Food these days is surprisingly complicated.
Not only do we tend to have very strong preferences about it (seriously, unless mayonnaise turns out to be the secret to eternal youth, I will not eat it) but food raises all sorts of questions about what is good for us, and what is good for the planet. Our supply chains can deliver pretty much any product at any time of year, and cheaply, but meeting this demand often comes at the expense of the environment (or other important issues, like workers’ rights).
Great. But that sounds like a huge challenge and in the meantime I’m getting hungry.
Luckily, there are lots of ways to be kinder to the environment right now, right from your own kitchen, and in a way that saves you money. And that’s by reducing how much food, energy, and water gets wasted.
Our kitchen is the one room in the house where we are buying things on a weekly basis. These 14 basic (but commonly overlooked!) ideas were designed to fit into a wide variety of budgets. If they can work for you, try them, and let us know what you think!
I. Cut down on food waste
In the U.S., we waste 30-40% of our food supply. That’s equivalent to more than 20 pounds of food per person every month.
Beyond the old adage “Waste not, want not,” uneaten food contributes billions of tons of greenhouse gases (GHGs) to the atmosphere every year, which is not a good part of the climate change story as we wrap up what could be the hottest year on record. Of course a lot of that waste happens before food even gets anywhere near the kitchen, but there are still many small and important ways for individuals to cut down on food waste:
- Shopping: Think about how many meals you’ll cook in the coming days, and buy ingredients that roughly fit into that plan. Don’t buy more food than you can eat before it goes bad; for most fresh produce, that’s less than a week. This super detailed guide from Still Tasty can tell you more about the shelf-life of food, depending on whether it’s raw, cooked, or opened.
- Cooking: Try not to cook more than you can eat—especially if you don’t like leftovers. Considering using as much of the fruit or veggie as possible, including leaving the nutrient-rich peels on (washed) potatoes and carrots (This is safer with organic produce, or produce known to be grown with low levels of pesticides). And save kitchen scraps—bits like onions skins and carrot tops are great for making veggie stock later on.
- Storing: Expiration dates are more like guidelines than rules. Refer to Still Tasty for advice on expiration dates.
- Eating: Try to only serve yourself as much as you can eat, and be strategic about what’s left over—plus sometimes they really do taste better than next day.
- Composting: This is the trickiest step for most people, since few cities offer public composting programs (except these cities, which take composting very seriously). Compost can be a fantastic way to save money on soil for plants, and is often a clear way to take stock of how much food you’re wasting on a daily or weekly basis.
-If you have a yard, that’s fantastic! Check out this beginner’s guide to composting.
-If you’re an apartment dweller in the city (like me!), the options are either to pay for a compost collection service (roughly $8 a week in the Washington, D.C. area), freeze veggie and other scraps until you can take them to a nearby farmers market, or find a community garden that can use the organic material. Either way, it’s a monetary or time commitment, but well worth the effort if you can manage it.
II. Use energy more efficiently
Kitchens consume about 15% of the energy used in the average American home. Probably the most energy-saving action you can take in the kitchen is to swap out your old fridge, stove and dishwasher for new, super-efficient, Energy Star appliances.
But switching out appliances can get costly, so consider some of these easy, inexpensive alternatives that can also lower your energy bill:
- Replace incandescent bulbs and fixtures with energy-efficient lighting. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, that alone could save you $75 a year (if you switch all bulbs throughout your home).
- Put a lid on the cooking pot. Without the lid, boiling a pot of water takes three times more energy. Using the right size burner for the pot also reduces wasted energy.
- Use small appliances for heating up small amounts of food and drink. Think: the smaller the appliance, the better. For instance, a toaster oven or microwave is more energy-efficient for small dishes than heating up an entire oven. (However, when it comes to heating up a cup of water, the kettle wins.)
- Speaking of the oven—forget about pre-heating. Unless you’re baking something a little finicky, like cookies or a soufflé, you can start cooking a dish before the oven reaches the recommended temperature, and turn the oven off five minutes before the dish is done: believe it or not, the oven will stay hot enough. And use a timer instead of opening the oven to check on a dish—every time you do, the oven’s temperature drops 25 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Limit the number of times you open the refrigerator, and let hot food cool down before storing it so that the fridge doesn’t have to work extra hard.
III. Get smart about water use
As with energy, investing in water-efficient appliances is probably your best bet for saving the most resources and money in the long run. But if that isn’t an option (as it isn’t for most of us!), there are lots of other easier and cheaper actions that a home cook can take to cut down on water waste:
- Fix a leaky faucet right away; according to the EPA, leaks waste a trillion gallons of water in the U.S. every year. And make sure to catch the drips in the meantime—you can use the water on your plants or to flush the toilet.
- Use a spatula to scrape food bits off of used plates before washing them. I once worked in a kitchen that required us to do this, and it made dishwashing noticeably quicker and less water-intensive. It’s also kinder on your dishwasher, and more water-efficient than rinsing dishes.
- Only run a dishwasher when it’s full, and use the energy-saver options (i.e., no “pre-rinse” cycle or “heated drying”).
- When hand-washing dishes, fill a basin with soapy water instead of letting the water run for each dish.
Did we miss a great tip? Let us know in the comments, or send us a shout-out on social. Happy cooking!
Katherine Manchester is an international development professional, with roots in Maine and Tanzania. She has written about issues of environmental sustainability and gender. For fun, she enjoys reading and messing around in sailboats.