I’m very excited about this post because it’s the beginning of a series outlining changes Greg and I have made at home to try to live more sustainably. The plan is to kind of go room by room/task by task, so I’m planning to do future posts about laundry/cleaning, toiletries/self care, what I look for when shopping, and probably a post about big investment changes like our electric car and solar panels. This is a topic I’m extremely passionate about, so please feel free to send in any questions or suggestions you have so we can take this journey together! Today I’m starting out with sustainable kitchen swaps we’ve made. I also have to caveat that COVID-19 has thrown a wrench in some of these plans-I’ll touch base on that when it impacts a bullet in the list below.
The first category of sustainable kitchen swaps I want to cover are broader, lifestyle swaps. Then at the end of this post I’ll cover some of the sustainable products we’ve purchased to replace single-use items. These lifestyle swaps definitely take more commitment to maintain, but they also offer more impact and in many cases have positive health benefits as well.
- We try to eat less meat/animal products: This is a big one. Livestock take a huge amount of resources to raise and process-think about how much water it takes to maintain them and grow their food, plus the vehicles needed to transport animal products to and from processing plants. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that the livestock industry is responsible for 14.5% of all anthropogenic (originating from human activity) greenhouse gas emissions. We don’t follow a completely plant-based diet-I’m worried about sacrificing the macro nutrients provided by animal products and I don’t think I could get the whole family on board. My compromise is trying to maintain a 1/3 split with what I cook-1/3 of our meals can contain meat, 1/3 should be vegetarian, and 1/3 should be vegan. This isn’t a research-based goal; it’s just what I feel is manageable for our family right now. I don’t hit the ratios perfectly every time, but it helps to have a framework to try for.
- I bring my own containers to the grocery store: This one has been disrupted by COVID because the grocery stores near me have temporarily paused allowing customers to bring their own containers. We’ve also been doing curbside pickup rather than going inside a grocery store because I’m terrified of being exposed to the virus. Before COVID, though, I had a routine down. I use these mesh produce bags instead of the disposable plastic versions the stores supply. Some grocery stores will also let you bring your own containers for shopping in the bulk section. Whole Foods is particularly great about this. You just have to go to customer service when you get to the store to have them weigh your empty containers, then they deduct the weight when ringing up your items at checkout. Whole Foods has a really extensive bulk food section, so I’ve been able to get nuts, coffee, and most of our grains waste-free this way. They also let you bring your own container to the butcher counter, so I was doing that for the meat I was buying. One thing I like about this method is it allows me to get exactly how much I need if the item is something like meat which isn’t as shelf stable.
- I make as much as I can from scratch: I recognize this option might not be as applicable for everyone, depending on how much you like cooking and what your family needs are. I’m sure I will need to adjust this once we have kids in the picture, but for now I make all of our bread, our yogurt, most of our sauces, and the stock I use from scratch. My Instant Pot is a great tool for making yogurt and vegetable stock. I save all my veggie scraps from cooking in a container in the freezer, and then when I have enough I make a batch of veggie stock and sub that for most recipes that call for vegetable or chicken stock. I love this because I feel like the homemade stock adds much more flavor than store-bought stuff, it’s basically free (since I already had the veggies for other recipes), and I don’t have stock containers going in the trash. The other major benefit of making my own versions of things whenever I can is it gives me a lot of control over how much added sugar and salt we’re consuming, and it cuts out a lot of chemical preservatives because I also use organic ingredients for a lot of things.
- We don’t use disposable kitchenware: This one takes some extra effort, but for me it’s worth it to achieve my environmental goals, and it saves money in the long run if you’re not buying disposables over and over again. We use cloth napkins instead of paper. When we have parties, we use our regular dishes instead of buying paper plates, disposable cups, and plastic silverware. I avoid using disposable cooking vessels (like those foil things you can use to bake in) unless I’m delivering food to something I know won’t give my dish back. This takes some extra time and work, but I’ve found that the cleanup doesn’t take THAT long, and it makes a huge difference.
In this section, I’m sharing some of the sustainable kitchen swaps I’ve purchased to replace single-use versions of things. This isn’t an exhaustive list and I’m constantly making new discoveries, but this is what I love now:
- I use beeswax wrap when I’m baking to wrap dough when it’s resting.
- When I’m baking bread, I use a dish towel over the dough when it’s rising instead of plastic wrap.
- A good friend gave us a set of silicon lids as a wedding gift, and I use them instead of plastic wrap to cover bowls that don’t have their own lids. I can’t find the ones that we have any more, but these are similar.
- We picked up these silicone food covers on a recent trip to IKEA, and they’re really nice for covering cans or things like apples, onions, and cucumbers if we want to save half.
- We store food in pyrex containers instead of plastic bags. We have some plastic tupperware-type containers we use for some things, but the Pyrex is my default because I really don’t like reheating leftovers in plastic containers. There are a bunch of other health/environmental concerns associated with heating plastic.
- For storing things where a pyrex or tupperware container is too bulky, we use reusable silicone bags.
- We use rags and dishtowels for cleaning instead of paper towels. There are a handful of things (like pet messes) which we still clean up with paper towels, and in that case we use Seventh Generation recycled paper towels. I’ve tried bamboo paper towels before and those also worked well, but the Seventh Generation ones are easier for me to track down.
- I have a full set of dishes (plate, silverware, and mug) at work for instances where there is free office food. That way I don’t have to use disposables, and I can just clean them in the sink in the break room kitchen.
Some final thoughts…
Sometimes I run into things where I can’t buy an item in bulk, or I can’t find the package free version of a thing. Cheese, for example, has been particularly challenging to find waste-free. I’m trying to focus on doing what I can rather than stressing about doing things perfectly, and I’m constantly looking for new sustainable kitchen swaps. I also want to caveat that the COVID-19 pandemic has made avoiding kitchen waste particularly challenging as I’m prioritizing limiting our family’s risk of exposure over going in to stores and shopping with my own containers.
In the hierarchy of packaging, my ideal is a reusable container. Second to that, things that come in recyclable packaging, like cardboard, glass, or aluminum, are better than plastic.
Also, a note on composting-if you are able to, composting is HUGE for improving sustainability. When organic matter (like food scraps and paper waste) is sent to a landfill it isn’t able to decompose properly, so it releases methane in the decomposition process. Methane is more problematic than carbon dioxide in trapping heat, at least in the short-term (basically the time frame scientists have estimated we have to address our greenhouse gas emissions in order to avoid the most dire consequences of climate change). If you can compost, all that organic matter can decompose properly and be used to return nutrients back to the earth.
As of right now, we do not compost. Austin is in the process of rolling out city-wide compost pickup with our waste removal services, but it hasn’t become available in my neighborhood yet. If you have a garden, you can use your compost in your garden. I do not garden because I have really bad allergies, so working in the ground is really difficult for me. If you don’t have compost pickup and you aren’t a gardener, it’s also worth researching if there is a place in your area where you can drop off your compost. I know this is an option in NYC, for example. So far my research hasn’t provided any results for my neighborhood, but I’m still looking! And even in the worst-case scenario, I should get access to the city’s composting program by the end of the year.
I hope this list of sustainable kitchen swaps has been helpful and inspiring for you. Do you have any tips of your own? We’d love to hear from you and are hoping to add to this list over time. You can connect with us on social media, or in the comments below, and sign up for our email newsletter to get updates of new post content!