Q&A: New Year’s Resolution Ideas

  • December 26, 2012 9:25 am

Question:

Alexandra,

New Year’s is here and I’m looking for simple ways to green my life. Do you have some ideas?

Thanks,

Ron

Answer:

Hi Ron,

Happy almost New Year! I’m glad to hear about the changes you want to make for 2013. Simple steps add up, especially if we all take them. One easy way to go green is via the food you buy, cook, and eat. In my book The Conscious Kitchen, I have ten food commandments I suggest. Perhaps you will find resolution ideas in them.

1. Eat less meat. When eating beef, seek out and choose grass-fed. Other meat and poultry should be carefully sourced.

2. Just say no to bottled water. Drink (filtered) tap instead. This will save money, too.

3. Buy local organic or sustainably farmed fruits and vegetables. Don’t forget that coffee and tea come from plants, and wine is made from grapes; choose sustainable versions.

4. Eat only the least contaminated sustainably harvested wild or well-sourced farmed seafood.

5. Always consider packaging when shopping. Choose items packed in materials you can reuse or that can be recycled in your municipality. Buy bulk items instead of overpackaged goods. Always shop with reusable bags.

6. Cook at home. Often. And serve on reusable dishware, not disposable. Clean with eco-friendly products.

7. Avoid plastic as often as you can.

8. Try composting, even if you live in a city, or a house without a yard.

9. Whenever possible, reduce energy use in the kitchen by choosing efficient appliances, cooking methods, and dishwashing practices; don’t leave appliances plugged in when not in use; ask your electric company for alternative energy sources like wind power.

10. Spread the word. Educate everyone you know. Green your office kitchen, your kids’ school kitchen, your friends and relatives’ kitchens. Make noise; together we can make a huge difference.

Happy 2013!

Alexandra

Q&A: How to Find Organic Wine

  • December 12, 2012 4:30 pm

Question:

Dear Alexandra,

Now that it is holiday season, our family tends to have a lot of wine. I do try my best to buy organic wine but I have a really hard time finding it. Was wondering if you had some suggestions of where to find some?

Best,

Nancy

Answer:

Hi Nancy,

Glad to hear you’re trying to buy organic wine. Many people tend to forget that wine comes from grapes, and grapes are typically heavily sprayed with pesticides. I agree that finding organic wine can be tricky at times. This is partially because if it contains sulfites (which most wines do) it can’t be labeled USDA organic. Here is an excerpt about wine from my book The Conscious Kitchen that I think will be helpful:

“Organic standards do not permit the use of sulfites, the bacteria-killing preservatives used in making pretty much all wine. Some producers use organic grapes and add varying degrees of sulfites, resulting in wine that cannot technically be certified organic. These wines are often labeled “made with organically grown grapes” and are a good option….’Biodynamic’ is a third-party-certified method and term (Demeter-USA.org) that’s a bit confusing to explain. Basically biodynamic farming shares many tenets with organic farming (no synthetic pesticides or fertilizers are permitted–some people call it a forerunner to the organic movement) but takes it several steps further. Biodynamic vineyards have not only vines but also other plants, trees, and animals, all of which work together as a unified system–this is call biodiversity. “

So when it comes to looking for sustainable wine to drink, here is a sliding scale of what to look for:

  • Biodynamic
  • Certified Organic
  • Labeled “Organically Grown” or “made with organically grown grapes”
  • Bottles marked “sustainably grown” or “made with sustainably grown grapes”

Hopefully this will help you locate a bottle or two. You can also always ask questions in local wine stores. There tend to be producers who don’t bother to label their wines as organically produced, and the shop buyers can point you in the right direction. Here is a previous post from my old intern, Glenny, about her favorite organic wines that might also be of use.

Cheers!

-Alexandra

Q&A: GMO’s?

  • October 31, 2012 9:01 am

Question:

Hello Alexandra,

I’ve been reading a lot on genetically modified food lately, and I was wondering if you could break it down for me? Like what exactly it means, why it is bad for me, and what should I choose?

Thanks.

Heidi

Answer:

Hi Heidi,

Yes, GMO’s have been getting a lot of attention lately, which is a good thing, and especially in California (more on this in just a bit). In order to understand GMOs, it’s helpful to know what they are. Here is how I defined them in The Conscious Kitchen:

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and Genetically Modified (GM) Food

These terms refer to plants and their resulting crops that contain artificially altered genes as well as conventional insecticides actually incorporated into the organisms.  These biotech modifications make the plants disease-, insect-, and/or virus-resistant in an effort to increase crop yield.  Though safety research has been conducted, there’s still significant concern about the health and environmental effects of GM food, which is not permitted under USDA organic standards.  These foods are also referred to as GE (genetically engineered).

The concern with GM foods is the unknown. No one truly knows what the long term chronic health affects are. And here’s the rub: I can’t tell you what to choose. Because we don’t currently know if and when we’re eating genetically modified food. GM foods aren’t required to be labeled in the United States. This is not true for all countries. In Europe, Japan, India, and  China, labeling is required. Stateside, the only way to know if you’re not eating GM food is if you choose organic. And even organic crops are now being cross-contaminated with GM seeds.

That said, if you’re eating anything containing corn or corn derivatives (corn syrup, corn oil) or soy or soy deriviatives or even beet sugar–which is about 100 percent of all processed or packaged foods–you are absolutely eating genetically modified food.

The reason why you have been hearing so much about GMOs leading up to the election is that for the first time, the public is going to vote on labeling. On election day Californian voters will have a chance to say yes or no to Prop 37, which would require GMO labeling. This isn’t to say GM foods are safe or unsafe, this is just giving consumers the right to know if their food contains GM ingredients or has been genetically modified. Studies have shown that 90 percent of the public is in favor of GMO labeling. There has been ample money spent by huge businesses in an effort to defeat the labels, so we’ll see what happens on election day. What gets passed in California often spreads to the rest of the country.

Hope this helps.

Best,

Alexandra

Q&A: “Green” Kitchenware?

  • October 10, 2012 8:55 am

Question:

Hi Alexandra,

Looking to buy some new pans for my kitchen, and was wondering if you had any green recommendations for me?

Best,

Deb

Answer:

Hi Deb,

You’re not alone. This is a question I get often! Yes, there are ways to make sure that your new cookware is safe. As I explain in The Conscious Kitchen, you should opt for cast iron, stainless steel, or enamel-coated cast iron.

Cast Iron is great because it’s safe, cheap, endlessly durable, and retains heat very well. If you are looking to add more iron to your diet, you’re in luck; small amounts of the iron will leach out of the pan and into your food. Cast iron does require oil or butter so your food won’t stick to it, but it does become more non-stick over time, especially if you care for the pans well.

Enamel-coated cast iron is a bit pricier than the other two, but well worth the splurge. It’s cast iron with an enamel coating is composed of fine glass particles. Glass is nonreactive and very safe. It also retains the heat well and is extremely durable. I use my enamel-coated cast iron dutch oven so often it just lives on the top of my stove. There is no point in putting it away.

Stainless steel is another solid safe material for pots and pans. It’s lightweight and sturdy. Just don’t store acidic foods in it (tomato sauce, rhubarb) as this can start to break it down.

I prefer these three materials to any of the new “green” pans on the market. Many of these contain proprietary materials and “green” chemicals that make them similar to the non-stick pans I hope you’re replacing. I don’t want to cook in anything proprietary! And these just aren’t as durable as the tried and true materials mentioned above. I have heard from a lot of readers that they’ve bought various new “green” pans and they wound up falling apart quickly. Cast iron won’t fall apart!

Hope this helps you with your decision. If you’re looking for other kitchenware, check out The Conscious Kitchen for additional tips.

Best,

Alexandra

Q&A: Eco-Benefits of Being a Vegetarian?

  • September 26, 2012 9:20 am

Question:

Hi Alexandra,

I just had a question regarding meat. Everyone always stresses how sustainable becoming a vegetarian is. I obviously understand the animal rights aspect to becoming a vegetarian, I was just wondering if you could explain more of the environmental benefits of not eating meat to me? Thanks.

-Terry

Answer:

Terry,

Thanks for your question. Yes, there are many environmental benefits to giving up or at least limiting meat consumption. It decreases water use, methane production, the impact of growing animal feed, and much more. It’s not an easy thing to answer quickly, but I’ll try to outline the basics below. I urge you to do some reading on your own, too. The production of animals into meat is an amazing system to learn about, with many shocking twists, turns, and revelations.

If you’re into stats and numbers, this site compares water usage for various items. It says that it takes approximately 15415 litre/kg of water to produce beef and only 257 litre/kg of water for potatoes. I don’t know anyone who only eats potatoes, but there is also quite a difference between chicken and beef.

Then there’s methane, a potent greenhouse gas which contributes to global warming. Cattle emit 80 million tons of methane annually, according to the EPA. And I haven’t even gotten to feed. Most animals are fed a grim mix of genetically modified soy and corn (neither are great for the environment as they require tremendous amounts of chemical sprays to grow), antibiotics (which create drug-resistant superbugs), and hormones.

All of this said, I am not personally a vegetarian for many, many reasons. Though I eat very little meat compared to most meat eaters I know. I have devoted a tremendous amount of research and thought to this decision and I only ever eat local, pastured, well-raised meat. I go into great detail on how and why to source this kind of meat in two of my books. I wrote  The Butcher’s Guide to Well-Raised Meat with my butcher. I had interviewed him and his wife previously for  The Conscious Kitchen, which has a chapter concisely detailing meat labels, how shop, and other educational resources.

Keep in mind that becoming a vegetarian doesn’t immediately mean your environmental impact is nil. Many vegetarians continue to eat conventionally raised dairy and eggs–the eco-impact of these is far greater than their local, pastured counterparts. And if all of the soy you switch to eating is conventionally raised and coming from, say, China, that has its own not insignificant footprint. There have also been interesting studies done on the safety of soy-based diets. So all of this is worth considering as you weigh the pros and cons of giving up or eating less meat.

Hope this helps.

Best,

Alexandra

The Conscious Kitchen Now Available On Kindle!

  • September 5, 2012 12:29 pm

Good news!  The Conscious Kitchen is now available on your Kindle. Was excited to run across this today.

Q&A: Coffee

  • September 29, 2011 9:57 am

THE QUESTION:

Dear Alexandra,

I have a quick, but perhaps complicated question about coffee for you.  Every morning I have at least a cup.  It hadn’t really occurred to me until recently that my coffee habit could have environmental repercussions.  So, what coffee should I be drinking?

Thanks,

Cynthia

THE ANSWER:

What a great question and oh so appropriate considering September 29th (today!) is National Coffee Day (as if every day isn’t national coffee day in my apartment). The answer is a little complicated and a bit controversial.  Chances are you live in the United States, very very far away from any coffee plantations. This presents a problem for the most hardcore locavores (cough) whose diet consists of only local foods.  For the rest of us who are reluctant to give up our morning mug, there are options, which I explain in The Conscious Kitchen.

I’d like to state for the record that while I am a hardcore locavore, I literally do not put a toe on the floor in the morning without my coffee. I know this sounds bad. If you’re tempted to judge me, I suggest you try writing three books in as many years with no nanny and a small person in the house! I did give coffee up for years–when I was pregnant and breastfeeding–so I know I can do it. I just prefer not to.

But enough about me! The excerpts:

“The key thing with coffee is to source it carefully, especially since by some estimates it is the second most widely traded global commodity after oil.  Think of the eco-repercussions of drinking the worst-farmed beans, 365 days a year.  When it comes to coffee, the best brew goes beyond just choosing organic or sustainable beans for personal and environmental health.”

“To ensure that the workers growing your coffee are being treated right, look for fair-trade certification (TransFairUSA.org) on your bag of beans.  This, they say, takes into account fair prices, labor conditions, direct trade, democratic and transparent organizations, community development, as well as environmental sustainability – the last of which is especially crucial for the rainforests, where a great deal of coffee is grown.  Fair Trade Certified products tend to come from small producers on small farms that belong to larger cooperatives.”

“Coffee traditionally grows in shade, under a natural canopy that’s home to many birds.  According to Sierra magazine, low-quality coffee can be grown more easily and cheaply in full sun, ‘but only with extensive use of pesticides.’  The Rainforest Alliance certification label covers both worker treatment and birds (Rainforest-Alliance.org).”

“Coffee and fair-trade fanatics can compare and contrast these certifications at length, but keep in mind that choosing either over conventional coffee is key.”

Most importantly, if you buy consciously, you’ll have a better tasting brew.  Canned conventional coffee is probably a nasty mix of downed twigs, dust, and floor sweepings according to Treehugger.com.

And remember to always bring your own mug, use reusable or unbleached filters, compost your grounds, and doctor it with organic/local milk and fair trade sugar.

Happy National Coffee Day everyone!  I think I’ll have two cups to celebrate. Cheers!


Q&A: Picnic Waste

  • June 28, 2011 5:03 pm

THE QUESTION

Dear Alexandra,

This summer I’ve been finding myself hosting multiple picnics and BBQs, all of which have been attended by lots of family, friends, and children.  Of course, on July 4th we’ll be having a massive backyard party.  These events are great, but I’ve been guilt ridden by the amount of waste we’re producing.  Napkins, plates, utensils!  I’ve tried to find recyclable options, but some cost a fortune.  What do you suggest to minimize my waste, and my cost?

Thanks,

Susan

THE ANSWER

Hi Susan, thank you so much for the great and timely question. The amount of waste from eating a meal outdoors can be immense, but there are some easy (and cheap) ways to reduce the amount of your garbage and your guilt.  In The Conscious Kitchen I discuss entertaining for a crowd (see below). My favorite way to minimize waste and cost at a party is to ask people to BYO plates, cups, cloth napkins, and utensils. Have items on hand for guests who choose not to. You might be pleasantly surprised at how many do bring their own items, though. And the zany mix and matching this creates is festive. This goes for July 4th and beyond — it’s how I host my daughter’s winter waste-free  birthday parties, too.

From The Conscious Kitchen:

One of the many pleasures of cooking is inviting your family and friends to share meals with you.  Depending on the size of your crowd, short cuts become tempting.  Resist the urge to serve on paper plates.  A far better option is to use your real plates, glasses, silverware, and cloth napkins.  If you won’t, use only unbleached paper or compostable plates, plus unbleached paper or compostable paper cups and recycled-paper napkins.  If using plastic cutlery, go for items made of #2, #4, or #5 (see below), especially if they can be reused and eventually recycled.  If using corn or sugar plastic, make sure you can compost or recycle it where you live.

#2 (HDPE or high-density polyethylene), a hard plastic used for everything from milk jugs to cleaning product containers, is presently being used as one of the replacements for bisphenol-A containing polycarbonate (#7) in baby and reusable water bottles.

#4 (LDPE or low-density polyethylene), a soft plastic widely used for food storage bags, plastic shopping bags, and squeezable bottles.

#5 (PP or polypropylene), a versatile plastic that is used for bottle tops, yogurt and food storage containers, plus baby bottles.

#7 (other, catch-all), this classification is for any and all plastics that don’t fall under #1 to #6, and can include polycarbonate, the hard plastic used mainly for bottles (water and baby) that contains bisphenol-A.

The confusing and frustrating part is that even if you do buy compostable items, usually they are made from GM plants, which require lots of fertilizer and plenty of chemicals to stabilize them.  These materials are considered biodegradable, but will only biodegrade under strict conditions–they need to have access to air, water, light, microbes, and enzymes.  Since most people don’t recycle these items, they end up in landfills, buried and unable to break down–just like regular plastic.  If you use “compostable” plates, make sure you can compost or recycle these items close to where you live (some municipalities don’t recycle the corn based plastics).  Best case scenario: start composting in your own home!  Go to the EPA’s site for more information on how you can get started with your own personal compost.

Happy 4th of July! What’s better than celebrating with family, friends, and great food?


Q&A: Summer Grilling

  • June 23, 2011 9:43 am

THE QUESTION:

Hi Alexandra,

My family and I love to grill in our backyard all summer long.  If the weather allows it, we’re out there almost every night!  Our old charcoal grill is, well, old and tired, so we’re thinking of purchasing a new one for the season.  We would like it to be as environmentally friendly as possible, especially because we use it so often.  What are your thoughts on the best grills to buy?

Thanks,

Louise

THE ANSWER:

Hi Louise,

Thank you so much for your question, and lucky you to have a backyard for daily grilling and more.  Us city dwellers are very jealous.  This is a hot topic as the days are getting longer, the weather is warmer, and July 4th is fast approaching, but there are a lot of issues to consider before lighting up those coals.  In The Conscious Kitchen I explain the ins and outs of grill use:

No one can deny the allure of an open fire.  Cooking outside makes sense when the weather is warm, but there are a number of things to scrutinize before you grill.  Foodies have long debated the merits of charcoal versus gas.  Gas, a nonrenewable resource, is a convenient and controllable way to cook on an open flame, but where taste is concerned, charcoal always wins.  Environmentally speaking, though, charcoal is worse than gas.  Among other negatives, charcoal promotes deforestation (it is made from trees) and pollutes the air as it burns.  This might not seem like a big deal if you’re the sort who grills once in a blue moon, but think about how much pollution gets collectively released into the air on a day like July 4.  According to an article in the July/August 2005 issue of Sierra magazine, an estimated sixty million barbecues are held on this holiday, during which Americans burn the equivalent of 2,300 acres of forest and release 225,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the air.  Research has shown that in areas where people grill often, fatty acids in meat smoke can contribute to hazy skies.  Fat smog!  If you aren’t prepared to give up grilling, it’s good to be aware of the impact it can have on both your health and the environment and to minimize it however you can.

THE LIST: GRILLS

A sliding scale of choices from best to worst:

-Solar cookers (not technically grills) cook outside using nothing but the sun’s energy

-Electric, natural gas, and propane: they burn cleaner and are more efficient than charcoal or wood

-Hybrid grills, using as little natural charcoal or wood as possible

-Natural charcoal and hard wood, using a chimney starter

AVOID: Conventional charcoal, charcoal containing lighter fluid, and lighter fluid in general

I have more on each of those choices, and the nitty gritty on why lighter fluid must always be avoided in the book. And don’t forget about what you’re putting on the grill (i.e. local veggies and well-raised meat), the plates you’re eating off of (preferably reusable), and how you’re cleaning up after dinner (natural cleaners, please).

Who has tried a solar cooker? Curious!

What You Don’t Know: What My Editorial Assistant Didn’t Know

  • May 24, 2011 9:46 am

This week I asked my editorial assistant (sounds much better than intern, no?) Glenny Cameron if she’d mind sharing what she has learned/what she didn’t know before starting to work with me a month or so ago–if anything. Needless to say I’m extremely touched by what she wrote. She’s amazing. Seriously, this is an inspiring must-read. Thanks, Glenny. Have anything to add to her thoughts? So curious!

—-

Before working with Alexandra I considered myself a very environmentally aware person.  I buy organic, I shop locally, I reuse plastic bags and refuse to buy bottled water.  Fortunately (and unsurprisingly), there are loads and loads of things to learn about the sustainable lifestyle, and I thank Alexandra for engaging me in them.  There is always more that can be done, more of the world to save.  So, here are the top five things I’ve learned in the past few months, complete with excerpts from The Conscious Kitchen and Planet Home.  Some are small and silly, but we all have to start somewhere, right?

1. Bananas.

I love bananas.  They are now a guilty pleasure.  Enough said.

There are a number of items in your fruit bowl (and in your cabinets – see chapter seven) that might be certified organic but fall into the realm of still not being great to buy.  In this realm, no exotic is more widely available, or controversial, than the banana.  The ubiquitous yellow fruit is nature’s perfect answer to packaged goods – every parent’s nutrient-dense dream snack.  Yet, it’s a deeply flawed food.  Its pretty much the poster fruit for how confusing trying to eat consciously can be.  Bananas are grown very far away, are environmentally destructive, are often harvested under conditions unfair to laborers, and the variety we all eat will apparently be extinct in the not-so-distant future.  The greenest and most environmentally devoted eaters around don’t eat bananas, or refer to them as a guilty pleasure…Americans eat as many bananas as apples and oranges combined.  Food for thought.

2. Organic cotton.

This is a difficult topic because most of my clothes are not made with organic cotton.  The main reason is that organic cotton can be very expensive and I am at times, very poor.  Another reason is that most of my clothes shopping is done in secondhand or vintage stores, where you will rarely find organic goods.  [Note from Alexandra: Secondhand is better than newly manufactured organic cotton items. Go Glenny!] After learning that cotton is the most heavily sprayed crop in the world (accounting for 25% of annual insecticide use globally!) I made a conscious decision to switch to organic cotton whenever possible.  This meant buying new sheets, towels, and looking into organic cotton alternatives for the clothes I buy new (socks, underwear, etc.).  Although I haven’t completely revamped my wardrobe, I now sleep soundly in my organic bed.  [Another note from Alexandra: Awesome!!] Check out ecochoices.com for more information on worldwide cotton production.

3. Plastic.

I know that all of the nasty chemicals that are found in plastics aren’t news to anyone reading this site.  They weren’t to me either, but I needed a push to start actively avoiding them in my life.

BPA – a hormone disrupter (it mimics estrogen) that has the FDA, Health Canada, and the United States Department of Health and Human Services’ National Toxicology Program, among other entities, in a tizzy, and parents and hikers across the nation switching their baby and water bottles to BPA-free versions.  Manufacturers have taken consumer temperature and are busily marketing “safe” plastic products.  Unfortunately, some of the resulting BPA-free items contain other chemicals that are new to this arena and haven’t exactly stood the test of time.

Phthalates – this family of chemicals, which make plastic flexible (among many other things), are endocrine disrupters and reproductive toxicants.  The are currently being voluntarily removed or banned from everything from nail polish to neonatal tubing to toys.  They’re less ubiquitous in a kitchen than BPA but are likely found in certain plastics (like meat and cheese wrappings) as well as PVC (vinyl) flooring and even in cleaning-product fragrance.

Sure, I use (organic) cotton totes and only use my plastic bags for my garbage can, but I when I looked in my cupboards I was ashamed to realize how much food was stored in plastic containers.  My cereal and pastas were in plastic bags and my fridge was filled with leftovers in plastic tupperware!  What was I thinking?  So I threw it all out and bought loads of canning jars to use as storage instead.  I even moved my spices.  It was easy! [Yet another note from Alexandra: Nice! Love this!]

4. DIY cleaning.

I must confess, I have a fairly high tolerance for dirt and dust and have never lived in a sterile environment.  Perhaps it’s leftover from growing up in the country, in a house where the windows were always open and pets of all kinds were rampant.  I truly believe this is why my brother and I have incredible immune systems.

That said, most of my cleaning was done with minimal products, usually just water.  On the occasion when I was inspired enough to actually use some disinfectant, I turned to the all-natural brands like Seventh Generation or Ecover.  Fortunately, Alexandra’s tips on DIY cleaning have buffered my “do less” attitude toward cleaning while still keeping my apartment germ free.  I’ve even passed these tips on to my mother, who I can thank for fostering my housekeeping habits (or lack thereof).

DIY Cleaners

-Soap plus water equals mopping solution.

-Soap plus baking soda and a drop or two of water equals excellent mildly abrasive paste.  Extras to mix in include lemon, natural essential oils, or even hydrogen peroxide.

-Water plus vinegar equals glass cleaner.

5. Unplug.

Living alone and living simply means that I have few appliances.  I don’t own a coffee maker or a desktop computer.  My TV is rarely used.  But, for the gadgets I do use – lights, clocks, speakers – I never thought to unplug them when not in use.  I admit, my cell phone charger was usually plugged in until reading Planet Home.

Appliances use energy even when turned off.  Pull plugs out of the wall to stop energy draw.  Alternatively, plug them all into a power strip and turn the strip off when not in use, as well as overnight.

A very simple step towards greening your life.