What is slow food? 16 ways to benefit (without becoming a snob)

slow food march

Stefan Müller via Flickr

Fast food has been around for a long time now. Slow food directly and deliberately opposes it.

In 1986, McDonald’s announced plans to build a 450-seat store, its largest in the world, in Rome’s Piazza di Spagna. The announcement sparked protests, including unsuccessful litigation to stop it. Plaintiffs claimed that the odor of fried food would pollute the air and destroy the atmosphere of the neighborhood. Carlo Petrini and partners elsewhere in Europe channeled this rage in 1989 to start Slow Food International.

The Slow Food movement’s manifesto declared that importation of a new culture could only supplant and ruin the culture already present. To go up to a counter, order from a limited menu, and have someone almost immediately hand you the food, spread the virus of always being in a hurry. 

Slow food, then, became a “vaccine” against this constant rush. The Slow Food movement urged people to eat locally grown food prepared according to their culture’s original style. (It has always been an international movement, so there was no sense in telling French or German slow food advocates to learn Italian cooking.) 

But beyond the attitude of “good food takes hours to prepare,” the whole idea of slow food encourages people to eat it slowly enough to savor the experience. 

What is fast food?

Ask that question, and immediately thoughts go toward McDonalds and other chain restaurants. You go up to a counter (or sit idling and breathing everyone else’s exhaust fumes in a drive-thru lane) and give your order. In a very few minutes, someone hands you your food—exactly the same food you would get in any other restaurant of the same chain. 

Fast food isn’t limited to those restaurants, however. If you rush out the door in the morning stuffing a protein bar in your mouth instead of taking time to eat breakfast at the table, you are doing fast food. If you eat a sandwich at your desk while you keep working, you are doing fast food. 

You buy fast food at a grocery store when you pick up frozen meals you can eat after a few minutes in the microwave. Or any of the so-called convenience foods that come in a can or box.

Fast food has too much fat, sugar, and salt to be healthy. It’s tasty enough to be addictive but can’t compare in flavor to a good home-cooked meal or food from a sit-down restaurant. The packaging alone contributes tons of waste to our landfills. And we lose the social aspect of preparing and enjoying a meal with other people. 

Actually, as the Slow Food Manifesto points out, fast food is only a symptom of a fast and hasty lifestyle. It doesn’t let you slow down for anything. You can’t enjoy your food if you don’t take the time to notice the color, taste, and texture. You can’t really enjoy anything if you’re always in a rush for the next thing. 

A fast lifestyle both robs you of enjoyment and adds stress to your body. It slowly wrecks your health. Even a fast-food meal becomes less unhealthy if you take the time to enjoy it. 

Other problems with our industrial food system 

The idea of slow food has broadened since the movement began. Beyond the problem of fast-food restaurants, it addresses our food production system. 

As early as 1936, George Washington Carver noted that produce grown with chemical fertilizer lacked both the flavor and nutritional value of produce fertilized by compost. The agricultural establishment ignored that warning. 

Industrial meat and poultry production confines animals in small spaces. Their excrement could be composted to make excellent fertilizer. Instead, it is stored in lagoons where, among other problems, it creates a vile smelling health hazard. Consumers care more about animal welfare than they did when industrial practices first became established.

More recently, we have learned that industrial farming contributes about 20% of the greenhouse gases that are driving climate change.

Basic principles of the Slow Food movement

The Slow Food movement promotes three related principles: good, clean, and fair.

Good means high quality, flavorful, and nutritious food.

Clean means sustainable means of food production that do not harm the environment. It also means minimizing food waste.

Fair means fair working conditions and adequate pay for the people who produce the food.

The idea of slow food is not strictly organic or vegetarian, but it encourages limiting meat consumption and disapproves of many of the chemicals industrial farming depends on. 

Behind these principles, the Slow Food movement seeks to promote mindful eating and the joy of savoring good food. A leisurely meal time can be a wonderful social occasion, whether entertaining guests or having a family meal.

Preparing food at home––from scratch––and cleaning up after the meal can likewise encourage bonding and personal closeness.

The Slow Food movement encourages local food. It advocates buying food grown on nearby farms, preferably family-owned farms. Some grocery stores tout their relationships with local farmers, but slow food shopping usually means visiting a farmers’ market.

Local food means foods that are in season. Foods out of season must travel long distances, which increases their carbon footprint. The movement also places a high value on local food cultures and traditions—and the stories behind them.   

Some knocks against the Slow Food movement

Cooking from scratch ought to be less expensive than buying packaged convenience foods, but the Slow Food movement has so many restrictions on what counts as suitable that slow food restaurants cost much more than regular sit-down restaurants. Most people, in fact, can’t afford to eat in one. 

Strictly speaking, slow food principles require specialty ingredients. These include heirloom varieties of produce instead of ordinary grocery-store offerings, grass-fed beef, free-range chickens and eggs, and so on. Therefore, strictly following slow-food principles for eating at home can be much more expensive than ordinary grocery shopping. 

The kinds of stores and farmers’ markets that offer suitable food tend to be in affluent neighborhoods. Meanwhile, people who live in “food deserts” have enough trouble finding a reasonably nearby grocery store. They can’t afford to travel even farther to get to Whole Foods. And they can’t afford the prices there, anyway.

Slow food can also seem snobbish and elitist. Slow food advocates often lecture people on the virtues of slow food. Slow food snobs make a point of letting everyone know that they would never eat anything that fails to live up to their ideals of good, clean, and fair. 

One slow food worker’s experience

As a graduate student in public policy, Suzanne Zuppello developed a commitment to nutritious food from farms that didn’t overuse antibiotics and hormones. So she worked in two farm-to-table restaurants in Brooklyn. 

The owners valued such concepts as sustainable sourcing of food more than keeping costs down. Adherence to the Slow Food movement requires restaurants to purchase all food from farms no more than 200 miles away. What’s more, the farms must conform to the movement’s ideals of good, clean, and fair.

A place like Brooklyn has comparatively few farms within that radius and fewer that would meet all the other requirements of the movement. Their products cost more than those of other farms. Most people, therefore, find it prohibitively expensive to patronize those restaurants. 

Zuppello spent her 15-hour work days giving minutes-long talks to patrons touting such ideals as heirloom produce and making food in small batches. But, she notes, it’s impossible for most of the world to eat that way. And not everyone who can afford to eat according to the principles of the Slow Food movement would want to. It excludes too many kinds of healthy and tasty foods. Why should a Midwesterner not eat seafood just because it isn’t local?

Finally, Zuppello recognized

Working for a restaurant with such strong and strict values, like those of the Slow Food movement, can be exhausting. You’re not only the priest, but the disciple, as well. I needed to live the values we impressed upon our guests, but occasionally, I wanted to eat food without suffocating rules as to where it came from or the speed with which it was prepared. 

In other words, she craved McDonalds. For years, she would buy food there every few weeks and take it home hoping no one she knew would ever catch her. It took years before she could publicly confess that not only did she sometimes eat fast food, but she actually enjoyed it. 

How to practice slow food without its excesses

It helps to think of slow food more as an attitude than a set of requirements. Therefore, this list of tips starts with thinking about food and how to experience it. Then, it considers the process of shopping before, finally, considering cooking itself. Finally, I provide some “advanced” tips that will help you get deeper into the Slow Food movement if you want to.

1. Start small

The Slow Food movement started out as a protest against the fast pace of life as exemplified by restaurants like McDonalds. It has gradually enlarged its scope to additional issues. As I said earlier, it has acquired a reputation as a movement for appealing to the affluent and snobbish.

If you want to slow down your life and adopt some slow food principles, you don’t have to do it all at once. In fact, unless you want to formally join a local chapter of the movement, you don’t have to follow it in every detail.

As with everything else in living more sustainably, pick a few changes to your normal routine. When they become part of your normal routine, pick a few more changes. If you never adopt some slow food ideas, that’s fine.

2. Plan to enjoy your food

The fast-paced lifestyle of our modern society hardly leaves time to stop and enjoy anything. As the cliché goes, we need to take time to stop and smell the roses. Or, in the case of slow food, take time to notice the appearance, aroma, and the taste of your food. 

You can take time to enjoy and savor a fast-food meal, for Pete’s sake. Many sit-down restaurants—and not only the most expensive—put a lot of thought and effort into the presentation of food on the plate. If you haven’t been in the habit of noticing and appreciating all the appearance, aroma, flavor, and texture of your food, mindful eating is the place to start your journey into slow food.

3. Make family dinner a priority

family in kitchen. slow food
August de Richelieu via Pexels

Nowadays, it’s rare to have a day when the whole family is home at meal time and someone doesn’t have to dash off to some activity afterward. That and having the television on and everyone having cell phones in easy reach make it hard to foster close family relationships.

Try to find at least one day a week when everyone agrees to sit down together to share a meal and plan to stay at the table for about an hour, with the television off and the phones all in another room. You can start to notice not only the sensory appeal of your food but also appreciate each other. 

Agree among yourselves that meal time is not a time to gripe and complain about anything but rather a time for enjoyment of the food and each other. 

4. Make meal preparation and cleaning up afterward chances for togetherness

There’s no reason why the same person has to prepare all the meals or than anyone has to prepare the meal all alone. Also, the person who prepares the meal shouldn’t have to clean up afterward. That, too, can be a time when a few people work together. The chores won’t take as long that way and won’t seem like burdens.

5. Eating alone can still be a slow food experience

If you live alone, eating at home can’t be a social occasion unless you have company. But you can still practice mindful shopping and eating. Cooking for one is less expensive, healthier, and better for the environment than subsisting on fast food.  It probably tastes better, too.

6. Stock your pantry, refrigerator, and freezer with healthy staples

Staples form the building blocks of whatever home-cooked meals you create. So you need to make sure that you have them on hand. These include

  • breads and buns
  • various kinds of macaroni and pasta, as well as the sauces that go with them.
  • rice and/or other grains such as couscous and quinoa
  • dried beans
  • flour(s)
  • baking soda and baking powder
  • milk: fresh, evaporated, and powdered
  • eggs
  • cheeses
  • frozen vegetables and fruits
  • canned tomatoes, tomato products, and other fruits and vegetables
  • canned tuna
  • peanut butter and jellies
  • salad dressings
  • oils for cooking or salad dressings
  • vinegars
  • seasoning sauces, such as soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, Worcestershire sauce, mayonnaise, ketchup, and mustard
  • spices
  • salt
  • sugar

I haven’t mentioned fresh vegetables and fruits as staples because you’ll have to buy them every week. You’ll also want to plan meals in advance before you go shopping. You will buy most of your meat, poultry, and fish as a result of this planning, but you’ll probably also keep some kinds of them in your freezer. 

With the right staples, you have ingredients on hand for a lot of impromptu meals for when you don’t have a planned menu or for some reason you can’t follow it.

7. Buy only the amount of meat, produce, and dairy products you’ll eat before they spoil

Food costs less per pound in larger packages than smaller ones, but the larger packages are not a good deal if you can’t use all the food before it goes bad.

Sales can also be a trap for the unwary. Maybe one week a store offers three-pound bags of apples as buy one, get one free. Again, if most of one bag rots before you can use it, it’s not a good deal. 

8. Prefer unpackaged or minimally packaged foods

You might notice that one brand of something comes in a plain cardboard box. Another brand of the same food has the box wrapped in a plastic film. Buying the second one means that you have two kinds of junk to discard instead of one once you have eaten the food.

The produce section of grocery stores seems to have the most egregious excess packaging. Individual potatoes come wrapped in plastic. Two green peppers come in a Styrofoam™ tray wrapped in plastic film. Why? If enough consumers refuse to buy them, stores will stop offering them.

The bulk food section, if any, is a great place to avoid packaging. The store will probably offer plastic bags or other plastic containers, but you don’t have to accept them. Take your own jars and have them weighed. Then fill them with whatever bulk foods you want to buy. The cashier will weigh your purchases and deduct the weight of the jars.

9. Redefine what it means to cook

woman cooking.. slow food
Steven Depolo via Flickr

I once heard of a woman who went to a grocery store after work, looked at half a dozen frozen entrees, and put them all back. Then she muttered, “I don’t feel like cooking tonight, anyway.”

For people who don’t cook, preparing a meal from scratch might seem like a huge chore. Some recipes are, after all. Making a stir fry, for example, requires chopping meats and vegetables, which takes a long time before any of them see the inside of a frying pan or wok. 

That might be why the grocery stoes have so many varieties of Hamburger Helper™ and other prepared convenience foods” in boxes. Those meals can be on the table within half an hour. 

Probably not many people define “cooking” to include nuking a frozen entrée, but plenty of people define it include making meals from those boxes. 

In fact, you can make all the same meals from scratch in about the same time. Therefore, moving to slow food means leaving most prepared “conveniences” behind.

If you cook from scratch, you control what seasonings you use and how much. And especially, you control how much salt you use. Plus, you use mostly the staples that you always have on hand. 

You don’t have to learn a lot of different procedures, either. Once you learn to make a simple white sauce, you can modify it to make cheese sauce, curry sauce, chop suey sauce, Alfredo sauce, and various kinds of pan gravy. It only takes a few  more simple procedures to make a lot of different soups.

Also, a slow cooker is your friend. Fill it with wholesome ingredients in the morning and turn it on. Go on about your day, and supper will be ready when suppertime rolls around with little more effort from you. 

10, Look for simple recipes

You can find cookbooks for any kind of cuisine you like. I have said stir fry and other Asian foods can be a big production. So can French cooking. The cliché that good food takes hours to prepare describes any number of really complicated recipes. If you have the cooking skills and the time for any of that, go for it.

If you are easing into slow food and just learning to cook, though, you can find lots of cookbooks with simple recipes. Sometimes churches will compile recipes that their members contribute. Most of them will be simple enough. 

The More with Less Cookbook is a great way to find healthy recipes that are not only easy to prepare but also show concern for taking care of the planet. 

11. Cook in bulk

Slow food means, in part, cooking and eating at home. It doesn’t mean cooking every night. Leftovers are your friend. If you are a family of four, make eight-serving casseroles. Eat half of it right away and reheat the other half a few days later.

Also, you can double cook some ingredients. That is, if a recipe calls for cooking a cup of rice, plan on another recipe later in the week that uses rice. Cook two cups of rice for the first meal so you don’t need to cook any for the second. 

12. Look for real conveniences

The sweet potatoes are parboiled, then flash-fried with salt and thyme / Rudi Riet via Flickr

Products such as Hamburger Helper™ are not the only questionable convenience foods. 

Stores offer precut cooked chicken, likely as not cut into larger than bite-size pieces. Instead, buy some chicken breasts and bake them at 350º for about an hour. Cut them into whatever size you want and freeze them. Chicken you cook and cut yourself becomes one of the staple items you always have on hand. 

I consider boneless chicken breasts a real convenience. On the other hand, if you buy bone-in chicken, you can make your own broth, put it in serving-size containers, and keep it as a staple in the freezer. 

Stores also offer hard-cooked eggs with the shells removed. And, of course, they have to package them in plastic. Hard cooked eggs spoil faster than raw eggs. So why not cook them yourself, pencil an X on the shell, and put it back in the carton?

On the other hand, you can make your own pasta and cook your own pasta sauce, but that can be a chore. Store-bought pasta and sauce are genuine conveniences.

So are frozen vegetables and fruits. They are picked and frozen at the height of their freshness. You don’t have to peel them, chop them, or otherwise take time and effort to prepare them for cooking. And you can get glass jars of minced garlic in the produce section.

Real conveniences save time and effort without adding a lot of unnecessary packaging, salt, sugar, preservatives, etc.

13. Take leftovers for lunch

Most jobs offer a limited amount of time to eat lunch, sometimes as little as half an hour. You certainly won’t have time to prepare anything, but you don’t have to settle for fast food restaurants or whatever you can get from a vending machine.

On the other hand, I took sandwiches for lunch every day from first grade through graduate school. Then I saw someone heating leftovers in a microwave. It was probably at least fifteen years before I willingly ate another sandwich!

If your workplace offers a break room with a microwave oven, take food you have made at home. Don’t forget to eat in mindfully and enjoy it.

14. Investigate local food resources

Here’s where the more “advanced” tips start. You’re beginning to look beyond ordinary grocery stores.

I suggest two kinds of resources you ought to be able to find in most communities: farmers’ markets and co-ops. You know that anything you buy at a farmers’ market comes from no more than a couple of hours away. It’s local food. The produce in a co-op is probably also local. The co-op will probably also have a more extensive bulk food section than anywhere else. 

Either of these two resources probably carry heirloom varieties of produce, varieties that grocery stores probably don’t carry. They are less common and possibly available only in limited geographical areas. Eating them both provides unique flavors and promotes biodiversity.

Some communities offer community gardens or community composting. You may find nearby farm-to-table restaurants to patronize. 

15. Plant a garden

There’s nothing fast or convenient about planting your own garden, except maybe being able to go to your back yard to pick your produce. But gardening encompasses all the principles of the Slow Food movement: good, clean, and fair.

If you don’t have a yard where you can plant a garden, you might be able to grow food in a community garden. You can at least grow your own herbs in window boxes if you want. 

16. Support local food initiatives

Worldwide, the Slow Food movement has more than 1,500 local chapters called communities. If you are so inclined, you can join the nearest community—or maybe start one.  Slow Food communities organize events and activities for both education of the public and advocating for access to good, clean, and fair food. 

Kind Earth Cookbook / Anastasia Eden

Hamilton Beach Portable 6-Quart Set & Forget Digital Programmable Slow Cooker With Temperature Probe, Lid Lock, Stainless Steel

Bamboozle Nesting Bowls Set for Mixing and Serving, Dishwasher Safe, 7 Piece
Suggestions for further reading:

Enjoying the Slow Food movement / Gemma Alexander, Earth911. May 1, 2023
Slow Food International website
Slow food’s elitism only fueled my craving for McDonald’s / Suzanne Zuppello, Eater. October 18, 2018

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