This post is dedicated to home cooks everywhere, those who love gourmet food, those who love to whip up a comfort-rich meals and all others in between! Cooking meals from scratch is one of the best things any of us can do to reduce our carbon footprint. It helps even more if what you start with doesn't have any pacakaging, but let's walk our way through this process step-by-step and see if Ican't convince you to hit the pans more frequently than the drive-through.
First, the items you bring home to cook are entirely under your control. You can source the best, freshest, most local ingredients, can walk out to your garden to grab a bite to eat, and can even start putting up your own abundance so that your off-season shopping is done at home. I think everyone agrees with that. For those who cannot garden, there are now farmers' markets in so many areas of the country, many of which operate year-round.
Next, you have some measure of control over how much packaging hitches a ride into your kitchen along with the food. You also have control over the food-miles (how far your food has traveled to get to you). Both of these are important sustainability considerations. If you aren't doing so yet, spend the coming week reading the labels of the items you buy to see if you can determine how far they have traveled to get to you. It's a lot easier to 'eat local' during the abundant summer months than it is during winter here in the Northern Hemisphere, but you might be surprised how far the food had to go... which is related to how fresh it really is. If your store doesn't make this information readily available, especially for produce, now's your chance to ask them why not!
Packaging can be steadily reduced by exploring the bulk bins and the deli counters in your area... what can you buy in bulk? Even my local food cooperative clerks were surprised to see me bring the large jar I had just had them weigh (2.59 pounds) up, filled with Nevada County Free Range beef, which will go into the slow cooker early next week as part of a great tamale pie recipe DD found (always brown your meat first before adding to the slow cooker!). It wasn't my own idea (visit Zero Waste Home), but was still a novel one to them... why not, though? I transferred the meat into a smaller, sealed refrigerator container where it will await its turn to become dinner.
Now, we turn to food prepping and cooking... once again, you get to determine what you eat and how complex or simple the fare. Personally, I love food and cooking, but still have those workdays when I come home with no clue what to make or maybe no energy. From past experience, I can vouch for menu and shopping planning as one of the best remedies, even though I don't stick to that process as much as I used to when there were six people to feed in the house, and the house was an hour's drive from the nearest 'real' grocery stores. In those days, it was essential to plan and make menus and lists, or we would all go hungry. Now, we can manage to throw together a sandwich/salad dinner or an egg dish (thanks, hennies!) for a dinner when the energy or cupboard runs low.
What if you don't know how to cook? This problem is rapidly growing, especially since schools stopped offering Home Economics, thanks to their concerns for standardized testing over the past decade. No more electives, and it is a loss to home cooking. I can recall during my high school teacher years that this was a favorite class, mostly because teenaged boys and girls alike need to consume LOTS of food to finish up their growing, and a class that allowed you to earn a decent grade while eating was a big hit.
Our local food cooperative decided to address this problem by partnering with a local chef/caterer to offer cooking classes. Some of the various places you can locate cooking classes in your community include community colleges, adult ed courses, cooking stores, and even hospitals! For those of you who resolved to lose weight in the new year, I want to suggest that you start by looking for a cooking class that focuses on healthy eating; you will have a much easier time figuring out how to diminish your caloric intake if you know everything in that dish and what you could substitute to keep it tasting yummy while slimming you down.
What about eating out? Why should you give it up? I will be the first to say, "You don't have to!", however I will also modify that by saying it's time to start applying the same principles I stated above regarding choosing foods to bring into your home, to what you purchase when eating out. It might take more work, but you can begin looking into what your favorite eateries do about purchase decisions and packaging - both brought in to the restaurant and sent out with you. Does your favorite coffee house discuss whether their beans are fair-traded? shade-grown? organic? They have the purchase power to help small coffee-grower collectives earn fair wages; how do you feel about whether they exercise that purchase power or not? Do they give you a discount for bringing in your own mug? If not, suggest that they could save money that way and please customers at the same time. Many fast-food chains don't have a single real dish in the place... maybe some cooking utensils, but there is no way you can get them to serve your meal to you on a plate. By contrast, one of my favorite Grass Valley eateries regularly sends out meals on china plates, saying that all of their crockery was donated to them (making for a lot of character in the place settings) and they have no qualms about getting almost all of it back, eventually and washed clean! They are committed to reducing their business carbon footprint, and walk their talk! Plus, they cook up the most wonderful South American cuisine... what's not to love?
I hope to hear back from readers about how they feel about home cooking, what they do about it, and what they might consider changing about their habits. Each step leads to another!