1. Eat at Home and Cook for Yourself
Why cook for yourself? It's cheaper than eating out. It's fun. It's a chance to spend time with loved ones (or catch up on your favorite TV -- whatever works). You choose the ingredients. You control how nutritious it is. You drive less. You waste less food.
Why not cook for yourself? Time.
A little planning goes a long way. Stretch Sunday's meal into Monday and Tuesday's leftovers, try a slow cooker, develop new quick pasta recipes, learn to love root vegetables with a forgiving shelf life, and soups and stews that keep on giving.
Cooking for yourself is a habit like anything else. It's a habit that can help you lose weight, stay healthy, save money -- and do your part to save the planet. Oh -- and don't forget to eat your leftovers.
2. Eat Less Meat
Why eat less meat? Eating lower on the food chain is probably the single most important thing you can do to help the environment. If the whole world stopped driving cars and SUVs, shipping goods in tractor trailers, flying planes, sending freighters across the ocean and all other transportation activity, it wouldn't do as much as if we all just stopped eating beef.
Livestock accounts for 18% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations. That includes clearing land for grazing, raising grains for feed (often with the help of fossil fuel fertilizers) -- and the not insignificant burping of cows. All the fertilizer and pesticides used to grow grain, the antibiotics and hormones (often) used to speed up livestock growth on feed lots and the copious manure all add to the environmental impact of raising livestock.
Americans eat the equivalent of three quarter-pounders a day. (We are obsessed with meat.) If we each cut the equivalent of one hamburger from our daily diet (try the tomato rice soup pictured here), it would be like taking half million cars off the road. We might all live a little longer, too.
When you do eat meat, look for ethically raised animals, raised locally on natural diets whenever possible.
3. Eat Real Foods
Why eat real foods? If your grandmother wouldn't have immediately recognized it as "food" there's a good chance it's less food and more manufactured good. Who wants to eat a manufactured good? There's a reason a Twinkie has a shelf life to rival a Nerf basketball.
Real foods are the basis for a commonsense diet. The only processing food needs is the cooking you do at home. Chances are, the less processing a food has been subjected to, the less energy and fewer resources have been expended manufacturing, packaging and transporting it to your grocery store. And real foods haven't had all the nutrition processed out of them.
So read labels, and look for those foods with the shortest, most direct list of ingredients. Better, choose foods without labels because the items in the produce aisle are as real as it gets. A good place to start is The Daily Green's Real Food Diet.
4. Eat In Season
Why eat in season? There's a reason Locavore was the 2007 Oxford Word of the Year. Eating fruits and vegetables at the time of harvest means you're eating them when they're fresh, have traveled less and have been stored less. That means a tastier food that has typically required fewer resources to reach you. For instance, a blueberry in April (from Florida) to September (from Michigan) will arrive fresher -- and cheaper -- than its counterpart flown in from South America during the winter.
Summer, when so much food is being harvested, is easier than other seasons. Here's some help with the rest of the calendar:
5. Shop Local, Buy Local
Why shop from the farm? Eating locally, and eating what's in season is easier when you shop at farmers' markets, farm stands or from a community supported farm (CSA is short for "Community Supported Agriculture"). Spending your money locally at local farms also means you're helping to keep working farms viable, and that means keeping the scenery of your town or region intact.
Beyond that, when you shop direct from a farmer, you can ask questions about how produce was raised: "Were pesticides used? Fertilizers? What is she doing to control water pollution and soil erosion?"
Find local farm resources with a quick zip code search powered by Local Harvest on The Daily Green's homepage.
6. Start Your Own Backyard Garden
Why start your own garden? Hey, there's no farm like your own, and there's no food mile like no food miles. Besides the benefits of gardening that go beyond food -- time outdoors, quiet opportunities for contemplation, the satisfaction of having made something with your hands -- growing your own food means complete control over the quality of your diet. You can also plan your garden to be part of a backyard landscape that supports birds, butterflies, bees and other wildlife.
A small space is enough for a surprisingly productive garden (and don't forget to look for community gardens you can join). Even a sunny set of front stairs, or a window box, is enough to grow tomatoes, herbs and some other yummy produce. If you have a little more space, you can plan a bigger garden full of high-yield vegetables. To get started on an organic garden, see The Daily Green's How to Start an Organic Garden in 9 Easy Steps. If Michelle Obama can garden at the White House, you can too!
As you gain expertise, you can consider raising your own bees to pollinate your plants (beekeeping doesn't take much more effort than keeping a garden) and plant some tasty rare heirloom tomatoes and other vegetables that you will never find in a market, no matter how super.
7. Learn to Preserve
Why preserve food? If you garden or buy seasonal produce in bulk, you can make your harvest last for months by learning age-old preservation methods.
Whether it's canning veggies, drying sunflower seeds, pickling cucumbers or making jams and jellies, there are simple techniques that can -- with a little investment of time -- make your dollar investment in a garden or a farm share really pay off.
Start with 100 Mile Diet canning tips, then move on to the National Center for Home Food Preservation, a free government-funded repository for science-based information about food preservation. It even includes a free, self-guided course for beginners.
Canning isn't the only technique our grandparents did way before anyone described it as being "green." For more ideas, see these 7 Lost Household Arts.
Why compost? Composting makes simple common sense. Why send nutrients to the landfill or incinerator, when you can transform them into compost that will nourish your vegetable or flower garden, or your indoor potted plants? You'll save on fertilizer costs for the yard or garden, and you make good use of all the food you buy -- even those parts you don't eat.
Composting can be as easy as setting aside some space in a yard that can be kept free of animals and piling up vegetable and fruit waste (along with things like coffee grinds, egg shells and certain other foods and compostable packaging), as well as grass clippings, leaves and other yard waste. To speed up the decomposition process, manage the ratio of wastes, and turn the compost pile. Look for specific tips on the Web, where sites like howtocompost.org spell it out in detail.
And don't think composting is just for people living with an acre of land. Kitchen compost bins and worm bins are available for urban composting, too. If you're lucky, your city or community garden may even accept kitchen wastes for composting.
9. Buy USDA Organic Foods
Why buy organic? Modern agriculture can be environmentally destructive by causing soil erosion, polluting water with fertilizers and chemical pesticides and, potentially, by altering the gene pool of natural ecosystems. Organic foods are produced without synthetic growth hormones, genetically engineered organisms, antibiotics, chemical fertilizers or manmade chemical pesticides.
Organic growing methods were developed by those who realized the longterm health of the soil -- and its ability to continue to provide nutrients needed to grow food -- depends on more than adding fossil fuel-based fertilizers, killing pests with toxic chemicals and planting genetically modified seeds that can withstand pesticide treatments. The Department of Agriculture's organic certification is one of the most trustworthy labels available, and a handful of other organic labels are also meaningful, according to Consumers Union. (Note that, unless it says it's 100% organic, it probably isn't -- quite; certain ingredients that aren't available in organic forms are allowed in foods labeled "organic.")
When it comes to personal health, eating organic foods sometimes means -- according to some research -- eating a more nutritious vegetable, and it also means avoiding any pesticide residue (see the Dirty Dozen fruits and veggies that tend to have the most pesticide residue, and the Clean 15 that tend not to be tainted).
Organic produce sometimes comes at a premium price. Here are 5 simple tips to help you save on organic food, or any food, really.
10. Learn the Labels That Have Integrity
Why do it? Labels are supposed to make our lives easier, by pointing out those foods made in ways that meet our ethical and environmental standards. Unfortunately, there are too many labels, claiming too many things -- and while some are highly meaningful, some are downright deceiving.
In addition to USDA organic, here are some good labels to look for:
Fair Trade Certified ensures that farmers and farm workers in developing nations receive a fair price for their product and work in fair democratic conditions; and that they are likely to be small-scale farms using sustainable farming methods.
Shade Grown or Bird Friendly coffee, and Rainforest Alliance certified coffee, orange juice, chocolate and bananas all ensure that farming practices maintain rainforest health and native biodiversity, including migratory songbirds that spend summers in the North Americans and winters in the south.
Demeter Certified Biodynamic ensures that foods are grown biodynamically, which means without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, without most animal by-products and without genetically altered seeds, among other requirements.
Country of Origin Labels In 2009, the U.S. expanded country of origin labeling (COOL) so that you can be more aware of who's producing your food. With more than 400,000 facilities in 170 countries producing food sold in the U.S., that can be important information. (Remember the Chinese melamine scares of 2007 and 2008?)
11. Check the Labels on Meat and Dairy Carefully
Why look for labels on meat and dairy carefully? As we already explained, the decision to eat meat, and how much, is one of the biggest choices you make in your diet. Whether it's because of a sense of affinity for other living breathing animals, out of knowledge of the environmental impact that raising livestock and other animals has, it's worth it to choose your meat and dairy products carefully.
Some terms on labels mean virtually nothing -- or at least nothing verifiable. Phrases like "antibiotic free," "free range," "no chemicals," "no additives," "natural" or even "fresh" are deemed not meaningful by Consumer Union's very useful Eco-labels center (at greenerchoices.org for guides for meat and dairy).
The same organic labels that apply to other foods apply here. USDA organic is trustworthy, as are a handful of others. Other labels with integrity to look for include "Certified Humane Raised," and "Grass fed" -- if accompanied by USDA certification.
12. Choose Fish Carefully
Why choose fish carefully? First, fish can be highly contaminated with toxic chemicals like mercury and PCBs, so you want to avoid eating tainted species, particularly if you are pregnant, may get pregnant, are nursing, or planning to serve the meal to a child. (Government warnings have shifted and sometimes one agency's recommendations have contradicted those of another agency, or of respected advocacy groups.) Second, the world's stocks of commercial fish are, in many cases, being fished at unsustainable rates that are leading to collapsing populations. That said, fish are a healthy meat, so many people want to make fish a part of their diets.
A great source of information about fish comes from the Environmental Defense Fund's Seafood Selector, which identifies which fish are both caught sustainably and are low in contaminants -- and which are not. It has a searchable database of fish, and also provides a handy wallet-sized card to take to the fish market.
According to Consumer's Union, no fish label is highly meaningful, but each of the following will tell you something:
Dolphin Safe in most cases certifies that tuna is caught without killing dolphins, but only applies to the primary fishing grounds in the eastern Pacific, not to tuna caught elsewhere.
FishWise is very useful for choosing sustainably caught fish and "somewhat meaningful" for determining contaminant levels.
Marine Stewardship Council is "somewhat meaningful"; while it provides consumers information about which fish are sustainably harvested, the standards used to determine what is "sustainable" can be inconsistent.
Safe Harbor is "somewhat meaningful" for choosing fish that are less contaminated (below median level) with mercury, but is not useful for comparing mercury levels between species. In other words, hypothetically, you may choose a Safe Harbor-labeled tuna that is less contaminated than other tuna, but it could be still more contaminated than an unlabeled swordfish.
Seafood Safe is "somewhat meaningful" for choosing fish that are lower in two common contaminants, PCBs and mercury. The label relies on data from the tests of random samples of fish.
13. Buy in Bulk
Why buy in bulk?
Two reasons: Less packaging, and less cost.
Packaging materials make up more than 30% of all consumer waste, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Buying in bulk eliminates packaging waste.
Beyond bulk, look for minimally packaged items, and items that are packaged in 100% post-consumer recycled materials, or can be composted.
Eliminate disposable bag waste by buying a couple good reusable bags -- preferably made from recycled materials -- and remember to carry them with you to the market, so you don't have to struggle with the old "paper or plastic" question.
14. Check for Recalls
Why? Green eating is about preserving the land, but it's also about improving your health. Organic and natural foods are not immune from recalls, as the recent peanut and pistachio recalls showed.
More often, recalls are indicators of larger problems in the food system. They demonstrate how industrialized and centralized food processing can introduce pathogens -- E. coli bacteria, salmonella, etc. -- into the food supply, and then circulate them widely throughout the U.S. or world in countless processed foods.
The Daily Green stays on top of recalls that are relevant to our audience, and you can always find the latest food recalls listed here.
15. Think Beyond the Food
Why? Eating green is really about limiting waste in one form or another, so why stop with the food? Here are three easy ways to waste less and save money:
If you drink bottled water, or carbonated beverages, look to your tap, a good filter and/or a home carbonation system, paired with a good reusable bottle.
Get cloth napkins and dishtowels, and stop buying paper napkins and paper towels. If you can't go without paper altogether, look for 100% post consumer recycled paper, and Green Seal certified (Forest Stewardship Council-certified is also a good label to look for.) Make your green switch complete by choosing napkins and hand towels made from recycled materials or a sustainable fiber like bamboo, jute or organic cotton.
Replace plastic storage containers with glass. Some kinds of plastics can leach Bisphenol A or phthalates, ingredients that have been shown to mimic hormones and which have been linked to several health concerns. Glass, if you can avoid dropping it, will last a lifetime. Think carefully about what your container is made out of when you use the microwave, since heating can also cause suspect chemicals to leach into food.
16. Green Clean
Why green clean? If you've gone through all the trouble of keeping any harmful pesticide residue from touching your vegetables, why would you want to use a pesticide (like an antimicrobial soap) or harsh chemical (like bleach) on your countertops, cooking surfaces and dishes?
Commercial cleaners made from less harsh and nontoxic ingredients have proliferated in recent years, making this an easy switch. But in most cases, you can save money by easily making your own effective cleansers with simple ingredients like baking soda, borax, lemon juice and vinegar.
Not convinced? Check out the Zen Cleaner's ultra-simple DIY recipes for cleaning everything in the kitchen: the coffee maker, the dishwasher, the garbage disposal, the microwave, the oven -- and the refrigerator.
17. Buy EnergyStar Appliances
Why buy Energy Star? When it comes time to replace an old appliance, the government's Energy Star rating system is the best way to make sure you're choosing one of the most energy efficient models on the market. Doing so will cut down on your energy usage, and costs, for the lifetime of the appliance -- 10 years or more in many cases.
Energy Star currently certifies dishwashers and refrigerators and freezers. The refrigerator is typically the biggest electricity user in the house (though flat-screen TVs are giving the old fridge a run for your money), so be sure to choose wisely.
And remember -- choose the right appliance for the job. While there are no Energy Star standards for stovetops, ovens, toasters or microwaves, you can be pretty confident that using a smaller appliance will use less energy.
18. Save Water
Why? Depending on where you live, saving water may be imperative or just plain smart. Here are six simple ways to save water:
- Identify and fix leaks in your faucet.
- Only run the dishwasher when it's fully loaded, run it on the economy setting, and when it comes time to replace the dishwasher be sure to purchase one that is both energy- and water-efficient.
- Store a pitcher of drinking water in the refrigerator for an easy source of cold water.
- If you're running the water to get it hot, save the cold water for drinking or cooking, and the lukewarm water for watering plants. (Because older homes may have lead pipes, it's not wise to drink or cook with hot water, and it's a good idea to flush out any standing water in the pipes before taking a drink; that flushed water is fine for houseplants.)
- Use commonsense: Don't leave the faucet running if you don't need the water. For example, use the drain stopper strategically, so you use a tub full of soapy water, or clean water for washing and rinsing dishes, instead of running the faucet.
- Don't thaw meats or other items under running water. Plan ahead and defrost frozen items in the refrigerator or on the counter.
Amplify your water savings with additional energy (and cost) savings by checking the thermostat on your hot water heater. Set it so that the water remains hot, but not scalding.