6 Ways to Make Your Kitchen More Sustainable

Try these easy ideas for making your cooking routine greener. Bonus: You’ll probably save money!

A compost bin overflowing with vegetable scraps on a kitchen counter

Ted Cavanaugh

If you're trying to make your cooking routine more sustainable, the good news is that a few small steps can make a big difference. The even better news: most of these steps will also save you money in the long run. It's a win-win!

Maximize Your Oven Use

“Those 10 minutes when the oven preheats is the perfect time to toast nuts or dry bread crumbs,” says Laura Fenton, a sustainability expert in New York City and the author of the Living Small newsletter. If you’re planning a big baking afternoon, try to time things so you can use both oven racks at once. And if you have a toaster oven that’ll do the job, use that instead of your big oven, especially if your oven runs on gas. “The smaller appliance requires less energy, and since it’s electric, it could help lower your carbon footprint—the electric grid is partly powered by renewable energy in some areas of the U.S.,” Fenton says.

Cook Like You’re on Chopped

“Let the contents of your refrigerator and pantry dictate what you cook,” says Anne-Marie Bonneau, creator of the blog Zero-Waste Chef and author of a cookbook of the same name. More often than not, you’ll have everything you need to make a meal. “Cooking this way is like appearing on the show Chopped, but without a timer, critical judges, or heartbreak,” Bonneau says. To help jump-start your creative process, get a copy of The Everlasting Meal Cookbook by Tamar Adler. With more than 500 pages of A-to-Z leftovers inspiration, it includes easy ideas for even the most specific bits and bobs, like shrimp shells, forgotten tater tots, broccoli stems, and languishing Brie. 

Ignore (Most) Expiration Dates

Dana Gunders, executive director of ReFED, a nonprofit that’s working to reduce food waste, describes our country’s patchwork system of sell-by, best-by, and other dates as downright confusing. “Those dates typically refer to food quality, not safety. And there are few consistent standards, which can lead many people to discard food that’s safe and good to eat.” So think twice before tossing something just because it’s past the date on the package. (The exception, Gunders says, is use-by dates, which can be a safety notice.) Assuming refrigerated food has been handled properly—meaning never left at room temperature for more than two hours—your senses are the best guide to what’s safe to eat. If the milk smells sour once poured into your glass, if fuzz is growing inside the jar of salsa, or if the meat feels a little slimy, that’s your cue to toss it. 

Save Your Scraps…for Someone Else to Compost

Keeping food out of the trash does a heap of good for the earth. The EPA estimates that food scraps take up about a quarter of our landfill space. And when they decompose, the harmful greenhouse gas methane is released. Even if you don’t have the space or gumption to maintain a backyard compost pile, you can save scraps in a countertop bin or in a container in the freezer for someone else to turn into compost. Do an internet search for “food waste pickup service” and your zip code to see if your municipality collects scraps, or if there’s a local service you can hire. 

Replace Single-Use Plastic Without Buying Anything New

We love Stasher bags for storing leftovers, reusable totes for grocery shopping, cloth produce bags for holding fruits and veggies, and Bee’s Wrap for covering bowls and protecting items like lemon halves. Don’t own any of these things? You don’t have to shop to cut down on single-use plastic. Bonneau grabs plates instead of plastic wrap: “I cover bowls in the fridge with plates and even store halves of onions, grapefruit, melons, and so on cut side down on a plate.” You can also repurpose plastic bread bags as produce bags, and save glass jars to store leftovers in. 

Hide Your Paper Towels

Breaking a lifelong paper towel habit isn’t easy. Rather than going cold turkey, make the towels a little less appealing. Start by switching to a version made from recycled paper. This kind tends not to be as thick or absorbent as classic kinds, so you may find yourself reaching for something else instead (keep reading). Also consider placing the roll in an out-of-sight spot, like the pantry, Fenton suggests. As you cut back on paper towels, lean into Swedish dishcloths, which are like a cross between sponges and paper towels. They’re washable, reusable, and compostable. 

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