The first step toward a sustainable meal is to be thankful that we are among the fortunate citizens who have the privilege of pondering the question; What is sustainable? The definition of sustainable is clear: 1) able to be maintained at a certain rate or level. 2) conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources.
What actually constitutes sustainable practice is fraught with debate and complexity. Here, we will attempt to keep it simple, because let’s face it, the mental, global, digital chatter of modern life ranges from inspiring, to overwhelming, to completely paralyzing.
1. Give Thanks and Give Back
Gratitude for what we ingest not only improves digestion; it opens our eyes and hearts to the world around us. Pausing to be grateful for our abundance and choices during the meal planning and eating process calms us, helps us to make thoughtful decisions while shopping, stops us from flipping off the person who stole our premium parking spot right next to the farmer’s market, and reminds us to give back to the global community in the same way that a farmer might fertilize a fruit tree for their collective health and increased yield. Consider seeking out food banks, food drives, and other opportunities to donate high quality food items and/or your valuable time. Check out these hunger fighting apps for more ideas.
It may sound silly and obvious, but cooking rather than eating out or buying convenience foods and ready-made meals is one of the best ways to eat sustainably. For those with little time and patience, one pot meals in a slow cooker can be a great way to have dinner ready to plate as soon as you walk in the door after work. For those with more time and the inclination to blossom into a food prep god/goddess i.e. The Barefoot Contessa, check out this list of sustainable food blogs for eye candy and creative inspiration.
3. Fresh Produce
The farmer’s market, farm stand, and produce section of your grocery store is by far the best place to spend the majority of your shopping time and dollars. Not only is a diet high in fruits and veggies extremely healthy, it is also the most sustainable for our planetary ecosystem. To excuse self-interested corporations from our homes and our tables (no thank you, go away) and maintain the integrity of our food, land, and seed supplies, buy Non-GMO. To minimize carbon footprint and for a healthy local economy, buy local when possible. To minimize pollution and toxins in our bodies and in the earth, buy organic when possible.
“Keep in mind that a produce item doesn’t have to be labeled ‘organic’ to be responsibly grown,” says Urban Sustainability MA alumna and AULA Sustainability Committee member Cyndi Hubach. “Getting the official designation can be a bureaucratic challenge, but that doesn’t stop many farmers from employing organic techniques like crop rotation and Integrated Pest Management.” Also, not all crops are “sprayed” equally. Talk to your farmer and your grocery store produce manager if labels don’t give you enough information, and look up the EWG’s pesticide residue data for Clean Fifteen and Dirty Dozen info.
4. Say NO To Factory Farmed Meat
Many people feel that they need some animal flesh in their diet to be healthy. Seek out meat from small local farms where the animals are treated well, pastured and grazed outdoors, and not treated with antibiotics and hormones. If your budget does not allow for locally farmed meat, consider preparing Yotam Ottolenghi’s Cauliflower Steak, or Buddhist monk/ chef Jeong Kwan’s Shiitake Mushrooms instead. You won’t be disappointed. Still craving meat? Buy organic and/ or grass fed. Still too expensive or not available? Halal and Kosher meat do not necessarily have any health or environmental benefits over conventional meat, but they are slaughtered more humanely.
5. Sustainable Seafood
As they do in France, treat seafood and meat as the svelte pièce de résistance of the meal rather than the thing designed to fill you up. It is full of flavor and sacrifice, and like a dash of caviar, you can make a small portion go a long way.
“Global overfishing is a classic example of the tragedy of the commons,” says Urban Sustainability MA founder and chair Donald Strauss. “One trawler can’t decimate a species, but 100,000 can. UN data shows 31.4 percent of global fish stocks are overfished or fished unsustainably, and that is a death sentence for the world’s oceans.” This Smart Seafood Buying Guide can help you make an informed choice about the delicacies that will grace your table, sustainably.
6. Grow Food
If you can, get your hands dirty and grow it yourself. Tending your plants and reaping your harvest (even if it’s just a lone pot of herbs on your urban patio) puts you in rhythm with the seasons and engages you in the epic journey of birth, growth, and death… all within the manageable lifespan of a cucumber. If you don’t like getting your hands dirty, check out this aeroponic vegetable garden for small spaces.
7. Condiment Yourself
Making your own salad dressings, mayos, and refrigerator pickles not only allows for more interesting flavor, but they are also often healthier for you and the planet. If you look at the label on your favorite salad dressing, chances are that it contains more than one type of foreign oil (pun intended), and a preservative or two. Stocking up on cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil from your home state (if you live in an olive state) or local sunflower oil (if you live in a sunflowery place) can reduce your carbon footprint, improve the variety of your salad repertoire, and reduce the amount of preservatives that you consume with the twist of a lemon and a squeeze of garlic. Voila!
8. Buy Thoughtfully
The closer you buy to the actual growing of the food, the better. However, many things are only available in stores. Consider how the store is run. Do they have a good reputation as a business? Are the employees happy and well compensated? Do they provide options for a wide range of economic brackets? Do they carry fair-trade and responsibly sourced items? Do they try to cut down on packaging and waste where possible? Or you can just refer to this list…
9. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
Try not to use disposable dinnerware. Bring reusable bags when you shop. For picnics, consider stainless steel camping sets or something similar. That salad dressing you just whipped up? Peel the label off of your empty store bought dressing and reuse the bottle. If you buy food products in plastic (Which most of us do), choose the ones that are recyclable. If you buy new dinnerware, consider something beautiful from a local artisan and donate the old stuff. Use cloth napkins instead of paper or paper towels. The trees will thank you, and so will your guests who will be entranced by the designs on the napkins you made or purchased from your friendly Etsy craftsperson. In this way we increase CO2 absorption in the atmosphere and support artists. If you have special ones for the kids with cool designs on them like hot air balloons or rainbow zebras, they might even use them instead of their shirt!
10. Finally, Drink Consciously
Did you know that in New England it is more sustainable to drink wine from Europe than from California? There is a lower carbon footprint to ship by boat than to transport by truck. Did you know that even though they are not labeled organic, many European vineyards do not use pesticides? Did you know that growers in comparatively dry climates rely less on fungicides, the most commonly detected residue in wine? Think Chile, Argentina, and California. Breweries across the world are trying to cut down on water usage. It is easy to forget that drinks are a considerable part of a meal. Whether you are serving herbal tea with honey, organic grass fed cow’s milk, or a new Beaujolais, your choices matter.
Feeling empowered to seek out knowledge and to make choices about how we live is a wonderful thing. As we make these responsible, informed choices, we increase the health of the planet for all.