Updated for Earth Day’s 50th anniversary, here are some favorite tips, recipes, products, and ideas for a more sustainable plate and kitchen, including eating less meat and cutting back on plastic—even in pandemic times.
Today marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day in the U.S. Every year we try to organize a street cleanup with our kids and their friends in our Queens neighborhood, which feels great and instructive and symbolic, but let’s be honest: We need to be doing that daily. And this year, amid social distancing and rampant virus load, it’s not such a great idea. (The streets, meanwhile, littered with discarded vinyl gloves, need it more than ever.)
But that’s not all that’s changed from the sustainable perspective. During the pandemic people are forced to use and throw out more things—plastic supermarket bags, one-time-use gloves, face masks, coffee cups—in the name of public safety. Many groceries don’t even allow reusable cloth bags. Compost programs are being cut (at least in NYC). Earth-friendly hand sanitizers and surface cleaners aren’t effective against the virus; alcohol and bleach are.
Only time will tell whether this pandemic exacerbates or (temporarily) alleviates global warming (there are, of course, a ton less carbon-emitting cars and planes moving around). But until major policy changes happen here in the U.S.—I’m looking at you, Green New Deal—there are still some steps we can take ALL THE TIME to do our part.
Here are some ideas for how we can make more Earth-friendly choices when it comes to eating and cooking food, including 9 specific actions for keeping up green habits during the pandemic.
What to Eat
Experts seem to agree that the No. 1 thing we can do to decrease our own personal greenhouse gas output is eat less meat. That is it. Given the vast deforestation, water shortages, methane emissions, and air and water pollution directly associated with raising mass quantities of livestock, it’s no wonder eating less meat (especially beef and pork) tops the list for how individuals can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according to climate scientists. (Bonus: Your heart will thank you too.)
But it’s easier said than done for so many people, including us. We’re an omnivorous family and my children crave meat. They love it. I’ve been working hard to find and make new vegetarian recipes to introduce to the family (see this Pinterest board if you are also looking for ideas; I am pinning the ones we like), and I generally cook meat no more than twice a week.
The pandemic, however, has changed this too. When it comes time to grab groceries and get the heck out of the supermarket, it’s easy to get chicken and sausages and ground meat (when it’s available), and rest assured you’ve got some dinners under your belt. Just be sure to also add eggs, tinned fish, cheese, (canned) coconut milk, frozen edamame, beans, and tofu to your basket too—all great, delicious sources of protein that can likewise form the basis for a meal. As a bonus, tofu freezes well and actually cooks up deliciously (crispy, extra absorbent of marinades) post-defrost.
(I do have one secret meat-free weapon, and I’m going to share that at the bottom of this post: a no-recipe recipe for those nights when I don’t know what to make, but I want it to be healthy and meatless and eaten by all four of us. Scroll to the end to find it.)
Where to Buy Food
It goes without saying that to up your green eating game, when it comes to buying and eating food, you go for local. Food (or beer, or wine) that’s locally grown or made gets to your plate via fewer food miles (i.e., less fuel and air pollution) and was likely produced in a more sustainable manner. It’s why we shop every Sunday at our wonderful local greenmarket in Jackson Heights—which is luckily still running even now.
Where to get food, though, is another loaded question in pandemic times. Many people probably don’t have a local farmers market in action, but perhaps you still have access to local fisheries, or local takeaway growlers of beer, or local meat from a butcher who’s now doing takeout—plenty of small producers are doing creative things to stay afloat, and they could really use your help! Ask your neighbors and do some digging if you haven’t yet.
Lots of people are opting for food delivery rather than in-person shopping, understandably so. Consider those produce delivery services that prioritize small farms, like Farm to People or Farm Box Direct. Additionally, while it may not always be locally sourced, Misfits Market or Perfectly Imperfect Produce are likewise great options for helping to reduce food waste by “rescuing” not-perfect produce rejected by supermarkets.
For the Kitchen
A few small Earth-friendly steps we’ve taken in our own kitchen recently include swapping plastic wrap for beeswax; swapping plastic baggies for PVC- and BPA-free reusable ones (like these versatile silicone bags, sandwich bags, and snack bags); buying recycled napkins, paper towels, and toilet paper (we’ve also tried reusable bamboo paper towels, though honestly it made us realize how nonessential paper towels could be); and composting in our own large shared backyard, where we are fortunate to have four big bins. GrowNYC also has tips for indoor composting on its site.
How to Be More Sustainable Right Now
Everything is upside-down right now. I get it. Now may not be the best time to try to overhaul your kitchen to be more eco-friendly. But there are a few things we can do (and not do), besides what’s mentioned above, to lessen our impact right now. I bet many of you are already way more conscious about wasting food (and toilet paper), right? I know I am. I am not venturing back out to that grocery store until I really need to. Here are some more ideas:
- Use a washable cloth mask. If you are high-risk (or an essential worker), obviously don’t do this. But for most of us, cloth face coverings (per CDC guidelines) are perfectly sufficient to help prevent virus transmission when out in public, and they create a whole lot less waste than disposable ones.
- Skip the vinyl gloves. Again, this is for the average person. Many experts argue against the use of gloves for people who may not know how to remove or dispose of them properly, defeating their purpose. If you’re going out in public, just don’t touch your face and wash your hands.
- Use soap and water rather than harsh chemicals when possible. If you are high-risk or caring for a sick person, by all means use the strongest chemicals possible. Just take care, as these experts in NPR recently cautioned, not to use bleach or Lysol wipes/spray on soft food packaging that may absorb it and contaminate your food. Soap and water will suffice to clean most things that need cleaning, and many experts say it is preferable to something like bleach.
- Switch to bar soap. It’s easier to stock up on and there’s no plastic involved.
- Be aware of your water use. It may be unavoidable to use your dishwasher more often, but use the “eco” setting if there is one. Do laundry only when you need to, and consider keeping a dedicated set of clothes to wear to stores when you have to go (remove immediately when you get home and store in a closed bag—same goes for cloth bags if your grocery still lets you use them). Or space out your showers a bit more—if we aren’t going anywhere, what’s the point? (Is that gross? Maybe for some people! This one’s a personal call.)
- Keep your plastic takeout containers. If you’re still supporting local restaurants via takeout/delivery as we are once a week, wash those plastic containers for future reuse. They are great to have on hand for delivering your own food if you are, for example, helping to feed any neighbors in need, or who can’t get out much. Or just for leaving muffins on a neighbor’s doorstep in solidarity.
- But be picky about what you have delivered. Now is not the time to have every random thing you want delivered via Amazon or Target just because you still can! Not only is it bad for the planet, but it’s also risky for the people delivering your packages. Be thoughtful about what you really need, and be sure to order things in groups.
- Grow stuff. It’s a fantastic time to start planting stuff you can eat later. Who doesn’t want to be more self-sufficient right now? If you lack outdoor space, try container gardening or the Instagram-worthy trend of growing from scraps, something that’s on our to-do list. (Food52 has some great ideas for this too.)
- Read up on policy. On the fence about whether the country needs a Green New Deal? Scientific American has a great new post up today about why it is more relevant than ever right now.
And now, as promised, here’s that easy, no-fail vegetarian (or pescatarian) weeknight dinner recipe:
Caveat: This is not really a recipe; you just have to trust your judgment (and taste) on measurements!
What you need: rice, carrots, cucumbers, greens (like baby spinach), avocado, 1 egg per person, (optional) tinned fish of choice (we love Trader Joe’s smoked trout and wild-caught mackerel), low-sodium soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame oil, sesame seeds, Sriracha. Use what you have; any of these are omittable and replaceable by what you have and like.
How to: Cook some rice (any rice!). While it’s cooking, make a small pile of julienned carrots and cucumbers, slice up some avocado, wash a handful of greens. Once the rice is ready, cook an egg or two omelet-style (sometimes I add a little soy sauce to the egg before I beat it), just fry flat on both sides, and then cut it into squares. If you are going with the fish, cut that up too.
Make your dressing: Mix about 1/4 cup soy sauce, 2-3 Tbsp rice vinegar, 1 Tbsp sesame oil, and a dash of mirin or brown sugar if you want it sweeter. I usually dilute with a splash or two of water too. It’s done when it tastes good to you!
Assemble: Put the rice in your bowl, and drizzle some dressing on top. Add in piles of your carrots, cucumbers, greens, avocado, egg, and fish, and then drizzle with more dressing. Top with sesame seeds and Sriracha, and enjoy!
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