When Dan Beuttner began studying blue zones (areas of the world with the highest concentrations of people 100 years old or more) he discovered similarities that he revealed in his first book on the topic in 2008. There have been several more books on the topic since then, including a giant research study designed to bring Blue Zones to America. He makes the argument that there are cultural cues to tell people what is appropriate to eat. Beuttner partners with several cities to make their communities more Blue Zone friendly from offering smaller portions in restaurants, noting heart healthy food options in grocery stores, and getting people to walk more. The communities that participated showed great improvements in purchasing healthier food and being more active. The idea of making your physical community more friendly to good lifestyle choices is pretty new. Instead of depending on your own will power and determination to be healthy it helps balance your personal resolve with a supportive community structure. i.e. you're less tempted to buy a candy bar at the grocery store checkout if there are only raw nuts and bottled water at the register.
The community I live in is amazing. Plenty of healthy food options at our grocery stores and restaurants. Multiple gyms, walking trails, and parks. But what about our own home? Yes, we have fields full of fresh produce in summer and even a hoop house with greens that serve our nutritional needs well into winter. We raise our chickens for meat and eggs, and regularly shop the farmers market. By all accounts we're doing well. But the secret of most farmers is that we're so tired from doing the physical work of planting and harvesting that we are very suseptible to making poor food choices. The emergency pack of hot dogs we keep in the freezer get eaten for lunch more often than not, and we eat more take out pizza than I'd care to admit. If the better choices are "instantly" available, meaning no one has to go through much effort to get it ready to eat, then we'll eat the best food. If the fridge is only full of ingredients but everything needs to be washed, chopped, peeled, or cooked first we'll probably take the lazy way out. So here are some things we do to make the easy choice the best one.
1) Keep bottled water in the car.
I know, I know. The earth! But there's no way I'm getting my 8 glasses a day if some of those glasses aren't in my car which is where I spend lots of time. If you feel strongly about the environmental impact then fill up half a dozen reusable water bottles instead.
2) Keep whole fruit on the counter
Fruit, except apples, should never be refrigerated. It compromises the flavor too much. I bought a lovely assortment of white ceramic fruit bowls in varying sizes and keep them full. I can make the fruit last a whole week by selecting one variety of fruit ripe enough for immediate eating and another type that isn't quite ripe. i.e. a quart of plums that's soft and a harder half peck of peaches in summer or ready to eat pears with apples in fall. Berries suffer if left too long so I only get those if we'll be able to eat them in 24 hours. This means anyone passing the kitchen island can grab our version of a fruit snack.
3) Clean and prep your food BEFORE it goes in the fridge.
At our house the fridge is often full of ingredients, all of which need to be cleaned before use. Since not everyone can go out to their high tunnel and cut greens for a dinner salad (which is awesome) having food in a state as close to ready as possible makes it easier to select better foods. When I get home from the grocery store or farmers market I rinse or clean everything before I put it away. If I get a head of lettuce I rip it up, soak it in a bowl, spin it through the salad spinner, and toss it in a container with a paper towel. No one is going through the effort of making a salad if they have to do all that first. But lettuce in a container ready to toss on a plate has a much better chance of being used...and being used before it goes bad.
4) Decant all of your foods into clear containers.
This might seem like over kill but food you can't see is the same as food you don't have. If only one person does the shopping it's unlikely the rest of the household even knows what's available. If it's all visible to everyone you can have the moment where someone opens the fridge and says, "Oh! I didn't know we had celery" and proceed to smear it with peanut butter for his or her snack. The same goes for pantry foods. If all of your nuts and dried fruits are in bags that someone has to dig through they're going to give up. If you've put your mason jars to good use then everyone can see you have almonds and dried apricots. I probably take this to the extreme as even my baking soda and eggs are in clear containers. But it looks pretty and there's never any guessing at the available options. Plus it makes putting together a grocery list a breeze.
5) Double your recipes.
If you're going through the trouble of making dinner, make two and freeze the second dinner. Sometimes this doesn't even involve doubling. i.e. I can use one pound of ground meat to make meatloaf but only cook up half. Since it's just the hubs and myself we can't get through all of the leftovers anyway. And that extra meatloaf in the freezer means there's a backup dinner that can be made any time we're too tired to cook.
6) Make your own
Most ready made food can be made healthier if you make it at home instead of buying the prepackaged version. I can go to the grocery store and buy cereal, yogurt, or nutella but I don't really need all that extra sugar in my life. I keep oatmeal, nuts, seeds, and dried fruits in the pantry always then combine them in whatever manner I'm feeling into muesli. It's a great alternative to breakfast cereal. Yogurt is expensive and usually chock full of addidtives, I bought a $20 yogurt maker on Amazon and have been making it myself ever since. You basically boil milk, add a little yogurt from a previous batch, and put it in the maker overnight. The little glass jars (are you sensing a pattern here?) are proportioned so we can just reach in the fridge and pull out a ready made snack. Nutella, you ask? Yes, I've been eating that since before it was ever advertised on tv. It's my all time favorite form of chocolate. I eat chocolate everyday and have no plans of stopping. But an emergency arose in the form a pantry empty of chocolate. What to do? I didn't feel like going out so I quick googled some recipes based on the availability of only cocoa powder. I had no milk for pudding but the knock off nutella recipes looked good. The first batch I made was way too sweet. So I made some adjustments and came up with 4 ingredient chocolate-hazelnut butter.
Grab enough hazelnuts to cover the bottom of a 12 cup food processor. Run the prosecutor until the filberts start to liquify and stick to the sides of the processor. Continue to run the motor. Add 4 tablespoons of vegetable oil. After it combines add 2 tablespoons of cocoa powder and 2 tablespoons of maple syrup. The last three ingredients will mix in fast. Shut off the machine, scrape it out with a rubber spatula, and you're ready to go. The measurements are 100% estimated and can be changed to accommodate a more chocolately batch or one that is wetter. If you need it to be sweeter use powdered sugar instead of the syrup. As a note, I've tried this with all kinds of other sweetners. Honey didn't hold up to the rest of the strong flavors and molasses tasted too strong.
7) Start a love affair with your slow cooker
It took me forever to understand the perfection that is the slow cooker. I always thought you used it to cook huge cuts of beef and then had leftovers for an army. It can successfully be used in that manner but I prefer to use it for things you wouldn't want to stand around in your kitchen all day to cook. i.e. chicken broth or steel cut oatmeal. If you set up your oatmeal the night before you look like a genius the next morning. 1 cup of steel cut oats to 4 cups of water (you'll only need 3 cups of water for regular rolled oats). I like to add a can of pureed pumpkin but I'm sure any pureed vegetable will do. The next day you have oatmeal ready to go and all it needs are your toppings. A splash of milk, some nuts, honey, and dried fruit. Don't be afraid to use the slow cooker for small batches of food. Meat balls for 4 people (or make enough for 8 and freeze the rest), 2 pork chops, or 6 chicken wings.
8) Walk whenever possible.
Our culture is car oriented. Unless you live in a city with comprehensive public transport (I'm jealous if you do) it can be hard to move around. I can spend hours in the car each day driving to work, errands, events. Ick. But whenever I go somewhere I make a point to walk if I can. I go into town every Saturday and visit either the farmers market or the grocery store. I hit the library, maybe the book shop, some clothing stores, and the popcorn shop. I park in the middle of town and walk to all these places. I frequently have to stop back at my vehicle to drop off my purchases but I don't mind. It gets me moving around in a situation where I would otherwise move my car six times, which I believe would take longer than just walking anyway. And when we go into the city (Cleveland has a miserable public transport situation) we park far away and walk. It's usually cheaper to park that way and a 15 minute walk is good exercise. Plus we miss most of the traffic upon leaving a show or game. Unless it's the Browns and then there is no escaping the gridlock.
So far these environmental habits have made it easier to make better choices and sneak in a few more vegetables everyday. Add in some walking around and I think we're well on our way to 100!