Maybe it’s because I was raised within the confines of a traditionalist, patriarchal society, but one life skill I’m infinitely proud of is my ability to plan and cook homemade meals. I cook about 80% of the meals I eat myself, and I bring my own lunch to work nearly every day. And you won’t find any sad deli sandwiches or packaged chips anywhere near my lunch box. In fact, even the most complicated of meals that come out of my kitchen produce almost no waste that ends up in the landfill.
I’ve gotten a lot of questions about how I manage to feed myself like an adult with such consistency and somehow not destroy the environment in the meantime. After lots of practice, I’ve perfected my process for cooking and eating sustainably:
- Check what’s in season.
- Plan a menu.
- Shop sustainably.
1. Check What’s in Season
If you’re interested in a zero-waste lifestyle, one of the best ways to reduce your impact on the environment is to choose to eat more vegetarian dishes over carnivorous ones. Plant-based foods consume less water and take fewer resources to grow and transport than meat. All of my weekly menus and recipes are driven by the fruits and vegetables that are currently in season.
Why is eating in-season produce important? Because in-season produce takes the fewest resources to grow and transport.
A Tale of Two Tomatoes
Let’s say you live in the glorious Midwest, and you want to buy a tomato. During summer, the humble tomato’s growing season, tomatoes have everything they need to grow happy and healthy with minimal interference: hot weather, humid conditions, and tons of sunlight. When it’s time for that tomato to be picked and eaten, it can be sold locally to all the hungry Midwesterners who are jonesing for a slice on their burger.
Now, let’s imagine that you want a tomato in Indiana in January. In the Midwest, it’s approximately 30 degrees Fahrenheit, and the earth has turned to an unforgiving wasteland of permafrost. The tomatoes, like all the retirees in the region, have retreated to the south for warmer weather and sunnier skies.
If you somehow managed to buy a local tomato in January, it was likely grown in a greenhouse with lots of artificial light and heat. It requires an incredible amount of energy and electricity to keep that tomato warm and safe outside its growing season, and it’s probably going to taste like the try-hard it is.
More likely, though, it was grown in Mexico, other parts of Central America, or South America where the weather is warmer. For you to be able to consume that tomato, it has to be picked, quickly packed up, and transported across multiple states to get to your grocery store. That requires huge amounts of manual labor and transportation. The truck it’s shipped in emits greenhouse gases as it hauls ass across this great nation to feed you a single, mediocre tomato.
Instead of wasting your time eating a tomato that costs too much, tastes lackluster, isn’t especially nutritious, and has a tremendous negative impact on the environment, you could have chosen to eat cabbage, grapefruit, sweet potatoes, winter squash, or literally anything else that can grow and thrive in the winter.
But anyway, back to this whole meal-planning thing…
I’m fortunate enough to live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where we have access to local, in-season produce all year round. I’ve made shopping for produce easy by signing up for a CSA—”community-supported agriculture”—box that’s delivered to my front door twice a month (Huge shout-out to Imperfect Produce here; their mission and products are awesome, so if you’re in one of their service areas, check them out!). The box includes in-season fruits and vegetables of my choosing, all grown by local farmers. For example, this week’s box includes:
- Sweet potatoes
- Navel oranges
- Red cabbage
- Red peppers
I use what’s in the box to determine what recipes I’ll be cooking and eating over the next couple of weeks. So now that I have the base for my diet, it’s time to…
2. Plan a Menu
Like a good millennial, I take to the internet to find new and interesting recipes to turn my produce into great creations. I like to find recipes on EatingWell.com, a site that curates healthy recipes for any meal, lifestyle, fad diet, or juice cleanse you could possibly imagine. Their recipes tend to be veggie-driven, which I like, but you can use whatever method you choose to select your menu for the week.
I simply search for recipes that include the produce items that came in the box that week. I choose recipes that make at least four servings at once; that way, I have leftovers to take to work or share with friends, and I don’t have to slave over the stove every single night of the week. I choose three or four recipes to make over the course of a couple of weeks. For example, this week, my menu consists of three vegetarian dishes that feature produce items from my CSA box:
- Sweet potato and black bean chili
- Fennel, citrus, and roasted beet salad
- Roasted red peppers stuffed with kale and rice
These three recipes will yield enough for 12 lunches and dinners, which will feed me for at least a week, assuming I don’t eat out or otherwise supplement my diet.
I also think about what I want to keep around the house to snack on or eat for breakfast. This week, that includes:
- Rolled oats
- Cashew milk (Holla at all my lactose-intolerant sistas out there)
- Dried fruit
3. Shop Sustainably
Once I’ve selected my menu, I make a list of everything I need to buy at the store that I don’t already have in my refrigerator or pantry. This week, that included mostly bulk items and produce.
- Bulk items:
- Brown rice
- Dried dates
- Pine nuts
- Rolled oats
- Chili powder
Yes, you can find grains, spices, nuts, and cereals in bulk, completely package-free! I buy them from my local Whole Foods, and I bring my own reusable containers and fabric bags to put them in. If you’re not sure where to find bulk stores in your area, Yelp is a great resource.
When I have a larger haul of produce that I need to buy, I usually go to my local farmer’s market. There, all the produce is local, package-free, and the proceeds go directly to the awesome people who grow my food. For this shopping trip, though, I just went to my local grocery store.
- Other items:
Sadly, I haven’t found a good option in my neighborhood for buying cheeses without packaging. That didn’t stop me from trying, though, and I asked the dude at the cheese counter if I could possibly buy a chunk of parmesan that wasn’t wrapped in plastic. He was perfectly nice about it and even checked in the storage room to see if there was any cheese that hadn’t yet been packaged that I could put in my own container. No dice, though, so I bought a chunk that was wrapped in minimal plastic packaging and prayed to the zero-waste gods for forgiveness. Hey, at least I tried, and I’ll keep looking for package-free cheese in the meantime.
Overall, my groceries, including the CSA box, cost me about $70, and the groceries I bought will feed me for six lunches, six dinners, and about two weeks of breakfasts—about 26 meals all together. That means that each meal only costs me about $2.70 apiece, and the only waste that came from this trip was the plastic wrap that surrounded the cheese and a twist-tie that held my bundle of kale together. Not too trashy.
This is the best part! There’s almost nothing I love more than getting zen chopping and preparing an awesome meal for myself. Pour yourself a glass of wine, put on your favorite Top 40 jams, and channel your inner Alton Brown (or other celebrity chef of choice), and get cooking.
Even if your kitchen isn’t loaded with the latest, energy-efficient appliances, there are ways to reduce your energy consumption and waste while you cook.
Cooking large batches of meals all at once consumes less electricity and gas than cooking meals individually, so I always make enough to feed myself for at least a couple of days each time I’m in the kitchen.
As you prepare your meals, find creative uses for your kitchen scraps. After all, it took a lot of manual labor, electricity, and gas to grow your food and get it to your neighborhood, so don’t be a brat and throw food away. Save meat bones and vegetable scraps to make broth or stock for soups. Make cleaning products out of citrus peels. Chop green vegetable tops for garnishes.
Inevitably, there will be food scraps that you won’t be able to make appetizing. Compost them! Nearly 70% of every household’s “trash” is actually organic, compostable material. If your city has a composting program, take advantage of it. If you have a yard, do it yourself. Hell, you can even compost on a balcony, so you really have no excuse for not donating your food scraps back to mother nature.
You know what to do here: Nosh like a wild animal on the delicious, nutritious meal you’ve just made for yourself. But do it responsibly!
Nix paper plates, paper napkins, and disposable utensils and opt for reusable ones. You didn’t do all this work to eat your food off garbage, did you?
Save any leftovers in reusable containers in the fridge or freezer, and eat them throughout the week.
“But cooking is haaarrrddd…”
You know what else is hard? Knowing you are complicit in destroying the environment for all future generations. THAT shit is hard.
But seriously, are you an adult or not? Cooking responsible food is awesome, and it’s one of the best ways to reduce the amount of waste you produce. When was the last time you felt a sense of accomplishment after ordering takeout? Yeah, that’s what I thought.
Not only does it reduce your carbon footprint, but cooking is also a great life skill. It’s good for the environment, your wallet, and your diet. And you don’t have to be a winner of Top Chef to make something tasty; practice makes perfect. Believe me, I’ve had my share of culinary disasters, but after a few months of teaching myself new techniques in my own tiny kitchen, I’m a pretty adept amateur chef. And you can be too!
What strategies do you use to cook and eat sustainably? Share your thoughts!