grocery
So. Many. Tomatoes.

Grocery Shopping Advice From The Guy Who Devised The 100-Mile Diet

Sure, you’ve patronized your local farmer’s market and maybe even read the little placards at Whole Foods that tell you where the broccoli’s from, but only eating food from within a 100-mile radius of your dinner table? That’s practically un-American. So it makes sense that James MacKinnon, co-author of The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating, is Canadian.

MacKinnon doesn’t want to turn you into some sort of vegan communist, but he has some practical advice for how to shrink your family’s food-related carbon footprint. The upside isn’t just environmental — it can expand your kid’s palate and teach them a thing or 2 about how the local economy works. They might even [shudder] develop an appreciation for a healthier diet. Here’s where to start.

Start With One Thing
“You don’t have to go all or nothing,” says MacKinnon. “It doesn’t have to be some kind of hairshirt environmentalist project.” If you don’t live near a single peanut, but losing peanut butter would spark a kid mutiny in the kitchen, then keep buying peanut butter at the grocery store. Duh.

MacKinnon suggests figuring out what your region is known for producing and committing to buying that one thing locally for a year. And if you’re having trouble figuring out what that one thing is, there’s an easy solve: “Apples are an example of a product that’s easy to eat local. Almost anywhere you go in North America, you can buy local apples.”

Apples are a great idea, since you know tons of useless facts about them already. Another option, for those who just want to get this process over with quickly? Buy a whole damn cow.

Don’t Just Buy Locally, Shop Locally
Once you’ve committed to that local ingredient, take advantage of all the ways you can procure it beyond the farmer’s market. Make a weekend activity out of visiting different farms where it’s grown or caught or slaughtered. This has a few benefits. First, it will be nearly impossible to get out of those places without picking up some other local ingredients (bonus points!).

Second, says MacKinnon, this teaches kids that “food actually comes from real places, and from the hands of real people, rather than appearing mysteriously in the grocery store in colorful packaging. Shopping this way lets kids in on the story of food.” Plus, everyone knows fishmongers are just hilarious people to hang out with.

Open A Stuck Palate Through Food Gathering
If your kid refuses to eat so much as an unusually shaped pasta, you might want to try involving them in the food-gathering process. “When my niece was 10 years old, I took her foraging for wild garlic,” MacKinnon says. “She tried it out in the field, then we took it home and ate it in a sandwich with cheese. When her mom came to pick her up, she was so surprised — my niece had previously refused to eat garlic. But the process of foraging had made it important to her. There was no way in hell she wasn’t going to eat that stuff.”

If foraging is a bit too Portlandiafor you, locally sourced ingredients can still get your kids eating stuff they swear they hate. “Children often say they don’t like tomatoes until they get the chance to eat locally-grown varieties. A local farm we visited offered more than 300 varieties of tomatoes,” recalls MacKinnon. “In the grocery store, you might find four or five varieties at the very most, but in a local food system, there are literally hundreds.”

So your kid hates beefsteak, roma, and cherry tomatoes, fine. What about a purple calabash or a zapotec pleated? If they’re that much fun to say, imagine how fun they are to eat!

Reverse Your Cooking Process
“Most people today crack a recipe book and then go out and get the ingredients you need to make that recipe. In local eating, that pattern is reversed — you get what’s available, and then come home and figure out what you can make with that,” MacKinnon explains. “This reversed process puts an emphasis on knowing how to cook things, rather than make recipes. So if you can patch together a fairly small patchwork of cooking skills, you can make something tasty with whatever’s in season.”

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This is way less complicated than it might sound if your repertoire doesn’t extend much past Saturday morning pancakes. “With local food, you only really need three or four main ingredients because the ingredients have enough flavor on their own. A pasta sauce can be just tomatoes, onions, and garlic,” MacKinnon says.

Eat With The Seasons
Local eating means seasonal eating, which also affords opportunities to teach kids about how (and when) their food grows. Plus, it makes food feel more special. When you’re eating different foods that appear with the seasons and microseasons, eating can go from functional to celebratory, MacKinnon says. “By the time the first tomatoes are available in the summer, we’re looking forward to that with deep anticipation, and by the time they’re gone, we’re kind of done with them, and we’re on to the next thing. If you stick with eating with the seasons, it makes the year a series of highlights.”

So, stop talking about September, October, November — as far as your kids are concerned, Apple Month gives way to Pumpkin Pie Season, which is followed by Turkey Time. And, while your kid will probably be thrilled to eat local snowcones all winter long, what about adults? Stop thinking in terms of fruits or vegetables, says MacKinnon: “You can make a really good spruce needle martini,” he says. “Or sorbets and gelato with douglas fir.” Mmmm … trees.

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