How to Take Baby Steps into Sustainable Eating

Got milk? Maybe not so much these days

Photo by Wendy Wei from Pexels

If you’ve been seeing a collective trend towards vegetarian- and vegan-style eating lately, it’s not all in your head.

Recently Epicurious announced that there won’t be any new beef recipes added to its website, and beef recipes won’t be featured in its newsletters, articles or Instagram feed.

Then Eleven Madison, the famed three-star Michelin restaurant in New York City, told the world it was going nearly vegan.

These announcements reflect a greater responsibility that many of us feel as the negative effects of climate change become more apparent. And while it’s true that we need large-scale policy changes in order to combat climate change, it’s also true that our individual choices can make a difference.

While some would argue that we all needed to become vegetarian or vegan yesterday, I don’t agree with that stance.

I believe that if you want to make any long-term, sustainable lifestyle changes, it starts with baby steps.

And rather than define ourselves by -isms (veganism, vegetarianism), maybe the planet would be better off if we eased ourselves into environmentally-friendly habits.

Here are a few ways to get started, baby step by step.

1. Create less food waste

It’s easy to get excited about a new diet and stock your shelves with new and different foods. It’s way harder to assess your fridge, pantry and freezer and eat what you already have.

About 40 percent of the food that’s raised in the US is never eaten. Food waste accounts for about 8 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions, and according to the Washington Post, the carbon footprint of U.S. food waste is greater than that of the airline industry.

So rather than going out and buying tofu today, you’re actually being kinder to the planet by polishing off whatever you have lurking in your fridge and freezer.

Roast those sad-looking veggies and toss them in a grain bowl, puree wilted herbs with olive oil and vinegar to make a salad dressing, use long-forgotten cans of beans to make chili.

Plus, cooking with the ingredients you have on-hand is the ultimate test of creativity — you might be surprised by what you cook up!

2. Replace beef and lamb with chicken, turkey or fish

There’s no dancing around the fact that beef and lamb have the biggest climate footprint per gram of protein.

According to FoodPrint.org, a single pound of beef takes about 1,800 gallons of water to produce. By comparison, a pound of chicken requires 518 gallons.

If you want to help the planet but aren’t ready to go vegetarian, the next best step is to replace beef and lamb with a protein source that’s less energy- and water-intensive to raise, such as chicken, turkey or fish. Or even pork.

Substitute beef in meatballs with ground chicken, grill a turkey burger, celebrate taco Tuesday with fish tacos. As long as you’re reducing your beef and lamb consumption, you’re doing better.

3. Replace chicken, turkey and fish with plant-based protein sources

You’ve cut down your food waste and beef and lamb intake. Now that you’re in the swing of things, you might want to take it a step further.

After chicken, turkey and fish, the next best step is to replace animal proteins with plant-based proteins.

Lentils, legumes, beans and nuts are all great sources of plant-based protein. If you’re more adventurous, there are options like tofu, tempeh and even seitan. If you’re not a fan of processed meat substitutes, you can also use ingredients like cauliflower, eggplant and mushrooms to replace meat in dishes.

Not sure where to start? There are a plethora of vegetarian cooking blogs out there that will show you how to cook with these protein sources and provide recipe inspiration— one of my personal favorites is Cookie and Kate.

4. Cut back on dairy and eggs

There’s a reason I saved this one for last — cheese, yogurt and ice cream are all delicious. And eggs are ubiquitous in both baking and cooking.

But eggs and dairy do have a larger-than-ideal greenhouse gas footprint, and if you’re really serious about sustainability, you might want to consider making changes to cut down on your consumption and use of these ingredients.

For example, ground flaxseed can replace eggs in most baked goods and nutritional yeast can replace cheese. And fortunately there are a plethora of plant-based dessert foods out there, like coconut milk ice cream.

Everything you eat takes a toll on the environment. The question is just a matter of how much.

That’s why making sustainable changes to your diet is a journey, not a destination. It doesn’t mean that hot dogs at a baseball game are off the table forever, or that you’ll never eat full-dairy ice cream again.

I’m not one for splitting hairs or pointing fingers, and if we all go out and try to become vegans overnight, we’ll likely end up failing.

But if we become more aware of how what we eat affects the environment and try to make small, sustainable changes, they’ll add up to a more positive impact on the planet over time.

Runner, writer, mother, yoga teacher and NYC resident

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