Sustainability In the Kitchen

As changes to our climate become easier to see and feel, and as our world population continues to multiply, I look for ways to tread lightly and live more sustainably. Since my life is centered around cooking, my seeking is as well, and I wonder…about the impact my daily choices will have on my children’s generation or on their children’s generation, and about the connection between the way we grow, gather, and prepare food and the well being of the places we inhabit.

Thinking in this way has led me to consider self control, especially in the kitchen. So many of our values and expectations around food reflect a culture that, until recently, has encouraged consumption and growth untempered by restraint, a culture in which all our wants are met, and nearly all personal needs are validated as necessary and appropriate. But these values are far in excess of those that sustained earlier generations.

On a related note, when I teach cooking classes from home, students often comment on the ways I attempt to conserve resources in the kitchen; these are approaches that have become so much a part of my daily work that it never occurred to me, until I was asked, to try and share them.

With all this in mind, I’ll use the rest of this space to describe methods I rely on for living deliberately and with a degree of care. Since the variables of food, tools, and the kitchen underlie these efforts, they will be the focus. And if this topic feels daunting, rest assured that some of these approaches took years to take hold and, as time passes, they have continued to evolve. So consider any step that might resonate for you, and let go of the rest.


My family of eaters, as these things go, is fairly average. Most weeks, I prepare three meals a day for two children, but often there are three and occasionally more. While we consume a plant-based diet, we are not vegetarians. Instead, we are qualitarians, a word I coined to signify my own commitment to using the highest quality ingredients: pure food, grown or raised locally without pesticides, antibiotics, or hormones and by people who care.

While I try to avoid ingredients transported through an endless chain, I haven’t been willing to forgo lemons or bananas, ginger or avocados. Still, from April through December I get most of our fresh food–including fruits, vegetables, fish, eggs, beans, grains and dairy products–locally from small farms and farmers’ markets. This is a step toward sustainability worth considering because it is an abiding pleasure to gather food in the same way people always have: meeting friends, swapping recipes, and chatting about what’s growing and how the weather is affecting crops. The scale is small, and it feels good. It feels human.

I also have a large, organic fruit garden that includes a few beds of vegetables and herbs. Many years ago, I began gardening in large pots on my front porch and my efforts expanded as I felt ready to take on more. In general, nothing I grow is for storage. Everything is raised to eat right now and that eliminates the work of preserving a harvest. From January through March, I also rely on my community supported garden and supplement that harvest with food from local health food stores. And I order a few favorite food products from mail-order sources I know and trust. When my orders arrive in boxes or polystyrene containers, I recycle the shipping materials, including ice packs, through a source I found on Earth911.

I buy little packaged food but, when I do, I recycle paper packaging and metal cans. I try to reuse plastic bags and, whenever possible, I also reuse glass jars for storing food. Any sheets of paper with a clean backside get a second life as small squares of notepaper next to the telephone. The water we drink is filtered in our kitchen, so I generally don’t buy bottled water.

Is all this more expensive and time consuming than other ways of gathering food? I don’t know, because these are approaches I adopted years ago and have relied on ever since. But it seems to me that the hidden story in food production is the hidden cost of cheap food, to our bodies and our planet, and this cost eventually finds its way back into the equation.  So I give up other luxuries and save time in other ways. Quality food is a priority.


We all have kitchen products and tools that we wouldn’t want to be without. In my kitchen, there are many.

For wrapping foods and covering bowls, unbleached waxed paper and recycled heavy-duty aluminum foil work well. Waxed paper is recyclable and biodegradable, and I try to save foil and reuse it when I can. (Some towns allow foil to be recycled, but mine currently does not.) I try to avoid plastic because of health concerns, but plastic wrap remains an occasional necessity. Even so, when I store food at room temperature I cover bowls with plates, and plates with bowls. When I can, I also store food in lidded glass containers or canning jars. It was a real breakthrough to learn that I could use these same glass jars to store food in the freezer; they work beautifully for this purpose. I have not found a substitute for resealable plastic bags, but those I do use get washed by hand and used again, lasting years as long as I don’t buy the “zippered” models, which break. When I need to line baking sheets and baking dishes, I use unbleached parchment paper, which is biodegradable and can be recycled when it’s not too messy.

For many years I experimented doing without paper towels, but there are so many good uses for them that I now buy unbleached, recycled paper towels and I’m glad for it. I compost some of the used towels, and discard the rest. At the table, I use inexpensive cloth napkins–nothing fancy–and I marvel that they remain unstained and in fine condition after years of use. A simple change like this one can have a real impact on the waste we generate.  I also try to avoid using disposable dinnerware but, when I must, I look for products that can be recycled or that are biodegradable. Both are available at local health food stores.

School lunches get packed in stainless-steel containers and water in stainless-steel bottles, and both last for years. These, along with mismatched old silverware, go into reusable thermal lunch bags. A change like this one requires little effort beyond washing the containers, and pays meaningful dividends in terms of minimizing waste.

A compost bucket sits next to the kitchen sink to hold our food scraps. Every couple of days, I empty the bucket into the compost pile and, when the compost is ready, I use it to feed my garden.

Groceries come home from the store in reusable bags. (This includes produce, which I pack in reusable cloth bags.) This transition was especially challenging for me because I used all those bags I once brought home. Instead, I now use biodegradable plastic bags for kitchen garbage, and I line small garbage cans with biodegradable compost bags that work well for this purpose. I store vegetables in resealable plastic bags (which I later reuse) and recycling goes directly into the recycling bins instead of into paper grocery bags.

To clean the kitchen, I use plain water for the floors and counter tops and they are clean by anyone’s standards. To scour the sinks, I use elbow grease and either baking soda or dish liquid. The dish liquid I use is non-toxic, biodegradable and non-petroleum-based. In place of sponges, which become bacteria-laden and eventually get tossed into the garbage, I clean dishes with biodegradable Skoy Cloths, and I scour pots with scrubs made out of peach pits or corn; all of these dry quickly and work beautifully. I clean the kitchen windows and glass tabletop with a combination of vinegar and water that I keep in a spray bottle. You might find, as I have, that it’s fun to experiment with alternative products. Some may become a part of your routine, and each can be a step toward greater sustainability.


There are many ways to conserve energy in the kitchen that take forethought, money and effort: for example, the way you construct your space and the appliances and lighting you choose. For most of us, these approaches will not be attainable today and they may not ever be realistic options. But there are other approaches that are simpler and that may be worth knowing about. I’ll tell you about my kitchen and you can hold on to anything you might find interesting or useful.

My favorite energy-saver is this one: My kitchen is filled with windows. What this means, practically, is that I rarely need lights or air conditioning. The windows illuminate the room in summer and winter, while providing all the ventilation I need.

I have been lucky in recent years to have a kitchen that is new because it has advantages that were not available to me in the past. In winter, for example, the kitchen is heated with radiant floor heat, which uses comparatively little electricity. The appliances are Energy-Star certified, which means they meet strict energy-efficiency guidelines. The cabinetry and kitchen table were made locally out of sustainable woods. And the floors are clay tile and the counters are stone, both natural materials that will last for generations.

While these approaches might matter, one of my favorite writers, Scott Russell Sanders, wrote that “no form of consumption is sustainable if it exceeds the capacity of a natural system to replenish itself.” So, although kitchen features can make a difference, when the energy and materials are used they are gone forever. It’s helpful to understand and acknowledge, then, where sustainability can exist as a goal and where it cannot. And where it cannot, we can still look for approaches that pose minimal demand and we can limit what we require; in other words, we can use resources to feed ourselves and power our kitchens respectfully, with an eye toward simplifying what we ask of our planet.

In Closing

As with much of how we live, our food ways are still wildly extravagant compared with those of most of the world. And by nearly all accounts, we may be close to using up the last of what we have been given. This is not meant to bring us down, but to inspire us to calculate the real cost of the food we consume and how we gather and prepare it.

On a global scale, living with integrity on a deteriorating planet is a challenge that no one has figured out how to meet. But on an individual scale, we all have the power to act on our best intentions and to live with greater wisdom and balance. This doesn’t have to happen all at once. One step at a time can still make a difference. And while our efforts alone may not save the world, they can lift our spirits and help preserve our quality of life, and all our efforts taken together may reach further than we can imagine.

Read More

In no special order, these are a few of the many books that have helped shaped my thoughts on how we might better care for the earth and why it’s crucial that we do: Eaarth and other books written by Bill McKibben; A Conservationist Manefesto, by Scott Russell Sanders; Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard; Walden, by Henry David Thoreau; and This Common Ground, by Scott Chaskey.

Copyright Ellen Arian, Ellen’s Food & Soul