Ways to reduce your environmental impact as a foodie

Note: Some links in this post may be affiliate links. If you make a purchase from an affiliate link, I will receive a small commission at no cost to you (thank you!). For more info, check out my disclosure policy.

Food is good.

Environmental damage leading to pollution, the destruction of ocean life, and climate change which disproportionately affects poorer countries but causes rising temperatures in many places is bad.

How can you help reduce your impact? If you ate one of the CEOs from the 100 companies who produce 71% of our greenhouse emissions, that would have a HUGE impact!

But that’s hard. What can an individual do, with their everyday choices to help with the remaining emissions? Well to oversimplify, the biggest way to reduce your carbon footprint is by having less children if you’re from the US and in the top 1%, with a distant second being not owning a car (and a close third being not flying transatlantic flights – which, not ready to tackle yet). At least according to this site describing this study. And though the US is the biggest plastic waste producer per person, we’re doing relatively well in terms of not having those end up in the ocean (sooooo, you can leave now Scott Pruitt. Oh wait). You can read more here.

There are some small, other changes you can make though to both reduce your carbon footprint and the amount of waste that you generate. For those who love both eating food and attempting to make the environment less damaged for the future kids who are born, here are a few food related ways to reduce your environmental impact!

Order takeout less

Takeout places use disposable packaging. Clamshells, utensils, plates, cups, a bag to put it all in, etc. It’s especially bad in 2018 San Diego, where takeout places mostly deliver their food with styrofoam cups/plates/boxes (which take an estimated 1 million years to decompose) and single use plastic bags (which end up in our landfills/oceans and are only used once, among other issues). Note: San Diego is in the process of potentially banning styrofoam, and plastic bags are at least banned at grocery stores.

If you live in a less right leaning city, you might have takeout places that use recycled containers (in some ways, the best disposable option), compostable containers (even though you technically shouldn’t put them in some cities’ compost bins), and come in reusable bags.

But, while each option has its attractive pros, they virtually all have disappointing cons. In fact, the most environmentally friendly thing is using reusable containers multiple times. This could mean dining in more (assuming the restaurant uses non-disposable packaging) or ordering takeout at places that let you use your own reusable containers (technically, I’ve only seen this once and it was at an ultra hipster place).

By the way, the above two paragraphs are totally based off of this site. You can go there for much more information- for example, the exact pros/cons of different types of disposables and how many times you have to use a reusable container before its environmental impact overcomes a paper disposable one. It’s really eye-opening!

pile of styrofoam containers

This is honestly what my trash looked like after living in San Diego for a month, because I love takeout and before I considered its environmental impact. It’s also known as “Styrofoam Mountain” by David Gilford licensed under CC BY 2.0.

But realistically, you’re still going to order takeout with disposable containers sometimes. You’re in a rush. Sometimes you forget your lunch at home. It’s convenient. It’s easy. You could reject the utensils to reduce waste, but you’ll probably still get plastic containers. When that happens, consider attempts to:

Reuse takeout containers as appropriate

Growing up in a first generation household, seeing plastic silverware and containers in the dishwasher (where hand-washed dishes are stored) was really common. At the time it was embarrassing (“why can’t we use real containers like the middle class white kids at school?“) and confusing (“why does the empty butter container have nuts in it?”), but now, when done appropriately, it totally goes in line with the “reuse” thing since it reduces the demand for new containers, which we use fossil fuels to create.

Two words of caution though:

  • I said “as appropriate” in the heading because technically some plastics aren’t safe to reuse. Read here for more information. I’m not perfect and do this anyway, but will probably die of some sort of harmful thing, according to the internet.
  • Even if you do use a “safe to reuse plastic”, they can become unsafe quickly, for example by exposing them to high heats (microwaves, dishwashers, etc). Here are a few other tips on reusing takeout containers.

Last, these can be reused for something other than food- like crafts! Here are a few crafty ideas for how you can reuse plastic containers.

Finish, share, or save what you order

How many times do you order a ton of food because it sounds good, but then don’t have the room to finish it and leave it on the table to go straight to the landfill? Food waste is bad because resources like water and oil are needed to generate food and food in landfills releases greenhouse gases, among other issues. The majority of food waste starts at the farm level, but a small percentage of food waste comes from restaurants.

Even though the act of restaurants cooking food itself can result in the most restaurant related food waste (think cut or peeled vegetables, meat bones, etc- unless the restaurant composts), unfinished food from diners results in an estimated one-third of a restaurant’s food waste.

Consider ordering less, taking home leftovers that keep well, or sharing with friends more when you go out to eat. Another benefit of sharing food is that you get to try more things than if you just order!

But, as hinted in the first paragraph, individual people contributions in wasting less of the food they buy won’t save the most in the food waste sphere (go and petition your congresspeople for major change!). A more impactful way an individual can contribute is to, at least occasionally:

Eat less resource intensive foods

Sure, you can reuse stuff and eat everything on your plate, but resources still go into getting those together in the first place. What can you do? Avoid the things that use the most! The most impactful food-related thing you can do is to eat a plant based diet, based on that study I cited in the beginning.

Yeah, yeah, “mmmmmm meat, tasty”. You don’t need to exclude meats outright if it’s too hard for you, just consider eating less because it will still make a difference. This site argues that giving up just beef is a good enough alternative to the plant based diet. This is because beef uses much more resources than chicken, pork, eggs, etc. Anyone who follows this blog knows that I can’t give up California burritos completely, but I do order them less often and ask for less carne asada (to which everyone looks at me like I’m mad), and they still taste amazing with very slightly less of an environmental impact.

If you’re still doubtful that any food sans meat can be good, consider eating out more often at vegetarian/vegan restaurants. Since it’s their speciality, it will probably taste better than the carrot ‘hot dog’ you made because it looked cool on Pinterest. My absolute favorite is Plum Bistro in Seattle, which if I could eat there every day, I would totally be a vegan and not miss meat or cheese. This is coming from the person who just said that carne asada is her downfall. I do not need carne asada if I have Plum Bistro.

fruits and vegeatables

Fruit and vegetables market / Istanbul / Turkey” by Esin Üstün licensed under CC BY 2.0.

And those are my tips! Don’t forget that we need action at the global and corporate level by the companies and countries who are contributing the most to make a bigger impact. You can do all the things in this list, but advocacy, donating money or time to organizations making change, and educating your friends and families is super important too. Keep encouraging companies to look into sustainable packaging that’s less dependent on fossil fuels and governments to pass policies that help people reduce waste that pollutes oceans!

For more (not food related) ways you can reduce your impact, check out this article.

Are you a foodie who works to reduce your environmental impact? What do you do to lower your carbon footprint and amount of waste generated? Let me know in the comments!


Traveler. Foodie. Student debt haver. I love finding the best things to do and eat when traveling, and sharing them with everyone else who likes experiencing local culture or exploring the outdoors too! You can read more about me in my about page.

Note: Some links in this post may be affiliate links. If you make a purchase from an affiliate link, I will receive a small commission at no cost to you (thank you!). For more info, check out my disclosure policy.

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