Since 2020, many of us have spent more time feeding ourselves than ever before. Planning, shopping, cooking and cleaning feel like never-ending tasks as we have become more acutely involved in securing three meals a day, seven days a week for our households.
We’re constantly in our kitchens, and this has forced many of us to become that much more aware of the environmental impact of our meals.
Although we are not experts on climate change and the environment, we are authorities on food and kitchens, and we’re often looking for ways to reduce waste in our cooking, cleaning, food storage and more. If you’re of the same mind-set, we’ve assembled a list of 20 actions — some very easy, some a little more involved — that you can take right now to become a more sustainably minded home cook.
If this feels like a long list, start by picking one or two things to try adding to your routine. Each small daily decision can make an impact in the long run.
1. When boiling water, put a lid on it. Doing so traps the heat inside, meaning that it will require less energy to bring the water to a boil and also does so more quickly.
2. Put down the paper towels. Though it might be instinctual to tear off a sheet for cleaning messes or absorbing moisture, more sustainable options work just as well. Dish towels and sponges are great for wiping up spills, and a wire rack is, in many ways, better for draining fried foods.
3. Reuse parchment paper and aluminum foil. Parchment paper is great for simplifying cleanup and keeping foods from sticking, and it, along with aluminum foil, can also be reused. As long as it’s not ripped or extremely soiled, simply wipe it down (or even throw it in the dishwasher in the case of aluminum foil), fold it up and save it for another use. Looking for a more durable option? Silicone baking mats make cleanup a breeze.
4. Ditch plastic bags. Eight states have banned single-use plastic shopping bags, and a number of states charge fees for plastic bag use, forcing stores and consumers to make reusable bags a habit. Take another step by leaving the plastic produce bags behind, too. Most produce, including potatoes, onions and citrus, can go straight into your shopping cart, as they’ll be washed or peeled before being consumed anyway.
5. Give zip-tops a second life. Tired of tossing plastic zip-top bags in the trash? Just hand-wash and dry them thoroughly and they can live to see another day. However, you shouldn’t reuse plastic bags that contained raw meat, seafood or eggs. For a modest investment, silicone food storage bags are extremely durable.
6. Do away with disposable plates and cutlery. We’ve all probably reached peak dish-washing fatigue and appreciate the convenience of disposable plates and cutlery, but think about the environment the next time you’re deciding how to serve up a meal. Even for upcoming picnics, when paper plates are the norm, pulling dishes from the cabinet can add an extra dose of sophistication to the affair.
7. Save the water you use to rinse rice and produce. Use it to water your plants. Rice water, in particular, is more beneficial to plants thanks to the added starch, which encourages the growth of healthy bacteria.
8. Run the dishwasher only when it’s full. For those with the luxury of a dishwasher, it tends to be more eco-friendly than washing by hand. However, you should wait until it’s full to run it, and use the “economy” option if you have it. Also consider turning off heat drying and letting the dishes air-dry.
9. Don’t let the faucet run when washing dishes by hand. For those of us washing our dishes by hand, if you have a two-compartment sink, it’s best practice to fill one side with soapy water to wash dishes and the other side with clean water to rinse them — and don’t let the faucet run — to reduce water loss. Willing to make an investment? Install a low-flow aerator to save even more water.
10. Use small appliances more often than the big ones. When cooking a small amount, countertop appliances (microwaves, toaster ovens, air fryers, etc.) use less energy than heating up a full-size oven. These small appliances also heat up your home less, so they’re great to use in the summer to cut down on the need for air conditioning.
11. Know what’s in your fridge, freezer and pantry. Keeping a list of what you have in your fridge and freezer can eliminate the need to hold the door open while you try to figure out what to cook or what you need to pick up on a shopping trip. And for those items with shorter life spans, keep them in one area as a “use first” station to cut down on food waste.
12. Be smarter when preheating the oven.
For items where a stark temperature change isn’t important — think bacon and baked potatoes — you don’t need to preheat the oven at all; just put the food in and let it start to cook as the oven climbs to the desired temperature. When preheating is needed, use an oven thermometer to determine how long your oven takes to reach temperature and try not to run it any longer than necessary.
13. Embrace leftovers. While we all can appreciate a freshly cooked meal, dishes eaten a few days later can be just as good, and in some cases even better. (We’re talking about you, chili.) Eating leftovers not only helps reduce food waste, but it can help save time and money, too. Another benefit: Reheating last night’s dinner will probably consume less energy than cooking a new meal from scratch.
14. Choose reusable coffee equipment. If you pick up your coffee on the go, bring a reusable coffee cup along for the ride. If you make it at home, the French press doesn’t require any extra tools, and certain electric coffee makers come with their own mesh filters. There are also options for reusable pods, and cloth filters to replace single-use versions.
15. Opt for eco-friendly cleaning products. Look for sponges made from recycled materials and dish soaps and detergents that are biodegradable and free of phosphates and other harmful materials that can threaten marine life. Buy bulk products with less packaging, and consider purchasing biodegradable trash bags when you restock.
16. Check your refrigerator’s temperature. Your refrigerator should be running around 37 degrees (check with your manufacturer for the exact ideal temperature). Too high and food safety risks arise, too low and you’re expending more energy than you actually need. Your best bet is to buy a fridge thermometer (if you have one installed in the appliance, it isn’t always accurate) and adjust the temperature accordingly.
17. Clean your fridge coils. Even a small amount of dust on the coils — beneath or behind your refrigerator — can significantly reduce the appliance’s energy efficiency. So every year or so, unplug the fridge and use a vacuum or duster around the coils to help keep it running as it should.
18. Buy local when you can. There are perks to living in such a connected world, but the energy it takes to get products from all over the globe onto your plate is not one of them. The fuel required to get an item from where it is made to where it is purchased or consumed has a cost, and the greater that distance, the greater the carbon emissions. Look into local farmers markets and community-supported agriculture (CSA). These vendors may be more likely to grow and raise food organically and humanely, and the proximity of their farms reduces the cost of transporting it.
19. Compost. Once you’ve consumed and repurposed all that you can, a certain amount of food still needs to be disposed of. That’s where composting comes in. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “Making compost keeps these materials out of landfills where they take up space and release methane, a potent greenhouse gas.” Compost through the city’s program or start your own pile at home. Hate the odors? Store your compost bin the fridge or freezer until trash day.
20. Reevaluate your meat and dairy consumption. According to the analysis of a 2018 study published in the journal Science: “Avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet.” Beef is often cited as the worst environmental offender. “Giving up beef once a week in favor of beans, over the course of a year, is the equivalent of not burning 38 gallons of gas,” Tamar Haspel wrote in The Washington Post. Even if you’re not prepared to go vegetarian or vegan, eating fewer animal products — particularly red meat — is a win.