How you choose to spend your food money represents one of the most powerful votes you have
My family eats much less meat than we used to, and when we do eat it, we buy it from farms, ranches or companies we know enough about to trust. We only eat grass-fed beef, which we can buy in local markets if not directly from a rancher.
In the case of plant-based foods, we usually buy organic or local, or ideally both - I think organic fruits and vegetables taste better, and I like the idea that my food cash is supporting farmers who care about the land. We also try to shop at the farmers' market as often as possible. The food there is picked fresh so it's at the peak of its taste and nutritional quality, and every dollar goes directly to the producers.
If this all sounds a lot more trouble than buying whatever's on sale at the supermarket, you're right. It also costs a little more. But I think it's worth it. It's amazing how knowing the story behind your food can make it taste better. (Or, if it's a bad story, worse.) But I also enjoy meeting farmers at the market, and seeing how my food dollars help build a new food chain, one devoted to health at every step: to the health of the land, the health of the plants and animals, the health of my family, and the health of my community.
I call shopping and eating this way 'voting with your fork'. How you and your family choose to spend your food money represents one of the most powerful votes you have.
You can vote to support the kind of feedlot where steer no. 534 spent his miserable life, or you can vote for farms where animals have the lives they were meant to, where the land is healed in the process, and the farmers make a decent living. That kind of alternative farm was created not only by visionary farmers but by visionary consumers like you.
I've never liked to think of myself as a mere 'consumer'. The word makes it sound like someone who uses things up and diminishes the world, which very often is exactly what a consumer does. But a consumer can be a creator too, by using his or her eating choices to help build a new food system. That is a potent vote, and you get three of them every day. Perhaps best of all, when it comes to food, you don't have to wait till you're 18 to have a say. You can have one today, at your next meal.
But how exactly should you fill up your plates? Many people have asked this question so I've developed a handful of everyday rules to guide you through the new - found challenges (and possibilities) of mealtimes.
My advice comes in three parts:
Eat real food
That sounds pretty simple, but it's not so easy to do. There are many things disguised as food in our supermarkets and fast-food restaurants; I call them 'edible food-like substances' (EFLS for short) and suggest you avoid them. But how do you tell the difference between real food and EFLS?
Here are a few rules of thumb:
• Don't eat anything that your great-grandmother wouldn't recognise as food. Imagine she's by your side when you're picking up something to eat. Does she have any idea what that squeezable yogurt tube is, or how you're supposed to eat it?
• Don't eat anything with more than five ingredients, or with ingredients you don't recognise or can't pronounce. That long ingredient list means a highly processed product - an EFLS is likely to contain more sugar, salt and fat than your body needs, and very few real nutrients.
• Don't eat anything containing high-fructose corn syrup. Think about it: only corporations ever 'cook' with the stuff. Avoid it and you will automatically avoid many of the worst kinds of EFLS, including fizzy drinks.
Buy real food
To make sure you buy real food:
• Buy food from the outside perimeter of the supermarket and avoid the middle aisles.
• In the cafeteria, go for the salad bar or fruit basket, where there are still fresh plant and animal foods.
• Don't buy, or eat, anything that doesn't eventually rot. A food engineered to live forever is usually full of chemicals. Food should be alive, and that means it should eventually die.
• Shop at the farmers' market, through a box scheme or at your local farm shop.
• Get out of the supermarket, the corner shop and the petrol station, and you won't find those flashy fake foods.
• Be your own food detective.
• Pay attention to where your food comes from (were those berries picked nearby or halfway around the world?) and how it is produced (organic, grass-fed, humanely raised?). Read labels and ask questions.
Eat real meals
How you prepare and eat food is often just as important as what
you eat. So:
The best way to take control of your meals is to cook whenever you can. As soon as you start cooking, you begin to learn about ingredients, care about their quality and develop your sense of taste. You'll find that fast food becomes boring in comparison - more of the same salty, fatty and sugary taste in every microwave pizza.
The freshest, best-tasting food you can eat is from the garden. Nothing is more satisfying than to cook and eat food you have grown yourself.
Try not to eat alone
When we eat alone we eat without thinking, and we usually eat too much. Just think how mindlessly you can put away a bag of crisps or cookies in front of the television or computer. Eating should be social; food is more fun when you share it.
Eat slowly - stop when you're full
The food industry makes money by getting you to eat more than you need or want to. Just because a restaurant offers a super-sized burger meal doesn't mean you should eat it. Take back control of your portions.
Eat at the table
We snack more than we dine these days. The deepest joys of eating come when we slow down to savour our food and share it with people we love. The real meal - family and friends gathered around a table - is on the verge of extinction. For the sake of your family's health and happiness, and for your own, do what you can to save it.
Voting with your fork - how you choose to spend your food money is one of the most powerful votes you have.
Michael Pollan is the author of The Omnivore's Dilemma (2007) and contributing author to Food, Inc (2009)
Ecologist readers can buy a copy of 'Stuffed', edited by Pat Thomas and published by Alastair Sawday, for £8.99 (rrp. £14.99) plus £2.99 p&p. Visit www.sawdays.co.uk/bookshop and use the code ECOSTF2010 when adding it to your basket. Or call 01275 395431 during office hours. Offer ends August 31, 2010.
For ethical and sustainable suppliers of food and drink services check out the Ecologist Green Directory here
Robert Kenner: Big Food will do everything to stop you talking about this
Filmmaker Robert Kenner's documentary Food Inc has shocked audiences across the US with its stark portrayal of industrial agriculture. And that's just the bits the lawyers let you see...
How to decode food labels and shop with a conscience
Is it healthy? Is it organic? Is it fairly traded? How far has it travelled? At times, making informed choices can feel like a full-time job. Here is a pocket guide to buying food from the new book Stuffed
How to feed a city
We can continue to squander our resources and react to food crises as they happen, or we can fundamentally change the way the food systems work, says Carolyn Steel
Organic farming has sold out and lost its way
The dreams of the early organic pioneers have been subsumed into a rush for global supply chains, strict regulations and fast-selling brands
Food crisis 'hidden' from public say campaigners
Government is talking about issues like food security, climate change and oil dependency but failing to take the 'inconvenient' but necessary action says the Soil Association