How To Cook Like Michael Pollan

The author reveals how to cut calories and carbon emissions—and you won’t even have to make a trip to the farmer’s market. 

Between one-fifth and one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions result from our food system. In a recent interview with Audubon Magazine, Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and more recently Cooked, A Natural History of Transformation, spoke with Rene Ebersole about how the fork can be a powerful weapon against climate change. A widespread shift toward smarter consumer choices can reduce air, water, and soil pollution, which in turn can produce healthier food and a cleaner planet, the author says. While shopping at farmers’ markets, growing vegetables, and carrying cloth grocery bags are great ways to help thwart climate change, he offers some other very simple, often-overlooked practices that can provide some similar benefits. 

1. Buy frozen. There’s a notion that because it’s expensive to buy groceries at the farmers’ market, eating sustainably is unaffordable for people who don’t have a Prius or a house covered with solar panels. Not true, Pollan says—just look in the freezer aisle:

“Processed foods are not necessarily so cheap. If you’re willing to cook from raw ingredients you can often cook more cheaply. So I’m not always sure it’s a financial question as much as a time question. I would also say that the cult of fresh gets a little bit overdone in that there’s nothing wrong with frozen vegetables, and they’re really cheap. Even if you can’t afford farmer’s market organic spinach, you can afford a box of frozen spinach, which is a great product. And it’s washed, by the way, so it’s really convenient and much faster to cook. I think that there’s this tendency to assume that it’s a choice between eating fast food crap and farmer’s market food—and that’s not the first choice. The first choice is between eating real food and processed food. Real food is cheaper than processed food. It doesn’t have to be organic; it doesn’t have to come from the farmer’s market. You can eat well and improve your diet dramatically simply by making that change.” 

2. Don’t try to cook like you’re on a cooking show. Making fresh, healthy meals at home and buying fewer processed items is the way to go, but many people have trouble making that leap Pollan says, offering some insight:

“Either they don’t know how to cook because their parents didn’t cook; or they’re intimidated by cooking because they see experts do it on television and it looks really hard (I mean they make it look like brain surgery on cooking shows); or they just don’t have time; or they don’t think they have time because the kind of cooking they see on television takes a really long time. But every night home cooking is not making a gourmet meal, and it need not take more than a half hour. Look how much time you can spend microwaving frozen food. You could easily spend a half hour just doing that for a family of four because you can’t do it all at once. We have to look at where we spend our time. What do we value? Some people value watching cooking shows more than they value cooking. Or they value being online more than cooking for their family. So that’s why I wrote my book Cooked, to hopefully inspire people to get into the kitchen and show them that it’s really a very interesting and pleasurable way to spend a little bit of your leisure time.” 

3. Raid the refrigerator. Instead of trying to replicate those meals on cooking shows, with umpteen ingredients and hours of prep time, mix up quick and easy dishes from what’s already stocked in the kitchen. Pollan’s go-to meal:

“I always have frozen spinach in the fridge, and I always have canned wild salmon and pasta in the pantry. With those three ingredients and a little bit of olive oil and maybe some garlic, maybe some basil (if it’s in the garden at the time), I can make a really great meal—one of my favorite meals, in like 20 minutes. I defrost the spinach, cook the pasta, sauté the spinach over the pasta, open the can of salmon and I put that on top of the spinach, then I put a little basil on that and maybe pour a little extra olive oil on it. It’s delicious. If you’re in the habit of cooking, you’ll have the right things in your pantry, and if you’re just strategic about it, and it becomes a habit, it doesn’t have to consume your life.” 

4. Divide and conquer. Spread the work around. Pollan says: 

“One of the problems with cooking was it was assumed to be the woman’s responsibility, and her exclusive responsibility. That makes it really hard, especially if the woman is also working. So I think we have to get men and children involved in the kitchen. You know, if you share the work, it’s not that much work. There’s also a social dimension. The problem with cooking was we isolated it; it was one person in the nuclear household doing it. But if you do it with your kids it’s often very pleasurable time. Kids really love to cook.”