41 Ways You Can Help the Environment From Your Kitchen

This blog has mainly focused on making cooking at home fun, easy and affordable, and until now, I haven't really addressed any environmental issues here at Casual Kitchen.

Don't worry, I'm not going to turn into Al Gore, narrating global warming documentaries from my 10,000 square foot Tennessee mansion. But I do want to make the case that every one of us can adopt an ethic of conservation by thinking about what we can do, in our own small way, to help reduce our impact on the environment.

In that spirit, then, today's post is a list of 41 things you can do to make your kitchen greener and more environmentally friendly. I've broken the tips out by category and included brief explanations and details where appropriate.

One final note before we get into the list: I'll be the first to admit that this list is in no way exhaustive or complete, and I hope you will share your own ideas in the comments section below. Let's tap into the wisdom of crowds to save money and reduce our environmental footprint!
1) Eat more local foods

The further your food has to travel to get to you, the heavier the carbon footprint that food makes.

2) Know the origins of your food
Good environmental stewardship involves knowing where your food comes from and knowing something about that country's general environmental standards. Visit Cheap Healthy Good for an informative post on country of origin labeling.

3) Scale your meals
A common refrain here at Casual Kitchen is when you make a double batch of many recipes, you get 2x the food for only 1.2x the work. You can use this same logic to quantify the savings of energy applied toward making scalable meals.

4) Become a vegetarian, or better still, a vegan:
We're neither vegetarians nor vegans here at Casual Kitchen. However, the option of going entirely meat-free exists if you want to pursue it, and the environmental savings of giving up meat can be compelling (although please, let's for once set aside the nauseating jokes about cow flatulence). According to the UN, "livestock are responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions as measured in carbon dioxide equivalent." And researchers at the University of Chicago concluded that you can reduce your carbon emissions more by becoming vegetarian than by switching to a hybrid car.

5) Adopt part-time vegetarianism
If full-time vegetarianism isn't for you, consider adopting part-time vegetarianism, something we do practice at Casual Kitchen. Replace one, two, three or more of your weekly meals with vegetarian dishes. It's a great cuisine to explore, it's healthy, and it will save you money too.

6) Avoid prepackaged snacks
I recently read somewhere that a 2-ounce pack of Twix candy bars contains the saturated fat equivalent of eleven slices of bacon. Energy-dense, yet oh-so-delicious treats like these are not only wasteful in terms of health, nutrition and cost, they are worst offenders in terms of packaging waste.

7) Emphasize basic staples in your diet
Staple foods, like rice, oats, brown rice, and other grains are an inexpensive and environmentally sound way to satisfy human nutritional needs. You'll also save money and packaging by buying these foods in bulk.

8) Avoid second-order foods
The opposite of basic staples, second-order foods are made from staple foods. For example, corn only gets turned into a bag of Doritos after quite a bit of processing, transportation costs, branding and marketing costs, and so forth. Every one of these steps uses energy and costs money. And guess who bears those costs? You do. That's why a non-biodegradable plastic bag filled with Doritos can cost up to $4.00. I've written an entire essay on this for any readers who are curious about this subject.

9) Go simple with sugars, flour and fats
Another idiosyncrasy about the food processing industry is this: the more energy and refinement you apply to a food staple, the less healthy it is to eat. Fats that have been hydrogenated (e.g., Crisco, margarine) are far worse for you than simpler liquid fats like corn oil or olive oil. Sugar is better for you in its more unrefined form. And the less processed your flour is, the more fiber and nutrients it contains. And in each case, the refinement process is highly energy-intensive. So by staying "unrefined," you simultaneously help your wallet, your health and the environment.

10) Avoid Most Branded Cereals
Branded cereals tend to be the perfect storm of heavily processed and heavily refined foods combined with bulky, inefficient and non-biodegradable packaging. And with the price of branded cereal approaching $5.00 a box, the environment and your wallet will thank you. Try a simpler food for breakfast, like fresh fruit or oatmeal.

11) Grow your own food

I've written at length about you can defeat the spice industry by growing your own spices. It's surprising how many different herbs, greens and vegetables you can grow at home, even if you have limited space.

12) Go raw
If you really want to get away from foods with embedded energy-heavy process steps, there's no better way than make raw foods a bigger part of your diet. Yes, the produce still has to be trucked to your local store, but that's pretty much it. A diet focused on fresh, raw foods is an extremely energy-light and environmentally-friendly diet. I'll be exploring this subject in more detail in the coming months.

13) Eliminate non-obvious sources of food waste
Often we waste food without even really thinking about it. Did you make an inefficient grocery list this week and buy food that ended up rotting in your fridge? Did you overindulge at your last restaurant meal and miss a chance to take home leftovers for tonight's dinner? Did you read the recipe twice so that you wouldn't screw up dinner and have to throw it all out? Wasted food is wasted energy.

14) Prepare your food safely

There are few things more wasteful than feeding your family or your guests improperly cooked meat or improperly washed produce, and thus spreading food-borne illnesses. Don't transform an otherwise great dinner into multiple cases of projectile diarrhea.

15) Wash your hands
While some might quibble on minor details like whether to leave the faucet running or not when washing your hands, the larger point is this: unclean hands can spread all sorts of disease. See tip #14 for potential outcomes of not following this tip.

16) Consider canning rather than freezing
If you think about it, freezing is convenient, but highly wasteful, way to store food: keeping food frozen requires a consistent, year-round application of energy. Canning food, on the other hand, involves only one application of energy to briefly heat and then vacuum-pack the cans; after that canned food can sit at room temperature for a very long time without spoiling.

17) Pay attention to food expiration dates
If you are buying food, especially meat, close to its expiration date, be sure to consume or freeze the food immediately. Once again, wasted food is wasted energy.

18) Replace one (or more) weekly dinner out with cooking in
You'll avoid a drive, and you'll save money too.

19) Reduce takeout meals
What kind of restaurant food uses the most non-biodegradable packaging per unit of food? You guessed it: takeout food.

20) Encourage low-impact packaging use
If you see high-impact packaging like styrofoam used at your favorite restaurants or takeout joints, say something to the manager or write a letter to the company's headquarters.

21) Invite neighbors and friends over rather than going out to eat
Not only will you save money and save the incremental energy involved in all of you travelling to a restaurant, you'll get to spend quality time at home cooking great food.

(A brief side note: for an interesting look at one man's efforts to minimize his household trash generation, have a look at 365 Days Of Trash.)
22) Buy kitchen products in bulk
What's the difference between an 8-ounce jug of dish detergent and a 32-ounce jug of dish detergent? About a 50% savings in total plastic packaging per unit of product. Plus, you'll save money on the detergent too, because the per-unit costs will be lower for the larger-sized jug. That's less plastic that ends up in a landfill and more money in your pocket.

23) Ban bottled water from your home
Bottled water can cost up to 100 times more than tap water, and worse, some eight out of ten plastic water bottles end up in landfills. For more on this subject see Lighter Footstep's thought-provoking post on five reasons not to drink bottled water.

24) Eliminate plastic wrap and aluminum foil from your kitchen

Use reusable plastic containers instead, or cover your food with a (clean) reused grocery bag, or reheat your food using another plate or dish as a cover.

25) Eliminate paper towel use
Use a sponge, dishrag or dishtowel instead.

26) Compost
Composting is a nearly cost-free way to dramatically reduce the trash output of your kitchen, and it has a great side benefit: compost can be a nutrient-rich, natural fertilizer for your vegetable or herb garden. Even if you live in a small apartment, you can still compost. Look for a community garden nearby, or if you have a small balcony, you can use a tiny corner of it for a small composting container.

27) Skip the dishwasher drying cycle
Heck, the dishes come out broiling hot anyway. Just open the dishwasher door, let the steam fog up your glasses, and let the ambient heat warm up your home.

28) Run your dishwasher only when full
If you have just a few dirty dishes to wash, you'll use a lot less water and energy by doing them by hand. Dishwashers are only good for the environment when they are used at scale.

29) Run high energy-use appliances during off-peak hours
During peak hours of energy demand, power companies will turn to less efficient fuel sources and less-efficient plants to top off their generating capacity. If you run your dishwasher at night, rather than during afternoon peak hours, not only will you save money, but your power company will face less demand for energy during peak times.

30) Don't use your oven during hot weather
During the dog days of summer, bias your menus toward summer salads or sauteed dishes. Save the baking and roasting for the cooler weather, so your air conditioner doesn't have to fight it out with your oven.

31) Keep your oven door closed
As tempting as it can be to peak in at those cookies, opening the oven door, for just a few seconds, can waste the energy of several minutes of oven baking time.

32) Turn down the temperature settings for your freezer and refrigerator
You don't need to have your refrigerator set at the coldest possible setting. You'll want to experiment with this a bit until you find the ideal temperature, but if done right, this is the kind of tip that keeps on giving--one simple action can drive savings for years on your electric bill. [A side note: for years, Laura and I have debated the semantics of refrigerator temperature settings; in her view, the proper way to phrase this tip is: Turn UP the temperature settings for your freezer and refrigerator. I hope you understand what I'm trying to say here, regardless of the word choice.]

33) Unplug kitchen appliances when not in use
There are studies that claim that as much as 10% of your home's electricity use is in the form of "vampire load"--electric current pulled from devices that are plugged in but not in use. This tip may be a problem for obsessive-compulsive cooks who need their programmable coffeemaker to tell the correct time.

34) Don't buy electric gadgets when human power will do
Do you really need an electric can opener, when a manual can opener will be cheaper, smaller and use less power--and in the long run, will probably be less likely to break?

35) Try sharing appliances and kitchen tools
Most of the tools and gear in your kitchen will spend most of their time sitting in the cupboard, unused. What if you could get together with your (trustworthy) friends or neighbors and share the purchase and the use of some of the most expensive, and least commonly used items? Pricey products like food processors, pressure cookers or even a grill could be shared among two, three or more friends. Everybody will save plenty of money, and your tools will get a lot more regular use. In theory, this sharing approach can even be broadened to include big-ticket household items like lawnmowers or snowblowers.

36) Hold off on renovating your kitchen
This tip is a bit counterintuitive because people generally focus on the incremental efficiency gains that they might get when they buy new appliances, but they ignore that the incremental gains from those new appliances may pale in comparison to all of the waste generated by the renovation itself. Your old refrigerator and oven need to go somewhere, and so do the counters, cabinets, and flooring that you replace. Everything will likely end up in a landfill. Unless your kitchen is a truly horrible shade of 1960s-era dark green, the world might be better off if you held off on gutting your kitchen.

37) Never turn on the hot water for brief use
When you run the hot water tap in your kitchen, most of the water you actually heat never makes it out of the tap--it just stays somewhere in the pipes and then cools back down again. That's energy you've paid for and wasted.

38) Use cold water for almost all of your kitchen tasks.
Cool or even cold water is sufficient for washing most produce. Add a little detergent and you can use cool water for washing many dirty dishes. We make a point of using hot water only for cleaning utensils and cutting boards that have been in contact with meat.

39) Soak dishes before washing
This helps dissolve food residue on your pots and pans and saves you time doing dishes.

40) Consider installing a tankless hot water heater
Traditional hot water heaters work by heating a big tank of water somewhere in your house, and keeping that tank hot at all times, even when you're not using any hot water. In contrast, tankless hot water heaters use a just-in-time heating system to heat only the water you use when you use it. Depending on the nature of your hot water usage, a tankless system could be far more efficient, saving you money and using much less energy. If you have a big family and there are people taking showers at all hours of the day, don't bother, but if your household hot water use is fairly low and sporadic, you may want to consider one of these systems.

41) Never leave the faucet running when performing kitchen tasks
Water that simply runs down the drain is obviously water wasted. But it's also worth thinking about all the energy used by your municipal water supplier to make that water potable--it takes quite a bit of energy to filter, process, and treat tap water to make it safe. Worse, water rinsed down your drain simply goes directly to your sewage treatment facility, wasting resources there too. When you think about it in this way, wasting tap water is really a triple waste.

Readers, what have I missed? What would you add to this list?
This post was inspired by a recent visit to Berea College, in Berea, Kentucky.

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Homekeeping Heart said...

You have a lot of good tips. Some I need to do better at. I don't have a dishwasher, so I'm doing real good in that aspect.

Thanks for stopping by my blog and commenting on my cookie project.

Laura said...

Great list - I'm going to try to implement at least a few of these!

Anonymous said...

Hi Daniel,

Ah, a food blogger after my own ideals! This is quite a comprehensive list -- very nicely done. Some of it is common sense that we might just forget about; other tips are surprising, like #3. I didn't realize this but it does make sense. Thanks so much for sharing this list.

Anonymous said...

hey dan! i just read this entire list. it was so interesting and eye-opening. i think everyone needs to know about these ways to save our environment because if we don't take care of it, where else will we live???

i didn't know that briefly running hot water wastes energy. that's how i make my tea!

i definitely feel that veganism and RAW eating help save the environment. i'm glad you saw some stuff you liked on my blog!! the dehydrator is my favorite cooking appliance.

i'm excited to see some of your veg. and raw recipes!!!


Anonymous said...

Most people shop at the grocery store closest to them. Stop driving your car to the grocery store. Walk or bike there. With a backpack and/or pannier bags for your bike, you can actually carry a LOT of cargo.

Lys said...

Great tips!

Anonymous said...

Wow, what a list! Well said, most of it is common practice at my house, but I did need to be reminded of some! Thanks for visiting and I look forward to reading more of your blog! Happy New Year Dan.

Daniel said...

Thanks so much, everyone for the input and feedback! Happy to hear additional suggestions and ideas as people think of them.


Unknown said...

Great ideas. Here's my addition.

When grocery shopping, don't pick paper or plastic, use reusable canvas shopping bags. I have some I've had for over 19 years. They really last.

Remember to take them with you for all of your shopping--not just grocery shopping.

Anonymous said...

Look forward to hearing more about eating raw in the coming months! Definitely intrigued.

Worm bins are another alternative to composting, just use red wrigglers they sell at fishing stores. My friend stores hers in her closet - there's no smell.

I make a habit of unplug my appliances immediately after using them, otherwise I'll forget to unplug them. Or I cluster several appliances around an outlet - since they have toe "share" the outlet the default is to have none plugged in until I need them.

Thanks for the list!

Anonymous said...

What an excellent list! And better yet, everything you suggested is well within reason. Thanks for the inspiration.

Ellen said...

Lots of great tips on this list! And I agree with the commenter who mentioned the reusable shopping bags. I fit the weekly shopping into 2 or 3 canvas bags, whereas it used to take 8 or 9 plastic ones. No thanks!

I would suggest in tip 39 that people use glass containers, not plastic ones, for leaching concerns. They tend to be more economical, as they last longer than the plastic ones, which I always find warp and stain with heavy use.

desertowl said...

This is great! About tip 35, "Encourage low-impact packaging use"

For many places, you can bring your own cups/containers for takeout/coffee/smoothies, etc. And sometimes you'll even get a discount for it!

Djon Ma said...

By the way, the bottled water problem is an American problem.
In the EU, bottled water is spring water, not from the same source as mucicipal water.
It doesn't have the chlorine and flouride that tap water has, and god knows what other chemicals they put in there 'for our own good'.
Each company that produces it has a spring / well source. Very different to tap water.

I have various chemical sensitivities due to a medical condition, and I just can't drink UK tap water. It's full of rubbish. Whereas I can drink spring water. Also, it's about 43p (abou 70c) for 2 litres (half a gallon) over here. Obviously the bigger the bottle you buy, the cheaper.
The plastic is a problem, but every household has recycle bins here, so plastics go straight into there and we get them recycled for free (well, as part of the local council costs, which are taxed).

Unknown said...

We started by washing the pots and pans by hand and we find that we do more than that because it saves space and is faster! I think these values and the website I built, www.creeklife.com can be a neat way of bringing more of these common sense ideas to the everyday Joe that needs them

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Anonymous said...

I like 39) Soak dishes before washing
This helps dissolve food residue on your pots and pans and saves you time doing dishes.

At our house we call this a Soak-and-Forget, glad to know it is environmentally friendly, not just put-off-til-tomorrow laziness.