If you're like me, you consume delicious morsels of food the way some people (also me) binge on baby animal videos — joyfully and without abandon. However, if you're also like me, the more your learn about how our eating habits impact good, glorious Ma Earth, each bite becomes a battlefield in the war to live sustainably.
We already know that we should eat less meat and more fruits/vegetables, go organic and shop locally where possible, and choose grass-fed, pasture-raised, chemical-free foods. A fascinating study by the NRDC and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic has even revealed how the expiration dates on our food don’t actually indicate food spoilage — which means you can cling to that ketchup and dozen eggs longer than you think. (The site StillTasty.com helps you figure out which ancient foods you can eat and how best to store them!)
Sometimes, changing a diet or shopping a certain way can be challenging for reasons of cost, accessibility and retraining the palate you've been raised with. The good news is in addition to changing what you eat, there are great ways to help the planet by changing how you eat it.
According to the EPA, food waste and packaging/containers make up about 45% of landfills in the United States. However, with a few simple, everyday acts, we can raise our forks in a battle cry to reduce both of these each day!
Here's a list of easy-peasy eco-acts that are the perfect pairing to every meal:
- Love your leftovers -- all of them. You might not need convincing when it comes to saving that buttery chunk of steak, but what about the unsung heroes of our meals that we often doom to a sad destiny in the landfill? That mountain of diner fries and those last chunklets of French bread have amazing next-day applications. Chop and sauté those fries with butter, rosemary, onions and peppers for a tasty hash to go with your morning eggs. Collect bread butts in the freezer until you have enough for a sumptuous bread pudding, a batch of breadcrumbs, or a sufficient buffet for birds at the park. A little creativity is all the seasoning you need to make less-than-palatable leftovers into a new meal.
- BYOC: Bring Your Own Container. You know how BYOBag has become de rigueur for many shoppers who tote their own totes to the grocery store? Let’s band together to make bringing your own to-go box the new normal. Swap out that single-use container for a Tupperware, recycled to-go container or that fancy grown-up lunch box with the latches, hinges and compartments. It’s surprising how many opportunities we have to use our own to-go box, whether you’re bringing home leftovers from a sit-down meal or grabbing a quick snack on the go. While it may not always be practical/possible to BYOC — some food service places may be too systematized or busy to accommodate — every container we manage to reuse is a step in the right direction. Asking with some sugar on top always sweetens the scenario and reduces your chance of getting side eye, but if servers or other patrons decide to throw shade your way, simply explain your request with a smile and bid them a wonderful day. Pioneers may often be seen as a bit “weird” to start, but look in the mirror — “weird” has never been so good looking!
- Cook from scratch at least 2 more times a month than you already do. If you already love to cook, great — I’m coming over for dinner. If you never cook because it seems too intimidating, time consuming, or impractical for your small household, paltry pantry, or busy lifestyle, allow me to introduce you to two gateway recipes with nearly nil labor and just a handful of ingredients that will have you hooked on cooking. Mark Bittman’s no-knead bread is a staple for any rustic-crust/chewy-carb lover. Thomas Keller’s simple roast chicken is utterly effortless and divine...and for what it’s worth, I have never trussed the bird and it always comes out perfectly (no truss, no fuss!). Cooking brings you closer to your food and allows you to control what goes into each bite. No more weird grosstrose pukeytoxide number 5 yuckphate for you! Cooking also returns a practical skill to our otherwise increasingly modern abilities – sure, you’ve got 5 thousand Twitter followers, but can you fry an egg? Feed your mind and your body as you get to know your food and the fascinating ecosystem of farmers, land, and environment that gives rise to it. If you’re interested in how cooking can be a political act, check out Michael Pollan’s thoughts on the subject.
- Use your freezer. While it may be hard to give up that precious ice cream/Vodka space, your freezer is an amazing resource for preserving a surprising array of foods. Quell your fears of buying in bulk or cooking large portions (two other great planet and wallet saving strategies, when you get to use everything you buy/make) — just pop extra portions in the freezer for later. Breads (including pizza!) freeze beautifully; if you like toast and bagels, pre-slice before freezing so you can nab a slice at a time. Plan ahead and divide soups, casseroles, and stews into portion-sized containers for quick and easy mid-week meals. Fruit, especially berries, freeze nicely for future smoothies and you can preserve the summer harvest by tossing fresh vegetables and herbs in the freezer. Some foods do change in texture and consistency after a deep freeze and thaw, so you may want to do a trial run before going whole hog. Here is an awesome list of tips and suggestions for freezing food.
- Give limp leaves a drink. Oh, the sad trombone of being a limp vegetable! It happens all the time — you come home laden with lovely greens, only to turn around a few hours or a day later to see them wilty, weak and utterly unappetizing. Poor broccoli with its head bowed; withered dinosaur kale stripped of its roar. Don’t toss them...just give them a stiff drink! When vegetables lose water they deflate, just like your potted plants. If you cut them up and toss them in a bowl of cool water, they’ll plump right back up, their crunch and crisp restored. While this trick works wonders on the wilted, it isn’t a cure-all: if your vegetables are old and moldy, not simply a bit wilted, bid them a fond farewell.
- Start a compost pile, big or small. Despite what you may think, you don’t need a pitchfork and rolling fields to compost your fruit and veggie scraps. There are tons of composting options for all kinds of indoor and outdoor spaces that are easy and, dare I say, even fun! Whether you’re ready to cohabitate with a storage tote of earthworms, dig a hole in your yard to bury a single banana peel, or sprinkle your coffee grounds atop your lawn or window box, every little bit will help rejuvenate the soil and divert food waste. Even carnivores and cooks can get into the act by fermenting meats, dairy, cooked food and even bones before composting it. For a quick primer on a range of compost systems, go here.