Cooking Tips for Environmental Sustainability – Sharon Palmer, The Plant Powered Dietitian

Learn how to reduce your environmental footprint with your everyday kitchen practices. Here are the best cooking tips for environmental sustainability, from energy-efficient cooking and reducing water to smarter food storage strategies and sustainability recycling.

Did you know that how you get food on your table can have a big impact on your environmental footprint? From the specific foods you eat and the way you prepare them to the way you clean up after meals, each step in your kitchen impacts the environment in a variety of ways, such as energy use, depletion of natural resources, and greenhouse gas emissions related to your diet. The many impacts of our kitchen practices accumulate, and over time they can make significant contributions to your eco-footprint. Here are just a few things to keep in mind when it comes to reducing the environmental impacts of your kitchen practices.

Cooking Tips for Environmental Sustainability

Avoid wasting precious water in the kitchen.

1. Be Water Wise

When it comes to water, the kitchen can be a gallon guzzler for sure. Between drinking, food prep, cooking, and cleaning, it’s easy to see the kitchen’s role in the 88 gallons of water each American uses on average at home each day. That equates to more than $1,100 in water costs annually for the average family! All it takes to lower your kitchen water use is a few adjustments to your routine that will have a huge impact on protecting the environment, keeping this vital resource pure, clean, and accessible, and keeping money in your pocket too.

Here are a few quick ways to slow the flow in your kitchen:

  • Turn it Off. Fixing a leaky faucet can save more than 3,000 gallons of water a year, and the simple step of turning off the faucet rather than letting it run while doing things like rinsing produce, washing hands, or cleaning the sink, saves as much as six gallons of water per minute. Washing a typical load of dishes by hand can take as much as 25 gallons of water. A shallow sink or bowl of water is a more efficient way to rinse produce or wash a few dishes by hand, and running a full load of dishes in the dishwasher (food remnants scraped off, not rinsed) uses as little as three gallons in comparison.
  • Recycle it. Rather than send faucet water you’re waiting to warm or cool down the drain, collect it in a bowl or bucket to water houseplants or the garden. Do the same with the cooled cooking water once the pasta or veggies are done or beans are soaked. Added bonus: this water now contains nutrients to nourish your plants.
  • Filter it. If you’re drinking bottled water rather than water from the tap, consider installing a filter on your tap or keeping a filtered pitcher in the refrigerator to avoid all of those plastic bottles that end up as landfill pollution because they are not recyclable.
Conserve on energy while cooking.

2. Cook to Conserve Energy

Cooking accounts for 20 percent of consumer household energy use, so cooking appliances are good places to cut back. Using less electricity reduces the amount of greenhouse gas emissions released and lowers our carbon footprint. Older appliances use more energy than newer Energy Star energy efficient models. Electric ovens use about 1,000 to 5,000 watts, with an average of 2,400 watts for a modern oven at a cost of $.12 per hour. Newer models can use up to 20 percent less energy. Fortunately, one hardly needs to remodel the entire kitchen (however nice it would be!) to use less energy and lower that monthly bill.

Try these tips to turn up the energy efficiency in your kitchen:

  • Maintain the Temp. Keep your refrigerator between 37- and 40-degrees F, freezer at 5 degrees (stand-alone freezers can be at 0 degrees) for highest efficiency. If possible, the appliance should not be in direct sunlight or near the oven or stove, and it should receive proper airflow in the space surrounding it. Also, don’t overfill your refrigerator or freezer, as this can hinder air/cooling circulation, and don’t place hot items in either, as this increases energy consumption. Avoid that second refrigerator that is likely old, inefficient, and costs more than twice what the first one costs. Older refrigerators (15 to 25 years old) will use up to 1,000 kilowatt-hours each year (more if working against the heat in the garage or basement), compared to the 600 kilowatt-hours of a newer Energy Star refrigerator.
  • Turn on the oven only when necessary, being careful not to preheat for too long. Baking using the convection setting can shorten cooking time. Plan ahead so you cook more than one dish at a time to increase efficiency, and use the microwave or toaster oven for smaller dishes. Use lidded pots and pans on the stovetop to reduce cooking time, and be sure to place pots on proper sized burners so as not to waste heat.
  • Get Efficient. Definitely make use of the instant pot, pressure cooker, and slow cooker whenever possible. They are far more energy efficient than other cooking appliances. The instant pot, for example, saves up to 70 percent of the electricity used by ovens, stove, and steamers.
Green Up Your Kitchen Practices for a Healthier Planet
This recipe for Borscht with Beets and Beet Greens uses the whole beet to reduce food waste.

3. Minimize Food-Waste

Studies show that upwards of two-thirds of food waste in the U.S. falls on us, the consumers. Not only is food waste a threat to the environment—greenhouse gasses, water waste, and land resources—it’s a threat to our health and food security. We can take action right in our own kitchens.

Here’s how:

  • Plan Your Meals. The food you bring into your kitchen should be part of your family’s weekly meal plan. When it comes to perishables, like fruits and vegetables, purchase only what you’ll use to minimize waste. Stock the pantry with a variety of canned, jarred, frozen, and dried foods, which have a longer storage life and make it easy to put meals together, even when they’re not perfectly planned.
  • Store Foods Wisely. Most fresh produce, like leafy greens, celery, and herbs store best in the refrigerator, while others, such as bananas, onions, and melons do better on the counter until they’re ripe, when a move to the fridge is wise. Be sure to catch them as they start to overripen and either use them right away or store them in the freezer for future use.
  • Use It All. Aim to use as much of the food as possible, including normally discarded celery tops or radish stems—they’re edible! Before those greens rot, grab a new recipe or use them to make stock, pesto, a veggie saute, soups, frittatas, salads, cobbler, muffins, or smoothies.
  • Composting is one of the simplest and most impactful things we can do to cut food waste, and it’s a simple, affordable way to feed our plants. Keep a small crock on your kitchen counter to collect scraps or overripe foods. When full, take it to an indoor or outdoor bin to breakdown naturally into nutrient-rich compost to feed to your house and garden plants.
Green Up Your Kitchen Practices for a Healthier Planet
Favor reusable plates, bowls, cups, and silverware rather than disposables.

4. Perk Up Your Packaging

Skip unnecessary packaging on foods you buy and store at home. Most of it ends up in landfills, which makes up most of the country’s waste, and recycled items make up about a quarter of that total waste. Containers and packaging make up the largest portion of collected consumer waste. Cut back on your packaging with these eco-friendly strategies:

  • Reuse It. Opt for reusable food storage containers, china, and cutlery. Rather than tossing these into the trash bin, you can give them a quick wash and they’re ready to go again and again. Try using cloth dishtowels instead of paper towels. If you buy several, they’re always on hand to use, launder, and reuse.
  • Say No to Disposables. Ditch disposable items like plastic straws, plastic and aluminum foil food coverings, non-recyclable food storage containers, plastic and Styrofoam drink cups and dishes, and single use cutlery.
Green Up Your Kitchen Practices for a Healthier Planet
Purchase more organic produce to reduce pesticide use.

5. Detox

Unhealthful chemicals are hiding in our kitchens. Bad for our health and the environment, they’re commonly found in our food, cookware, cleaning products, detergents, and packaging, to name just a few.

  • Go Natural. Chemicals abound in cleaning products, like dishwashing liquids, detergents, floor cleaners, window and surface cleaners, degreasers, the list goes on. Fortunately, natural cleaning products have become more mainstream and are easy to find at local markets and certainly online. Another option to avoid these chemicals is to use everyday ingredients like vinegar and baking soda to make non-toxic cleaners at home.
  • Cook Green. Turn away from Teflon non-stick surfaces in pots and pans. At high heat, this coating breaks down, potentially releasing toxins into the air. Although Teflon has not been made with the chemical that has been linked to health and environmental risks since 2013, the fumes may still have adverse effects, such as temporary flu-like symptoms, and it likely many of us still own and are using them. Stainless steel and cast iron cookware are safe and will last for years.
  • Choose Organic. Purchase organic produce when possible to reduce the amount of pesticides in the environment as well as those brought into your home. A backyard garden is a great way to grow organic fruits, vegetables, and herbs. Just be sure to use natural fertilizers, pest, and week controllers.
Purchase more locally grown foods.

6. Cut Your Food Miles

Our global economy allows us the luxury of eating most any food at any time and most anywhere, like blueberries in winter or fresh veggies in the desert. But this comes at a higher financial and environmental cost because those foods are traveling great distances for our convenience. Food miles are the distance our food travels from point of origin to consumption. In general, the higher a food’s miles, the less environmentally friendly it tends to be, due to the amount of fuel used, which contributes to greenhouse gas emissions in the form of CO2. Reducing food miles brings the focus back to a more natural way of eating.

Reduce the miles your food travels with these simple strategies:

  • Grow Your Own Food. A community garden, backyard garden, or even potted veggies on a balcony or a few windowsill herbs—growing your own food is a great way to cut back on food miles. You’ll have homegrown food at your fingertips, get a huge feeling of accomplishment, and even save some cash!
  • Buy Locally. Every purchase from farmers markets, nearby farms, or markets that stock local produce and products support the local economy, reduces food miles, and creates a sense of community.
  • Shop Seasonally. Buy foods that are in season and it’s a pretty safe bet you’ve minimized the miles traveled. Not only that, peak ripeness means the best flavor and the lowest prices, so enjoy!

Check out this list of eco-friendly cooking tools and download my free home gardening toolkit here.

Written by Lori Zanteson

Images by Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN

For other tips on environmental sustainably, check out some of these resources:

6 Ways to Cut Your Food Waste
4 Ways to Eat for the Environment
Grow Your Own Food Toolkit

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