Sustainable Eating

By Julia Maish |

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Earth Day is an annual global observance created in 1970 to emphasize the importance of protecting our natural resources; pinpoint environmental crises; and suggest things that each of us – individually and collectively – can do to help. One big way: sustainable eating. What is that, and why does it matter?

Here’s what it isn’t: the majority of the foods we pick up on the fly in our mainstream grocery stores are mass-manufactured by big conglomerates or shipped to us from far away, genetically modified and full of chemicals, grown and transported utilizing non-renewable resources, and produced with a focus on cheapness and convenience rather than good health for ourselves, our communities, and our planet. For most of us, there is a giant disconnect between us and the food we eat, and we, and the environment, are not better for it.

But we can change that. Here are a few ways to eat sustainably:

Hit the farmers market – There’s nothing like purchasing your fruits and vegetables (and cheese and honey and pasta sauce and jam) directly from the people who produced them. You know precisely what you’re getting, and you’re supporting a vital local business. Don’t forget your reusable bags, and for bonus points, walk or bike there (that’s what baskets are for, and as a bonus, you’ll look cool doing it).

Eat what’s in season – Certain foods come around once a year – plan your menus accordingly and eat them when they’re fresh. Or, if you know you’ll crave something that won’t be in season…

Preserve your food – Want to make that fresh produce last? Take a page from your grandmother’s book and try canning – you can turn those strawberries into jam or compote and still be enjoying them next winter. Many things also respond well to dehydration, and if all else fails, you can freeze them. If you really want to cut out the middleman…

Take up gardening – Vegetables, in particular, are often easy to plant and cultivate. Tomatoes, cucumbers, spinach, lettuce, green beans, radishes, carrots, squash/zucchini, bell peppers – these are all fairly simple for even a first-time gardener, and soon you’ll have your own farm stand, if you don’t eat them all first. Don’t have a yard? All you need is a container, and there are lots of community gardens, too. There’s a reason why Chicago’s motto is urbs in horto (“city in a garden”).

Look for the “fair trade” label – If there’s something you want that can’t be grown locally (think coffee), try to confine yourself to “fair trade” products, indicating that the farmer was paid a fair price and treated humanely. Regarding coffee, there are many, MANY local coffee roasters, and you should try to hit up one of them, as a way to boost the local economy among other reasons.

Make your own – Sauces, salad dressings, seasonings, and other condiments are generally not that difficult to make. Check out a recipe or two and use your own locally sourced ingredients instead of buying industrial products at the store. And once you get your feet wet doing that…

Learn to cook – While you’re feeling healthier knowing that your diet is free of pesticides and preservatives, you might be surprised to discover that cooking your own locally sourced food is more economical, too. You might even get into the restaurant business yourself. Speaking of which…  

Dining out? Luckily for us, numerous Chicago-area restaurateurs have made it a vital part of their “farm-to-table” mission to incorporate fresh, locally grown ingredients in their cuisine, and some, like award-winning chef Rick Bayless (Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, XOCO), have formed partnerships with small Midwestern farms, which sustains them and benefits local diners at the same time. WTTW has profiled other local culinary notables who have made sustainability a priority, including Carrie Nahabedian (NAHA), Iliana Regan (Elizabeth and Kitsune), Dave Miller (Baker Miller), and Mike Pilkington (Bridgeport Coffee).

Finally, when it comes to mindful eating, check out some Chicago “sustainable” eateries that have been featured on Check, Please! over the years, including Beatrix, Bistronomic, Blackbird, Boka, The Bristol, Chicago Diner, Chilam Balam, Farmhouse, Found Kitchen and Social House, Lula Cafe, Nana, The Publican, Trattoria No. 10, Uncommon Ground, and Wood, plus a few further afield: The Cottage on Dixie (Homewood), Firefly Grill (Effingham), Inovasi (Lake Bluff), Prasino (La Grange).   

Happy Earth Day!