Across America, the average family’s pantry looks something like this, though maybe not as neat and tidy. (Photo above is by Flickr user Mullica) Shelves and cabinets are crammed full of cans and boxes of prepared and quick-cooking food. Canned soup, jars of pasta sauce, boxes of macaroni and cheese, peanut butter, mayonnaise, salad dressing and others are all designed to make getting dinner on the table a little easier but, as with everything, there is a trade-off.
Cans and jars are heavy. It takes a lot of energy to truck containers of food across the country, not to mention the energy expended in the factories that make it.
Cans contain BPA! If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably an eco-minded person who has heard of the dangers of the endocrine disrupting chemical BPA and are aware that it is found in many plastics. It is also in the lining of most cans. One study found it in over 90% of canned food it tested! People who consume canned food have been found to have elevated levels of BPA. While some companies are starting to eliminate BPA from some products, it’s still found in the can linings of most products.
Packaged food contains unnecessary ingredients. Packaged food often has added stabilizers and preservatives so the food stays “fresh” sitting on your pantry shelf for months or years. Often there are artificial or natural flavors added as well as salt, sweeteners and coloring that you probably don’t need to be ingesting. The photo above shows the ingredients for light mayonnaise.
The thing about those packages of food you may be storing is that many are actually quick and easy to make yourself and you probably already have most everything you need to do so. As well as being good for the environment, making these products yourself will often cost less money. Here are a few things that I’ve started making myself to inspire you.
Peanut Butter. Did you know you can make it at home with only peanuts and a food processor? Here’s a great tutorial with pictures. It’s easy and so yummyÂ and my family doesn’t miss the added sugar and salt at all. Several grocery stores in my area have nut grinders where you can purchase peanuts freshly ground into peanut butter. If this is available in your area, it’s a convenient alternative to making it at home.
Salad Dressing. I don’t know when I last bought salad dressing. Most of the time I simply drizzle olive oil and vinegar onto my salad. A step up from that simple dressing is to mince some garlic and onions, toss in a few pinches of herbs of your choice, maybe a little spoonful of dijon mustard and let it sit so the flavors meld while you make the rest of your meal. Easy, delicious and you know exactly what’s in it. My family’s not to keen on creamy dressings like ranch but even that is simple to make with a little planning. Here’s a recipe that looks good.
Pasta Sauce. Okay so sometimes I ‘cheat’ and start with canned or boxed tomatoes but making your own sauce is so simple. When tomatoes are in season make a bunch of fresh sauce and can or freeze it for use all year! Saute onions and garlic, add some tomatoes and a drizzle of olive oil and you have a delicious, simple sauce. Add in seasonal veggies or local, free-range meat and you’ll have a hearty dinner with a low carbon footprint.
Macaroni and Cheese: My almost-5-year-old would survive on this comfort food alone if I let her. I recently ditched the box and started whipping up my own simple sauce. My daughter declares it “yummier than the store” and all it takes is a little butter and flour, milk and cheese. I basically make a roux, add milk to the desired consistency and mix in a generous amount of grated cheese. You can do this while the pasta cooks, making it just as quick as the boxed meal. This is my technique:
- Melt a tablespoon or 2 of butter in a saucepan.
- Whisk in an equal amount of flour. It will be thick and clumpy. This is ok.
- Slowly add about a cup of milk while you whisk to incorporate the flour mixture. It should look smooth and creamy now. Let it simmer for a few minutes. Add more milk if it seems too thick, let it simmer a little longer if it’s thin.
- Stir in as much grated cheese as you want. Season with salt and pepper and pour over cooked pasta. (I like to add paprika too but that’s not terribly kid-friendly.)
If your confidence in the kitchen needs a boost, start with a good basic cookbook like this one. You’ll soon be on your way to making your own pantry staples like barbecue sauce, refried beans, soups, sauces and dressings. Start with something you use often and try making it yourself.
What pantry item do you often make yourself? Is there something you’re inspired to try making from scratch? How do you think a DIY pantry would impact your eating?