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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.

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Instagram Blogger Hannah from California Shares Her School Lunch Ideas

We might steal some of these tips for our own lunches!

As soon as August rolls around, we instantly start planning for back to school. While this month is filled with exciting beginnings (new school, new supplies, new teachers), one thing always remains the same… what do I pack in my kid's lunch box?! We asked Instagram blogger Hannah From California to share some tips on how to create easy and healthy lunch box meals. Keep reading for a fun Q&A that includes tips on how to deal with picky eaters, school lunch prep, and how to pack a lunch as a busy parent.

BH: What inspired you to start your Instagram account?

H: My reasons for starting my Instagram account were totally selfish! As a new stay at home mom I was craving that connection, adult conversation, and sense of community from other parents who were all in the same boat as me. Sharing about the meals and snacks I made for my son happened organically, and I quickly realized the challenge of coming up with fresh and nutritious meal ideas day after day. After receiving positive feedback from my food related posts and requests for more simple, healthy meal ideas, I just ran with it! I figured that since I was making all the food anyway, it was easy enough to snap a few photos in hopes that it would give other families some ideas!

Cheese, turkey, pitas, apples, snap peas, bell pepper, cucumber

BH: What are your top 3 tips for parents of picky eaters?

H: First and foremost, I've been there, and you've got this! I do have some tips and tricks that have worked for my son, but before I go into that, I wanted to share about Ellyn Satter's Division of Responsibility Theory. This will hopefully change the way you view meal times (for your own sanity)! The Division of Responsibility is the idea that we (the parents) and our children each have jobs when it comes to mealtime. It is our job as parents to provide a variety of healthy food options and multiple opportunities to sit down and eat. Then, it is our children's job to choose how much and what to eat from what we provide. If you can accept this theory when it comes to feeding your child, like truly BELIEVE it, you will save yourself hours in the kitchen as a short order cook, and overall, you'll be less stressed when you hit those picky eating phases!

Tips & Tricks for feeding picky eaters:

  1. Involve your kids in the meal making!
    There are a number of benefits, both life skills and academic skills, from cooking with your kids, but one of my favorite parts about involving my son in the kitchen is that I know it will greatly increase the chance that he'll eat the meal he helped prepare!
  2. Eat the same food! My son, husband and I eat the same food. Eating with your child, and also eating the same thing, not only makes it easier on you (only preparing one meal), but it allows for modeling during mealtime (look at mama trying and enjoying these different foods and flavors)!
  3. Include a dip! When I include a familiar dip with my son's meal, I can almost guarantee that he'll at least try a new food! Hummus is his favorite!

Finally, whatever you do, do not stop serving the food your child is being "picky" about because exposure is key! Sure, take a day or 2 or a week off, serve it up differently (raw, baked, steamed, with a dip, cut in circles or sticks), but keep including that food with meals because you just never know when they'll be in the mood!

Pita and kale almond hummus, edamame, seaweed, cherries and bunny grahams

BH: What advice do you have for packing healthy school lunches that are easy to do for busy parents?

H: I am a huge advocate of packing lunch boxes the night BEFORE school. Not only does it make mornings (while you're trying to do all the things) much smoother, it allows you take the time to prep and actually think about what you want to pack vs. reaching for all the packaged food while feeling rushed to get out the door and to school on time! Here are a few things I have learned about packing lunches thus far!

  • A lunch box with different sized compartments is key! This helps encourage you to include a variety of healthy options, and the great thing about these boxes is that each section in the box closes completely, so there are no foods mixing together (ex. juice from your strawberries leaking into your sandwich and making it soggy).
  • Note the amount of time your child has to eat at school/camp/daycare and pack accordingly! They only have a certain amount of time to eat at school, which is typically a lot less than we allow for them to spend eating at home. So, If you want your child to eat some of each food included, consider cutting your portions down (for example, pack a ½ a sandwich vs. a full one so that your child has time to each the sandwich and also has time to eat the strawberries and snap peas you included as well).
  • Include foods that you know your kids enjoy and will likely eat! Packed lunches are not the time for you to throw in all the foods your kid is refusing at home; rather, you want them to have a yummy lunch that will fuel their body while they are away from you!

Salami sandwich on seed bread, watermelon stars, bell pepper, pea chips, multi-vitamin gummies

BH: How do you make healthy eating fun for kids when there's so much packaged and processed foods marketed towards kids?

H: For me, I think it is all about our family's attitude toward food, and also what is available in our home. We believe that real, healthy, fresh food is fun! We go to our local farmer's market to see, touch, and taste-test seasonal fruits and veggies. We talk about what foods we're in the mood for, and how might prep it or cook it up! While packaged and processed food is not the norm for us, it's also not viewed or talked about negatively. I have always just made a point to explain to my son which foods do what for our body, and how real, healthy food tastes delicious and can help our body grow strong.

BH: At Because Health we recommend limiting plastic around food and water and buying organic when possible. How do you limit exposure to plastics, toxics chemicals and food additives in your kitchen and food?

H: It's so important to pay attention to what we're putting in (and on) our bodies, and the more I read and learn about this topic, the more I aim to limit the exposure to plastics, toxic chemicals, and food additives. A few simple changes that I have made over the years have been to store my food in glass or stainless-steel containers, use reusable bags, use non-toxic cleaners, and buy organic when possible (especially if as you guys say the produce is leafy, berries, or something you eat with the skin on)!

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