Food Guide for Sustainability

Make meals that have less impact on the environment in six easy steps.
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You’ve already made recycling a lifelong habit, you proudly reject single-use plastic straws and bottles on the daily, and you carpool or take public transportation whenever possible — if Earth could talk, it would thank you profusely for doing your part to reduce your carbon footprint, prevent global warming and save our oceans. But is there even more you could be doing to help? Yes, and it starts with your food choices.

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Choose Your Ingredients Wisely

Fueling your body and brain with the best nutrients possible doesn’t have to take a back seat to a mission of sustainability. In fact, these two initiatives easily go hand in hand. And unlike abs, which we all know begin in the kitchen, sustainably sourced ingredients actually start in the fields.

“Over the last 100 years, our food system has gone through a significant transformation from small local farms to a large industrial system,” explains Margie Saidel, MPH, RD, LDN, vice president of nutrition and sustainability at Chartwells K12. “As our lifestyles have evolved, so have our eating habits. We now demand a large variety of inexpensive foods, at all times of the year, which are heavily processed and preserved. It turns out that the way we’ve all enjoyed eating for so long is damaging our environment and planet. Unfortunately, the result is the onset of climate change and the impending struggle to feed our growing global population.”

Thankfully, it’s not all gloom and doom. Saidel says we can all do our part to eat more sustainably, and one by one, we can create change — starting with the following:

1. Put plants first. It’s healthiest to fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables because plants can provide the protein your body needs, along with vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals to maintain health and protection from disease. But this isn’t limited to leafy greens — don’t forget about legumes, lentils, tofu, tempeh and seitan, which are a few examples of excellent plant protein sources.

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2. Focus on seasonal and local. Have you grown accustomed to having a wide variety of fresh produce available at your supermarkets at all times of the year? “As a result of our global economy, we import fruits and vegetables from around the globe to make them available to us even when they are out of season locally,” Saidel says. “Eating seasonally means that you eat produce when it is grown in your local area.” This approach puts more emphasis on supporting local farmers and reduces the time and distance between harvest and market. Look for farmers markets and community-supported agriculture in your area. You’ll enjoy fresh products that were grown in your community or nearby that taste great — and if there are certain items you crave year-round, you can preserve them by canning or freezing.

3. Select sustainable seafood. Choose seafood that is either caught or farmed in a way that protects the harvested species and other species, as well as the ocean itself. It’s a lot easier than you might think to determine how sustainable your seafood is — the renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch helps you make sustainable choices with a free mobile app that classifies fish in “best,” “good” or “avoid” categories for a healthy ocean.

4. Eat whole food. Whole foods mean as close to their natural form as possible (read: less processed). Some easy substitutions to ease you in include mixing half whole-wheat flour with half white flour the next time you make cookies (the kids won’t notice!) or mixing half brown and half white rice with your favorite meal. In addition, Saidel says fresh produce, seeds and nuts in their natural form are fantastic choices to provide the widest variety of nutrients possible to maintain your health and prevent disease.

5. Reduce animal protein. “Many people don’t realize that animal food production has a devastating impact on the environment because of greenhouse gas emissions, land used for livestock feed instead of food to feed humans, and the vast water requirements of animal food production,” Saidel explains. “This doesn’t mean you need to give up eating meat — but there are a number of things you can do to play your part in protecting the planet.” She says that eggs, dairy, poultry and pork have a lower environmental impact than red meat, so switch up your animal protein sources to eat fewer hamburgers, steaks and roasts. You also can reduce your usual portion size of animal protein by combining both plant and animal sources (e.g., blend your burger with mushrooms or legumes or have a beef and bean burrito). You also can experiment with recipes such as a plant-focused stir-fry, salad, grain bowl or pasta dish in which animal protein is not the star of the show but plays a more supporting role. Finally, when you do purchase meat, always choose grass-fed, pasture-raised organic meats.

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6. Reduce food waste. The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that a whopping 30 to 40 percent of the food we buy ends up in landfills. “You can do your part to reduce food waste starting in your own home with a few changes to your routine,” Saidel says. “Start with planning meals for the week and take your ingredient list to the grocery store. Even better, plan your meals with the intent of utilizing the food that is in your refrigerator or pantry. You also can freeze leftovers to use another day.” Finally, store food correctly to extend its life by using the free FoodKeeper mobile app from Foodsafety.gov.