Annie Bell | 'Cutting down on waste is an area where we can all contribute as consumers'

Annie Bell | 'Cutting down on waste is an area where we can all contribute as consumers'

Last spring, Pan Macmillan announced the creation of One Boat, a new sustainability imprint from the team behind Bluebird. Its name references the power of “one—the idea that one person can make a significant impact; and that one changed habit can make a big difference”.

Now One Boat’s launch title, publishing in December 2020, charts a determined course in this direction. Annie Bell’s Eat to Save the Planet: 85 Recipes and Ideas for Eco-Friendly Cooking and Eating is authoritative too, being based on the so-called Planetary Health Diet. The recommendations in this “global reference diet for adults” are the result of research by the EAT-Lancet Commission which brought together 37 world-leading scientists to examine the question “Is it possible to feed a global population of nearly 10 billion people a healthy diet, sustainably, by 2050?”. The answer was a resounding yes (if you want to know more, see Eat Forum). Bell, a nutritionist, and the long-time recipe writer for the Mail on Sunday’s YOU magazine has translated the Planetary Health Diet into a book of easy and family-friendly recipes, along with meal plans and a host of tips on eating and shopping sustainably.

When I call Bell at her home in London in early September, she has just put a Christmas cake in the oven, presumably an occupational hazard of one who is perpetually testing recipes ahead of time. A former winner of the title Journalist of the Year from the Guild of Food Writers, Bell spent the early days of her career training as a chef, including at Kensington Place in London under Rowley Leigh. Now the author of more than 20 cookery books, her first food column was as Vogue’s cookery writer and she subsequently wrote for the Independent. She has been principal cookery writer on YOU for more than 20 years.

How did she first come across the Planetary Health Diet? “When it was published at the beginning of last year. As a nutritionist I’ve long known that one of the problems when it comes to recommendations about what we should and shouldn’t eat is that every country has its own guidelines which can actually differ significantly. Environmental issues also tend to be met by a similarly fractured approach. So the Planetary Health Diet feels like a first in two ways. Firstly, it’s a way of eating that is applicable to everyone in the world, and secondly it marries a concern for the environment with good nutrition. That was very exciting to me because having that worldwide perspective is of such value when food production is the greatest driver of global environmental change.”

Flexitarian approach
The recipes in Eat to Save the Planet succeed in making the Planetary Health Diet’s sometimes daunting recommendations— which include copious whole grains, generous helpings of fruit and vegetables, but fewer potatoes and less rice—look not only doable but enticing. While plant-based foods are the mainstay, one surprise—to me at any rate—was the flexitarian approach: rather than espousing a vegan diet, the consumption of meat, fish and dairy is permitted (though vegetarians and vegans are also amply catered for in the book). I say as much to Bell. “That’s one of the things that really drew me in—that you can continue to eat animal protein with a clear conscience but in radically reduced quantities: we’re talking less than 100g per portion,” she responds. “That involves a rethink in terms of how we include them in our diet. So what I’ve recommended is that we remain basically vegetarian or vegan through to supper time; and then we can have some animal protein: perhaps chicken twice a week, fish twice a week, and red meat once a week.”

Bell has had to be particularly ingenious here because meals consisting of such small quantities of animal protein could potentially leave readers feeling very hungry. So her Healthy Planet Burgers for example include half beef and half lentils, while her Crispy Topped Shepherd’s Pie combines minced lamb with broad beans and several types of vegetable beneath a topping of celeriac mash. Bell draws on her research for her previous book Plant Power, published by Kyle Books; a useful precedent when it came to methods of using plant proteins alongside animal ones.

Another challenge was the quantity of eggs permitted by the Planetary Health Diet: going to work on an egg is no longer possible on its meagre allowance of one and half per week. Bell has, however, risen to the occasion by hatching a section of delicious-looking One Egg Dishes. Which aspect of the diet does she personally regard as the most challenging? “I think it’s the wholegrains—60% of our daily energy is supposed to come from them but we’re just not used to consuming that amount. I think one of the reasons so many people don’t like eating them is because they’re heavy compared to refined grain products such as white rice and pasta. So I’ve broadened out the types (Bell’s recipes include such lesser known grains as einkorn, teff and amaranth) and added small quantities into dishes such as salads and omelettes. That way they’re much lighter and more palatable.”

One of my favourite things about Eat to Save the Planet is Bell’s admirably clear and engaging food writing which makes the adoption of the Planetary Food Diet feel more like an opening-up of eco-friendly foodie possibilities than a closing down of menu options. It also focuses our minds on the issue of food waste, and practical ways to prevent it, more successfully than any other cookbook I can think of. “Cutting down on waste is an area where we can all contribute as consumers,” says Bell, whose book includes plenty of highly pertinent advice on food storage and shopping strategies, and exhorts us to consider the effect of unnecessarily cramming our huge fridges and shopping in bulk online.

And in contrast to the ever burgeoning number of cookbooks which encourage us to sample the cuisines of a galaxy of different nations and regions, Bell also recommends that we do not spread the international food net too widely in the cause of cutting down on waste. “All those ingredients we buy and use for just one recipe, so that eventually they end up being thrown away. I’m guilty of this too, but I’ve also always loved very simple food; the freshest possible produce, well-cooked to bring out the best in it. So I recommend choosing one or two flavour palettes you particularly like and sticking to those because I really do think that all this culinary culture-hopping isn’t helping in terms of food waste”.

Enthusiastic backing
Bell is thrilled that her book, which includes striking black and white graphics in place of colour, has dropped anchor at One Boat. “My agent Lizzy Kremer was right behind the book and very much wanted to find the right home for it. Carole Tonkinson of One Boat and her team have been so enthusiastic about it and I’m hugely chuffed that it’s going to be the launch title.” The book will be printed with vegetable inks on FSC, plastic-free matt paper and bound with vegan glue.

Given that we are currently in one boat when it comes to fighting the global pandemic, Eat to Save the Planet feels like a timely publication indeed. As Bell writes in her introduction, there is hope in the fact that we are all capable of acting. “I may be one minuscule part of the whole, but I can still play my part, in particular through the choices I make about how I eat.” Less New Year, New You, and more New Year, New Us.

Book Extract
When I first encountered the Planetary Health Diet it was like a weight lifting off my shoulders. I thought “at last”. Finally someone has come up with a solution that ticks all of these boxes. Here was a “diet”—or rather a way of eating—designed to save the world, which simply recommended how much of each food group we should eat. Nothing more and nothing less. It doesn’t matter what your dietary persuasion is, whether you are vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian or flexitarian, or for that matter where you are in the world. It is ultimately adaptable and as relevant if you are in Tokyo as it is if you live in New York, London or Berlin. In fact it is so simple, it makes you wish someone had come up with it sooner.