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Alison Mountford from Ends and Stems Shares Her Meal Planning Tips

Plus, a 25% Discount for Because Health Readers!

Have you ever had an ingredient go bad because you didn't know what to cook with it? Or end up making so much pasta that your meal for one could now serve fifty? We've all been there. After spending years in the food industry, Alison Mountford saw firsthand how much perfectly good food gets thrown out during meal preparation. This lead her to create Ends and Stems, a meal planning service that curates recipes and shopping lists to make mealtime easier for you while reducing the environmental impact of food waste. Read on for a Q&A with the founder.

PS: Because Health readers can receive 25% off a monthly or annual subscription using the code Because

BH: Why is food waste an important issue for you?

AM: I've been a professional chef for 15 years. My first business was a meal delivery and catering service. As the owner of a small food establishment, it was just good business sense to use everything up and not waste edible food. I sold that business in 2015, but I wasn't sure what my next step was, honestly I was a little bit lost. Right around that time, the NRDC released it's landmark report measuring how much food is wasted in America, much of it in our own homes, and detailed the dramatic effect this waste has on the planet.

Everything clicked for me when I read this. My entire cooking career had been dedicated to helping busy people and families reduce stress around dinner time and encourage them to cook more, eat better, and shop better. And for my entire life, I have been an outdoors person. Following the health of our planet and taking action to improve it has always been a core value and it was only strengthened by the birth of my daughter, also in 2015. Reducing food waste at home is something small that we can all do everyday and it can add up to something big. Often, I feel helpless at some of the major issues our country and planet are facing, but helping busy people reduce food waste doesn't cost them time or money - it saves both - and that makes it super fun to educate about and promote.



BH: What inspired you to start a meal planning business?

AM: Once I knew that as a chef I had to talk about cooking to reduce food waste, I needed a business model. I had been in business long enough to know that creating an idea in my own head, alone at my desk was not a recipe for success. So, I took the internet and starting interviewing people. I used a free survey tool and put out a questionnaire. Within 48 hours, I had just shy of 1000 responses! I asked people if they cared about climate change (yes), food waste (also yes), and how they were struggling at dinner time. 83% of those surveyed named "Deciding what to buy and cook" as a top concern! I expected the answer would be grocery shopping or actually doing the cooking, but it turns out that the emotional labor of choosing a recipe and making sure you have the ingredients was driving people nuts.

From there, I refined the idea to include impact reporting and tested ways to change the convention of recipe writing so that the meals are faster, easier, and use everything up.



BH: Is food waste an issue that you see other professional chefs embracing? Can you tell us more about food waste in the food service industry?

AM: Yes, I feel very excited about the role of chefs in food waste and the greater movement to combat climate change.

In my experience, chefs are the least likely group of people to let food go to waste. In the breakdown of where food is wasted, restaurants rank high, but do you know more specifically where the food is wasted? On the consumer side. Any thriving restaurant manages food cost tightly, meaning there's not that much food wasted in preparation. Diners however, are conditioned to look for large portions, free bread/chips, we over order, and we don't follow through to take home and eat leftovers.

Chefs also have the advantage of knowing how to use a product in multiple ways and can minimize waste and reinvent leftovers.

I was recently at a conference with some of the best chefs in the world and the focus of the entire day was how chefs can use our position and influence to reduce food waste and act on multiple other initiatives to combat climate change - reduce plastic waste, support bee habits, reject monocropping, buy from farms doing carbon capture, reduce portion sizes, educate diners, and so many others.


BH: What are your top 3 tips for people who want to start meal planning but have never done it before?

AM: 1) Get in the habit of writing ideas down when they pop in your head. Thinking of dinner ideas on demand feels akin to writers block. I know I had some ideas...why can't I remember them? For me, this means keeping a running list on my phone or emailing recipes to myself when I see them. When it comes time to choosing a few recipes for the week, I have some help getting the ideas flowing.

2) Ask family members for input. This helps kids especially, buy into meal time and complain less. My 4 year old will ask for a specific fruit or vegetable, burritos, or noodles. I can factor these into the plan and she feels accounted for.

3) Be realistic about your week and willingness to commit. When I polled those thousand families, most were willing to cook just 2-3 times per week. Don't write a meal plan for 5 nights on your first attempt. Start small with just 2 recipes. Perhaps, choose one meal that you know will make excellent leftovers and double it. On super busy nights, plan for takeout or leftovers! My family always orders in on Wednesdays because my husband works later and brings the kids home later. We simply aren't starting from scratch that night of the week.



BH: What are some ways that people can make cooking fun?

AM: I think the single most important thing to do is cook when you have more time. That means, if you arrive home from work close to dinner time, prep your meals the day before or do most of it on Sundays. As a personal chef, I have prepared hundreds of thousands of meals 3-4 days before anyone will eat them. There's almost nothing that can't be stored overnight or longer and then reheated for dinner time. When you cook hangry (or with a hangry family nearby), it's never going to be fun.

My second tip to make cooking more fun is to rid yourself of any guilt stemming from a lack of variety. I see so many people, parents especially, lamenting that they don't cook enough variety and it's coming from comparing their own lives to an influencers feed on instagram. The real truth is that variety in foods is healthy, but you don't need to reinvent the wheel every night or week. Add variety when it truly feels fun but for busy weeknights, a simple home cooked meal is already a huge win, it does not have to be Pinterest worthy.

12 Non-Toxic Baking Pan Essentials

for everything from cupcakes, to pie, to cornbread we've got you covered

Updated for 2019!

Whether you are a full on baker or just someone who struggles with the directions on the back of a box of cake mix, having the right pans is always a necessity. While nonstick may seem like an amazing invention to help with this, you should shy away from it (read this to learn why) and check out these great alternatives. Same goes for cooking, so check out our non-toxic alternatives to non-stick pans roundup.

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Food

Wondering What To Do With Your Germ-y Kitchen Sponge?

Here's a simple swap that will maximize cleanliness in no time!

Have you ever walked over to your sink to do the dishes, only to wrinkle your nose at how smelly your sponge is? We'll let you in on a secret… smelly sponge = lots of germs. And too many germs is the last thing that you want in your kitchen and on your dishes. So what can you? We've got a simple swap for you!

If you're using a sponge right now - Stop!

Why, you ask? To put it scientifically, sponges are gross. Studies looking at the bacteria count of "the dirtiest areas of a kitchen" repeatedly found that sponges come in first for harboring the highest germ counts (1). Sponges hold so many bacteria because they're constantly wet and easily catch food during washing (1). The wet environment combined with the food scraps create a perfect storm for encouraging germs to multiply (1). If you're dead set on using a sponge, researchers recommend either replacing your sponge weekly (which isn't good for the environment), or cleaning sponges in a bleach and water mixture (which isn't good for you) (2). Either way, it's a lose-lose. So what's the solution?

Swap your sponge out for a dish brush instead

Yep, it's truly that simple. Simply swapping out your kitchen sponge for a dish brush will help decrease the number of bacteria because:

  • Brushes have bristles that don't hold water and dry faster (3).
  • Food scraps are easier to wash off on bristles than in the nooks and crannies of sponges (3).

And the best part? Brushes don't need to be replaced as often, because they don't harbor as many germs. Hooray for a solution that is budget-friendly and earth-friendly!

References

  1. www.microbiologyjournal.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/JPAM_Vol_11_No4_p_1687-1693.pdf
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6379783/
  3. https://time.com/5254808/how-to-wash-dishes-sponge/
Life

Our Top Three Tips for Better Recycling

What to do when you can't reduce or reuse

We all try our best to recycle, but it's not always easy! Reading the labels on plastics can be like deciphering a different language. Although we try to do our best, recycling in America is still a work in progress. Of the 300 million tons of plastic produced every year, only about 10% of it gets recycled (1). The other 90% winds up in landfills and floating in oceans, polluting nearby ecosystems. It's not just plastic that's the problem- plenty of other materials like glass, paper, electronics, batteries, and clothing are discarded in environmentally unfriendly ways.

There are still many misconceptions of what is and isn't recyclable. We've covered what those little recycling numbers actually mean, but there's still a lot to learn. The complicated process can actually discourage people from attempting to recycle, and even when they do, complicated rules can cause significant recycling bin contamination. Until there is a change in the structure of the recycling industry in the United States, we have to step up our recycling game. Here are our top three tips on how you can make your recycling as efficient as possible!

1) Familiarize yourself with your local recycling laws and regulations. A quick google search can inform you on what you your municipality recommends for cleaning, separation, and collection. You can even keep your city's recycling guide posted on your fridge for easy access!

2) Do not, we repeat, DO NOT put your recyclables in the bin inside a plastic bag. Plastic bags, like those from grocery stores, and plastic wrap packaging are major contaminants in recycle bins and cause problems for facilities that process recycled materials. These bags can be recycled but have to be brought to specialty facilities, and can be dropped off at many grocery stores. Try using paper bags instead, and be sure to toss them in the correct bin after use!

3) Purchase items you know to be recyclable! Stick to products that are made from paper, glass, aluminium, or steel. Always check with your local recycling center about what to do with plastic items- you'd be surprised how much plastic can't be recycled! And don't forget to thoroughly clean out any food residue before tossing a product into the recycling bin.

Why is it so important to recycle correctly? Well, bin contamination is a huge issue, especially now that China is no longer buying our recyclable waste. Contaminating recycling bins with non-recyclable products makes the recycling process more difficult, time consuming, and expensive. If batches of recyclables are too contaminated, they will get thrown in the landfill with everything else. Which is exactly what we're trying to avoid in the first place (2,3)!

Contribute to a healthier environment; support the industry by buying materials made out of recycled goods! And be sure to reduce consumption of disposable materials, and reuse items as many times as possible before recycling. If you are still not sure about best recycling practices, this EPA guide is a great resource.


References

  1. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2017/07/plastic-produced-recycling-waste-ocean-trash-debris-environment/
  2. https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2019/03/...
  3. https://theweek.com/articles/819488/america-recycling-problem-heres-how-solve\
  4. https://www.recycleacrossamerica.org/tips-to-recycle-right
  5. https://www.npr.org/2019/08/20/750864036/u-s-recycling-industry-is-struggling-to-figure-out-a-future-without-china
Remember that takeout container you had last night? What color was it? It probably was black, right? While those flexible, bendy and just the right size for packing leftovers boxes might seem perfect, they are far from it. The black color of the plastics actually masks a lot more than that last piece of sesame chicken hiding in the corner.
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Food

Is Climate Change Making Your Food Less Safe To Eat?

The role of climate change in foodborne illnesses

Do you have big cooking plans this Thanksgiving? Us too! We love cooking when the holiday season rolls around, but did you ever think that climate change is something you would think while prepping your food? Well, the raw ingredients in your kitchen contain harmful microbes that can cause foodborne illnesses, and climate change has been linked to an increase in these diseases.

As the global temperature rises and rainfall patterns change, bacteria, viruses, parasites, and other harmful vectors flourish. These changes in climatic factors increase disease transmission efficacy and improve survival rates of these vectors (1). In other words, climate change has allowed these harmful microbes to evolve and be better equipped to cause diseases. On top of that, they are more resilient and harder to kill.

So what should you be on the lookout for? Good question. Below are just a few examples of agents that may be altered by climate variability in the United States (1, 2). All of them can potentially be found on the foods that we consume.

  • E. coli O157: this specific strain of E. coli is particularly prone to climate change. We ingest this microbe through contaminated foods such as raw or undercooked ground meat products and raw milk (3).
  • Salmonella: Salmonella is caused by a bacteria that lives in the intestinal tract of animals. Just like E. coli O157, Salmonella can cause foodborne illnesses through consumption of contaminated ingredients.
  • Campylobacter: almost all raw poultry you see in the grocery store contains this microbe. This bacteria causes foodborne illnesses by cross-contaminating other foods and by surviving in undercooked meat. This makes Campylobacter one of the most common causes of diarrhea in the United States.

Overall, changes in climatic factors will be the largest culprit of food-related illnesses and mortality (4). This accounts for under-nutrition, communicable and non-communicable diseases, as well as vector-borne diseases.

The good news is that these foodborne illnesses are highly preventable!

While climate change may improve the environment in which these microbes thrive, we can take steps to prevent foodborne illnesses from happening in our own kitchens. The USDA recommends the Be Food Safe prevention steps (5):

  • Clean: Wash your hands and cooking surfaces frequently.
  • Separate: Don't cross-contaminate your foods. Keep your meats and veggies separate.
  • Cook: Cook ingredients to their proper temperatures.
  • Chill: Refrigerate foods promptly.

By following these guidelines, the vast majority of these harmful microbes can be removed or killed. Keep yourself and your family free from foodborne illnesses!


References

  1. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0963996910002231
  2. https://www.health.state.mn.us/diseases/foodborne/basics.html
  3. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/e-coli##targetText=Sources%20and%20transmission&targetText=E.%20coli%20O157%3AH7%20is%20transmitted%20to%20humans%20primarily%20through,meat%20products%20and%20raw%20milk.
  4. https://www.who.int/foodsafety/_Climate_Change.pdf
  5. https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/safe-food-handling/cleanliness-helps-prevent-foodborne-illness/ct_index

Artificial food colorings are omnipresent in our daily lives. They are responsible for the spectacular color variety of our candies, the pink flesh of farmed salmon, and even the weirdly bright shade of green of pickles. They are found in so many of our foods, yet we do not think much about them. But are they as safe for us as we think?

What are artificial food colorings and what are they made of?

It has been shown that consumers prefer that the color of their food match its flavor. A lot of the foods we consume are highly processed and end up a different color than we'd expect them to be. Many sports drinks, for example, are translucent before adding food colorings. So we add color to match the taste, like green coloring to apple-flavored foods and yellow coloring to foods that taste like lemon.

The FDA has approved seven artificial food colorings for consumption in the United States. The majority of them are made out of petroleum and crude oil (1). The final product is highly refined and is tested to not have any traces of petroleum.

Are artificial food colorings bad for my health?

In 2008, the Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the FDA to ban artificial food colorings because of recent studies that found a small, but significant, negative effect of these substances on children's behavior (2). These substances were also found to be carcinogenic, cause hypersensitivity reactions, and instigate behavioral problems (3). These findings were largely controversial, and the FDA ruled that artificial food colorings could still be used in food products without the use of a warning label.

Should you avoid artificial food colorings?

The evidence to support the claims that artificial food colorings cause cancer and other negative health outcomes is weak. Much more work needs to be done to definitively attribute any effects artificial food colorings may have on our health.

While we wait for the results of these studies, we can take proactive steps in protecting our health. It has been established that the food we consume plays a large role in our health. Unhealthy, highly processed foods are some of the biggest sources of artificial food colorings. By removing these products from your diet, you will improve your overall health and reduce the amount of artificial food colorings you consume.

However, if you have to bake a ton of cupcake for a bake sale and food coloring is unavoidable, try to consume and use natural alternatives. These substitutes do not have any negative health consequences and tend to be less processed. Some common dyes include beet roots for red coloring, carrot juice for orange coloring, saffron and turmeric powder for orange coloring, spinach for green coloring, blueberries for blue coloring, and blackberries for purple coloring!


References

  1. https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/resources/highschool/chemmatters/past-issues/2015-2016/october-2015/food-colorings.html
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3441937/
  3. https://cspinet.org/resource/food-dyes-rainbow-risks
Food

Are Artificial Sweeteners Too Good To Be True?

The effect of these substances on your microbiome and health

Who else seems to have a sweet tooth that just won't quit? It is estimated that the average American consumes six cups of sugar a week (1). That's equal to 152 pounds a year! Our voracious appetite for sugar has resulted in the onset of many diseases like diabetes, tooth decay, obesity, and heart disease. Sugary drinks in particular, are responsible for over 180,000 deaths a year (2).

To replace sugar and combat these diseases, the food industry introduced artificial sweeteners. Artificial sweeteners offer the same taste of sugar, but without the calories. Many consider them to be safe, and even beneficial, due to their low caloric content. Artificial sweeteners are one of the most used food additives in the world, and can be found in sodas, baked goods, candies, puddings, canned foods, jams and jellies, and dairy products (3). For comparison, a can of regular soda has about 160 calories, whereas a can of diet soda with artificial sweeteners contain nearly zero (4).

So what's the catch?

Recent studies have shown that artificial sweeteners alter our gut microbiota that may result in adverse health outcomes (5). Scientists showed that these substances not only changed our gut microbiota, but were actually toxic to them (6). Specifically, when gut bacteria were exposed to artificial sweeteners, they stopped their healthy activity and grew at a slower rate. Artificial sweeteners also promoted the growth of certain gut bacteria that are highly efficient at converting food into fat.

The combined effects of artificial sweeteners on the gut microbiota are thought to cause a wide range of diseases from certain cancers to type-2 diabetes. One study found that individuals who used artificial sweeteners were more likely to be overweight than their counterparts (7). The effects of artificial sweeteners on the gut microbiome may be the reason why people who switch from regular soda to diet sodas in an effort to lose weight fail to do so.

Currently the FDA has approved six artificial sweeteners for consumption in the United States: saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame potassium (Ace-K), sucralose, neotame, and advantame (8). While scientists are still putting in the work to pinpoint the exact role artificial sweeteners have on the gut microbiome, we can take preventative measures to limit our exposure to these substances by being aware of what's in the ingredients list of the food items we consume.


References

  1. https://www.dhhs.nh.gov/dphs/nhp/documents/sugar.pdf
  2. https://www.livescience.com/51385-sugary-drinks-global-deaths.html
  3. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/artificial-sweeteners/art-20046936
  4. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/artificial-sweeteners/art-20046936#targetText=Artificial,sweeteners%20are%20synthetic%20sugar%20substitutes.&targetText=Artificial%20sweeteners%20are%20also%20known,no%20calories%20to%20your%20diet.
  5. https://academic.oup.com/advances/article/10/suppl_1/S31/5307224/
  6. https://neurosciencenews.com/artificial-sweetener-microbiome-9935/
  7. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/artificial-sweeteners-may-change-our-gut-bacteria-in-dangerous-ways/
  8. https://www.fda.gov/food/food-additives-petitions/high-intensity-sweeteners#targetText=Six%20high%2Dintensity%20sweeteners%20are,sucralose%2C%20neotame%2C%20and%20advantame.
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