Sophie Egan is one of my favorite authors. Her work has appeared in The New York Times’ Well blog, Time, The Wall Street Journal, Bon Appétit, WIRED and Sunset magazine, among others. (At Sunset, she worked on The Sunset Cookbook and The One-Block Feast books). She’s the former director of health and sustainability leadership as well as the editorial director for strategic initiatives at The Culinary Institute of America, where I had the pleasure of interacting with her.
Sophie holds a master of public health from the University of California, Berkeley, with a focus on health and social behavior, and a bachelor of arts with honors in history from Stanford University. A few years ago, she was named one of the UC Global Food Initiative’s 30 Under 30.
I interviewed Sophie after the publication of her earlier book Devoured: From Chicken Wings to Kale Smoothies – How What We Eat Defines Who We Are.
Sophie has a new book out – How to be a Conscious Eater: Making Food Choices That Are Good For You, Others, and the Planet – and she graciously provided answers to questions I posed re: food, pantry stocking and eating in the time of COVID-19.
Things have changed in significant ways the last couple of months and we’re all having to pivot. I greatly appreciate Sophie’s generosity and insights.
Q: Many of us are eating more from our pantry. With limited resources – and a limited ability to shop – what are some tips for putting together a healthy pantry?
As I describe in the book, one of the simplest guiding principles for healthy eating is to focus on “stuff that comes from the ground.” That’s not to say that healthy equals a vegan or vegetarian diet (there are lots of ways to eat a really crummy vegan or vegetarian diet!), but to aim for a “flexitarian” eating pattern over a lifetime. This is synonymous with “plant-rich,” “plant-centric,” and “plant-forward” diets—whatever you call it, the point is to make plant-based foods the bulk of the foods you eat. This recommendation is based on broad scientific consensus, and not only for our own health but for the health of the planet. Plant-rich diets are the #4 most effective solution for reversing global warming, according to Project Drawdown. How empowering is that?
So, what does this actually look like in a pantry? Legumes (beans, chickpeas, lentils, etc.), whole grains (oats, brown rice, popcorn, etc.), plant oils (canola, olive, etc.), nuts and nut butters, unsweetened dried fruit, and so on. The good news is these foods are often the most affordable. Think of a can of beans or a tub of oats or a big container of peanut butter. Also, be sure to have at least a few kinds of dried herbs and spices, to bring your dry goods to life. Because if they don’t taste good, it won’t matter how healthy they are since you won’t want to eat them. I also suggest having a few onions, garlic cloves, and shallots, again for flavor but also for health. It’s amazing how many simple, delicious meals you can start with sautéed shallot.
Second, I think of my freezer as an extension of the pantry. I’m a big fan of frozen fruits and vegetables of all kinds—they’re more affordable than fresh, and often come pre-chopped (like squash) so can be more convenient. Between a produce-packed freezer and the pantry we just visualized, you can put together endless combinations of delicious, healthy meals on a budget.
Finally, with packaged foods, aim for minimally processed as much as possible. My book has a detailed guide to reading food labels, but the key point is to zoom past the front-of-pack labels (which are mostly marketing, with some good exceptions for third-party certifications assuring more responsible social or environmental growing or production practices like Fair Trade and USDA Organic). Instead, focus on the Nutrition Facts panel and the ingredients list. Those boring, black-and-white parts are what you need to make an informed choice: just the facts.
What about tips on sell-by dates and avoiding waste?
By and large, foods can be enjoyed well past their sell-by dates. The date labels are generally markers of product quality, not food safety. Until federal legislation standardizes the unfortunately very confusing labeling scheme we have—one would be for quality, one for safety—you’re best off relying on your senses: looking for mold or using the “sniff test” for an off smell (such as with milk).
With eggs, for example, they often last well past the date listed. You can do the sink or float test: if an egg sinks to the bottom of a bowl of cold water, it’s fine to eat, if it floats, it’s not. Egg shells are semi-permeable, and when it floats it’s a sign that too much air has gotten through.
I suggest consulting the food-by-food guide at savethefood.com for tons more hacks like these. You can learn all about extending the life of perishables, how to handle items you’re unsure of in the iffy zone, and creatively using scraps.
Here are my top 5 tips for avoiding food waste, inspired by the great book by friend and colleague, Dana Gunders, Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook:
- Always use a shopping list. It sounds obvious, yet surprisingly few people use one. It’s very effective for making sure you have an intended use for every item you buy.
- Of all the things not to waste, red meat is the most important food. This is because of the especially high water and carbon footprints of meats like beef.
- Love your leftovers. This might require designating a special drawer in your fridge or a certain meal or day of the week to focus on them. I’ve heard of “Waste-Less Wednesday” or “Stir-Fry Friday,” for instance.
- Make foods visible. Again, think about how you organize your refrigerator.
- Pop it in the freezer. It’s a great way to store leftovers and extend the life of fresh foods. Two of my favorite tricks from comare to pour excess milk into ice-cube trays to thaw later in the fridge, and to store bulk bags of coffee in the freezer and dole it out in weekly batches at room temp.
Tips to cooking on the fly, at home, using substitutions creatively?
Instead of recipes, I like to think about templates for meals—basic category combinations that each have enormous flexibility depending on what you happen to have at home. One is “beans and greens.” In this “template,” you add beans + greens + a whole grain of your choice. So, you put olive oil in a pan, saute shallot or garlic, then add any type of leafy green–chard, spinach, collard greens–with any kind of bean: cannellini beans, black-eyed peas, chickpeas (bean-like if not technically beans). Top the beans and greens over crusty bread. Dinner! Or combine with pasta, or serve over brown rice or another intact whole grain like faro or buckwheat.
That one is inspired by another great book by a friend and colleague, Dr. Sandro Demaio, The Doctor’s Diet.
A second example is frittata: it’s just eggs + whatever veggies you have around – even little bits and pieces (half the leftover onion from another meal, the broccoli stems you didn’t eat last night, etc.). The third example is loaded sweet potatoes: roast sweet potatoes (any kind, though I like the purple Japanese sweet potatoes because they’re so incredibly beautiful). Then split in half, and top with whatever you have available, themed around a certain flavor profile or cuisine type—for instance, Southwestern style with sour cream, green onions, black beans, avocado.
Another tip for cooking on the fly while reducing waste: use the remnants of last night’s meal as the beginning of tomorrow’s meal, and build around that. One of my pet peeves is the large container sizes of chicken broth, for example, so during the window when that broth is in your fridge and still good but you only used 1/3 of it in last night’s dinner, think about what you can make tomorrow or the next night with chicken broth as a base.
Ideas for cooking with kids in these times?
Since we can’t travel now, use food as a way to help kids explore the world—discovering diverse cuisines and cultures all around the globe. You could pick a different country each week, for example, and as a family learn everything you can about the most popular dishes and traditions there, what crops grow well and how the cuisine has been shaped by the religious backgrounds, geopolitics, and history of that land. Traveling through taste can also help keep the whole family from getting in a cooking rut, while introducing everyone to new ingredients, flavors, and dish concepts.
Second, just have fun with it. Everyone needs levity now. Yes, we should all eat healthy and keep our immune systems thriving, but we also must feed our souls. Because what else is good for our health? Laughter. Connection. Play. Try to take the pressure off when cooking—for yourself and especially with kids. Let creativity reign supreme.
I’m thinking: Breakfast for dinner. Color-themed meals. Shape-themed meals. (Cookie cutters don’t only cut cookies!) You could even play “restaurant” at home: encourage them to draw menus and act as servers who “take your order,” etc. A co-benefit of these ideas is that they 100 percent count as educational content—from history and geography to math and science. Heroic parents all around the country can, I hope, feel proud during this crisis that feeding their families can pull double duty, both as home cooks and as homeschoolers.
What should we be eating to boost our immune system?
A few mantras go a long way:
Eat the rainbow. Meaning: eat lots of brightly colored fruits and vegetables for the important immune-protecting nutrients they provide.
Feed your gut. Meaning: support a healthy microbiome through fiber-rich foods (prebiotics) as well as fermented foods (probiotics, actual good microbes you can introduce to the microbial community you already have). Produce, again, scores big for fiber, as do whole grains and legumes.
Sleep like a baby. Be mindful of foods and beverages that can mess with your sleep, like caffeine late in the day (tea/coffee/chocolate), too much alcohol, and/or too much added sugar.
Can you discuss any connections you see between the coronavirus crisis and the climate crisis, from a food perspective? What are the top 3-5 things we can do as eaters?
Throughout the coronavirus crisis, amid so much doom and gloom, I’m doing everything I can to hunt for silver linings. There are some really fascinating connections between the coronavirus crisis and the climate crisis, but two have stood out to me: First, our interconnectedness as a global community. We are all in this together. That refrain is true now during this pandemic, and also that as a species, we share a single home. Planet Earth.
Second, how adaptable we are. How rapidly we are capable of changing daily habits. So often in my work I hear that behavior change takes years, a generation even. But when I see how quickly people all around the world, under a united goal, can overhaul our lifestyles in the name of an emergency—wash our hands, wear masks, greet each other in new ways, keep six feet apart when interacting in person, use new technologies, and so on—I’m quite heartened that we individually and collectively have the potential to shift to more climate-friendly daily habits over a very short period of time.
But we need that rallying cry. And scientists have in fact given us a deadline to avoid the worst effects of climate change: 2030. That’s just around the corner, friends. So, it’s time to call the climate crisis what it is: an emergency. It’s slower moving, yes, but in many visible ways also right at our doorsteps.
My hope would be that we can apply this communal, adaptable spirit we’ve been practicing during the coronavirus through similarly urgent, coordinated, collective action aimed at addressing climate change.
Specifically, the two most effective things we can do as eaters to reverse global warming are waste less food and enjoy plant-rich diets. In addition, we can each find ways to reduce single-use plastics and reduce packaging overall (in the book I offer 10 ideas for breaking up with plastic), and there’s one final, super important step: save our soils. When possible, choose foods grown or raised organically, regeneratively, or through other agricultural practices that support soil health. Because without healthy soil, there is no food. And without food, there is no life.