Food sustainability begins with making healthy choices. Healthy for our bodies and for the environment. Many of us have become very concerned with what we eat, but not so much with where it comes from or how it’s prepared.
It’s hard to think about “embedded” energy and water, but everything we buy, food or not, has it. That is, producing raw materials, making something with them, storing it, packaging it, and transporting everything uses energy and water. And all that is as much a part of our carbon footprint as the energy and water we expend ourselves as we use the products.
How can we eat sustainable food? Here are some specific suggestions:
Choosing sustainable food
1. Prefer nutritious foods to junk food
Sweets and snacks have little nutritional value, but they have calories. As manufactured products, they also have loads of embedded energy and water.
Loading up on vitamin supplements does not make up for eating too much junk. Study after study finds that they don’t provide the nutritional benefits of real food.
Eating sustainably means, among other things, watching out for our health. Doctors and nurses are fine people, but we shouldn’t want to see them professionally more than for an annual physical.
2. Avoid highly processed foods
Processed foods have a greater environmental impact than fresh foods. They can have a lengthy supply chain, and it takes energy to run all the equipment used in manufacturing it.
Not only that, but the food industry has found the right combinations of sugar, fat, and salt, to induce people to eat more. So we have a pandemic of obesity and people who despise themselves because they can’t control their appetite. In other words, as former FDA Commissioner David A. Kessler found in his investigation, industrial food is highly addictive.
Addicts to tobacco, booze, and other drugs can eventually come clean by not taking them into their bodies anymore. Food addicts can’t swear off food. They just have to train themselves to eat differently.
I remember hearing about a woman who decided to cook more meals from scratch instead of relying so much on prepared foods. She overheard her teenager complaining to a friend, “Mom doesn’t buy food at the store anymore. She just buys ingredients.”
And that’s the key to food sustainability and overcoming food addictions. Buy ingredients. At least, it’s a start.
3. Avoid overbuying perishables
At almost any grocery, you can find produce in bulk and in bags. A three-pound bag of apples cost less than picking up three pounds of the same apples from the bulk section. Then, of course, you have to do something with the bag.
In the same way, large packages of meat cost less per pound than smaller packages.
Who doesn’t make shopping choices based on what’s on sale? And it’s economical to stock up, usually.
But it’s neither economical nor sustainable to buy more perishable food than we can eat before it goes bad. A deal isn’t a deal if you have to toss a lot of food.
4. Consider organic foods
I can’t say that organic foods are automatically more sustainable than conventionally grown foods. For one thing, it takes more land to grow the same amount of the same kinds of food. For another, if a farmer overuses an organic fertilizer or pesticide, it’s no more healthy for the consumer than overusing petrochemicals. Organic foods are also more expensive.
That said, some organic foods, at least, offer benefits both to our bodies and our environment. But don’t fall for packages of organic junk food in “health food” stores! Organic potato chips are still potato chips.
5. Eat more plants and less meat
Some people will claim that meat and dairy are environmental menaces, that only vegetarians, or even vegans, really care about the planet. You won’t hear that from me.
For one thing, history only knows of one major vegetarian society, the Hindus. And not all Hindus are strict vegetarians. Many eat fish or poultry.
No society has ever been vegan. Most people in most places haven’t been wealthy enough to eat a lot of meat. And no society has ever been so wealthy that its people can afford to shun the rich protein that comes from animals. Humans are omnivores.
Of course, our society has become wealthy enough that we can afford more meat than is good for us. And we get it from farms, where the animals are fed grains. Food accounts for about 14% of household carbon emissions. In the average American’s diet, meat accounts for more than half of that.
Agricultural meat inherently has high embedded energy and water. It can take as much as 16 pounds of grain to make one pound of edible beef. Other farm animals turn grain into meat more efficiently. The odd thing is that beef cattle don’t need to eat grain at all. Their digestive systems can handle grass and other cellulose.
I have come across an interesting quotation from Thomas Jefferson: “I have lived temperately, eating little animal food, & that, not as an aliment so much as a condiment for the vegetables, which constitute my principal diet.“ In plainer English, he said he didn’t build his meals around meat. He just used it to flavor his veggies.
That, it seems, is a good way to practice eating for the environment.
6. Buy local
Sustainable food stays close to home. For all the fussing about the carbon footprint of beef, locally raised beef is more sustainable than fruits and vegetables that travel from farm to your store by air freight. In fact, most of the information in this section comes from an article about cutting carbon from a vegetarian diet.
Transportation accounts for less of food’s carbon footprint than production costs. Still, it amounts to about 4% of food’s environmental impact. Food that travels by air freight has about 50 times the impact of food that travels by boat. It is virtually impossible to know how your food was transported.
Our food probably travels more than we do. How can we be sure that what grows on our local farms actually comes to our tables? After all, we export a lot of food. Then turn around and import some of the same things from other places.
Produce often has labels that identify the country of origin. The farther away the country, the more transportation costs it represents.
Fortunately, many grocery stores highlight locally grown food. And if they don’t, you can find a farmer’s market that does. You can know, if you buy local food, that it never saw the inside of an airplane and traveled fewer miles than something trucked across the country.
7. Buy seasonal
If something is out of season in your area, on the other hand, you know that it came either from a greenhouse or traveled a long distance to get to your store. You can use the Seasonal Food Guide app to know what’s in season in your state.
Sure, it’s nice to be able to buy fresh strawberries all year. But if you eat them only when they’re in season locally, they might seem like more of a treat. Something else will be in season the rest of the year.
When something is out of season, that’s the time to eat preserved food—canned, dried, or frozen. Especially if you can it yourself.
8. Buy meat without antibiotics or growth hormone
I have said that beef cattle don’t need to eat grain. No farm animal needs the constant diet of antibiotics and growth hormones that make them reach a slaughtering weight faster.
Such industrial practices stand in the way of sustainable food.
Fortunately, nutritionists and consumers have complained about these practices enough that stores are starting to identify grass-fed meats that haven’t been stuffed with unneeded chemicals.
9. Know which fish are endangered and avoid them
The world eats more seafood now than ever before—30% more than just 20 years ago. We eat more than the seas can sustainably provide. North Atlantic cod used to seem limitless in abundance. Until it turned out that it had been so severely overfished that a moratorium on fishing them had to be imposed.
And that’s hardly the only example. Now we’re overfishing species fisheries used to ignore or throw out as bycatch a generation ago. Pirate operations continue to evade international efforts to put them out of business.
Packages of seafood in groceries will claim that they have been fished sustainably. It’s probably impossible to verify it even with the best efforts to certify sustainable seafood. Farmed fish has its own environmental problems, but at least you can know that criminals haven’t overfished it.
If you live in a fishing area, either on a coast or near the Great Lakes, get your seafood from a local shop. You can be sure that it’s US-produced and conforms to best practices.
10. Buy in bulk if you can
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed grocery shopping, at least temporarily. Among other things, it has put a stop to bulk grains, nuts, flours, etc. I certainly hope bulk sales will return soon.
Not only did the bulk bins offer some products not available in packages, it allowed us to bring jars from home and avoid taking home packaging. Now, everything is in plastic bags and we have no control over how much of anything we get.
11. Prefer foods with the least packaging
Packaging is junk we buy and take home. The more packaging something has, the less sustainable it is. And not all of it is recyclable.
So if you want two green peppers and the store provides two green peppers in a Styrofoam tray wrapped in a plastic film, leave it right where it is.
But packaging has a less obvious problem. It’s handy to buy a bag of salad. It might have more than one kind of lettuce or a little bit of other vegetables. You might have to buy more of different kinds of veggies than you need to duplicate what’s in that sack.
It’s really great until a few bags of salad get contaminated somewhere. By that time lettuce from who knows how many different farms has come to multiple packing facilities. Most of the salad packages in stores all over the country is good to eat. Some will give people food poisoning. So all that good salad must be thrown out to protect the public from the little bit of bad salad.
Individual heads of lettuce are easier to trace. The most eco-friendly food has the least packaging.
12. Use reusable bags
You can’t avoid all packaging, but you can at least avoid disposable shopping bags. Take your cloth shopping bags with you. Oh, and your cloth produce bags. You can reuse them and launder them from time to time. There’s no sense in putting sustainable food in unsustainable disposable bags
Some stores have decided not to let reusable bags inside. Craven fear of the coronavirus causes all kinds of irrational policies. There seems to be no scientifically valid reason for forcing customers to take extra trash home.
Some customers of those stores have asked their food to be put back in the cart with no bags. They bag the food in their reusable bags once they get to their cars. As for me, I won’t enter a store if my bags are not welcome except maybe to buy something that wouldn’t fit in one anyway.
Preparing and serving sustainable food
Once you decide what to eat, you still have decisions to make for sustainable eating. I have assumed you’re getting your food at a grocery store or farmer’s market. We get a lot of our food from restaurants. And even if we buy groceries, we don’t always eat them at home.
13. Avoid overeating
This tip is simple enough to say, but difficult for many of us to do. As I observed earlier, industrial food is addictive. It overpowers our intentions and willpower. But eating sustainably means eating healthy quantities of healthy food. People can overcome any addictions. The first step, though, is to recognize being addicted.
14. Cook at home more than you eat out
Some people eat out—or subsist on prepared foods from the store—believing that it saves time. Not necessarily.
If you go to a restaurant, it takes time to get there. Then it takes time to get a table (or stand in line, as the case may be). It takes time to decide what to get, time for wait staff to take your order, and time to prepare your food.
Or say you bring a box of something Hamburger Helper from the store. By the time you’ve browned the meat and followed all the instructions, you could have prepared the same thing from scratch for less money and in no more time. Plus, you’d get to decide what seasonings to use and how much.
In fact, you can prepare a wide variety of meals in half an hour or less. And you’ve probably not used any more dishes in the process than you would for prepared foods.
15. Cook extra to save energy and preparation time
Of course, chopping vegetables and cutting meat takes up most of the time it takes to cook a meal. So why not cook twice as much or more as you’ll eat that night? Later on, you only need to warm it up in the microwave, and it’s ready in no time.
How much later? Some people will eat leftovers the next day. Some, myself included, prefer to eat them a few days later. I’ll make so much soup or stew or lasagna that I get tired of it before I’ve eaten it all.
But that’s what the freezer’s for. I put it in single-serving containers. Then a week or two later, I get it out, let it thaw in the fridge overnight, and voilà! Fast, sustainable food!
16. Eat more raw foods
Ogden Nash wrote:
Develops the jaw
But celery, stewed,
Is more quietly chewed
But celery raw (or carrots or lots of other fruits and veggies) also requires no energy to cook it. Whether cooking enhances or inhibits the nutritional value varies with the vegetable. Eating it raw conserves the water energy needed both to cook it and wash the pan.
17. Serve food on reusable utensils
Sustainable food doesn’t produce excess trash. So serve it on washable plates and bowls. Drink from washable glasses and cups. Use washable napkins during the meal and washable towels for cleaning up.
Don’t buy bottled water. Advertisers want you to think it’s safer than tap water. But your municipality is required to test and disclose what’s in tap water. Water bottlers are not.
If you get takeout food, it’s more difficult to avoid disposables, but not impossible. Just remember to ask the server not to include plastic table service or paper napkins. You’ll still have to discard the containers, but you can use your washable silver and napkins.
18. Use reusable containers when packing a lunch
You can easily find reusable containers to hold sandwiches, cookies, cut fruits and veggies—in short, anything you’d put in a sandwich bag. And as easily carry the empties home as you carried your lunch to work or wherever in the first place.
After you’re through with sustainable eating
You’ve bought your eco-friendly food and prepared it sustainably. The meal is over, but, of course, you have to clean up if you’re eating at home. You have just a few more things to think about to make your meal as sustainable as possible.
19. Cut down on food waste
Serve small servings. It’s better for people to go back for seconds than to take more than they can eat and leave it on their plates.
If you eat at a restaurant, they probably give you a huge serving. Rather than letting them throw out the plate waste, ask them for a take-home container, assuming you’re not traveling. You’ll very likely get Styrofoam, but that’s better for sustainable food than food waste.
And keep track of the leftovers. Be sure to eat or freeze them before they have a chance to go bad.
20. Use glass, metal, or silicone storage containers
Now, if you have a bunch of plastic containers for food storage, you might as well use them. It’s not sustainable to throw them out just because something else would be better for the environment.
Even if you use plastic food storage containers, don’t microwave leftovers in them. At high eat, the plastic is likely to leach into the food.
21. Clean up sustainably
First, the good news. An automatic dishwasher uses water more efficiently than handwashing. Just make sure it’s full before you run it. I live alone, so I can put most of my pans in it. I have some ceramic non-stick skillets, and the manufacturer recommends not putting them in the dishwasher.
A family will use enough dishes to fill it up and not leave room for pans. So I suppose the bad news is that we can’t completely avoid washing dishes by hand. You can probably let them air dry. If you must hand dry anything, use a cloth towel, not a paper towel.
Clean the table with dish cloths, not paper towels. I recommend dish cloths instead of sponges, They’re easier to launder and last longer.
Many environmentally conscious people like to make their own cleaning products using simple ingredients such as vinegar, lemon juice, baking soda, and soap. I have lately read articles by people who stopped doing so. It can be a lot of work to mix up different recipes and keep track of what is in which spray bottle.
If you don’t like the do it yourself route, look for companies that market the most nearly sustainable products. (And don’t expect to find anything that’s totally sustainable. Manufacturing anything at all has an environmental impact.)
22. Compost scraps
After all your food preparation is over, you’ll have stems and peelings and all kinds of other scraps. Compost them if you can. Not everyone can compost, and you can’t compost things like meat scraps. But everything you can keep out of the landfill or the wastewater treatment plant is a part of food sustainability.
Buy related products
The End of Overeating: Taking Control of
the Insatiable American Appetite / David A. Kessler
More With Less Cookbook / Doris Longacre
Plants Taste Better: Delicious Plant-Based Recipes, from Root to Fruit / Jacqui Small
Reusable Silicone Food Storage Bags (Set of 9)-3xLarge 50oz, 6xMedium 30oz, Sungwoo Versatile Silicone bags for Sandwich, Liquid, Snack, Meat, Vegetable
DE Plastic-Free Glass Food Storage
Containers with Eco-Friendly Bamboo Wooden Lids, Set of 4
Roots & Branches Harvest Stainless Steel
Multi-Use Canner with Temperature
Indicator, Holds 7 Quart Jars, 20 Quart Liquid Capacity