Changing our culinary habits can improve both our health and that of the world, says top cook and bestselling food writer Anna Jones
by: Anna Jones
22 Apr 2021
1458 Food illustration
How to eat to save the planet
Illustration: The Big Issue
Time is running out. We need to change how we eat now.
We are at a turning point. A moment of crisis and great opportunity. The events of the last 12 months have proven that collective action can lead to radical change both in ideology and behaviour, and I hope that we can move forwards armed with the knowledge that a different world is really possible.
Until now I have been gentle in my approach to asking people to shift how they eat to putting plants at the centre of their plates. But time is running out. We need to change how we eat now.
And while for me food and cooking are absolutely about joy and connection, it’s time to stress the changes we need to make. How we eat can actually help to shift the world we live in.
What we need, of course, is a systematic change in our food system led by our governments – but each small choice we make matters
All the information on the climate crisis, and what we as individuals can do, can feel overwhelming. While we need to be real about the seriousness of what’s going on, as individuals it’s important to focus on one manageable step at a time. We make 35,000 decisions a day; that’s a lot of potential for change.
What we need, of course, is a systematic change in our food system led by our governments – but each small choice we make matters and it is up to us to make those choices as well as demanding action from those who hold the power and purse strings.
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Our food system has the single biggest impact on the climate. It affects every inch of the Earth and every creature on it. I want to talk you through some simple ways we can help shift how we eat.
If we want to help slow, and one day (hopefully) begin to reverse climate change, it is widely agreed that the most powerful thing we can do is eat fewer animals and more plants. For you, that might mean one meal a day without meat (though I would encourage more if you can), for others it might mean fine-tuning your vegan diet. Start from where you are and don’t look back. Change comes from what we do next. Try to make sure as many of the food decisions you make line up with how you want the world to look.
After eating mostly plants, ensuring the food you buy does not go to waste is the next most impactful thing you can do. Not wasting food is an easy win and a very satisfying one too. Don’t overbuy food. Store it well and and do a quick regular mental inventory of what you have that needs using. Use best before dates only as a guide – your instinct will tell you if its is good to eat. Don’t be afraid to swap and change recipes to use up what you have.
Use technology – there brilliant apps like olio and toogoodtogo that help you redistribute the food you can’t use up. If you really have to get rid of food then compost it.
The energy we use when we cook, store and clean up our food is rarely considered as part of the sustainability picture of a meal we eat. And while it’s a much smaller piece of the pie than transport or production, it’s something we have control over.
Try to cook in one pan or using a single heat source. If you turn the oven on don’t preheat it for more than five minutes, and try to cook a couple of things at once. If you are cooking in a pan put a lid on it. Make sure your fridge is not overfilled, while your freezer is more efficient if it is full.
Biodiversity is also an important part of the picture. The world’s capacity to produce food is being undermined by our failure to protect plant and animal life – biodiversity. The world currently relies on a handful of crops to feed it, many of which are being drastically over-farmed and are decimating soil, animals and habitats. Support sustainable farming and eat as many varieties of local fruit, veg, grains, flours and pulses as you can fit into your diet.
Food miles are a huge part of the discussion around sustainability. It’s often hard to know exactly which products are high on the food miles scale and what impact that has on the overall carbon footprint of that food. Packaging can be hard to decipher and misleading. An easy solution is, of course, buying seasonal, local, whole foods – foodmiles.com is a good resource to use for checking distances. When buying from further afield Fairtrade is also an excellent way of ensuring fair prices and fair treatment for producers.
Plastic and packaging is a tricky issue as plastics do a very good job of keeping food protected and fresh and so can reduce waste, especially with delicate things like salad leaves and soft fruit. So pick your battles. Try your best to avoid items like single-use plastic bags, bottles, plastic-lined coffee cups, trays and wraps.
Opt for loose fruit and veg, and if you can buy from local bulk stores and greengrocers then that’s fantastic. And if something can be recycled, make sure it is. Try your local Terracycle drop off the recycle things your council will not recycle.
I know some of this stuff might seem obvious, and I know many people will already be doing a lot of this in their homes. If that is you then can you encourage someone else to make these changes? We do not need a few perfect climate activists, we need a worldwide army making small, frequent and effective everyday choices.
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