Pondering plastic free, the cause of clutter, and a recycled top tip. 

I know I use too much plastic, and the more I hear about the damage plastic does to the environment the more I worry about how much I use. But it’s so hard to avoid. And so easy to slip up. So I decided to sign up to Plastic Free July

I knew when I signed up that completely avoiding plastic would not be possible, not least because I didn’t sign up until July had already started and my fridge was already full of plastic wrapped food. So my aim is not to avoid plastic completely, but to be far more aware of it and identify the single use plastics I can easily avoid and those I’m going to have to work harder at. 

It didn’t start well. In hindsight starting on the day I returned to work after several weeks off sick and had to get my son to his work experience was not the best plan. Neither me nor my son are good with changes to our routines or mornings! There I was congratulating myself on remembering reusable shopping bags when I realised I’d just filled the reusable shopping bags with prepackaged lunches covered in single use plastic. Oops! I’d failed on the first day!

But these days I don’t give up that easily. Today I took homemade lunch to work, in a reusable box; remembered my water bottle as well as my shopping bags; and chose to sit in and have a cuppa in a proper cup rather than get a take away. Several lots of single use plastic avoided. I’ll build from here.

I’m hoping avoiding plastic will also help me avoid clutter. I’m trying to purge my house of clutter, which is a very gradual process, and in doing so I’ve realised something really important:

The most important part of decluttering is not deciding how to get rid of the clutter, developing organisational methods to rearrange clutter, or reading lots of online decluttering advice. The most important part of decluttering is STOP BUYING MORE CLUTTER! It doesn’t matter how prettily you organise it, if you have more stuff than you need you’ll end up with mess, stress and expense. 

I am both an impulse shopper and a hoarder. I love a bargain, and I hate to get rid of anything that might one day be useful. Hence the amount of clutter grows and grows. Its a habit I need to break, especially as my recent reduction in work hours means that our already tight budget is getting ever tighter. 

And I’ve found a way to stop myself spending that’s working for me (so far!)

It’s a variation on thesecretblogofa30yearsee‘s BIGGEST tip on saying NO. Deceptively simple and incredibly effective. She gives the tip about saying no to unhealthy food: 

Get yourself a notebook and pen, throughout the day every single time to resist something naughty, write it down… Then at the end of the day add up the syns you said no to, you will be amazed at what that number on the bottom of the page says. 

Read the whole blog post here

I tried it with food and it works. And then I expanded it and found it works for saying no to buying stuff I don’t need too. 

Take today. I had an hour to kill in town before I collected my son, so I wandered round the shops and went for a cuppa. There are so many sales on at the moment, and so much lovely stuff at bargain prices. 

I saw a gorgeous lamp, less than half price (still over £30!) And I said No to myself. 

I saw the whole of the range of one my favourite, treat myself, can’t afford it full price toiletries was at least half price and the perfume 66% off! Last time this happened I spent more than £50 stocking up. And I said No to myself. 

I mooched around T K Maxx where I can always find multiple things I could buy, but I knew I didn’t really need any of them. And I said No to myself. 

Total non essential things bought : cuppa and scone £5 (no single use plastic)

Total non essential things NOT bought: at least £100 (and a lot of clutter)

I think this works because generally we remember our failures rather than our successes. We remember we ate the one chocolate bar, but forget all the cookies we said no to. I could quite easily beat myself up for “wasting” £5, and never remember how much more I could have wasted. I see all the clutter that is in the house, and forget how hard I’m working to stop more being added. Writing it down and quantifying it makes it more concrete, and you can see that really you’re doing quite well, even if it doesn’t feel like it. I find that helps me a lot.

Now if I could just persuade the rest of my family not to add to the clutter we might get somewhere! 

Book Review: Unprocessed by Megan Kimble

Megan Kimble was a twenty-six-year-old living in a small apartment without even a garden plot to her name. But she knew that she cared about where her food came from, how it was made, and what it did to her body — so she decided to go an entire year without eating processed foods

Unprocessed: My city-dwelling year of reclaiming real food by Megan Kimble (from back cover blurb)

It has taken me too long to read this book. That’s not down to the book at all, it’s well written, and informative without being dry or excessively technical. I started reading it a few months ago before my current bout of anxiety and depression. 

One of the first indications I’m getting ill is when I struggle to read. In general I’m a real bookworm, flying through book after book. But when I’m ill I struggle to concentrate for a paragraph let alone a chapter. Reading just becomes impossible.  

Contrawise it’s a good sign I’m on the road to recovery when I feel like reading again. Last week I read two pages. Over the weekend I read six pages. Yesterday I sat down and read the two and a half remaining chapters and finished the book. The return of my concentration is hopefully a good indicator that I’m on the mend. 

I spotted this book in the wonderful Quaker Centre Bookshop last time I was in London. It leapt out at me. I’ve been worrying about the amount of processed food my family eats for some time, both in terms of its impact on our bodies and in terms of the environmental impact of its production. Yet it seems impossible to avoid. Then here was someone who had avoided it, for a full twelve months, I could read about her experience, and possibly pick up some tips. I had to buy it. 

I enjoyed it from the start. It’s clearly well researched and referenced, without the level of excruciatingly complicated scientific detail which puts casual readers like me off. The style is chatty and cheerful. While I try and avoid processed food by avidly studying labels Megan Kimble actually visits food producers, from massive industrial dairies to small breweries and distilleries. She finds out more about how labels can mislead us than I’d ever have known without her. 

I hadn’t started the book with the intention to dramatically change the way I eat. One of the things Megan demonstrates is how much work an unprocessed diet is. I knew that for me completely cutting out processed food wouldnt be practical. But it did get me thinking differently. 

Some of Megan’s conclusions shocked me. Considering dairy for example:

I try to consume less, but better. By better, I mean whole — I eat eggs with all their yolks, milk with all its fat, cheese with all its curd. Not only do fat molecules help your body to absorb the nutrients in mill, but also fat is delicious. Fat fills you up, so its easier to eat less of it. 

Unprocessed: My city-dwelling year of reclaiming real food by Megan Kimble

 This is so counter to everything I’ve been told about low fat that it seems positively revolutionary. And I don’t know if I could do it. I’ve never had whole milk, unless they gave me whole milk at school in the 1970s (until it was notoriously snatched by Thatcher.) Its been semi-skimmed or skimmed all my life. Maybe I should give it a try?

In other areas her experiments in processing he food herself led her to realise why communities and eventually big corporations developed, as the time and effort taken to produce food was better spent when sharing roles. But the soullessness of these massive corporations is evident, churning out bland additive-filled food, caring for their own profits over their customers health, causing damage to the environment and seeing animals as commodities rather than living creatures. There are lots of good reasons to avoid processed food.

One of the compelling reasons for Megan, which she quotes more than once in the book, is the realisation that we as consumers have power, and can make changes. In the UK free-range eggs and various Fair Trade products are now generally available, all due to customer pressure. 

For me, living in the north east, one of the most deprived areas of the country, the argument about investment in the local economy also resonated. If I spend £100 on food at one of the big supermarkets most of that money will leave the region, going instead to shareholders and parent corporations. If I buy locally produced food with that £100 much more of it stays in the region, supporting the local economy. 

Unprocessed food is more expensive though, and we all have to decide where we spend our money. Whether its £5 or £50 it will make a difference. I try to buy organic and unprocessed, but its a fine balancing act between what I want and what I can afford. I often have to compromise.

If I had to have a negative, and its a very unimportant negative, the book was very much embedded in the American systems of agriculture and processing. This is only natural, it’s where it was written and the audience it was initially written for. But it let me wondering whether things are the same here, and how I would find out. And she just did food, a mammoth task in itself, but what about the chemicals we have around us all the time? Toiletries, cleaning products, plastic. I had unanswered questions. However I think inspiring me to look further into something is the mark of a good book, not of the author missing something out. 
All in all a good read, and one I’d recommend. 

You can visit Megan Kimble’s website to find out more about her year unprocessed. 

That’s what apples look like! #NewcastleCan

My teenage daughter is looking suspiciously at the fruit bowl. I blame myself for this. 

It’s not that she doesn’t eat fruit. It’s that the fruit she’s used to is generally supermarket bought; uniform, highly-shined fruit, available all year whatever the weather. 

A couple of years ago I read Swallow This: Serving Up The Food Industry’s Darkest Secrets, by Joanna Blythman* and learned about some of the processes that happen to supermarket fruit to keep it shiny and fresh looking. I was horrified. I thought I was feeding my kids healthy fresh fruit, but it turns out its covered in chemicals the shops don’t need to declare because what they’re doing to the fruit counts as a process not an ingredient. 

There seems to be so much to worry about when buying food anyway, excess packaging, food waste, air miles, palm oil, E numbers, fats, sugar, carbohydrates, cholesterol… It’s all too much to take in – so I just filed the information away in my brain and kept buying the fruit. Because some fruit is better than none, and they wouldn’t be allowed to use anything dangerous, would they? 

I’m currently reading Unprocessed: My City Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food, by Megan Kimble* and it’s got me thinking about the issue of processed food all over again. In trying to get healthier for the Newcastle Can challenge I’ve been trying to cook more meals from scratch, less take always, less frozen chips, more fruit and veg. But if the fruit and veg I’m buying from the supermarket has already been sprayed with pesticides, shined with wax, and coated with chemicals to make it last longer is it still healthy? 

I don’t think I could completely avoid processed foods but I would like to avoid more of them. I think there’s a connection between the increase in obesity and the rise in power of the food industry. I’m no dietician or nutritionalist, I’m just a very confused ordinary person who wants to do better. But where do I start? 

In the introduction to Unprocessed Megan Kimble describes how a simple suggestion made her see things in a totally different way: “Spend money better.” Her example uses American dollars, but I imagine it would be similar in the UK. 

“If a community the size of Tuscon shifted 10 percent of its spending to local businesses – a 10 percent shift, not an increase – within one year, we would create almost $140 million revenue for the city. What this also means, I realise, is that we would withhold that $140 million from the balance sheets of those corporations that then use our money to influence government policy, to grow unsustainable food, to waste energy – and to process and sell us foods that aren’t good for us. 

This came as a revelation to me too. I mean, I knew buying local was a good thing. I try to support small local businesses rather than big chains when I’m treating myself to cake and coffee, going out for a meal or buying gifts, but it had never occurred to me to do the same for my food shopping. The supermarket is just where you buy your food, it has been all my life (although, at the risk of sounding like a grumpy old woman, the supermarkets when I was little were very different from the massive 24 hour stores I’m used to now).

For a while in the late 90s/early 00s I got organic veg delivered. But my budget was tight and organic food started being available much more commonly in the supermarkets, so I stopped. As money got tighter I started only buying organic for the things we eat raw, and gradually only buying organic if it was reduced to clear.

I like to think of myself as frugal rather than penny-pinching, careful rather than tight-fisted. I like a bargain, who doesn’t? As prices have been going up much faster than wages for quite a while I need to watch what I spend, as do most people. 

But I want to put my money where my mouth is. I don’t want to just whinge and worry about processed food, excess packaging, sustainability, air miles and the rest. I want to do something. And I think it would be great if as well as bringing the city together to get healthier the Newcastle Can project boosted the local economy! 

So I’ve signed up to a trial weekly fruit and veg scheme from North East Organic Growers. It felt really expensive, but then I’ve never paid for a full months worth of fruit and veg in one go before. And given what I’m saving on take-aways since signing up to Newcastle Can I have some spare cash.

Every week my fruit and veg is delivered to a local contact person and I collect it from there. I don’t know what I’ll be getting in advance, it’s like a lucky dip and the kids are always keen to help unpack to see what’s there. There will always be staples like onions, potatoes, carrots, apples etc. but there are other things too, things I wouldn’t necessarily pick up if I was food shopping. For example purple sprouting broccoli is something I’d heard of but never cooked with, so it’s challenging me to cook new recipes and try new things. 

Veg I recognise…

… and the odd thing I don’t.
It’s also showing my kids what real fruit and veg is like. I remember when I was little strawberries were a summer treat, waited for with anticipation, then wolfed down in abundance because they didn’t keep. To my kids strawberries are just another item on a supermarket shelf year round. Yes, I’m sounding like a grumpy old woman again, but it was different when things were special, when we didn’t all expect to have everything and have it now! 

Real fruit.

So, my teenage daughter is looking suspiciously at the fruit bowl. I blame myself for this. But I’m working on putting it right.

“Those apples look weird.”

“What’s wrong with them?”

They’re not very shiny. And that one’s got speckles.”

“That’s what apples look like! Just try one.”

She liked it.

– – – – – 

Click here for an extract from Swallow This: Serving Up The Food Industry’s Darkest Secrets, by Joanna Blythman

Click here to find out more about Unprocessed, by Megan Kimble.