Good Food contributing editor Joanna is an award-winning journalist who has written about food for 25 years. She is also a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4.
My charter for a brighter food future
What a year 2020 was! Last January we had no idea that the tectonic plates of our lives were about to shift and affect us all so profoundly. For the first time since World War Two, we worried for a time about finding enough food to eat. Weak points were exposed when our modern food supply system was put to the test. Anyone want to revisit that unsettling experience? Not me. Our shopping and eating habits had to change abruptly. We cooked and baked more at home. We ate out less. Now, my heartfelt wish for this year is that we’ll move forward, having learnt from our collective experience how to build more food resilience into our daily lives, fuelled by a plucky determination to retain the good features of our 2020 food experience just as surely as we ditch the bad ones.
So here are a few ideas for making 2021 brighter and better. Might my charter work for you? Inevitably, you’ll feel more persuaded by some suggestions than others. But the liberating thought here is that we need not feel flattened in the face of uncertainty. Let’s realise that, even as individuals, we still have considerable scope for shaping, and improving our daily lives. Of course, we can’t control the big picture. We aren’t in a position to dictate world events, but each of us nevertheless retains the ability to shape our food futures, albeit on a small-scale, personal level. We just need to remember that when we put our minds to it, we’re more resourceful and powerful than we might think.
1. Fight off anxiety and depression by cooking
Many people with mental health problems, even those who just have a tendency to feel down in winter, find that cooking helps lift their mood and give them a stabilising sense of control. Cooking is creative, rewarding, and mindful. It engages your thoughts and takes your mind off any negative script that’s playing on a loop in your head. It gives you a project to fill your day, a sense of purpose. Getting hands-on in the kitchen lets you enjoy the physicality of doing something with a delicious end point.
2. Cherish restaurants, cafés and pubs
Local pubs, cafés and restaurants animate our hamlets, villages, towns and city centres, where they not only create employment for kitchen and front-of-house staff, but also provide a crucial outlet for our farmers, fishermen, cheesemakers, bakers, and other food suppliers. But this sector – hospitality – has had a horrible stop-start 2020, with as many as three-quarters of businesses struggling to remain viable. If you don’t want to see their shutters go down for the last time, give them your business whenever you possibly can. And treat them with tender consideration: no last-minute cancellations, please. That could be the final blow.
3. Shop small
Local shops came up trumps in 2020. Convenience shops we’d never looked at twice sold more lines than many realised. Independent grocers, fishmongers, butchers, and bakers up and down the land fed their local communities, nimbly adapting their stock to meet our changing needs. They acted as anchors for local communities who appreciated the less frantic shopping experience. ‘How are you today?’ Little micro-conversations like this with retailers made all the difference. In 2021, improve your food shopping trips while strengthening your community by making small shops your first port of call.
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4. Seek common ground
2020 was a frustrating year of extreme, polarised debates where opposing factions shouted at each other from a distance. The omnivore versus vegan debate was a case in point. This year, if we want to be part of any progressive movement for change, it’s time to be less binary and focus our efforts on the things that most of us agree on, such as a move away from intensive factory farming to more animal welfare-friendly, and ecologically benign, regenerative agriculture. Change won’t happen overnight, but incrementally. Let’s concentrate on what unites us, not divides us.
5. Fewer 'poor me’ unhealthy treats
When things get tough our first instinct is to treat ourselves, usually with sweet food that’s bad for us. This urge is only natural. But so many of us have put on weight during lockdown that we don’t want to keep forever. In 2021 let’s move on from the knee-jerk ‘comfort’ food phase and make joyous, pleasurable, health-sustaining food the new big treat. Choose foods that are nutritious and special: dressed crab, a steak, butter that’s costlier than you’d normally buy, fragrant fresh quince, imported lychees, or chestnuts for roasting.
6. Go with the seasons
Do you feel that you’ve got into a rut with your cooking? Change that mindset overnight by embracing seasonal eating. We’ve been brainwashed by large supermarkets into thinking that choice is having every food on the planet available 365 days a year, but familiarity breeds contempt. Less choice is more choice when the natural flux of seasonal produce constantly refreshes your ideas and triggers your appetite. Seasonal food shopping even makes winter interesting! If you shop and cook to reflect the changing seasons, you won’t run out of cooking ideas.
7. Conduct your household food waste audit
One really rewarding new year’s project is to note the food and drink you’ve been wasting, and then make a plan to reduce it. Top candidates are chilled foods with unnervingly short use-by dates – salad leaves, tubs of dips, ready meals. If you’re throwing them out uneaten, stop buying them. Get satisfaction from simple ways of reinventing your ‘waste’. Collect and freeze your vegetable trimmings as you go – cauliflower stems, broccoli stalks, droopy carrots, potato peelings – then when you have enough, use them to make stock.
8. Conviviality around the table
The restrictions of 2020 reminded us just how hard it is to be separated from other people. Sharing food with friends and family is a tonic; it lifts the spirits and acts as a soothing balm when life gets tough. So in 2021, share a meal with others whenever you can. Don’t put it off. Seize the day. Light the candles. Set a welcoming table. Make long, languorous meals a top priority. Pencil in some diary dates with the people you’ve missed.
9. Experiment to open up your taste horizons
Shake up your ingrained habits and explore new food frontiers. If, for instance, you’ve only ever drunk teabag tea, try loose leaf and learn about different types: darjeeling, assam, sencha, genmaicha, and more. If you can afford to, try superior versions of your regular food. Buy some handmade local cheese instead of your big-brand staple, or sample real sourdough bread. Work your way up the chocolate cocoa solids ladder, start with chocolate that has around 45% cocoa solids, then build up from there: 60%, 70% then 80%. Who knows, you might grow to like 100%!
10. Grow some food, plant for biodiversity
Even if it’s only a couple of pots on your windowsill or balcony filled with salad leaves, herbs, tomatoes, or chillies, use this ‘dead’ time to plan your late spring and summer food growing. Figure out what you could feasibly grow, then stock up on seeds, compost, propagator trays and pots, so that you’re off to a flying start come spring. One winter project is to save and then dry out some tomato seeds that you can sow indoors from late March to early April. By actively choosing the least ubiquitous plant varieties, you’ll be doing your bit to preserve precious biodiversity.
Are you changing your food or shopping habits this year? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments box below. Or email us at email@example.com, and join our Facebook Together Group.
This article was published on January 7 2021.