Growing up in an Indian household meant we did things a certain way. We used stainless steel at the table and our serving sizes were on the smaller side, requiring you to refill only when needed. Glass Folgers coffee jars were reused to store spices. Oh and remember those little black film bottles to develop your pictures? Many Indian moms would fill them with crushed red pepper and have them in their handbags - just in case that restaurant meal needed a spicy kick. Much like many traditions, there is a method to the madness.
In India, the second most populous country in the world - the people are many but the resources are limited. On our summer visits to India I remember the routinely scheduled electricity shut offs, the weekly delivery of clean filtered water to homes and the evening trips to the market for fresh produce to cook exactly what was needed for dinner that night. As I grew older, I began to understand that the importance of reducing wastage in our home stemmed from my parents’ upbringing in a country that was forced to reduce wastage. There was no choice. Reduce, reuse and recycle wasn’t a marketing slogan - these concepts were ingrained in their way of life.
It wasn’t until I became a parent that I realized how wasteful we are in the USA. We certainly have a culture of excess compared to other regions of the world. But Mother Nature is asking us to be more resourceful now. There is no choice. If we want a healthy future for our children, it requires us to reshape the way we see the world. The good news is that there are some simple, practical ways to get this fresh start.
I first started changing habits more than a decade ago when I became more aware of the environmental impact of plastic. Once I had kids, I became increasingly aware of issues related to their health and safety. I started to change my habits with even greater intention. Most recently, upon learning about the negative health implications of plastic, I rehauled the heart of our home: the kitchen.
Kicking off our Fresh Start to 2021, I wanted to share with you 5 ways to decrease wastage in your kitchen.
1. JUST ADD WATER HOUSEHOLD CLEANERS
Necessity is the mother of all invention. Enter the world of the environmentally friendly dehydrated household cleaners. The average American home will go through 30 single use plastic bottles in a year. One of my favorite brands and leaders in the clean product space (and a big inspiration for small brands like ourselves) just launched their refillable Clean Vibes kit. The Honest Company now offers pods with natural ingredients that dissolve in water to be used in the same single bottle. Founder Jessica Alba stood with Dr. Leo Trasande (one of our Ahimsa Experts!) to join the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families Coalition on Capitol Hill in 2011 and in 2016 - in support of the Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act, which was signed into law. Thanks to these leaders - the movement of healthier and safer living for our families was further ignited. We should all feel empowered as parents to stay informed and advocate for our kids with our purchasing power and our voices to legislators.
2. SWAP KIDS’ PLASTIC DISHES WITH STAINLESS STEEL
With the growing evidence of chemicals like bisphenols, phthalates and melamine being harmful to human health, we should pay closer attention to the materials in our homes. While it’s almost impossible to avoid plastic in all aspects of our lives, there are a few key places to replace it - the most obvious one for us is at the dining table. Instead of having a mountain of kids' dishes that are constantly replaced, invest in safe materials recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics like glass or stainless steel. We prefer steel of course as children like to test gravity. It seems gravity always wins.
By having fewer items that are durable (steel wins against gravity in terms of breakage) and lasts for generations, you are decluttering your cabinets AND saving landfills from storing your discarded items. Remember that less than 10% of plastic is recycled so most of what you think is being recycled is ending up in a landfill or in oceans as macro or microplastics. And while plastic does last (it takes more than 400 years to breakdown), we should invest in things that will last in our home for generations, not in a landfill for centuries. Our children eat and drink from the same stainless steel dishes that I did when they visit their grandparents! Just ask any of your Indian friends and they will likely share a similar story.
3. SWAP PLASTIC TUPPERWARE AND ZIPLOCK BAGS FOR GLASS AND STAINLESS STEEL
I used to have so many containers and missing lids. They probably are with all those single socks - the mystery land where items go and never return - at least they are not lonely. And did you know those plastic sandwich and grocery bags are not recyclable at most community centers? Once I learned about the overwhelming footprint of plastic on our planet and our health, I invested in some key glass and steel storage containers instead. Not a mountain, just a few. Now my cabinets and drawers can breathe. I also feel better about decreasing my family’s exposure to plastic and contributing in some small way to decreasing plastic production one day.
4. BUY GROCERIES BASED ON MEAL PLANS
This was a game changing strategy that helped decrease spoiled food, too many leftovers and stress - it is so nice to have a plan and ingredients as mealtime approaches and family members get hangry. By buying exactly what I needed for the meals I knew I was cooking, I was able to save money and save food from being thrown away. Now we typically don’t have leftovers but if we do, it’s pretty minimal and so my few quality containers are all I need. We also started composting which is MUCH easier than you think. You don’t have to live in Denver, I promise. Although my friends from medical school who now live in Denver did introduce me to it - so I guess all roads point back to Denver. I'll discuss this in a future post- but it’s a great way to take your food scraps and convert them into nutrients your garden needs later in the year.
5. DITCH THE TEFLON AND PLASTIC COOKWARE:
Teflon. Much like plastic, the overwhelming evidence is that it is harmful to human health. So, ditch it and invest in stainless steel or cast iron. For my kitchen, I just started on one side and worked my way through the drawers and cabinets. Why in the world do I have 10 plastic spatulas and 4 frying pans? Well, because they came in that gift set and also in that second set, etc. Unless you are cooking and serving for an entire sports team on a daily basis, most kitchens need only 1-2 of each item. I made myself reassess what pots, pans and utensils we actually used and replaced plastic and teflon ones with quality items made of safe materials. Turns out you can really just buy less stuff and keep it forever (and actually use it consistently).
The natural next question may be - what is the eco friendly way to get rid of toxic substances like teflon and plastic? While I typically donate everything, I didn’t feel great about donating something that I thought was toxic to human health. You can call a metal scrap yard and they can remove the teflon coating from pans to recycle metal as usual (stainless steel is the most recycled material in the world). If you are unable to find a metal scrap yard, you can use services like the Kitchen Separation Zero Waste Box from TerraCycle - a social enterprise eliminating the idea of waste. They actually specialize in repurposing hard to recycle materials to prevent them from going to landfills.
You don't need to do all of these things at once. I've been making small changes over a decade. I've learned that with each small change, my eyes are opened even wider to other ways I can contribute positively to human health and the environment. I will continue to learn and much like we do for our patients in the hospital, make evidence based decisions for our family in our own home. Now, if anyone has a non-plastic option to carry around some crushed red-pepper in my purse ... I'm all ears.
Cheers to a fresh start!