huge amount of landfill space; reducing your food waste — and creating compost for your now food growing garden — is key to running a kitchen that participates sustainably in the entire life cycle of your food. In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Our Year of Seasonal Eating, Barbara Kingsolver describes organic farming as farming which “enhances the soil’s living and nonliving components”. Your food waste is key to returning nutrients to the soil, in preparation for whatever you’ll grow next.
The smell of decomposing food can be a perceived turn off, but with these simple composting methods you may find composting a cleaner process than you imagined. A Bokashi Bucket uses fermented micro organisms to begin the breakdown of food, creating a product similar to pickled food waste. This is then dug into garden beds or planter boxes providing a nutrient dense source of food for your plants.
A worm farm is another way to dispose of kitchen and food waste sustainably. Worms eat the food and garden scraps, leaving casings which you then add to the garden. Worm farms need a cool, dark place in which to thrive, and while worms are healthy eaters, they don’t like acidic foods (citrus, onions or garlic) or dairy. According to ABC Gardening, “One of the best ways gardeners can break down organic matter is to use composting worms to convert food scraps into nutrient-rich, pH neutral worm castings, which produce a high quality soil conditioner”. Worm farm kits are freely available, both online and at hardware and gardening stores.
Healthy Kitchen Tip: Dispose of food waste responsibly and consider composting.
Food is an integral part of the environmental cycle. Understanding more about the adventure your food has taken before it arrives on your plate can help you make better choices, for your own Health and for the sustainability of the farms that feed your food supply. Becoming an educated eater benefits you, your family and those in your local community.