Modern eating habits are a world apart from those of past generations.
We have apps on our phones to order delivery within the hour (or less) from hundreds of local restaurants. We can buy our groceries online and have them packed and delivered to our doorsteps. By the end of 2019, almost 16% of Canadian respondents said they were buying groceries online. We have tropical fruits, rare spices, local specialty ingredients and fresh vegetables delivered year-round anywhere from around the globe. We grocery shop often—some 26% of Canadians “micro-shop” by going to the grocery store two or three times a week.
Prior to COVID-19, 54% of Canadians reported eating out once a week or more. While half of us eat out for the enjoyment of it, 40% eat out for convenience, having no time to cook or not knowing how to.
The further back in time we go, of course, the bigger the difference between modern eating habits and those of past generations. Many of our grandparents and/or great (great) grandparents had fully stocked pantries and food cellars, for instance, with preservatives, canned and dried goods, root vegetables, cured and frozen meats.
They made meals from scratch because they had to. They didn’t have grocery stores online or around the corner. Premade meals and baked goods were made by neighbours and friends, not corporations. They swapped recipe cards and had well-used dog-eared cookbooks at hand in the kitchen.
Cooking took time, love and effort. The reward was most often more delicious and nutritious than today’s frozen, pre-packaged meals. Ingredients were made of whole foods straight from the garden, farmer, mill, butcher or monger—depending on the generation.
But despite how far we’ve come (or gone), there are some lessons that past generations can teach us about food preparation and preservation that are timeless and relevant today.
5 Lessons From Past Generations to Curb Your Modern Eating Habits
1. Harvest Your Own Food
Depending on where you live, you may be lucky enough to have a kitchen garden outside. If not, many herbs and lettuces, for example, can grow inside in a sunny window or on a patio. Perhaps there is even a community garden nearby that you can access. There is nothing more rewarding—and nutritious—than growing, harvesting and enjoying your own food.
Past generations grew much of their own food and ate seasonally. Many of them also harvested their own meat, eggs and fish by raising chickens and farm animals and hunting or fishing. Or, if they grew their own grains, for example, perhaps they could trade with their neighbours who had cows for milk or beef.
Eating foods in season is nutritious for you, too. When fruits and vegetables are picked fully ripened by the sun, they pack a flavour and nutrient punch. Foods that are in season offer your body exactly what you need. Thirst-quenching water, vitamins and minerals in the summer; hearty, warming and fatty in the winter.
Knowing—and appreciating—where our food comes from is a huge step toward better and more sustainable modern eating habits.
2. Preserve Seasonal Freshness
Past generations cured, froze, smoked or dried meats. They canned, dried and jammed fruits. They pickled, dry-stored, roasted, canned and froze vegetables and dried herbs and grains. All of this preserved the seasonal freshness of the spring, summer and fall harvests year-round. This is still done today by some communities out of necessity but also for enjoyment and love for seasonality and the homesteading process.
If you grow your own tomatoes, for example, you’ll know how deliciously superior the flavour and nutritional value is to imported ones that are picked before they’re ripe so that they can last through shipment and storage on grocery shelves. Try roasting your cherry tomatoes and freezing them flat before putting them in a freezer bag to add to pasta in the winter. Look into canning or freezing them too—your future self will thank you.
3. Support Local Businesses and Farmers
Thankfully, some of the best qualities of the past have remained strong today. There are dozens of farmer’s markets, butchers, bakers, fishmongers, cheese makers, local millers and other food craftspeople to support in every city. The next time you go shopping, consider visiting a local farmer’s market or try to buy local, seasonal and/or organic produce.
If local fruits and vegetables are in season, why not buy a box of imperfect tomatoes from the farmer and make a batch of tomato sauce to freeze? Or do the same with cucumbers, garlic and dill and make pickles, or canned peaches or berry jams?
You may not have a kitchen garden, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t preserve freshness of local foods just like past generations did.
4. Spend Time Cooking
Sometimes, the ingredients make the meal. If you’re already growing and harvesting your own food or supporting local farmers and makers, you’ll want to honour and celebrate those foods properly. Freshly cut lettuce and herbs straight from your garden (or farmer’s market or local produce from the grocery store) just needs some olive oil, vinegar and salt and pepper to shine.
Give yourself the space and time to cook. Figure out what you need to make the experience enjoyable and make it happen. This may be finding inspiration in cookbooks, recipes online or watching how-to videos—or it could be decluttering your kitchen or just scheduling enough time after work to cook.
Listen to your favourite album, get an apron on, make yourself a refreshing or warming drink, snack and have fun with it. If you want to eat at 7:30 PM, make sure that you’ve given yourself at least an hour or more to prep—and have all the necessary ingredients at hand.
Remove the obstacles and you may just find that you love to cook (or at least enjoy the reward). Practice makes perfect. Cooking for one isn’t an excuse either, because you can always cook for two: yourself for dinner tonight and for yourself for lunch or dinner another day.
5. Waste Not, Want Not
Speaking of leftovers, find ways to spruce them up. For example, if you’ve made pasta, consider eating it two days from now (so that you didn’t just have it—boring!) and make a side salad or saute vegetables to make it different. If you know that you’re not going to eat the leftovers immediately, freeze them instead.
Once you’ve grown your own fruits and vegetables or raised your own eggs—or spent more money on supporting local businesses—you’ll understand the importance of waste not, want not. It is a shame to let your hard-earned tomatoes rot on the vine. So eat them!
Consider the love and care that you give to something that you have grown and transfer that to ingredients that others have grown for you.
Modern Eating Habits: Convenience Versus Reward
Modern eating habits have stripped away all of the challenges that past generations faced. Convenience is so easy and tempting. It takes work to go against the grain and grow our own food, to support local or spend an afternoon canning, jamming and curing. It takes time and effort to make bread from scratch or roast vegetables to add to your homemade soup.
But think of the reward for you, your body and the planet. Past generations knew it well.