Back in our grandparents’ day there were few supermarkets. Everything was brought locally, either from independent stores or directly from the producers. Most meals were cooked from scratch, and enjoyed together around a table without shiny-screened distractions. Perhaps I am painting a somewhat rose-tinted view of the past (which, of course, had its own significant problems), but the principles are true.
Since then, in the name of value and convenience, the modern-day supermarket has risen up and pretty much taken over. Huge behemoths of stores which combine everything under one roof and even under one brand. There is no doubt that they are a handy way to get your shopping done quickly – where else can you drop off your dry cleaning, buy a bunch of flowers and top up your wine rack all in one place?! But are they really as great as they make themselves out to be?
Let’s be honest here: supermarkets are driven by profit – they are not really that interested in your health or wellbeing (nor indeed in their suppliers), so long as they are continuing to grow their bottom line. Their shelves are enticingly stacked high with fresh-looking produce year-round. But where does it come from? So often it is grown thousands of miles away, covered with chemicals or hormones to artificially ripen the produce on its long journey, and of course wrapped in multiple layers of packaging. And who has grown it for us? Are they treated fairly, and do they care about the environment? I am afraid that the answer is frequently no.
And even more worrying is the subconscious tactics that all the big names play to entice you into buying more than you want. Who has gone into the store with a list of 5 essentials, and left with 15 things you didn’t really need? Yep – we’ve all been ‘had’ at some point or another. With the average householder spending £150,000 in supermarkets in their lifetime, the only thing most people spend more on is their home. So despite what the marketing campaigns might say, it is not usually the cheapest option either.
So yes, of course we all need to pop by a supermarket from time to time, but are there ways in which you can shop elsewhere too? Could you consider supporting your local independent retailers and those who trade ethically and sustainable a little more? Or even just be mindful about where and how the food you are buying was produced? This is definitely not as hard, or time-intensive as I used to think it would be. I used to shop in supermarkets all the time, thinking nothing of it. I was mindless about eating, but once I started studying nutritional therapy, I realised that eating smarter starts in your shopping basket. And that starts with the shops themselves.
So as much as I can now, I try to take a leaf out my grandmother’s book. I get my veggies delivered directly from the farm (or from my garden when it’s growing season!), my meat from our local butcher (who is a wealth of fantastic information and advice that no supermarket shelf could ever offer), and fish from our fishmonger. My health, my taste buds and even my wallet have all thanked me for making the change, not to mention how much more pleasurable and sociable an experience it is now to pick up our weekly groceries. Win all round, I think!
Here are some ideas to help embrace local alternatives:
1. Plan ahead! This is the most important and useful tip I can think of for avoiding the convenience factor draw of the supermarkets. This doesn’t mean than you need to avidly plan every single meal for the next 7 days, but have a think about what you like to eat in general, and buy enough to last (without going off) for at least half the week. Stock up on plenty of store cupboard staples that you can dip into to bulk out your meals (things like oats, nuts and seeds, beans, chickpeas, chopped tomatoes, gluten free pasta etc.), and that way you’ll always have something to eat!
2. Find and discover your local ethnic shops. They can be a real treasure trove for ingredients (and often sell in bulk), and are the best place to get olives, spices, dried beans, delicious dates, fresh herbs and other unusual ingredients. Don’t be afraid to ask for cooking tips while you’re there.
3. Farmers’ markets offer local suppliers the chance to sell their goods and have sprung up all over the country in the last few years. Find your nearest one at localfoods.org.uk. If you’re in London visit IFM.org.uk. Plus, they make a lovely morning out and about.
4. Consider signing up to a weekly or fortnightly organic veggie box delivery. They work out consistently cheaper than buying organic at the supermarket, are fresher, more convenient and encourage you to eat a wider range of produce than you might otherwise do (just think of all those extra nutrients!). Plus most will also now give you the option of adding to your order each week – things like fruit, bread, eggs, milk or even organic meat. Check out:
5. Do you have friends or neighbours that are interested in healthy eating and cooking? How about getting together to make a bulk-buying group? There are some great wholesalers who are more than happy to sell to groups of friends, and if there are a few of you it is much easier to make the minimum order values. As well as getting in your store cupboard staples, these can also be a great way to stock-up on household basics (like eco-friendly laundry detergent, loo rolls and even nappies!) at a far cheaper price than the supermarkets. Check out Suma for more information on food groups: Suma.
6. Direct produce-to-consumer organisations are also springing up, which allow you to order delicious food online (where instead of 25-50% of the retail price going to the producers, they get a far more reasonable70-75%). Apart from this obvious bonus, the food you get is also significantly fresher (as it is only made / picked when the orders are placed), and just like an online supermarket, you can order a wide variety of produce without committing to any sort of subscription. If you’re London based, take a look at FarmDrop.
7. Be creative. Do you live in the countryside? Many farmers will sell meat directly from the farm if you ask them in advance, which can be an incredibly cost effective way to stockpile your freezer with high-quality protein (and next-to-no food miles). Live near the sea? Perhaps there is a wholesale fish market locally which will sell to consumers if you pop along and ask politely. Have a green-fingered friend? Could you persuade them to part with some of their home-grown produce for a few quid or an hour’s help digging?
8. Finally (and most excitingly), do watch this space as I am launching a recipe box soon, with all of the delicious, organic and super fresh ingredients you will need to make 3 meals each week. You can just order online, and we will deliver all the produce you need in measured-out quantities (no waste!) to create fantastically healthy meals from scratch. Keep an eye on my blog and social media for more details!