THE BLOG

3 Ways the Home Cook Can Help Solve the Water Crisis

05/15/2015 04:40 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2016
American Standard

by Tommy Werner, Epicurious

"You did the cooking, I'll do the dishes."

Those golden words are generally how I get relieved from dealing with the post-dinner pile of dirty plates. Epi's Associate Food Editor, Anna Stockwell, isn't always as lucky--she shares dishwashing duties with her boyfriend. They've got two different styles of tackling the mess: Anna keeps the water running and blitzes through the pile, while her boyfriend soaps each dish individually with the water off, then quick rinses everything at the same time. Is one method right and one wrong? Actually, they both use a lot of water--and the environmental cost is much higher than we realize.

January 2015 is currently the driest period in recorded California history. Water is so short that California restaurants and bars will only serve it upon request. But though California is getting most of the attention these days, water scarcity is a national issue. The average American household goes through 320 gallons of water a day, and over a trillion gallons of American water goes to waste each year. The kicker: A trillion gallons of water is only 9% of the water needed to solve California's drought.

How can the home cook help? Claire O'Connor, an agricultural water policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, gave us a few ideas.

1. MAKE A TRIP TO THE HARDWARE STORE

Let's put one debate to rest right now: Using a dishwasher is definitely more efficient than hand-washing. Even if you're as fast as Anna, your sink on average spits out 3--5 gallons per minute. So unless you can wash an entire stack of dishes in three minutes, an older dishwasher, which uses about 15 gallons per load, is going to be better for the planet. If your dishwasher is new, even better--it may have soil sensors, which can detect dirt in the washing water and adjust the cycle, thereby cutting back on water and energy use. And if you're in the market for a dishwasher, go for an energy star-rated dishwasher, which will use only 3 gallons of water per cycle compared to the 27 gallons of water washing by hand typically uses.

Need to use the sink? Look into your faucet flow, as it may be pushing out more water than necessary. It's easy (and super cheap) to install a low-flow aerator, which mixes in air with the flow of the water. You won't notice a change in water pressure, but you'll save a ton of water. Got basins in your sink? Fill one basin with wash water and the other with rinse water, and scrape all the food off your plates before adding them to the wash basin. Scrap well enough and your washing water will remain clean enough to get you through an entire stack of dishes without having to replenish.

2. CLEAN YOUR PLATE

According to O'Connor, 40% of our food never gets eaten; with that, all of the water used in production also goes down the drain. Due to food waste, almost a quarter of our total freshwater use isn't being used constructively, and it's costing us a pretty penny. (In 2010 alone we wasted, $160 billion dollars worth of food.) The thing home cooks can do to help: Eat smarter. Plan out your meals for the week on Sunday, and use ingredients that can thrive in drier conditions, like lentils. Getting creative with your leftovers and using every single edible part of your vegetables also helps curb food waste (and makes you a smarter cook, to boot).

3. DEFROST WISELY
Defrosting food? From a food safety standpoint, we'd recommend defrosting in the refrigerator any day. Because running water over your meat until its thawed? Incredibly wasteful. A bonus of thawing in the fridge: You can nestle the frozen meat in a marinade . "The meat marinates as it thaws," says O'Connor. "So by the time I'm home, it's ready for dinner."