Clean Up Your Kitchen Act: Clean, Safe, Sustainable Cookware

Good ingredients matter, whether it’s the food you actually eat or what you use to prep, store, cook and carry it. Choose the best, safest options and, virtually effortlessly, you’ll steer your body away from the potential mountain of trouble that poor-quality containers and cookware can trigger.

What kind of trouble are we talking? The big, scary kind. The kind that most of us are working hard to avoid – like exposure to hormone-disrupting, organ-damaging chemicals which can, over time, can set the stage for health-busters like cancer, heart disease and cognitive damage and so on.

You may know better than to prepare good food in crappy cookware but chances are you’re still probably harboring a few of those bad guys in your kitchen cabinets. Show them the door (or recycling bin). What to replace them with? How about a few pieces (or a whole set) that won’t add harmful chemicals to your meal and may just add some joy to your cooking. Here’s where to start:

Unstick from non-stick.
I get it, Teflon omelet pans and non-stick skillets are the epitome of modern convenience. Food doesn’t stick and clean up is a breeze. Trouble is, that convenience comes at far too large a cost to health. Turns out those easy-care, non-stick coated pots and pans many of our busy working moms raised us on have a major downside. Think toxic fumes.

When the heat gets too high on Teflon and non-stick, they release toxins, sending particles through the air, onto kitchen surfaces and into anyone who happens to be breathing in the immediate vicinity. Those fumes can trigger flu-like symptoms in humans and even kill small pets. Worse, those non-stick-coatings have also been linked to cholesterol, fertility and thyroid problems, so why accept the long-term risk just to save a minute or two on clean-up?

Calling all food preppers: rethink your containers.
By now, most people are aware that using the microwave to cook, or just reheat food in plastic containers, is a major safety no-no. But these days, with the rise of food-prepping, even the mostly health-conscious among us have gotten, well, a little unconscious about plastic use. Though the food prep trend is great for quality and portion control, loading up the fridge with a weeks worth of meals packed into plastic containers is less than ideal.

Not only is the practice generating a tremendous amount of plastic waste — even if you do reuse and recycle — but those plastic containers are packed with hormone-disrupting chemicals that leach into food, in effect ‘seasoning’ your food – and ultimately poisoning land and sea – with a host of toxins. So, whether you’re taking your meals with you or simply organizing them in the fridge for the week, go with clear, stackable glass containers instead.

Raise your glass game.
Not only is glass is great for storage and taking meals on-the-go, but it’s endlessly useful for kitchen prep and baking as well. Glass bakeware and mixing bowls stand up to heat, whisking, chopping and occasionally toppling onto the wooden, bamboo or linoleum floors, but, admittedly, may not fare quite as well on tile. It durable, relatively low-cost, sustainable, easy to clean and recyclable, all of which puts glass at the top of the class. Keep in mind though that there are storage and cooking versions, so read the labels carefully when buying. Also, after removing from a hot oven always place on a dry, heat safe surface, towel, cutting board or cooling rack to prevent cracking.

Ditch the plastic wrap crap.
On paper, plastic wrap is very useful stuff – but it’s also made of a type of plastic that contains endocrine disruptors, takes hundreds of years to decompose, dumps chemicals into the ground, poisoning the environment and sickening or even killing creatures unlucky enough to ingest it. What to use instead to help maintain freshness? As above, glass containers work well, as do mason jars and glass bottles that seal with a metal lid. For on-the-go lunches, wrap foods in parchment paper or ‘Bee’s Wrap,’ a reusable, sustainable cotton wrap dipped in beeswax that seals and helps preserve whatever you’re taking along.

Sideline the silicone.
In the last few years, silicone bake ware has become popular with home bakers. Like Teflon, food doesn’t stick, clean up is a breeze and you can toss it into the dishwasher as needed. In theory, there’s a lot to like. Or is there? The FDA says it’s OK for medical use, so as far as they’re concerned, it’s all good. I, however, am inclined to disagree. Silicone has not been well-studied for safety, especially at the higher temperatures normally used in baking (chemical leaching, anyone?), so I’d err on the side of caution and avoid using the stuff.

Pump some(cast) iron.
Cast iron cookware is a classic safe cookware option that’s been used for generations. A well-seasoned skillet or pan will behave similarly to non-stick and provide even heat throughout the cooking process, whether you’re using it on the stovetop or popping it in the oven. Granted, cast iron will leach tiny amounts of iron into your food, for most people, the extra iron is beneficial.

If you’re iron-sensitive, cook a lot of acidic dishes, or simply prefer more colorful cookware say, to match your kitchen décor, then high-quality, porcelain-enameled cast iron cookware, like Le Creuset is an easier-care alternative to traditional cast iron which requires seasoning and a bit more TLC to prevent rust.

Serve up some stainless.
Many chefs prefer stainless steel because it resists stains and corrosion, and is relatively easy to clean. The trick is to buy the right stuff. When shopping for stainless, look for pieces marked 18/8; 18/10; ‘300 series’ or ‘304 grade’ – which indicates higher quality, more corrosion resistance and less leaching. Chef favorites include All-Clad, Calphalon and Le CruesetTo minimize exposure to the mix of metals in stainless steel or if you have chemical sensitivities, consider buying just a piece or two and use sparingly – or sidestep stainless altogether and take a look at titanium cookware which, though pricey, is a good alternative to stainless.

Keep your kitchen clean.
And by clean, we mean stock it with the healthiest cookware and utensils possible:

  • Avoid non-stick, Teflon pans, pots, bake ware and utensils. Teflon is made from perfluorinated compounds which have been linked to cancer and reproductive problems.
  • Junk plastic cooking utensils. In addition to leaching toxins as they heat up, the older they get, the more tiny pieces break off and wind up in your food.
  • Let it go. If your budget makes it difficult to junk all your nonstick at once, do a ruthless edit: if there are scratches or bits of coating missing, let it go and replace with ceramic, stainless, or cast iron pieces over time.
  • Avoid aluminum pots and pans.
  • Avoid chipped ceramic bake ware or dishware. The glazes used in ceramic dishware often contain lead and cracked or chipping glazes are more likely to leach lead into foods and liquids.
  • Buy with health in mind. Keep it simple and think high quality, cast iron, stainless and oven-safe glass, and look for brands that have been tested and rated for safety by an independent 3rd party organizations like Consumer Reports or The Environmental Working Group.