Less is more: bringing back quality and simplicity to our kitchens (and our lives)
Our kitchen is the centrepiece of our life. We spend a lot of time there, preparing and eating the food that nourishes us, so we want it to be a pleasant & healthy space to hang out in. But caught up in an endless pattern of too much to do and too little time we swoop on the latest appliance or gadget that promises to do amazing things with the utmost ease in next to no time. And before too long our kitchens become cluttered with a bunch of stuff that we mostly don’t need, exposes us to toxic chemicals, might last five or so years and will ultimately end up in landfill.
We lap up the latest technologies, comforts and conveniences as quickly as they appear on the store shelves, but in our pursuit of quantity we’ve lost sight of quality and simplicity. Sadly, it seems these have no place in modern life. Appliances today are designed for disposal and it is increasingly difficult to get them repaired. And as we gradually stock our kitchens with new-fangled ‘time-saving’ appliances, one for every imaginable task under the sun, do you notice how we don’t ever seem to end up with more time, but rather just feel more overwhelmed and less fulfilled than ever?
The world is facing a waste crisis, our oceans are facing a plastic crisis and we are facing a health crisis and it’s only going to get worse unless we start to shift our mindset and the way we live. While I’ve only been on my anti-plastic rampage for the last 18 months, I’ve lived chemical-free and with a mantra of quality over quantity most of my life. I don’t have a bread-maker or a rice cooker or an electric fry pan. Hell I don’t even have a dishwasher or a microwave. No I’m not a weirdo. I just don’t need (or want) them. It’s time we bring back quality and simplicity to our kitchens, reconnect with what really matters and give our food preparation the time and honour it deserves. Because how we make our food is a reflection of how we treat ourselves (and our planet).
Our over-consumption problem
Recently, scrolling through an online catalogue for a major retailer of electrical appliances, I counted around 20 small kitchen appliances that a) I don’t own b) I don’t want c) I don’t need and d) nobody needs. Yet loads of people obviously buy them otherwise they wouldn’t be for sale. While I’d heard of the more common ones like bread-makers I was surprised at the extent to which manufacturers have gone in the name of selling ‘convenience’. It’s all about having everything we could ever want at our fingertips. And I guess about making our kitchens foolproof, so even if you can’t cook, you can. There are pie makers, pancake makers, waffle makers, waffle ice cream cone makers, ice cream makers, ice makers, deep fryers, air fryers, multi-cookers, slow-cookers, thermo-cookers, steamers and poachers (and more). I don’t know about you but I can make virtually all of these things using pots, pans, an oven and a freezer (unless you’re in the ice cream business I’m not sure why you’d need to make ice cream cones!). And it’s actually kind of scary that so many people buy these things. We really have fallen prey to these brands and their advertising. Victims of their marketing spin we genuinely believe their products will be useful in our lives. And they have us where we are at our most vulnerable — our compulsive need to do it all, do it perfectly and do it in minimal time. But we need to wake up to the reality of this situation and take back control — over our minds, our spending and our health.
Quality + simplicity — less is more
So maybe it’s time to declutter (and detox) your kitchen, free yourself from the ‘convenience’ crap and focus on simpler and better quality items that will make your life more fulfilling and GENUINELY easier. A Conscious Waste kitchen is about quality v quantity and less is more — with a focus on plastic-free, single material, clean & simple construction, durable and repairable.
According to a recent report on the life expectancy of household appliances most mid-range small kitchen appliances will last 4–5 years. This means that over the course of their adult life people in the western world can expect to go through around 12–15 toasters + 12–15 kettles, etc. Then multiply this by the millions (if not billions) of people who buy these appliances. When you think of it in this way it’s kind of crazy.
A great place to start is to take a few minutes to go through your kitchen cupboards and do a quick ‘appliance audit’, i.e. make a note of the appliances you have and how often you use them, and also how well they fulfill their intended purpose. If there are any you don’t use at least once a month then it may be time to consider getting rid of them. If they still work you can sell them or give them away rather than throwing them in the bin. If they don’t work and can’t be repaired then check with your local Council as many have recycling services for appliances.
Some great appliances I recommend for a ‘conscious waste’ kitchen:
- Stove-top kettle — we have a stove-top kettle that is 100% stainless steel. This means it is 100% recyclable at the end of its life as well as being 100% toxic-free. Most electric kettles (even the stainless steel ones) include plastic components inside them i.e. which are in contact with the boiling water. Even if plastic is claimed to be ‘food safe’ I’ve always been adamant that plastic + hot temperatures are not a good combination.
- Stainless steel stove-top espresso maker — these come in different sizes and ours is 100% metal and therefore entirely recyclable. They make great coffee but best if you only drink espresso (i.e. no milk).
- Electric espresso machine (pod-less of course!) — if good coffee (including frothed milk) is important to you then one of these could be a worthwhile purchase, but steer clear of the ones with disposable pods (even recyclable pods). If you do have a pod machine, rather than getting rid of it, get some reusable pods to replace the disposable ones.
- Tea pot and tea ball — these are must-haves if you want to avoid tea bags (which are single-use and contain plastic).
- Repairable toaster — unlike most appliances out there this one is designed to last a lifetime. Yes we paid a bit more ($300-$400) but I prefer to have less appliances that are better quality (and nicer looking) rather than a cupboard full of rubbish ones. It is almost plastic-free but its eco-friendly features include replaceable elements and the ability to select how many slices you want to toast (e.g. if you select one slice the other two elements won’t heat up). Dualit and KitchenAid are two brands I’ve come across that make these types of toasters but there may be others.
- Stove-top sandwich press — after searching for years for a sandwich press that wasn’t made with Teflon I was ecstatic when I came across this one. Chasseur makes these enamelled cast iron ones that are designed for stove-top use. How does it work? You heat up the entire thing first with nothing in it, then put the sandwich in and voila! Toasted sandwich. But wait, there’s more: it can also be used as a grill! Simple, plastic-free, cord-free, toxic-free, great quality and multiple uses!
- Quality food processor — I’ve never owned one of these but I am always coming across recipes that call for one, so a top-quality and preferably plastic-free food processor is high on my list.
- Sodastream — this is another item on my wishlist. It’s not absolutely essential but I want to stop buying soda water, tonic water, etc. in small bottles (even though they’re glass and we don’t go through a lot of them), and this is a great waste-free way to make your own fizzy drinks.
Appliances I DON’T recommend for a ‘conscious waste’ kitchen:
- Anything that does something you can do via conventional means, e.g. you can make pancakes in a frypan, bread and pies in the oven, ice and ice cream in the freezer. You can cook/steam/poach (rice, vegetables, eggs, whatever) on the stove, and a French oven (large enamelled cast-iron pot) makes a great slow-cooker.
- Anything with non-stick components, or with lots of plastic parts — non-stick coatings are toxic (read more on that below) and plastic eventually breaks.
- Microwave oven — there is evidence that microwave ovens are harmful to our food and therefore us. Plus they have a relatively short life (8 years).
- Dishwasher — we use less water washing dishes the conventional way (admittedly we are very conservative with water — we only fill the sink ¼ — but we’re washing dishes not bathing a baby so does it really need to be full?) + it doesn’t really take that long. I grew up in a family of four, no dishwasher, yet we managed just fine. Dishwashers also have an average life expectancy of 8 years.
Cookware and bakeware:
I’m happy to say I’ve NEVER owned any non-stick cookware or bakeware. They just don’t go the distance + they contain toxic chemicals that you really don’t want near your food! PTFE (e.g. Teflon) is a non-stick coating used on many items of cookware and bakeware. It is made from PFOA, which belongs to a group of chemicals known as per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFASs). These are persistent and bioaccumulative chemicals, meaning they NEVER break down and their concentration increases up the food chain, at the top of which is US of course! PFOA has recently been classified as a possible carcinogen.
If you do have non-stick cookware and bakeware, restrict its use to low temperatures and avoid using metal utensils, which damage the coating (meaning a) you’re more exposed to the toxins and b) it will end up in landfill even sooner).
- Cookware — I’ve always had stainless steel cookware and it’s been great. Certain food (e.g. eggs) can stick if the heat is too high but the only thing we cook on high heat is stir-fries, for which we use a wok (ours is carbon steel but I recommend cast iron). To sear steak or other meats we mostly don’t have any problems, but we also have a cast-iron grill pan which is great for this purpose. If you follow the instructions for preparing cast-iron cookware then it will have a non-stick surface that works just as well as any Teflon coating (and you can re-do this as needed — it’s pretty simple). Cast iron and stainless steel are toxic free and will usually last a lifetime (but are 100% recyclable anyway).
- Bakeware — I have some old tinned-steel bakeware (hard to come by now as non-stick has become so prevalent) as well as stainless steel (also hard to find), silicon-coated metal (USA Pan) and enamel (Riess). We also have some Pyrex dishes that we use for both cakes/desserts and meals. Casserole dishes with a lid are a great idea as you can store leftovers in them, avoiding plastic cling-wrap. These all work fine, and as long as you grease them first (remember? Like we did in the ‘olden’ days?) you shouldn’t have a problem with food sticking.
The cooking utensils I’ve acquired over the years are mostly either stainless steel (100% recyclable) or wood/bamboo (100% biodegradable). The steel ones are made entirely of stainless steel — no plastic bits and completely seamless so there are no joins containing toxic glues and where food can build up & breed gross things.
That 2nd drawer in your kitchen is another great place to do an ‘audit’ — to see how many random utensils and gadgets you have that you never use and simply don’t need.
This is pretty much all we have in the way of kitchen ‘gadgets’:
- Rolling pin
- Cake server
- Pastry cutter
- Garlic press
- Corkscrew & bottle opener
- Can opener
- Vegetable peeler
So you might be wondering what are the most eco-friendly food storage options, for both fridge and pantry.
We buy virtually all our dried food in bulk and find the best way to store it is in airtight glass jars like these. These have replaceable rubber gaskets and are mostly recyclable (if you separate the glass, metal and gasket).
We still use some plastic storage containers as they are handy for certain things like carrying snacks or storing leftovers in the fridge and freezer. We also have some stainless steel containers that are good for these things too, and will last a lot longer than plastic.
It’s been decades since I’ve used plastic cling wrap as I never really saw the need for it. I’ve always stored leftover food in reusable containers (using glass jars for smellier things like onion).
But these days there is no excuse for using it! Some great alternatives are beeswax wraps, silicone wraps (like the ones by Agreena) as well as Stasher self-sealing silicone storage bags which are airtight and come in different sizes.
Some tips for quitting your over-consumption habit…
So before you run out to buy a Thermomix or whatever is the latest and greatest appliance or gadget on the market, here are a few tips:
- Ask yourself if you REALLY need it.
- List the features you need/want and don’t be tempted to get extra bells & whistles as these just create more things that can go wrong.
- Look for the simplest design available and avoid composite materials as much as possible as this reduces recyclability. Look for single materials or items that can be separated into their constituent materials for recycling at the end of their life.
- Avoid plastic components as much as possible. Choose metal or glass over plastic as they are more durable and metal is easier to recycle than other materials.
- Avoid products with non-stick surfaces.
- Do your research and read reviews to find the best quality and most reliable brands.
Food is such an important part of our lives and it is not just what we eat but how we prepare it that determines how well it nourishes our body. So isn’t it time we quit our over-consumption habit, declutter the toxic crap, get in touch with what is really important and meaningful, and bring back the quality and simplicity to our kitchens, our food and our lives?
If you need some help getting off the over-consumption treadmill check out this brilliant video from The Story of Stuff about how our (screwed-up) economic system works.