International Recipes and Cooking Around the World

Five Simple Steps to Greener Eating

Field of sunflowers

These days we all want to do our part improve the environment, minimize climate change and leave behind a better world for those who follow us. But the enormity of the environmental issues we face can feel overwhelming and intimidating. Just what can you do to make a meaniningful difference in such a big, big world?

You’re in luck! There are some simple, small steps you can take in the kitchen that work out to a big effect. Here are a list of five actions that have maximum impact with minimum effort. You don't need to make a radical change in your behavior. Just make a modest adjustment to what you buy, when you buy it and how you use it.

1. Aim Low on the Food Chain

Avoid highly processed foods, like those that come in brightly colored boxes or shrink-wrapped plastic trays and have powdered flavoring packets. All that processing uses gobs of water and energy to make an end product that is basically predigested for you.

Instead buy whole grains, fresh fruits and seasonal vegetables. Make simple meals that you prepare yourself. You don’t have to cut out processed foods completely. They are simply too convenient in our time-pressed world, and some are actually mighty tasty. But change your emphasis toward fresh, and buy your food as close to its original form as possible.

2. Stick to the Season and Buy Local

When you buy produce in season, you’re not just getting the freshest fruits and vegetables at their peak flavor. You are also cutting back — way back — on the carbon-based fuel needed to get them to you.

It’s a simple equation. A bunch of grapes from Modesto, California, (in season in the fall) travels about 1,800 miles to get to a market in Des Moines, Iowa. Grapes from Santiago, Chile, (in season in spring) have to be hauled over 5,500 miles to make it to that same market. The California grapes use about 1/3 as much energy in transit as the grapes from Chile.

Apart from the energy used in delivery, the regulation of pesticides abroad is often less stringent than in the U.S. Produce from Mexico and other Central American countries bought in the winter can contain levels of pesticides higher than those allowed in domestically produced fruits and vegetables.

Check out the Whats4eats Seasonality page to find out which foods to buy when. Support local agriculture by shopping at your local farmers' market. Join an organization dedicated to community-supported agriculture (CSA). Local Harvest is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting organic and local food. Their website has a nation-wide directory that can guide you to farmer’s markets, CSAs and other local food sources near you.

3. Moderate the Meat (and Seafood)

It has been estimated that it takes anywhere from 1,000 to over 2,000 gallons of water to produce just one pound of beef. Compare that to the roughly 50 to 75 gallons needed for a pound of corn.

Meat and poultry are energy- and water-intensive to produce. Cattle, pigs and chickens eat large amounts of grain from fields often sprayed with fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. And once that grain is digested, it comes out both ends as methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Large, corporate chicken and pig farms ooze waste and tend to poison local water supplies.

Commercial salmon farms spread parasitic diseases to wild salmon, and fish that escape the farms weaken the wild gene pool. Trawl nets wipe whole areas of the ocean clean and decimate the ocean floor where they are dragged.

Not a pretty picture, huh? But you don’t have to turn vegan. Just cut back. Have meatless nights. Eat smaller portions. Use meat more as a condiment than as the center of the meal. Buy organic, free-range meats and poultry if you can afford it. Don’t buy fish that is raised or caught in unsustainable or damaging ways (Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch is a great resource for choosing what's best).

4. Go for Organic on Staples

Organic is definitely healthier for the environment. But it’s also more expensive — too expensive for the budgets of many families. So how about targeting just a few items? Choose organic for staples like potatoes or milk. Or focus your organic purchases on those vegetables and fruits that aren’t peeled before eating. (Pesticides are concentrated on the surface of produce.)

Taking a targeted approach is easier on the pocketbook and can have a bigger impact than focusing on smaller purchases like organic herbs or potato chips.

5. Minimize Your Waste

Choose paper over plastic. Or better yet, buy a reusable cloth bag. Avoid overly packaged goods. You know what I mean: foods that come in a pouch in a bag in a box wrapped in plastic and tied up with a bow. Recycle any packaging that you can. Don't put those apples in a plastic bag you'll throw away when you get home. Just keep them together at the checkout for the cashier.

Start a compost pile for your vegetable scraps. You’ll keep waste out of landfills and produce a rich soil additive for your garden or your neighbor’s. Even if you live in an urban apartment there are composting options available to you.

You don’t have to lead the life of an ascetic to be eco-friendly. The fight against global warming and environmental degradation doesn’t require enormous personal sacrifice. Just follow the steps above, and you’ll be amazed at the impact you can have and how easy it is to do!

Resources for an Environmentally Friendly Home

Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch

Local Harvest

EPA's Home Composting Information


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