What is a green eating? This simple sustainable eating guide shows how simple shifts can mean eating a green, healthy diet that is good for you and the planet.
You’re mindful about sustainability. You carry a reusable grocery bag, recycle cans and bottles, and have even dabbled in composting. You try to choose eco-friendly cleaning products, ride your bike on short errands, and even did a closet purge that one week you decided to be a minimalist.
While these are great small shifts to leading a more sustainable, green lifestyle, there is one major area of your life that makes arguably the biggest environmental impact: your food decisions.
Most of us grow up not giving a second thought to how our food ended up on our plates, but making a few simple shifts in the way we purchase our foods can have a big impact on the food system and, by extension, the environment.
So how do you start eating green? Read on for the foundation of a green eating lifestyle and for simple shifts that you can make for a greener food future.
Green eating means choosing a predominantly plant-based diet
Let’s face it, collectively our diets are heavy in animal products and raising animals for food takes a toll on the environment. The Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that 60% of the world’s agricultural land is used for raising animals while at the same time dietary guidelines from countries around the world are calling for citizens to adopt a diet with more plants.
Consuming a plant-forward diet that is rich in vegetables like leafy greens, fruits, whole grains, nuts, legumes, and seeds and lower in animal products is one of the most important ways you can help to reduce carbon emissions, lower our dependence on fossil fuels, and do your part to ensure a healthier planet and food system in the future (read more about the personal and planetary health benefits of plant-rich diets here).
Does this mean you have to become a vegetarian or vegan to eat sustainably? No, definitely not. However, it does mean shifting meat from a central position on your plate to that of a side dish, or “accompaniment,” instead of the focus on the meal. With today’s delicious plant-based offerings it’s not hard to build a delicious plant-forward plate and re-position meat as a side dish that is eaten once a day, once a week, or even once a month.
Looking for green eating recipes to build your plant-forward plate? Check out the Green Eating Recipe Index for plentiful plant-forward seasonal recipes, whether you’re a vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian, or even an avid meat eater.
Green eating means choosing ethically raised meat, chicken, eggs, and fish
While eating a diet rich in plants is key, if you do choose to consume animal products it is important to choose those which are raised ethically and sustainably. But what does this mean?
Responsible and ethically-raised criteria vary by each animal, so it can be difficult to decipher what foods in your market are raised with care. Fortunately there are some labels and certifications to look for when purchasing animal products that distinguish how the animals were raised, slaughtered, and processed.
However, labels and certifications vary and the exact definition of each can be confusing or misleading, not to mention overwhelming. Below are just a few examples labels you may see:
- Beef: organic, grass-fed, raised without the routine use of antibiotics
- Dairy: same as beef above, plus rBGH-free
- Poultry and eggs: cage-free, pasture raised, antibiotic-free, organic
- Pork: organic, raised without the routine use of antibiotics
- Seafood: wild caught, farm raised, Seafood Watch
Needless to say it can be overwhelming when confronted with these labels in grocery stores and know which is the best to choose. My motto: choose organic always, local when possible, and pick animal products from cruelty-free producers who commit to the care of the animals who give their life for us to eat.
Green eating means choosing responsibly-grown fruits and vegetables
While there is a stronger focus on the ethical and moral standards for raising animals, it is also important to consider how fruits and vegetables are grown and how they get to our stores and, ultimately, to our plates.
If you are new to green, or sustainable, eating you have likely only considered foods that are good for your personal health. But when you commit to eating green it is important to think of the the health of the environment as well when considering the sustainability of foods, including fruits and vegetables.
Some key questions to consider are:
- Where is the food grown? How is it grown (does farming disrupt fragile ecosystems?)?
- Who owns the land, who works the land, are they paid a fair wage?
- What inputs (pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides) are used? What equipment is used on the farm?
- How is the plant harvested, how is it stored, how long does it take to reach the grocery store?
…and many more questions that are hotly debated by the food industry and environmental watch groups.
It is important to understand the food system as a consumer, but unfortunately it is not something we are usually taught in school or from our families. Most of us grow up thinking we go to the store to get food, not giving a second thought to how our food ended up on displays for us to choose from. We are focused on food for healthy eating or weight loss, but how our food is grown does not often factor into our food choices. We are removed from where and how our food was grown, but that doesn’t mean we do not play a large role in the system and that doesn’t mean that we have to be silent. We as consumers have the biggest say by using our wallets to vote on what type food system we’d like to have.
How do we get involved to be responsible “green eaters” when choosing fresh produce? We use our money by:
- Choosing organic: buying fruits and vegetables from farmers that do not use harmful pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides
- Choosing fair trade: buying foods that are certified fair trade from industries that are vulnerable to exploitation (coffee, tea, chocolate, bananas, etc.)
- Buying local: supporting local food systems when possible by visiting farmers markets, joining community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs, and frequenting grocers that buy from the area around us.
There is no “perfect” food or farming technique; all farming uses resources that change the environment and disrupt ecosystems. But it is possible to make small, sustainable changes in the foods we purchase…which signals to retailers that you want more responsibly-raised foods.
Green eating mean eating with the seasons and supporting local food systems
In addition choosing foods that were raised and grown responsibly, green eating also means eating with the seasons.
Have you ever wondered how you can find strawberries in winter, chestnuts in the summer, and bananas all year round (in non-tropical climates, no less)? The reason for this is that when the seasons change so do the regions growing our favorite staple foods. So in the winter our summer tomatoes are not grown down the road, but instead are shipped from a different hemisphere where they are in season.
How can we combat resources expended to bring produce to us year round? Eat seasonally! Just like the leaves change and transition in the fall or spring, so can your eating habits. In the spring and summer enjoy fresh fruit and summer vegetables at their peak (and when they taste the best) and in the fall and winter trade them for hearty gourds, nuts, and grains after the fall and winter harvests.
Green eating also means adopting preserving practices that extend the life of foods by pickling, canning, drying, and freezing foods to enjoy past their prime. Extending the life of foods in their prime means preserving at their peak (strawberries in July, tomatoes in August) to eat throughout the year. Preserving foods is also a great way to save money — no more $9 strawberries in January!
Green eating means reducing food and kitchen waste
In addition to choosing quality foods and eating with the seasons, being mindful about the foods you do purchase by reducing food and kitchen waste is an important pillar of green eating.
The statistics are staggering: the United States Department of Agriculture estimates that 30% of food that is grown is wasted…let that sink in for a moment, 30% of all food! Food waste that happens in the home makes up that largest proportion of loss in the food system, which includes that forgotten bag of berries you found in the back of the refrigerator and the leftovers you decided to pitch instead of eating for lunch the next day.
However, committing to eating and living green means making mindful decisions in all areas of life — including in the kitchen.
What’s the biggest way to reduce food waste? Meal planning! Making and shopping from a meal plan is the easiest way to buy less, use more, AND save money.
Grab my simple printable weekly meal plan template by joining the Fork in the Road Green Living Community! This is the exact document we use in our home each and every week to plan our meals and make grocery shopping easy and stress-free.
Finally, green eating means sharing and celebrating food
Adopting a green eating lifestyle means practicing mindfulness when choosing, cooking, and eating food, but at its core green eating means celebrating food, where it comes from, and what it gives us.
Food, at its core, provides nourishment for our bodies but if you take a step back from viewing food as solely a source of nutrition it is easy to see that is gives us so much more. Food brings people together, supports and fosters communities, and provides us with a common thread — even when it seems that other people are worlds apart.
Food is our common ground, and adopting green eating — and a sustainable lifestyle in general — means celebrating and protecting the earth for future generations to enjoy.
I hope this article has helped your food choices and adopt a greener eating pattern!
Want more tips and resources for going green? Join the Green Living Community for access to more meal planning resources, sustainable shopping guides, and more. And let me know YOUR favorite green eating tips in the comments below!