How do you feed a family?

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In the first installment of our new series on feeding households, meet Sarah Smith, kindergarten teacher and busy mom of two who “reads the flyers like a magazine subscription.”

When I sent out a general message to a number of friends, asking how they feed their hungry families on a budget, I wasn’t expecting to get such a flood of detailed responses. I quickly realized I’d touched a nerve – in a good way. Parents work so hard to feed their children and themselves, to put healthy meals on the table, to avoid spending a fortune at the grocery store, and to fit it all around busy work and school schedules.

It’s a feat worthy of more praise than we give it, which is why we at TreeHugger have decided that a new series profiling different households’ grocery shopping, meal-planning, and food-prepping strategies would be both interesting and helpful to our readers. Introducing our first featured family… the Smiths!

Smith family© Sarah Smith (used with permission)

Did scientists just find the ancient whisky distillery from the legends?

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Archaeologists unearthed what may be the world’s oldest whisky still.

It was only a legend. King James IV of Scotland kept a record of a whisky distillery from 1494, the first record of Scotch whisky distillation. It was the oldest record of a whisky still, but for a long time, it was just that: words. No one could actually find this supposed distillery.

That just changed. A group of archaeologists uncovered the whisky still in the ruins of an abbey in Scotland. It’s one of the oldest whisky distilleries in the world (possibly the oldest — people weren’t great at keeping records back then). The archaeologists found traces of barley, charcoal, oats, pottery and wheat from medieval times by the still.

“It is hard to overestimate the potential significance of this discovery,” said Drew McKenzie Smith, the Lindores Abbey Distillery founder. “Many signs point towards this being one of the earliest stills ever discovered, and this is almost certainly the site referenced in the Exchequer Rolls of 1494 that include the first ever written record of aqua vitae or whisky, as we know it today.”

The Abbey itself was already the stuff of legends. It was founded in 1191. William Wallace, a Scottish knight depicted in “Braveheart,” hid out in the abbey after he fought the English in 1298. Poor guy may have got there too early for the whisky.

“Lindores Abbey has long been considered the spiritual home of Scotch whisky, and this discovery underlines the historical importance of this site,” added McKenzie Smith.

Whisky has been a big part of Scottish culture for hundreds of years. This is somewhat problematic, as whisky creates a lot of waste — most of the water and grain used in whisky production doesn’t make it into the final product.

But Scotch distilleries are trying to be more environmentally-friendly. The Scotch Whisky Association launched an environmental strategy in 2009.

“Our ambition is to become world leaders in sustainability. Scotland has an abundance of natural attributes which can support this,” writes the Association in a report. “Our Strategy aims to protect Scotland’s natural capital for generations to come.”

The industry has been focusing on renewable energy and waste reduction.

“Only 2% of waste was sent to landfill in 2014 and many sites already have met the target of zero,” continued the report.

Of course, industries are hardly the most reliable organizations to be reporting on themselves. Still, it’s heartening to see that even very old industries are willing to update their practices for the environment. And it’s a great excuse to get some whisky this winter.

This pan gets better the more you use it

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If you’ve never heard of cast iron skillets, it’s time you were introduced. People have been using variations of these iron pans for thousands of years, and they’re still the best pans you can buy. They’re no secret, but I’ve met tons of people who had never heard of them, or never learned why they were so great. Cast iron skillets last longer, are healthier and just generally better than other kinds. Let me count the ways.

They get better over time

Many commercial pans nowadays are coated with some sort of finish that wears off over time. Eventually, you’re left with an old pan that makes food burn.

Cast iron skillets, however, aren’t just coated with a cooking surface. They are the surface. The entire pan is made of iron, so it doesn’t degrade over time.

In fact, cast iron skillets actually get better the more you use them. As you do, the oil you use to cook seeps into the pan itself, making the surface less sticky. An old cast iron skillet cooks better than a new one.

They’re healthier

Normal pans leach chemicals and degrade overtime. Eventually, the surface flakes off into your food, which is both gross and unhealthy.

But cast iron skillets are made of … say it with me … iron. So instead of chemicals, iron flakes off into your food. And iron is actually good for you.

“In addition to eating more iron-rich foods like meats, beans, and spinach, cooking in a cast iron pot is an easy way to boost your iron intake,” says a writer from Columbia University.

One Journal of the American Dietetic Association study even found that spaghetti sauce cooked in a cast iron skillet had almost 10 times more iron than sauce cooked in another skillet.

So all you vegans, vegetarians, and well, just about everyone else, take note.

They’re versatile

You can’t put a regular pan in the oven. But cast iron skillets can handle the heat. You can even fry up some eggplant on the stove, add some veggies, and roast the whole thing in the oven if you want.

They make food taste better

Cast iron skillets have memories like elephants. They absorb the flavors of the food they’re cooked in, giving all future dishes a much richer taste.

They’re better for the environment

Disposable products turn natural resources into trash. But cast iron skillets can last pretty much forever, so they won’t be filling up the ocean anytime soon. (Besides, if I were a fish, I’d rather have a hunk of iron in my ocean than a hunk of degrading plastic.)

They’re not expensive

These are pretty much the highest quality pans out there, so you’d think they’d be pricey. But they’re not. I bought mine for $11. And they last a lifetime, so I don’t have to buy replacements like I would with regular pans.

So that’s why you should buy a cast iron skillet. If you do, or end up cooking with a friend’s, just know they require a little extra care than regular pans. Soaping a cast iron skillet down or throwing it in the dishwasher is a great way to get the pan’s owner mad at you.

Is Idaho turning wastewater into beer?

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A company lured me into investigating a rumor about the northwestern state.

A couple months ago, a company sent me an email with a subject I couldn’t ignore: “Putting recycled water to use – in beer.”

The email claimed that the city of Boise, Idaho was taking water seriously, in that it was using it to get drunk.

“Come October, recycled water will start to appear at local hotspots thanks to a new partnership with the City of Boise,” continued the email. “The initiative … pushes the use of pure, 100 percent recycled water for brewing.”

Joking aside, this sounded great. Lots of places are facing water shortages. While some countries are confronting the problem head-on (Israel, for instance, recycles 90 percent of its water), the U.S. has lagged behind. Good for Idaho! I agreed to interview a company spokesperson.

After several failed interview attempts (once, a marketing person and I awkwardly waited on the phone for the spokesperson, only to discover he was ditching us for another meeting), we finally talked. That’s when I learned this company had nothing to do with turning recycled water into beer. It was just a company that turned recycled water into drinking water, and they’d used the beer angle to lure me in.

But I was now even more curious about Boise. Was the city really turning wastewater into beer, or was that another exaggeration?

According to the Boise government (who would probably know), it’s real. The city is using an intense purification process and working with local breweries “to create tasty new beers and cider” says the government website.

“Right now, we take all of that water that comes from Boise’s homes and businesses, we treat it to a really high level, and then we put it back into the river, where it just flows away down the river and we lose all that comes with that water,” explained Colin Hickman, a Boise government spokesperson. “We know as a high-desert city [that] how we utilize every drop of water is exceedingly important, so this project is really to see, ‘Are there different opportunities where we can use the water that we’re already treating?'”

Not everyone in Idaho is psyched about drinking what was once wastewater. But the cleaning process is intense and tightly controlled. Plus, that company spokesperson made a good point: we’re already doing it. In fact, all our water is recycled. That’s how nature works.

“We’re just speeding up the process,” he pointed out. “Your wastewater will reach your tap one way or another.”

So did Idaho actually go through with the plan? And if so, how did it go?

“It went really well!” Jami Goldman, Boise’s sustainability coordinator, told me. The Idaho brewers trying out the reused water are still selling the new beer on tap. The city is looking into making a regular delivery process for the water.

“We will begin strategizing what that might look like for us in the future,” Goldman added. “We think the best way to start a conversation about reusing used water is over a beer.”

Carnivore diets are ridiculous

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Some people think only eating meat is the best way to lose weight.

Meat-heavy diet trends have been popular lately. Various diets — paleo, keto, low-carb — extoll the values of hitting fat and/or protein hard. But nothing is as extreme as the “carnivore diet,” a plan that consists of just eating meat. There’s even a 1920s study going around claiming two guys ate meat for a year and were basically fine. (This counts as proof? I guess?) The whole trend is idiotic, and I will tell you why.

People who follow this high meat lifestyle claim it helps them lose weight. And they may not be wrong. I know someone who started eating way more meat, and he DID lose a lot of weight.

Here’s the thing: It seems like it’s not the “more meat” aspect of these diets that is causing the weight loss. I think it’s the “less sugary, carby stuff” that does the trick. Refined carbs like white flour and sugar break down in your system and get turned into fat a lot faster than protein or, ironically, fat. If you go from eating a lot of pasta, waffles and sugary snacks to eating steak, then, yes, you’ll probably lose weight.

But if you want to lose weight, you don’t have to replace all your macaroni with hamburgers. You can replace it with veggie stir fry, baked eggplant, salads and a ton of other vegetable-based dishes. “Paleovegans” even manage to be both paleo and vegan at the same time.

Some humans can survive on animal products. Native peoples living in the far north can’t grow much and rely heavily on things like seal meat and fat. But I doubt even they’d call those diets desirable. One Siberian girl even told me part of the reason she left her home was for the cheap vegetables.

On the other hand, vegans eat only plants, and people in developing countries often depend mostly on plants, with meat as an occasional treat. Thanks to vitamins, supplements and the fact that we’re omnivores who can eat a lot of different things, there are a wide variety of diets out there.

But there are a lot of good reasons to eat less meat, not more. There’s animal welfare, obviously, but that’s just one of the zillion ways meat consumption is a problem for the individual, the human species and the planet. High meat consumption is linked to heart disease, diabetes, stroke and obesity. Farming animals leads to epidemics like swine flu and bird flu. Raising animals for slaughter creates greenhouse gasses that contribute to climate change and uses a ton of land and water, making species go extinct and putting everyone at risk of running out of water. It’s also a really inefficient way to make calories, contributing to starvation around the world.

Besides, humans are clearly not carnivores. We evolved from apes that ate mostly plants. We have nails, not claws. We have more flat teeth for breaking down vegetables than sharp teeth for piercing meat. Even your typical hamburger meal includes more vegetables than meat. When you add up the bun, mustard, ketchup, lettuce, onion and side of fries, you’re looking at a plant-based meal, not an animal-based one. That’s because humans are made to eat more vegetables than meat, and most of us know it.

All-meat diets are ridiculous. I suspect people pay them so much attention because they’re a bit revolting, no? But there are plenty of healthier, more ethical and, frankly, tastier ways to eat more naturally and lose weight.

If you’re buying a Thanksgiving turkey, choose organic

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Help stop the rise of antibiotic resistance by choosing a bird that’s been raised drug-free.

If you’re a meat-eater – which I realize many TreeHugger readers are not, but I know some of you are – then the purpose of this post is to convince you to buy an organic turkey for Thanksgiving, instead of the much cheaper Butterballs in the freezer section of your supermarket.

This decision matters for a number of reasons. Buying organic means you’re supporting an approach to animal husbandry that does not rely on antibiotics for disease prevention and artificial growth promotion, but instead provides better conditions and a more natural lifestyle.

Not only is this kinder to the animals, but you’re taking action to protect your own future wellbeing and that of subsequent generations. Roughly 80 percent of the antibiotics used in the United States are given to animals, often preventively and excessively, and, as a result, antibiotic resistance in humans is on the rise. An estimated 23,000 Americans die every year because antibiotics don’t work, and that number is only going to get larger over time.

These drug-resistant bacteria do not remain on farms either, according to Consumer Reports:

“[They] continue to reproduce and spread resistance to other bacteria in the animal waste and can get into our environment via airborne dust blowing off of farms, and water and soil polluted with contaminated feces. Drug-resistant bacteria can also spread from farms to humans through farmworkers who handle animals or their wastes.”

Consumer Reports urges turkey shoppers to look for four specific labels – USDA Organic, Raised Without Antibiotics, No Antibiotics Administered, or No Antibiotics Ever. Anything other than these should be avoided, e.g. ‘antibiotic-free,’ ‘no antibiotic residues,’ and ‘no growth promoting antibiotics.’ These claims are not approved or recognized by the USDA.

Similarly, terms like ‘natural’ and ‘raised without hormones or steroids’ are meaningless, as they have nothing to do with whether or not the animal has received antibiotics. From Consumer Reports:

“On meat and poultry, ‘natural’ just means minimally processed without any artificial ingredients. It does not mean organic or no antibiotics. And hormones and steroids are prohibited in turkey production, so a turkey that carries the claim is not necessarily a better choice than one without it.”

Free-range is another worthwhile label to pursue, although I’m always skeptical of it in supermarkets. As long as meat is coming from industrial farms, their version of free-range is likely quite different from mine. Indeed, the only official definition of free range that I could find

Waste Bread is the curious reincarnation of old bread into new

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Usually stale bread is turned into different things, but GAIL’s Bakery has figured out a way to transform it into delicious loaves.

What to do with old bread? This question has plagued people for time immemorial and has driven the invention of delectable dishes like panzanella in Italy, fattoush in the Middle East, skordalia in Greece, and bread pudding in Britain, among many others. But never before had I heard of old bread being turned into new bread, which is precisely what GAIL’s Bakery in London is now doing in an effort to cut down on food waste.

‘Waste bread,’ as its rather unpoetic and self-explanatory name suggests, is a loaf of freshly baked bread whose raw ingredients include, in part, leftover stale loaves. If you’ve ever baked a loaf of bread before, you’re probably scratching your head. How exactly would one do that? The process is quite interesting.

Roz Bado, development baker at GAIL’s, makes her dough with the usual Canadian wheat flour, malt, and sourdough starter, then adds something called ‘bread porridge’ – “a brownish, flecked mush of fresh breadcrumbs from leftover loaves which have been blitzed into tiny pieces.” The final result is a hearty 750g loaf that is one-third old bread. Another baker at GAIL’s, Roy Levy, told the Guardian,

“We’re calling it Waste Bread, which.. might sound a bit odd, but we think this is being honest and clear with our customers. It’s re-using leftover but edible bread from our own supply chain, which means we know exactly what is in it and where it has come from.”

Bado said it took her nine months to develop the technique and recipe, and one critic says it’s tastier than the non-waste sourdough made by the bakery. Bado added, “The beauty is that because every day’s leftovers are different, every loaf has its own slightly different taste.”

waste bread closeup© Gail’s Bakery

5 ways to discourage meat consumption

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These subtle ‘nudges’ can help push people away from meat and toward plant-based substitutes.

We need to eat less meat. As the global population explodes, pressure mounts on the food production system, and animal agriculture drives environmental degradation, that’s a no-brainer. But, as we know from personal experience, humans are weak creatures. Food choices are driven by a primitive “Homer Simpson-like” brain that caves to cravings, rather than logic. In other words, when a tasty hamburger appears in front of us, we’re more likely to think about how delicious it would taste than the acres of deforested Amazon it represents.

Can something be done about this? One group of scientists has put forward some suggestions. In a study titled, “Restructuring physical micro-environmental to reduce the demand for meat,” published earlier this fall, Filippo Bianchi of Oxford University and his colleagues offer some ways to reduce the average diner’s meat consumption. These are subtle yet effective approaches, outlined originally in an article for The Conversation.

1. Reduce portion size

Running counter to the American tendency to supersize everything, this strategy relies on restaurants and grocery stores to offer smaller default portions of meat, whether it’s a main course or prepackaged meats for sale.

2. Design greener menus

We know that creative ‘nudges’ can help people to make healthier food choices, but this same philosophy can be applied to pushing vegetarian meals. Bianchi wrote,

“Displaying the meat options on a separate restaurant board and only keeping plant-based options on the default paper menu made people four times more likely to go with a meat-free option, according to a study conducted in a simulated canteen.”

If that’s not possible, then mixing the plant-based options in with the meat ones on a menu is still better than separating them out and putting them at the end, which reduces likelihood of consumption.

3. Make meat harder to see.

Physical positioning does a lot. When meat is placed at the end of a buffet spread, after people have loaded up their plates with salads, soup, and vegetables, their meat intake is reduced up to 20 percent.

4. Show where meat comes from.

When meat is pictured as the animal it once was, it turns people off from eating it. “Research shows, for example, that presenting the image of a pork roast with the pig’s head still attached increases people’s demand for a plant-based alternative.”

5. Make the vegetarian options delicious.

It’s logical. The tastier it is, the more people will want to eat it. One thing I’d add is that developing hearty vegetarian fare is important, because meatless options are often limited to soups, salads, and wraps – not always enough to fill a ravenous person.

See the original article in The Conversation.

Lettuce is stupid and you shouldn’t be eating it now anyway

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It’s little more than “a vehicle to transport refrigerated water from farm to table.”

Romaine lettuce is being pulled off the shelves across North America right now because of E.coli contamination. The Centers for Disease Control are advising Americans to not only throw it away, but also to “wash and sanitize drawers or shelves in refrigerators where romaine was stored.” They haven’t figured out exactly where the contamination is happening yet, but most of the lettuce we are eating now is grown in California.

TreeHugger types on the east coast might think twice about drinking a plastic bottle full of California water, but in fact, if you eat lettuce, that is what you are doing. Tamar Haspel wrote a controversial article in the Washington Post where she noted that lettuce is 97 percent water:

A head of iceberg lettuce has the same water content as a bottle of Evian (1-liter size: 96 percent water, 4 percent bottle) and is only marginally more nutritious.

But shipping a bottle of Evian is easier. Katherine has described how, “By the 1950s, iceberg lettuce was the most commonly consumed lettuce in the U.S., with average per capita consumption around 20 pounds. Refrigeration technology developed to the point that iceberg lettuce was even shipped to American soldiers in Vietnam.” Haspel writes:

Lettuce is a vehicle to transport refrigerated water from farm to table. When we switch to vegetables that are twice as nutritious — like those collards or tomatoes or green beans — not only do we free up half the acres now growing lettuce, we cut back on the fossil fuels and other resources needed for transport and storage.

canning cottageLloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

6 tips for eating mindfully this Thanksgiving

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Don’t stress about the bountiful spread. Enjoy the special occasion.

A Thanksgiving table done right is overflowing with mashed potatoes and gravy, fresh white rolls with butter, sweet potato casserole, bread stuffing, cranberry sauce and, presumably, a roasted turkey or other impressive centerpiece. There’s pecan pie, pumpkin pie, or apple crisp for dessert, topped with whipped cream. It is a feast for the eyes, body, and soul – exciting for most, but stressful for some.

Food is emotionally charged at Thanksgiving. Not that it isn’t at other times of the year, but it can feel worse during the holidays, when the spread is so sumptuous, rich, and extensive, and there’s almost an expectation to overeat. For anyone trying to make healthier food choices or maintain a healthy weight, the stress of navigating a Thanksgiving table can overshadow enjoyment of the experience.

One strategy for coping with Thanksgiving excesses is to eat mindfully. Dr. Susan Albers, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic and author of seven books, calls mindful eating “an antidote to dieting.” She told Good Morning America,

“It’s about eating the foods you love but in a mindful way, your awareness of hunger cues, your awareness of taste. When you tune into these cues, you enjoy food more and you’re more in control of your eating.”

So how does one apply mindfulness to Thanksgiving dinner?

Don’t panic. This is a celebration, not the norm, and it’s OK to deviate from a strict plan for a special occasion. Realize that expending energy stressing about food choices is energy that’s not going into interacting with people around the table.

We live in times of plenty. Fortunately it’s possible to find all of these foods year-round, so you don’t have to gorge yourself in a single sitting because you feel like it’s your only chance to taste cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie till next year.

Eat slowly. You have all evening, so don’t rush it. Take time to see what’s being served, to smell and taste and chew. Choose what appeals to you most. Fill up on healthier options if you wish. Pay attention to how hungry you are and respect what your body is telling you.

Look around and relax. Sitting down with family at a beautiful table is a treat these days. Revel in the experience and note how it differs from your usual high-speed meals.

Beyond the dinner table…

Find other ways to celebrate the holidays that don’t involve food. Little things like lighting a candle, listening to seasonal music, singing with friends, going for a walk on a snowy evening, or sipping tea by a fire are all lovely ways to mark a special time. (This suggestion comes via University of Wisconsin’s guide to eating mindfully during the holidays.)

Practice self-care. If you’re feeling stressed out, don’t turn to food or alcohol to cope. Take a hot bath, read a book in solitude, go for a massage or facial, go for a walk or attend a yoga class. You’ll feel better, no calories added.