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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.

The next time your pantry is looking scarce, skip the retail store and head to your local farmers' market! Not only are these foods better for your health, but they often use less fossil fuels and you'll be contributing to the fight against climate change.

Supermarkets vs Farmers Markets

You may not realize it, but the food you see on the shelves in your neighborhood supermarket probably required a large amount of fossil fuel to get there. How else would a peach show up on the shelf in the middle of February?! Fossil fuels are needed to power machinery on farms, to transport food from other countries, to produce food packaging, and to create fertilizers and pesticides (1). And as we already know, fossil fuel consumption plays a huge role in climate change.

Instead of relying on internationally-sourced produce and lots of plastic, farmers' markets create a space where the focus is on locally produced food. Most markets only allow vendors to sell food that has been produced within 200 miles of the venue. Some markets are even more stringent and only allow the sale of food grown in the community or immediate surrounding farms. This has a huge impact in reducing the amount of fuel that is needed in the transportation of these foods. On average, locally sourced produce travels 27 times less distance compared to massed produced food (2). Less fossil fuels used means less stress on the climate!

Another problem with supermarkets is that they can rely on a ton of plastic to store its produce. Sometimes the plastic is needed to keep the produce fresh as it sits on shelves, sometimes it doesn't seem to serve a purpose at all (plastic-wrapped bananas, anyone?). Not only are these plastics unneeded, but they also have a toll on the environment. Over 99% of plastic is made from chemicals coming from fossil fuels (3). Plastics are responsible for clogging our drainage systems, leaching harmful chemicals that contaminate groundwater, and injuring and poisoning wildlife (4).

To reduce the amount of plastic waste, and thus fossil fuels, farmers opt out of using plastic packaging and market patrons are encouraged to bring reusable shopping bags to stow their purchases. Vendors at a farmers' market often stock produce on tables without any packaging whatsoever! Berries may come in a plastic container, but overall plastic use is pretty minimal.

Why Farmers' Markets?

Shopping at a farmers' market gives you a chance to connect directly with farmers and their support team. You can learn where the food was grown, and the important decisions behind certain growing practices like the cultivation of crops without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial agents AKA organic farming. A lot of vendors are certified organic by the USDA. If you're unsure, just ask!

An additional reason to shop at farmers' markets is because they often provide a wide-variety of foods that are not available in grocery stores. Ever wonder what a pluot or zebra melon taste like? Go to a farmers' market to find out! You can taste before you buy to discover and find new favorites. Also, vendors eat what they sell, so they can suggest ways to cook the fresh kohlrabi you've just bought but have never used before.

For those of you who live in areas with seasons, farmers' markets don't stop when the leaves fall and the snow comes. Some markets continue to operate and bring fresh food to communities year-round. Come winter, farmers begin to sell their fall storage crops such as potatoes, carrots, beets, onions, garlic, and squash. Some farmers with greenhouses will have spinach, arugula, chard and other hardy produce available.

Getting Started

Are you now convinced to pay your local farmers' market a visit? Not only is this experience more fun than your routine trip to the supermarket, but farmers' markets are also a great opportunity to introduce your family to healthy eating and environmentally responsible consumption. You are ultimately investing in your health and doing your part in combating climate change.

To start, you can go online and search for local farmers markets in your area to find out their hours of operation and location. Note that this information may change based on the season. When there, strike up a conversation with a farmer to learn more about the products they offer and the environmental practices they use in their business.


References

  1. https://foodprint.org/issues/agriculture-energy-consumption/
  2. http://farmersmarketcoalition.org/education/farmers-markets-promote-sustainability/
  3. https://www.ciel.org/issue/fossil-fuels-plastic/
  4. https://www.ehn.org/plastic-environmental-impact-2501923191.html
  5. https://www.pan-uk.org/health-effects-of-pesticides/
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Sometimes after a long day at work, the last thing anyone feels like doing is cooking dinner. Eating out or ordering take out is just so easy, especially with modern technology! But before you open that food delivery app, you might want to keep reading. Some recent studies have shown a link between eating out and phthalate exposure.

What Are Phthalates Again?

Phthalates are endocrine-disrupting chemicals, which means they mess with your hormones. These sneaky chemicals can change the way hormones messaging and how the body reacts to them. Endocrine disrupting chemicals have been linked to serious health effects like cancer, developmental abnormalities and fertility issues. And you don't have to be exposed to a ton of phthalates to have negative impacts. In fact, studies show that low level exposure can impact your health (1).

How They Get into Food

Phthalates are used to make plastic flexible and durable. There are a ton of different steps in food processing and distribution that relies on plastic to get the job done. Food handling gloves, plastic packaging material, plastic parts in machinery, and flexible plastic tubing are all used when creating processed food. Phthalates can easily leach from plastic into food during any of these steps. The more processed a food product is, the higher the chance that its come into contact with phthalates.

Why does this matter? Well, two major studies recently looked at phthalate exposure associated with eating out and found concerning results. Both studies found a higher rate of exposure to two phthalates called DINP (Diisononyl phthalate), and DEHP (di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate) in people who had recently dined out. The first study found that people who dined out had phthalate levels that were approximately 35% higher than those who ate at home (2). Adolescents were especially susceptible to high phthalate levels because they were the most likely age group to eat out.

The second study had similar findings, as well as observing fatty fast food items like burgers or french fries could elevate phthalate levels even more (3). Both studies found that eating food that had been cooked at home significantly reduced phthalate exposure.

What to do Instead

The good news is that the body metabolizes phthalates very quickly and they'll leave your body within 24 hours. So the cheeseburger you had after that big night out over the weekend probably isn't still impacting your phthalate levels. And there's currently a petition going to stop fast food workers from using vinyl gloves, which could contain phthalates. If you find yourself ordering food more than you're cooking it, now might be a good time to swing by the grocery story. But if you just can't break that delivery habit, try ordering foods that are less fatty, and less processed like salads.

Weekly meal prep is a super easy way to regularly start cooking. Preparing weekly dinner on Sunday means you'll always have something ready when you come home from work! Shopping for groceries on Sunday is also an easy way to make sure there are ingredients already on hand when you make dinner during the week. We have some easy recipes on our site! Check out veggie grilling recipes and recipe ideas using beans.


References:

  1. https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acs.est.6b00034
  2. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412017314666
  3. https://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/doi/10.1289/ehp.1510803

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