Cooks can do their part to help save the Earth. Start out with changes in appliance use and food selection.
You’ve changed all of your light bulbs to those energy-saving twisty kind, you faithfully recycle your newspapers, glass and plastics, and you’ve even installed a low-flow toilet.
You may be feeling as green as Kermit the Frog, but there’s one big area that you may have overlooked for conversion: the kitchen.
Now is a good time to review some steps cooks can take to develop kitchen habits that are more environmentally friendly.
Going green in the kitchen doesn’t mean turning into a vegetarian, said Jackie Newgent, a dietitian, cooking instructor and cookbook author of the newly released “Big Green Cookbook” (Wiley, 2009). Newgent, a Fairlawn, Ohio, native, said she was motivated to write the book after learning more about climate change and the negative way carbon emissions are changing the environment.
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Newgent’s advice is to pick just three things to try to change. “Three things that you know are realistic. … It’s like dieting: if you try to do it all at once, you get overwhelmed,” she said.
Don’t get discouraged if you find your old habits are hard to break. “Every little change adds up to a big difference in the long run, even if it is just one change,” Newgent said.
Here are some suggestions for greening your cooking and kitchen:
• Limit the time the stove/oven is used. Never light the oven or turn on a burner when a small appliance will do the job. Microwave ovens, toaster ovens, electric griddles, panini makers and, yes, even a slow cooker all consume less energy than a traditional gas or electric stove.
Consistently using these small appliances can make a huge difference in your energy consumption, Newgent said. Even though slow cookers are typically on for hours at a time, they will burn less energy than a traditional oven to prepare the same dish, such as a roast.
Look for ways to lessen the amount of time the oven and burners are on. When cooking pasta, Newgent recommends using skinny varieties, like angel hair, that will cook more quickly. She also uses a method she dubs “lid cooking” to turn the stove off sooner.
Newgent brings a pot of water to a boil, adds her pasta and brings it up to a boil again. But then she turns the heat off, puts a lid on the pot, and lets the pasta finish cooking from the heated water.
When baking something, turn the oven off five minutes before the item is done and allow the residual heat in the oven to finish the job, she said.
Consider making one meal each week that doesn’t require using the stove at all, such as a salad.
• Eat more fruits and vegetables, less meat. Newgent suggests eating one meatless meal per week. It requires more energy to produce meat than vegetables and fruits. Cutting meat out of just one meal per week can lead to significant energy savings over a year, she said.
If you aren’t prepared to go meatless more often, you can still increase your veggie intake. Newgent said a simple rule to follow is to make sure that every item you prepare contains at least one fruit or vegetable.
Macaroni and cheese, she said, is one dish that is easy to add a vegetable to without altering the dish dramatically. Put lettuce and tomato on a sandwich. Add fruit to your cereal. “It’s easier done than it seems,” she said.
• Run an energy-efficient kitchen. While new major kitchen appliances may not be in the budget for many homeowners, most would see an immediate savings on electric bills with the conversion.
Appliance repairman Bryan Rambler, who operates Mr. Appliance of Northern Summit County in Akron, Ohio, said newer kitchen appliances use about half the energy of ones made before the mid-1990s.
He said proper care of appliances also will keep them running on less energy.
Refrigerators should be away from sunlight and heat sources, like ovens. The warmer the environment, the harder the appliance will have to work and the more energy it will use.
Refrigerators also need breathing room — at least two or three inches of open space between the coils and the wall behind them to allow for better air circulation. Keeping refrigerator coils clean of dirt, dust and pet hair also will improve performance.
The harder an appliance has to work, the faster it will wear out, Rambler said.
Constantly opening and closing the refrigerator causes it to lose cold air. The same goes for the oven — keep the door closed as much as possible while in use to keep the hot air inside.
Rambler said gas stoves typically are less expensive to run than electric ones.
Always have the dishwasher fully loaded before running, and consider scraping your dishes instead of rinsing them before loading, to save on water, Rambler noted.
Newgent also noted that when cooking outdoors, choose a gas grill over charcoal because gas emits less carbon into the atmosphere.
Eat seasonally and buy locally. When cooking, select fruits and vegetables that are in season and look for local sources for foods.
Jeannine Snyder, food chairwoman for Scarlet, Gray and Green Fair at Ohio State University’s Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster, said buying local means getting better produce.
“It doesn’t travel for 1,500 miles and it’s fresher,” she said.
Studies have shown that foods on average travel 1,500 miles to get to our plates. And while the jury is still out on whether buying locally versus trucking foods across country actually saves fossil fuel, there is no argument that fresher foods are more nutritious.
Snyder, who operates Cafe Carmen at the research center, said she tries to purchase from local sources for the restaurant and often serves vegetables grown right at the research center. “The greenhouse program is raising lettuce and tomatoes for us,” she said.
While purchasing from local sources and farmers markets may cost a bit more than mass-produced foods, Snyder said, she likes knowing her money is going into local hands.
“I feel that supporting local business and keeping things close at hand is better than paying someone from California or Argentina,” she said.
The Cuyahoga Valley Countryside Conservancy in Peninsula, the local organization that lobbies for local farmers and farmland, advocates eating locally to help local farmers stay in business, and as a way for consumers to become more aware of what they eat and where their food comes from.
Be waste-conscious. The terms “reduce, recycle and reuse” apply to food as well as traditional recyclables, Newgent said.
Recycling household waste — paper, glass, plastic and metal — is a good place to start in the kitchen. But Newgent said food scraps can also be recycled through composting. If you don’t garden to use your own compost, consider saving compostable scraps and donating them to a community garden.
For items that can’t be recycled, such as certain plastics, Newgent suggested looking for a way to reuse them. Not all plastic yogurt containers can be recycled, but Newgent said they make great holders for small items like crayons, craft supplies or small pieces from children’s toys and games. A soup can easily becomes a pencil holder.
Take steps to stop waste before it gets in the kitchen. Newgent said buying bulk foods eliminates a lot of wasteful packaging. Use dishes instead of paper plates, a rag instead of paper towels and cloth napkins instead of paper ones — all of which can be washed and reused many times over.