What’s for dinner? At some point in any day, I either ask myself this question or my four and eight-year-old boys ask me. It seems that although I try to meal plan, I also spend ample time on Pinterest and Instagram looking for new, healthy, nutritious, vegetarian, and plant-based recipes to feed my growing children, partner, and me. Going back to work in person hasn’t helped either, as I have less time to prep and cook. During the first 18 months of the pandemic, when I was working and schooling from home, although it was a lot, I had more time to explore recipes and dive into experimenting with meals.
In addition to trying out new recipes, I started baking sourdough bread. I am happy to say that 20 months in, I still make one to two loaves a week. To me, not purchasing bread at the grocery store is more than just having our house fill up with a wonderful bread smell. I love the fact that I know all the ingredients, and as I strive to create a low-waste household, I no longer have to contend with plastic bags that wrap the bread you buy in the grocery store. And lastly, it truly feels good to give my family something that in their own words “tastes so much better than store-bought bread.”
As a working mom, I realize I don't have all the answers, but I hope that I can share some ideas and thoughts that may help ease the “What’s for dinner?” conversation, and tips about how to be more sustainable and apply low-waste practices in everyday life. By day, I am the sustainability manager at California State University San Marcos (CSUSM) and I moonlight as a lecturer in the Environmental Studies program. My job is to create a culture at CSUSM that understands what sustainability is and how it relates to career opportunities in all sectors of society for our students. In addition, I collaborate with different departments to engage our staff and faculty on ways to be more sustainable.
One area I focus a lot of my attention on is the connection between sustainability and social justice and inclusion. Ensuring that we understand and take action on issues related to environmental and social justice is just as important as reaching our campus-wide goal of zero waste by 2025. Culture doesn’t shift overnight, however, every day I am energized and excited to work with our students, staff, and faculty on topics of sustainability. By engaging with students and faculty who are working to grow sustainable, organic food in our Sustainable Food Project Garden or who are conducting research in our Pollinator Garden, I am able to see not only our campus continue to make strides in sustainability—but also witness the passion our students have and the connections they are making to their coursework and future goals.
I am fortunate to be working in a field I have been passionate about since I was young. I am also grateful that my children share a passion for protecting the planet as well. One way that we have been able to demonstrate the importance of taking care of the planet is by having a backyard garden. Food connects people to the land and makes it so much easier for young kids to be open to trying new things.
My children will walk around the backyard and grab kale, pluck a tomato off the vine, add in some herbs, and call it a garden sandwich. As they grow, we have conversations about food and the importance of protecting the rights of people who harvest our food, and the difference between organic, non-organic, and local food is. Thus, my first tip is to create and grow a backyard garden. It doesn’t matter if it’s two plants or one hundred. A garden will not only supply nutritious food, but it encourages your family to try new foods and starts the conversations about food justice and the importance of food and culture.
I know there are lots of different ways to meal prep and plan. For me, the thing that works the best is to cook most meals on Sunday and heat them up throughout the week. I also do a lot of mixing and matching. For example, I make a huge pot of beans (black, pinto, garbanzo are my go-tos) in my Mealthy MultiPot (similar to an Instant Pot). I also make a large pot of rice or grain. Then finally, I roast a variety of vegetables. Once cooked, these can be used throughout the week to make bowls, salads, pasta, burritos, and stews or soups. In addition, I usually try and make a couple of actual meals—such as a coconut curry stew or a vegetarian casserole. Having these staple foods that can easily be swapped out or mixed up to make a nutritious meal makes coming home from work and soccer practice a bit easier. This is why my second tip is to consider the types of foods your family likes to eat and have a couple of flexible meals prepared for the week.
Fact: Going low waste with kids is hard. As much as I try, it doesn’t always work out as planned. My best suggestions include the following:
- Teach them young about recycling and compost and what happens to waste when it goes to the landfill.
- Use reusables as much as possible. We love PlanetBox lunch boxes, ReVessel, Stasher Bags, Swag Bags, and mason jars. But note, you don’t need to buy things new. I bought our PlanetBoxes used. I reuse glass jars from store-bought nut butter and pasta sauce, and I reuse any Ziploc bags that come into our home many times over before they are landfilled. Low waste living can be easy when you consider what can be re-purposed in your house before you compost, recycle, re-gift, or throw away.
- Choose experiences over gifts. We live in beautiful San Diego. Getting outdoors and connecting with nature is way more loved in our house than a toy that they lose interest in after a week. Recent birthday gifts for my 8-year-old were rock climbing in Joshua Tree and the Total Raptor eXperience at Gliderport in La Jolla.
Living and eating sustainably comes with challenges but there is joy in creating meals your family loves that are healthy for the body and the planet. The most important thing is to simply start thinking about how you can incorporate your love of food, protecting the planet, and teaching the next generation so that the cycle of life continues for many generations.