Many of the restaurants I normally write about in this column are finding ways to be more eco-friendly. Buying local, the farm-to-table movement, slow food, participating in CSAs, nose-to-tail cooking, greener kitchens and dining rooms—these strategies seem to be not only good for the planet, but also good for business.
Well, there are ways we can all participate in green cuisine besides eating in green restaurants or turning vegan. For starters, as the restaurants are doing, we can take steps toward making our own kitchens and pantries more eco-friendly. Here are 10 suggestions to get you started.
1. Bulk up. Buy in bulk, that is. And no, I’m not talking about stocking up for the apocalypse. But buying from bulk bins uses less packaging and therefore creates less waste that winds up in landfills, not to mention fewer gas-guzzling trips to the store. Since you’re not paying for packaging and marketing, buying unprocessed whole foods—legumes, pasta, grains, dried fruits, etc.—in bulk is often a money-saver, as well.
2. Go for glass. Now that you’ve bought in bulk, try to use glass, steel and ceramic containers for storing your stuff, not plastic containers that can leach chemicals into foods and are typically not recyclable.
3. Dishwashers aren’t evil. It might seem contrary to common sense, but dishwashers in the kitchen can actually use less water than washing dishes by hand. Thanks to newer, energy-efficient appliances (look for the EnergyStar rating), dishwashers, wisely used, can help green up your kitchen. Keep a few important tips in mind though: Skip the pre-rinse, don’t run the washer until it’s full, turn down the water temperature and allow dishes and utensils to air dry by turning off the heated dry cycle.
4. Clean your plate! It’s astonishing that with food shortages throughout the world, Americans waste approximately 27 percent of their consumable food—at home, in supermarkets, in restaurants, everywhere. Not only is chucking food wasteful, it winds up in the garbage collection system, which in turn uses more energy. So it might seem obvious, but don’t cook more than you can eat, or freeze leftovers for another day. Like your mother said, clean your plate. If you must dispose of leftovers, consider composting.
5. Buy local. It’s not always easy, but buying foods produced nearby—ideally, within 100 miles—reduces the carbon footprint of the foods we eat. Why buy lamb shipped all the way from New Zealand when you can cook up chops from Morgan Valley? Thanks to farmers markets, CSAs, co-ops and a “buy local” strategy on the parts of some of our more conscientious food purveyors and markets, it’s getting easier than ever to purchase foods close to their source. Better yet, plant a garden and grow your own stuff. Now that’s local!
6. Green gadgets are good. More and more manufacturers of kitchen utensils, tools, cookware, gadgets and such are getting the message and going green. For example, one of my favorite cooking tools is the nonstick (no Teflon) EarthPan, a durable and versatile pan made with a unique, eco-friendly material called SandFlow, and it is safe to temperatures up to 600 degrees. The use of slow cookers, bread machines and pressure cookers can also help save energy in the kitchen since they don’t require heating up a stove or oven. A cool device that I’ve been getting a lot of use from lately is called a VitaClay cooker. It combines high-tech, computerized programming with ancient clay-pot cooking. And due to the unique heating qualities of the clay pot, the VitaClay cooks stews, roasts, rice and other foods approximately twice as fast as traditional slow cookers, thereby saving electricity.
7. Clean like Grandma. Most of us have scads of toxic cleaning products stashed under the bathroom or kitchen sink. Funny thing is, we don’t really need ’em. There isn’t much that can’t be cleaned using some very basic items such as baking soda, vinegar, alcohol, lemon juice and club soda—most of which are relatively safe to have around kids and pets. Chances are your grandmother or great-grandmother used this stuff to clean up around the house, so why don’t you? It’s cheaper and greener than buying chemical-laden cleaners that are toxic to our environment. Some are so nasty that they’re technically classified as hazardous waste.
8. Paper or plastic? Neither, thanks. Start saying no to plastic bottles of water, plastic shopping bags, paper plates and napkins and such. Switch to reusable, BPA-free water bottles, reusable cloth napkins and shopping bags, good old durable plates and utensils, glassware made of recycled glass and so on. Here’s a neat tip: If you are asked the paper or plastic question at the supermarket checkout and you haven’t brought your own reusable shopping bags (naughty you), choose the paper bags. I save them and use them to soak up oil whenever I’m deep-frying fish, schnitzel, french fries and the like. Last week’s copies of City Weekly work well, too.
9. Be efficient behind the stove. I go bonkers each time someone in my household preheats the broiler for 10 minutes. It’s not necessary and a waste of time and energy. There’s almost no reason these days to preheat burners, since they come to heat so rapidly. When you use the stove, use the right size burner for the pot or pan you have. According to EnergyStar, heating up an 8-inch burner to warm a 6-inch pan wastes more than 40 percent of that burner’s energy. So switch to the smaller burners when possible.
10. Eat in. Maybe the easiest, but most overlooked, way to go green is to stay home. With apologies to all my restaurateur buddies out there, cooking dinner for the family means you’re not wasting precious fuel getting to and from the restaurant. Breaking bread at home is nourishing for the soul, not just the body.