Sure, processed foods can save you a little time. But what you gain in convenience, you lose in money, environmental impact and maybe even health.
That’s because processed foods require more labor to convert them from their natural state to something that fits in a box, bag or tub. You’re also paying for the chemicals added to the processed food to keep them fresh. You’re paying for the packaging, too, which is totally worthless once you get it home. Indeed, $1 out of every $11 you spend at the grocery store you spend on packaging you throw away.
Speaking of that packaging, it’s probably the biggest source of trash in your home. Think about the pile of empty boxes, bags and wrapping you’re left with after you unload your groceries and put them in the refrigerator or cupboard. Plastic waste is especially egregious since many communities still don’t recycle and it doesn’t biodegrade. Instead, it turns into millions of pieces of microplastic that get in the oceans and soil and that animals mistake for food.
Here are eight processed foods that normally come wrapped in paper or plastic that you can easily make at home. They’ll be fresher, cheaper and waste-free if you skip plastic produce bags and take your own when you shop.
Yogurt couldn’t be easier to make at home. Heat a half-gallon of milk to about 180 degrees, using a candy thermometer to test the temperature. You can heat it on the stove, but I usually do it in the microwave to prevent scalding. Let it cool to 110 degrees. Put a quarter cup of the milk in a glass or small mixing bowl and add a couple of tablespoons of powdered milk if you want thicker yogurt (this step isn’t essential). Add the mixture back into the bowl. Add 2 tablespoons of yogurt and whisk into the milk. Cover the bowl with a towel. Some people then put the bowl in a warm oven. I wrap mine in a heating pad, which I set on its highest setting for a couple of hours and then turn down to low for a few hours. It will take 4-6 hours for the milk to become yogurt. You can spoon it into individual serving jars or keep it in the bowl. Use the whey that collects in the bottom of the bowl in pasta sauces, salad dressings or just stir it back into the yogurt.
Buy raw chickpeas in bulk at your grocery store or food coop. If possible, use your own reusable bag to hold the peas. At home, soak them in water to cover overnight until soft. Or simmer them for a couple of hours until soft. Drain the chickpeas, rinse under running water, then drain and toss into a food processor with 3 tablespoons olive oil, 3 tablespoons tahini, salt, pepper, a clover or two of chopped garlic and the juice from at least half a lemon. Process until smooth. Season to taste, adding more lemon, garlic or tahini as desired.
3. Shredded Cheese
Pre-shredded cheese always comes in a plastic bag or tub along with chemicals to prevent mold growth and even the dust from wood pulp which is added to prevent the cheese from clumping. Why not grate your own cheese instead? It will be fresher, cheaper and you can minimize packaging if you buy a chunk of cheese from your deli counter rather than in the dairy aisle.
4. Salad Dressing
Most salad dressing is sold in plastic bottles which are hard, if not impossible, to recycle in most communities. Yet, DIY salad dressing couldn’t be easier to make and it’s tasty, too. For a simple vinaigrette, combine 1 part olive oil to 3 parts red wine vinegar in a clean jar with a lid. Add minced red onion, a sprinkling of salt, pepper and garlic powder and 1 or 2 teaspoons of Dijon mustard. Stir vigorously until well combined. Adjust seasonings to taste. You can replace red wine vinegar with fresh lemon juice, add finely chopped basil or fiddle with it in other ways you like. For more ideas, see 7 Fantastic Salad Dressings You Should Make Today.
If you’ve never made your own mayonnaise, you’re in for a real treat. It’s fresh, flavorful and very creamy. Check out Alton Brown’s recipe, which whips together an egg yolk, salt, dry mustard, a bit of sugar, lemon juice, white wine vinegar and of course, oil. Double or triple the ingredients depending on how much you need, keeping in mind it will last just about a week in the fridge. Store it in glass jars with tightly fitting lids. And don’t miss this great Care2 post, 12 Surprising Uses for Mayonnaise.
I find most processed ketchup contains way too much sugar. You can dial the sweetness down and turn up the spices and flavor if you make your own. You can make it from canned tomatoes, but to skip the packaging, use fresh plum tomatoes you get at the grocery store or farmers market. Peel, seed and dice the tomatoes, add a tablespoon or so of minced red onion, a tablespoon or so of apple cider vinegar, minced garlic and hot sauce if you want some spice. Process in a food processor. If it’s not as thick as you’d like, simmer it on low until some of the liquid evaporates. You can also play with spices like ground ginger, cinnamon, honey and cloves. The beauty of making it yourself is that you can make it exactly the way you like it. Don’t be afraid to experiment.
Why buy this in plastic tubs when it’s so much better made fresh? Chop fresh tomatoes into a small dice until you have about two cups. Add around a quarter cup chopped red onion and a smattering of diced green peppers or cucumbers if you want more veggies. Flavor with lime juice, chopped cilantro leaves, a teaspoon or so of ground cumin, a couple of cloves of garlic minced and something hot—Sriracha, Tabasco, chili pepper flakes or chopped chili peppers. Add the heat incrementally so you don’t overdo it.
Most juice comes in plastic throwaway bottles or jugs. You can make your own orange, tangerine and grapefruit juice simply by cutting the fruit in half and using a hand juicer to press out the liquid. For vegetable juices and apple or pear juice, you’ll probably need an actual juicing machine (most food processors will simply puree the fruit or veggies, not juice them). But if you drink a lot of juice, it might be worth the investment to buy an electric juicer.
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