The Lifecycle of Your Dinner

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shopping cart in frozen food aisle

A sustainable dinner starts in your shopping cart. Look for items with minimal packaging and fresh ingredients. Photo: Flickr/Cyco GoOz

Have you ever looked at your favorite pasta dish or a fabulous chocolate layer cake and wondered just how much time and how many resources went into getting those wonders of taste and calories from the farm to the table?

By now, many of us have heard the statistic that the average meal travels 1,500 miles from farm to table, or the now famous Michael Pollan quote, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Dig a little deeper, though, and you will find that there are many costs – some obvious, others hidden – to every morsel we consume.

With a little exploration, you will find that there are many easy ways to save money, energy and even time in your quest for a more delicious and eco-conscious meal.

Find the source

Several well-written books including “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” by Barbara Kingsolver and “Plenty” by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, have chronicled the quest to eat food that is produced locally.

In Smith and MacKinnon’s case, they stuck to a diet of food that could be procured within 100 miles of their home in Vancouver, British Columbia. While this lifestyle change might not be feasible for those who don’t live in temperate climates that afford a year-round growing season, there are several easy ways to reduce the carbon footprint of your meal.

Markets are abundant all over the country, especially between May and September. In addition to supporting your local economy and reducing the mileage of your food, prices also tend to be comparable to grocery stores and the quality and variety is often much better. What’s more, eating seasonally is a great way to vary your diet, explore organic options, support sustainable agricultural practices, and get to know the people who grow your food.

Buy in bulk and reuse bags

Farmers markets are always great places to bring your own bags and buy just the amount you need, but more and more grocery stores are also expanding their bulk sections. Everything from olive oil to granola can now be purchased in bulk, which greatly reduces the need for conventional packaging.

Even in the grocery store, reconsider whether or not you need each item of produce to go in an individual plastic bag. And, of course, be sure to bring your own reusable bags and purchase items with the least amount of packaging.

Eat less meat

So what is for dinner? As The New York Times pointed out as early as 2008, the meat industry’s growing environmental impact is as surprising as it is alarming. Meat not only has a greater carbon footprint than vegetables, but it is also more expensive.

As the world’s demand for food rises, it becomes increasingly important to utilize efficiently the world’s arable land through sustainable farming practices that produce the maximum amount of healthy food on healthy land.

What’s more, a vegetarian diet or a diet with less meat in it is better for your health. According to a 2009 updated position paper published by the American Dietetic Association, there are many proven health benefits to a diet consisting mainly of plants.

“Vegetarian diets are often associated with health advantages including lower blood cholesterol levels, lower risk of heart disease, lower blood pressure levels and lower risk of hypertension and type 2 diabetes,” according to ADA’s position.

“Vegetarians tend to have a lower body mass index and lower overall cancer rates. Vegetarian diets tend to be lower in saturated fat and cholesterol and have higher levels of dietary fiber, magnesium and potassium, vitamins C and E, folate, carotenoids, flavonoids and other phytochemicals. These nutritional differences may explain some of the health advantages of those following a varied, balanced vegetarian diet.”

Buying locally grown food means you’re getting the most fresh product, rather than something that was picked almost a week prior. It also cuts down on energy use and supports local farmers. Photo: Flickr/Cooking for Geeks

The choices for the omnivore

If you are a staunch meat-lover, consider where your meat came from, how it was treated, what it was fed, how far it traveled and how it was packaged. All of these factors contribute to the environmental footprint of that flank of steak or breast of chicken.

All of the factors surrounding food production should also be taken into account when considering the impact your potential dinner had on the planet.

Again, farmers markets are great places to start, since farmers at most of them sell meat, cheese and eggs. Not only are these products local, but most of these farmers are happy to account for all of their practice, and much of what they sell is available year-round.

While these products may cost a bit more than their conventionally produced counterparts, remember that you are paying the true cost of a food group with a greater environmental impact.

Don’t eat too much water

Water is a precious resource, and there is embedded or “virtual” water in everything we consume. According to a Discover Magazine article by Thomas Kostigen, “Virtual water is a calculation of the water needed for the production of any product from start to finish.”

Kostigen goes on to quote the virtual water for everything from a banana (27 gallons) to a cup of coffee (37 gallons) based on calculations from, which has a virtual water footprint calculator that allows you to see how much water is in the food you are consuming.

The Three R’s of food waste

Even with food, the rules of Reduce, Reuse and Recycle apply. According to the EPA, it is possible to greatly reduce the amount of both food waste and wasted food by following their simple hierarchy.

The first, and most important step is to avoid overproduction and purchasing in the first place (reduce). After that, you should look to provide excess food to needy people first, then animals, then to industrial sources (reuse). Finally, you should look to compost scraps that cannot be reused in any way. That compost can then be put to use as fertilizer for new crops (recycle).

Take your food full circle

Composting is the perfect way to complete the lifecycle of your dinner because it leaves minimal impact on the environment and creates great food for next season’s meals. Food thrown in the trash releases methane, a global warming gas, as it decomposes in the anaerobic environment of the landfill. A home composting system is quick and easy to construct, and more and more municipalities are adding compost collection to their services.

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  1. The reports from Environmental Working Group on pesticides use specially in US farms where we get most of our winter fruits and veges had us adjusting what we eat daily.
    Your excellent article has me thinking of the last R,which we dont do enough.Will look into adding a second composter.

  2. Good reason to be a vegetarian. Really vegetarians tend to have a lower body mass index? Unfortunately, our food habits is one of the hardest things to change.

    There has to be a major cultural shift before we start to REALLY take heed and start to make day-to-day changes concerning where we get our food and what we eat.

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