Did you know what you eat can have an impact on the planet? Food production actually contributes to climate change: Forests are often torn down to rear cattle and grow crops for livestock while oceans are overfished and trawled.
About a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions comes from our food. Also, most food is farmed out of season, which utilizes further resources to sustain it, and then heavily packaged in plastic by the time it arrives at our door.
The ironic part is we often waste the food we have too – In the United States alone, nearly 40 percent of food is wasted. Thankfully, there are ways to change the relationship we have with food for the better. Here are 11 tips to eat more sustainably.
Table of Contents for 11 Tips to Eat More Sustainably
- Eat more plants
- Think more seasonal and local
- Eat the Rainbow
- Reduce seafood intake
- Support smaller regenerative farmers
- Reduce food waste
- Grow what you eat
- Look for more package free options
- Cook more at home
- Only buy what you know you’ll eat
- Store it properly
What does it mean to eat more sustainably?
When you think about sustainable eating, it really boils down to choosing foods that are both healthy for our planet and our bodies. Eating sustainably involves asking where your food came from, how it was grown, and choosing more plant-based options.
Eating more vegetables, especially ones grown locally and in-season, contributes to a more nutritious and sustainable diet.
Supporting local farmers that live closer to you ensures that your food doesn’t have to travel overseas to get to you, thus reducing its carbon footprint. In fact, eating a vegan diet could be the single best way to reduce your environmental footprint on the planet.
According to researchers at University of Oxford, cutting meat and dairy products from your diet could reduce an individual’s carbon footprint by up to 73 percent.
1. Eat More Plants
One of the best things you can do for the planet is reducing your overall meat and dairy intake. Even if that means just starting out with Meatless Mondays, this is a good first step.
Meat has a very high carbon and water footprint. Just a single pound of beef takes, on average, 1,800 gallons of water to produce. Ninety-eight percent of that goes to watering the grass, forage and feed the cattle will consume during their lives.
To make matters worse, the meat and dairy industry account for around 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization.
Thankfully, you can veganize almost any meal with a little bit of effort – there are several meat substitutes on the market to choose from now. Something as simple as a veggie burger, or a pasta dish, will do.
But make sure to not overdo it on the processed meals either – find ways to get actual veggies into your meals too, be it a salad or some healthy sides like stir fried veggies.
2. Think More Seasonal and Local
Eating a seasonal diet is better for the planet, and for you. For starters, seasonal produce tastes better because it’s picked when it’s fully developed at the peak of the season. That means it also has higher levels of antioxidants and nutrients too.
Growing something in season is also better for the planet because it requires less resources to flourish. Think about it: To keep a strawberry plant alive in the winter certainly takes more time, effort and resources than seasonal growing.
• a greenhouse
• lots of water
• good fertilizer
Whereas in-season plants don’t require all that.
Eating seasonal typically also involves supporting local farmers. The two things often go hand in hand – because sticking to local produce will help you discover what’s in season near you.
Think about this: How far did that tropical coconut have to travel to get to your grocery store shelf, and how long has it been sitting there? Was it grown locally, or did it come overseas in an airplane or boat?
Our food has a carbon footprint thanks to the fuel emissions it takes to transport our edibles. More than half the fruit and almost one-third of the vegetables bought in the United States are imported.
When we support locally grown produce, we help ensure it’s in season and has less travel time. This cuts down its carbon footprint greatly, and helps support your local economy.
I cannot suggest heading to a local farmers market enough – I go every weekend. They always have the best fruits and vegetables and I can’t go back to grocery store food now.
You could also try joining a CSA (community supported agriculture) – they’ll prepare a box for you filled with the freshest produce of the season every week or so.
3. Eat the Rainbow
Did you know there are over 20,000 species of edible plants around the world? Yet fewer than 20 species now provide 90% of our food. That needs to change.
Versatility is so important in our diets – that’s often why they tell us to eat the rainbow. Sadly, humans of today tend to eat rather dull, bland looking food that’s overly processed and devoid of nutrients.
When I first started attending the farmers market every week, I was blown away by the versatility of the food there. There was everything from orange cherry tomatoes, to purple cauliflower, to colorful currants, to mustard greens. Some foods I had never even heard of before, let alone seen.
For a balanced diet, and to protect plant biodiversity, we must continue to support the farmers growing these diverse foods. We must eat the rainbow and allow ourselves room to try new things. As a general rule of thumb, you don’t want more beige on your plate than colors!
4. Reduce Seafood Intake
The fishing industry is responsible for 10% of the plastic waste in our oceans. This is because they discard used or torn fishing gear into the ocean without so much as a smack on the wrist.
There are no repercussions and very little regulations. The saddest part is this “ghost gear”, as it’s called, often entangles and traps marine life in it all the time because it’s designed to kill.
Sometimes, marine life will even accidentally ingest this ghost gear, causing them to choke or starve to death.
On top of this, the fishing industry is guilty of overfishing, bycatch and trawling. I’ll dive into each one to make sure you understand the gravity of those words:
- Overfishing: is the removal of a species of fish from a body of water at a rate that the species cannot replenish, resulting in those species becoming underpopulated in that area.
- Bycatch: the unwanted fish and other marine creatures caught during commercial fishing for a different species. Often times these are thrown back into the water dead.
- Trawling: is a method of fishing that involves pulling a fishing net through the water behind one or more boats. The net used for trawling is called a trawl. Bottom trawling rips up the seafloor and does terrible damage to the ecosystems that depend on it.
Alongside these atrocities, the fish we eat tend to consume plastic waste unwittingly. So we literally ingest plastic indirectly when we eat fish. Especially shellfish, as you have to consume the whole animal to eat it.
If you can, please reduce or eliminate fish from your diet as much as possible. The fishing industry is in need of serious reform, but until then, the most impactful thing we can do is stop supporting it.
5. Support Smaller, Regenerative Farmers
Regenerative farming is important for the sake of our soil’s health, the plants that rely on it, and the humans that eat those plants. This important method of farming ensures biodiversity remains in tact, the soil’s health is not compromised, and neither are the waterways nearby.
Smaller farmers are more likely to adopt regenerative farming practices.
Big agricultural giants instead like to plant monocultures where only one crop grows (like corn), and spray the land with pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides. They also leave the land exposed after the growing season is over with.
This creates a number of issues: After a while, the soil will lose its vitality from repeated pesticide use and over exposure. It will become lifeless dirt, and nothing will grow there anymore. These pesticides also trickle down and go into local waterways, poisoning them.
FYI, healthy soil actually captures carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
If we had enough healthy soil on earth, it could very well change the state of the climate.
But, at the rate we’re going, we have an estimated 60 years of topsoil left on the planet.
What we need more of is regenerative farming practices that work with the soil, not against it. Laying down cover crops when the growing season is out; Growing more than one plant on land; No till methods; Utilizing compost and welcoming beneficial pollinators to your garden – all these methods are much more sustainable farming practices to get behind.
Be sure to ask your farmers about their practices – get into a conversation about regenerative farming.
See where their thoughts lie on it – more than likely, they’re already doing a lot of these practices if they’re small farmers because they’re not trying to mass produce food.
For more information, I recommend watching The Need to Grow or Kiss The Ground – both are excellent documentaries about the health of our soil.
6. Reduce Food Waste
A lot of the food we buy doesn’t actually get eaten. When you think about all the resources, time and energy that went into growing the food we eat, you know how terrible it is to waste it.
Around 40% of food in the United States alone is wasted. And I’m not just talking about the food you don’t finish on your plate – but also the food that spoils in your fridge, or the scraps that get dumped in your trash can.
Food doesn’t belong in the trash. It’s made to break down and decompose, hence the smell it emits when it starts going bad.
One of the best things we can do for the environment is to start composting our food waste. And before that, do everything we can to prevent it – be it through meal prepping, writing a shopping list, or donating what you know you won’t eat in time.
Composting your food scraps doesn’t have to be complicated. I do it and I live in a small apartment. You can just acquire a compost pail, put your food scraps in there, then bring it to the farmers market or community garden – anywhere that will accept your scraps honestly. Most farmers markets have a scrap collection site.
If you have the room in your own home, consider purchasing a compost bin, tumbler, or a vermicomposter. If you have a backyard, any of these three items will help you turn food scraps into compost. Compost is great for your garden, which leads me to my next point…
7. Grow What You Eat
Gardening for your own food is one of the best ways to eat more sustainably. There’s nothing better than growing what you eat because you get to control every aspect of it. You won’t have to worry about hidden pesticides for sure.
Growing food in your own backyard also means it has to travel zero miles to get to you, which means it practically has no carbon footprint. To reduce your impact even further, make sure to buy plants from trusted sellers that use peat-free soil and absolutely no neonicotinoids.
Neonicotinoids are often used to keep away “pesky bugs” such as aphids and beetles, but they also do serious harm to beneficial insects like bees and butterflies.
Even birds, who eat the infected bugs, and worms, who become exposed the minute the plant is transplanted into the soil, are affected by this pesticide. There’s serious risk of long-term soil contamination too, and it takes years for the plants to come “clean” of the pesticides.
Please use only trusted seeds and sprouts from brands you know do the right thing – even better yet if they’re organic certified.
I suggest looking into permaculture, or if you have limited room, square foot gardening. It’s vital to utilize the space you have wisely! Only use organic fertilizers and compost on your plants and make sure to plant a variety of produce to promote biodiversity. Even better if you plant a few flowers near your garden so as to attract pollinators.
8. Look For Package Free Options
Food in the grocery store is often excessively covered in plastic. Ever seen a cucumber individually wrapped in plastic film? How about potatoes? The absurdity of this is our food has its own natural packaging – and it often doesn’t need any more.
Only 9% of plastic is actually recycled. We’ve created more than 8.3 billion tons of it since its initial creation in the 50s. The rest has been incinerated, landfilled, or found in our environment.
Clearly, we don’t need more plastic – we need less of it. Whenever you can, please shop with reusable produce bags and reusable tote bags. There are so many different kinds: Some made from recycled synthetic materials, others made from cotton or hemp. You can’t go wrong with any of those options – they will last you a long time and can be washed.
I suggest heading to the farmers market because everything there is easier to find package free. They also don’t have those annoying produce stickers on their food. Anything extra you get, like paper cartons to hold blueberries or rubber bands to secure lettuce, can be returned.
Also, hitting up a bulk food store is a great option for plastic free dry goods. Depending on where you live, you might be able to find a store that sells anything from seeds to pasta to coffee to tea – all package free. Don’t forget to bring your own glass jars to be tared and filled.
9. Cook More at Home
One of the simplest ways to eat more sustainably is to cook more of your meals. You’re in control when you do this because you get to decide where you’re sourcing your ingredients from. You’ll also create less packaging waste because you won’t be ordering as much takeout.
I find cooking your own food to be a great way to take back your own health too. You can control how much salt and sugar are added to your dish, for one thing. The other is you can more easily monitor the amount of fresh veggies and fruits get into your diet when you’re making it yourself.
I live at home with my folks and, while I do cook most of the meals, it can be hard to control what I eat come dinner time. That’s because my parents typically cook dinner – and my dad in particular loves meat heavy dishes. I don’t get as much a say in that, which can throw me a little off course at times.
But when I cook dinner, I get to choose. I can make all the healthy plant based foods I want.
Experiment with cooking more for yourself. Try different recipes and get creative. You won’t know what you like until you try it. I always keep vegan cookbooks on hand for inspo, plus I like to save yummy vegan dishes I see on Instagram – highly recommend!
10. Read the Labels
When you buy something in packaging, always make sure to read the label. I recommend avoiding too many processed foods, but if you have to have them, make sure you know what’s in it.
If there’s ingredients you can’t pronounce, that’s generally a sign you should steer clear.
Also, look for certifications whenever possible like USDA certified organic and Non-GMO project verified.
However, keep in mind that these labels can be misleading – it has to be certified or it means nothing. Just because a product throws around the words “natural” and “organic” does not mean they actually are. They need to have the USDA organic seal to be authentic.
Food products that are labels organic must contain at least 95% organic ingredients with no pesticides, antibiotics, biotechnology, synthetic growth hormones, synthetic ingredients of irradiation used in processing or production.
Products that contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients are labeled “made with organic ingredients” but cannot be allowed to use the USDA organic seal on their packaging.
11. Store it Properly
If you want to eat more sustainably, you also have to learn how to store your food properly. This pertains to prolonging the food’s longevity and being mindful of what it’s stored in.
A lot of people commonly store food in plastic wrap to prevent it from going bad once cut. However, plastic wrap cannot be recycled, thus it often just ends up in the trash.
People also get confused on how to store food to prolong its life – and they often place them in areas they shouldn’t which can lead to food waste.
I suggest first investing in beeswrap, a natural alternative to plastic wrap for food storage. It’s fully compostable at the end of its life and there are vegan options available too. You use the heat of your hands to mold the wrap and secure it in place.
As for actually storing your food, here’s where everything should go, if you want to make it last as long as possible.
- • Keep in fridge, 40 degrees F or lower: Grapes, apples, berries, cherries, broccoli, carrots, leafy greens, green beans, cauliflower, and asparagus. Wait to wash berries off until you want to eat them to prevent mold.
- • On the counter, away from direct sunlight: Squash, melons, and tomatoes.
- • Dark place: Potatoes, onions and sweet potatoes.
- • Ripen on the counter and then stored in the refrigerator: Avocados, pears, nectarines, plums, and peaches.
If you notice your produce getting droopy or limp, try treating them like flowers and putting them in a jar with some water. This will help them perk right back up.
Which of these 11 tips to eat more sustainably would you try? Let us know in the comments!
About the Author:
Ariana Palmieri is the founder of Greenify-Me, a blog dedicated to zero waste living and sustainability. Her work has been featured on Going Zero Waste, Mother Earth Living, Green Matters and several other publications. Get her free e-book “10 Ways to Reduce Trash” by signing up to her newsletter and learn how to reduce your waste today.
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