25 Ways to Be a More Sustainable Cook
Small changes can make a big difference.
Making your home kitchen more eco-friendly doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Even small steps can lead to meaningful change. Here we turn to sustainability experts and chefs to give you tips, tricks, and recipes to green up your kitchen.
1. Embrace "Ugly" As Beautiful
We all have flaws. That holds true for produce, too—from misshapen potatoes to twisted, multi-legged carrots. But most imperfections are only skin deep. Embracing funny-looking fruits and veggies can go a long way in reducing our nation’s food waste problem. We toss a jaw-dropping 400 pounds of food per person per year—40% of our food. Look for “imperfect produce” bins at grocers like Whole Foods, Walmart, and Hy-Vee.
2. Learn the Label Lingo
Not everything on a package’s label is meaningful. The USDA Organic label is set by law, so it’s one you can trust. But don’t be fooled by terms like “natural” that have no regulated definition, and don’t buy “non-GMO”–labeled produce when there’s no GMO option. “That’s label confusion,” says Tufts University’s Sean B. Cash, PhD. Check out Consumer Reports’ Greener Choices tool—it breaks down food labels in a friendly way.
3. Save All (Nutritious) Bits
Parmesan rinds, radish tops, turnip greens, leftover bread—keep these nutritious bits out of the trash can, says Kevin Fink, executive chef and owner of Austin’s Emmer & Rye. Steep Parmesan rinds into broths. Whiz raw radish tops and turnip greens in a food processor with pine nuts, cheese, and fresh mint, and then use on pasta or grilled vegetables. Carrot tops add fresh flavor and a feathery texture to salads. Or resuscitate leftover bread for a panzanella, says Fink: “Toss in oil, bake, then coat it with oil and vinegar. It saturates [the bread] and is so good.”
RELATED: How to Avoid Food Waste
4. Stock Up on Frigid Fruit
The produce aisle isn’t the only place to get your fruit on. Registered dietitian Ashley Koff goes to the freezer section for deals on mangoes, berries, peaches, and more. “They’re often more nutritious than what you’ll find in the produce bin because they’re picked and processed at their peak ripeness,” she says, and preserving them in your freezer means they’re less likely to go bad on your counter.
5. Friend a Farmer
Chef Eric Skokan of Black Cat in Boulder, Colorado, says the best way to make the transition to a sustainably minded home cook is to shop at one of nearly 8,700 farmers' markets sprinkled across the U.S. “Farmers are dying to let you in on their secrets,” he says. And there’s an added benefit: Locally produced food at its seasonal peak is at its most nutritious and delicious.
Here's how the best way to freeze your market bounty:
6. Eat Plant-Based "Meat"
Raising animals for food takes vast amounts of land, water, and energy, and those animals are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. Even worse: Global meat production is expected to increase to a whopping 62.6 million tons in 2018, placing an even heavier environmental burden on our planet. But companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are working hard to win over even staunch carnivores with mouthwatering plant-based burgers.
View the recipe: Bulgur Chickpea Burgers With Garlic-Avocado Mash
7. Optimize Grains
Oats already have a low carbon footprint, and overnight oats get a sustainability bump: The tasty breakfast requires no heat. But heritage grain legend and Anson Mills founder Glenn Roberts says you can take it one step further: “With heirloom whole grains, nutrition is at its highest if you allow them to soak.” He recommends starting with a water-to-grain ratio of 1-to-1 for his famous Carolina Gold rice. “Soak it on the counter for a good 12 hours; 24 is better. Look for bits of foam like Champagne,” he says. Then cook the rice in that same liquid.
View the Recipe: Berry-Banana Overnight Oats
8. Choose Seafood Wisely
Knowing which fish is sustainable is easy with the Seafood Watch app. The Monterey Bay Aquarium app’s simple red, yellow, and green rating system makes sustainable seafood shopping a snap.
9. Flex Your Mussels
For a quick, sustainable weeknight meal, it doesn’t get much easier than a steamy bowl of farmed mussels, rated a “Best Choice” by Seafood Watch. Mussels filter the water they’re grown in, helping to keep the water clean, and they don’t require any added feeds to grow. “You don’t have to butcher it, cure it, or braise it. They’re really simple,” says lauded chef Maria Hines, owner of Tilth in Seattle. When buying, look for shells that are tightly closed.
10. Join a CSF
Americans prefer their seafood in the form of shrimp, salmon, and tuna, but there’s more deliciousness to be had if you’re open to it. That’s the message from Jeremiah Bacon, chef-partner of The Macintosh in Charleston, South Carolina. His advice: Join a community-supported fishery. Much like its CSA cousin, members pay up front and each week share in the bounty of their local fishermen’s catch.
11. Opt for Grass-Fed
“Choose foods that actively save the world, not just do less harm,” says Anthony Myint, co-chef and co-owner of The Perennial in San Francisco. “Anything that’s grown in a way that fosters healthy soil is good.” Look for producers who embrace adaptive multi-paddock grazing—meaning cattle graze closer together for shorter periods of time, allowing grass and soil to regenerate. Or buy beef or bison labeled “American Grassfed” at the supermarket.
12. Eat Seasonally
Eating produce in season is tastier, more nutritious, and can be better for the planet: Because fruits and veggies are often harvested in your region, it cuts down on the carbon footprint from long-distance transportation. Even better—buy from nearby growers. Find out what’s ready to harvest near you via the new Seasonal Food Guide app, which includes more than 140 types of fruits, veggies, legumes, nuts, and herbs.
13. Avoid Antibiotics
Antibiotic resistance is a serious, looming threat. The routine use of antibiotics in animals raised for food (to promote growth and keep them healthy in often crowded environments) is now propagating antibiotic-resistant “superbugs.” We’re seeing a global rise in ailments that no longer can be treated by a simple round of antibiotics. One of the best things to do is to buy chicken and other meats raised without antibiotics. “Look for the ‘No Antibiotics Ever’ label,” says Maryn McKenna, author of Big Chicken.
14. Buy Frozen Fish
“Chefs don’t like frozen seafood,” says Andrea Reusing, chef and owner of Lantern in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Many think freezing can change its texture and flavor. But the way fish is frozen today is much improved, and that can mean better quality, especially for seafood that travels a long way. Plus, seafood frozen at sea reduces food waste.
15. Grown Your Own
It’s hard to get more sustainable than planting your own garden. If you don’t have the space or time to tend to a large plot, Douglas Katz, chef-owner of Fire Food and Drink in Cleveland, recommends starting with pots on your patio and filling them with herbs, tomatoes, and peppers: “You can snip herbs like thyme and rosemary for months while keeping the plant looking good.”
16. Find Farmed Fish
Not all farmed fish are unsustainable. “Best Choice”–rated farmed trout is a healthy protein with low environmental impact. It’s a favorite of Clayton Chapman, chef-owner of The Grey Plume in Omaha, Nebraska. “Farmed trout is a great entry point for home cooks,” he says. It’s versatile, affordable, and available year-round. “You can grill or roast it, and it takes to different seasonings.”
17. Seek Out These Sugars
Keeping true to his Oglala Lakota roots, Minnesota chef Sean Sherman is best known for his use of regional and indigenous foods. That means refined white sugar derived from sugarcane or GMO beets is off the table. Instead he uses sweet, natural alternatives like honey, maple, and agave that don’t rely on intense farming practices. “There are so many cool spectrums of honey,” says Sherman. And buying honey from local producers helps keep local bee populations up.
RELATED: 8 Common Types of Sugar in Your Food
18. Embrace the Whole Bird
The nose-to-tail movement can be tough for the home cook, but not when it comes to chicken, says cookbook author Molly Watson. Roast one for dinner. Use the bones for soup stock, and sauté the livers in a bit of butter for a quick snack with crackers.
19. Reuse Bags
Don’t wait for a plastic bag ban; pony up with pretty reusable bags. It’s a tiny step that helps reduce the 8 million tons of plastic that reach our oceans each year.
20. Go for Quality Over Quantity
We love cheese, but it has a hefty environmental footprint. Per the Environmental Working Group, cheese is third on the list of highest emissions (behind lamb and beef). For every pound of cheese eaten, about 131/2 pounds of carbon dioxide are emitted. Don’t totally ditch cheese, though. Make it a special occasion item—and indulge in an artisan cheese so it won’t feel like sacrificing.
21. Don't Let Leftovers Go
Eat your leftovers; don’t toss them. The Natural Resources Defense Council peeked into trash cans in Denver, Nashville, and New York, and they found that two-thirds of the discarded food could have been eaten—with coffee, milk, apples, bread, potatoes, and pasta topping the list.
22. Second-Guess Sell-By Dates
Sell-by, best-by, use-by, enjoy-by, and best-if-used before dates are confusing because they don’t have a precise legal definition and are often based on the manufacturer’s concerns over food freshness, not food safety. That confusion prompts many of us to toss food that’s often still perfectly safe to eat. Large retailers are trying to standardize those phrases, but variations still abound. Before tossing an item based on date alone, take a closer look. Except for infant formula, if the date passes during home storage, a product should still be safe until you can see spoilage if it’s handled properly, says the USDA.
23. Pick Pastured Pork
Try to avoid pork raised in large confinement operations (also known as CAFOs), which often pollute the air and nearby waterways, says Paul Willis, co-founder of Niman Ranch’s pork program. Look for animals raised on pasture. And instead of going straight for the bacon, pork chop, or tenderloin, give an underutilized cut a try. Willis’ favorite? A pork shoulder roast, because it’s rich in flavor-enhancing intramuscular fat.
24. Up Your Veggies
One of the easiest ways to eat more sustainably is to downsize that larger center-of-the-plate meat entrée to a side, says chef Amanda Cohen, owner of Dirt Candy in New York: “The more vegetables you eat, the more sustainable your kitchen, period. And the trick to eating more veggies is to make them taste better.” If frying eggplant, buttering spring peas, salting your salad, or dipping your crudités gets you to eat more veggies, do it.
View the recipe: Creamy Artichoke Dip
RELATED: 95 Ways to Eat More Veggies
25. Check Your Pulse
Dried beans, lentils, split peas, and chickpeas are all pulses, meaning they’re edible seeds of legumes. Pulses are among the most sustainable (and affordable) foods you can choose because they can adapt to climate change and help sequester carbon in the soil, and they decrease methane emissions from the farm animals, such as cattle, that eat them. Plus, they’re rich in fiber, nutrients, and plant protein.
View the recipe: Roast Chicken with Lentils and Yogurt