5 Simple Shifts to Start Eating Sustainably

Want to eat sustainably but not sure where to start? These 5 simple tips will help you shift to eating a more sustainable diet and improve not only your health, but also the health of the environment.

assorted green, red, and yellow apples on a blue-grey table

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As a registered dietitian working in the sustainable food and green living space, I often get questions from people wanting to know how to eat sustainably.

While I believe there are a core set of green eating principles, I always explain that there is no right or wrong “level” of commitment to living a sustainable lifestyle — or a sustainable diet. In today’s consumer-driven, “more, more, more” society, even having the seed of knowledge that your eating decisions have an impact on the earth’s natural resources is a great start.

While there is no set definition or set of rules defining sustainable nutrition, there are a few core dietary and lifestyle shifts that can help you become a more sustainable eater. Below are five sustainable dietary shifts I keep in mind when making my own food decisions and are a great starting point for anyone wanting to embark on a sustainable lifestyle change.

1️⃣ Shift 1: Eat a variety of plant-based foods.

Eat the rainbow! Eating an array of colorful fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds provides a variety of nutrients for health and wellness.

Leading public health organizations recommend consuming a predominantly plant-based diet to lower your individual carbon footprint. Producing most plant-based foods requires less energy input in the form of fossil fuels and water than producing animal foods, while also releasing less green house gases and other production byproducts.

👉 Need inspiration for your next plant-based meal? Head over to the Green Eating Recipe Index to search all of our dietitian-approved plant-rich recipe by meal type, season, and ingredient.

a bowl of spinach, berries, and oranges on a white table

2️⃣ Shift 2: If you choose to eat animal products, choose sustainable sources

By now you’ve likely heard what the research confirms — a diet high in animal products, like the traditional American diet, is taxing on the environment.

For many years, I knew the impact of my dietary choices but had a hard time breaking the meat-centric diet habit I learned growing up in the American Midwest. However, over time I made small, but important shifts in the way I purchase and consume animal products until I settled on an eating pattern that works both for my health and for my piece of mind: a plant-based diet.

You may be wondering: do I need to give up meat to eat sustainably?

While adopting a vegan or vegetarian diet has been shown to reduce your carbon footprint and here at Fork in the Road we promote plant-based diets, I do not believe that consuming animal products has to be an all or nothing decision. It is possible to eat a sustainable diet that is rich in plants while still consuming animal products from time to time.

However, if you do decide to eat meat, here are some things to think about:

  1. Rethink where and how you buy it and shift the way you view meat on your plate and in your overall diet — instead of having meat as the central focus of your meals, use it as a compliment or flavor enhancer, while keeping plants the main focus.
  2. Educate yourself on local sustainable farms in your area and sustainable fishing practices by checking out the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guides (choose your state and print to keep in your kitchen).

If you do decide to adopt a mostly plant-based diet, keep in mind that it can take time to change habits and that every little bit adds up! Even reducing your overall meat consumption by one meal a week can reduce your personal carbon footprint.

a large blue ceramic dutch oven filled with chicken kale and potato soup with a silver ladle

3️⃣ Shift 3: Eat local and in-season when possible

Get to know your local food system by attending and buying from farmer’s markets, signing up for a CSA box from a local farm, and eating foods that are fresh and in season.

If you are an omnivore, get to know your local butcher and the animal farms in your area to reduce the miles your food must travel to reach your grocery store, and ultimately your plate.

Buying local not only reduces the miles your food travels (and the environmental outputs of that travel), but it also allows you to support and nurture your local food economy. Taking an active role in your local food community is a win overall!

👉 Want to start shopping at farmers markets? Read my article on how to plan your meals when shopping at farmers markets so you can put your weekly grocery haul to good use.

persimmons, pomegranates, and star anise from the farmers market

4️⃣ Shift 4: Adopt a meal planning habit to reduce food waste (and save money!)

One of the most important things you can do to cut your environmental impact is to reduce food waste, and the easiest way to lessen the amount of food you throw out is to create (and stick to) a meal plan.

Meal planning allows you to have a plan for the days or week ahead, which simplifies your shopping budget, reduce the amount of unnecessary products your purchase while grocery shopping or at the farmer’s market, and ensure you use up the food you do have leftover when it’s time to shop again. Shopping from a meal planning means less wasted food, less time at the store, and more money saved!

👉 Want to learn how we create our weekly meal plan? Click the link below to download our FREE meal planning guide, which walks you through our step-by-step weekly meal planning process.

a bowl of pasta with meatballs on a white table with a salad and an orange

5️⃣ Shift 5: Make mindful purchasing a habit

Choosing to live a sustainable lifestyle is more than just food, it also involves making mindful purchasing decisions for everything from household to beauty products to clothing — even eco-friendly holiday gifts!

Becoming a completely “green” consumer takes time, but there are a few places to start:

  • Buy second hand when possible
  • Try to choose products that are sold in bulk to reduce the amount of packaging required
  • Research and buy from companies that have sustainable ingredient sourcing and green packaging commitments — the Environmental Working Group consumer guides are a great place to start!

Sustainable living is having an awareness that the foods we eat, the products we buy and the way we live our life has an impact on the environment. It means making life and health decisions with respect for mother nature.

Keep in mind that going green takes time, and transitioning to a greener lifestyle is a long-term process. But each food and purchasing decision you make adds up, so celebrate your green living wins and take it day by day!

glass food storage containers filled with dried foods on a blue table

♻️ More articles to help you live sustainably

Have you committed to living a more sustainable lifestyle? What shifts have you made to live and eat sustainably? Share your tips for sustainable living in the comments below!

UPDATE: This article was originally published in May 2017 and updated for clarity in November 2022.

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