At the risk of being cliche and discussing resolutions for the new year, let’s talk about possible resolutions, shall we? Perhaps, instead of that diet that never works for more than a month or buying a gym membership that you’ll use twice and forget about it (I told you I was going cliche today), we can resolve to adopt a number of sustainable practices in our homes this year and beyond. Climate breakdown isn’t going anywhere, y’all, but we can do things to make it less dire for ourselves and our children in the future, and to shift our lifestyles from creating waste and carbon and consumption to giving back to the soil, air, and each other.
This works best, as with any goal, by making the goal as specific and doable as possible. So, instead of saying, “I’m going to be more sustainable this year!” or “I’m going to produce less garbage!” we can adopt a particular number of specific practices that we resolve to adopt within a period of time. For example, this month, you could say your family will adopt and maintain at least one new sustainable practice: say, you’ll start with producing only one 30-gallon garbage can’s worth of garbage, or less. Then, next month, you continue reducing your garbage, and add another practice: say, you resolve not to use paper napkins. You do this every month for the year, so that by December, you’ve adopted and maintained at least twelve sustainable practices. That way, you’ve made a specific stride towards sustainability, you resolve to continually do so throughout the year, and you’ll do so gradually so you don’t feel overwhelmed by change all at once. (Can you tell I used to teach SMART goals to kids?)
Now, what sorts of goals might you adopt this year? Firstly, check out this handy post on making changes for a sustainable lifestyle: it’s mostly a list, and gives you specific strategies for starting and maintaining those practices. You will likely need to make several of the goals more specific should you adopt them (for example, “recycle more than you throw away” would need more specific numbers of “how much” of each), but all are doable. And today, I’m going to list and detail some of the practices I follow, and resolve to follow this year, in my home and commercial kitchen. It will overlap somewhat with the previous list, but that’s okay: that just reminds me that none of these are stand-alone activities, that they cross over multiple areas of our lives.
- Compost compost compost! I can’t emphasize this one enough. Food waste is a serious problem, and creates some pretty nasty pollution when it’s simply thrown into landfills. Just because it will eventually degrade, does not mean it’s great to throw in the garbage or just on the ground. Composting cycles the food and many of the paper scraps (including paper towels!) in your kitchen back into the earth without rotting and creating massive amounts of methane, and it’s fabulous for your garden, or someone else’s. Here’s a handy guide to composting if you’re just getting started.
- Save your scraps for stock. Don’t know how or want to eat carrot greens, celery tops, or that wilted (but not rotted) vegetable in your fridge? Use them for stock! If you can’t use them right away, keep a bag or container in your freezer specifically for saving vegetable scraps for stock. And meat bones? Keep a bag in the freezer for those, as well. When it’s full, it’s stock time!
- Cook with in-season, local fruits and vegetables. Off-season produce is not tasty. Produce that has to travel hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles to get to your kitchen is not sustainable. Research what’s native to your area, visit farmer’s markets, grow what you can, and do whatever else you can to avoid out-of-season, faraway produce on your table.
- Use Silpats or parchment paper to line baking pans, if you must. Quit using wax paper (not biodegradable), and make sure your parchment paper is compostable (some is, some isn’t). Silpats are even better because, although they cost more money upfront, you won’t have to keep buying parchment paper (in packages that usually have unrecyclable metal teeth), and they’re washable.
- Cover goods with reusable items, like clean kitchen towels, beeswax wrap, or Tupperware containers. A lot of recipes call for wrapping doughs in plastic while they sit or refrigerate for periods of time, when it is unnecessary to maintain the dough’s texture. I cover bread and other doughs with tea towels while they rise or sit, and will wrap cookie and pie dough in the parchment paper I intend to bake with later, or store them in reusable containers or bags, with nary a bad result yet. I also have mixing bowls with flat lids, which has been a lifesaver in the kitchen in this respect.
- Buy ingredients in bulk. Most baking supplies are available in bulk bins or bulk sizes (like butter), and even wholesale from many suppliers and stores (which means you might get them cheaper!). Bring your own containers to carry and store your bulk goods.
- Use a (clean) do-rag or other microfiber cloth as a cheesecloth. Commercial cheesecloths are flimsy and terrible, and can only be used once. Forget that noise: a clean, unused do-rag (which you can get at beauty supply stores, or the beauty section of most grocery stores) is machine-washable, and is easier to tie up than a traditional cloth square when making cheese or squeezing liquid from produce. Any large cloth with tiny holes (even a clean quality t-shirt) will do, though.
- Use the butter left on butter paper to grease your pans. Don’t waste money on shortening for pans: when your recipe, which likely calls for softened butter, also tells you to grease your pan, use that butter paper instead! You can even save and store particularly buttery paper that you don’t use in a Ziploc in the freezer (or fridge, if you’re using them that week) to use later – it’ll thaw super quick.
- Use your oven’s heat for multiple baking batches. Are you firing up your oven for a cake or bread? Why not use that residual heat afterwards to immediately heat a casserole, or crackers, or even warm food? You can use this same mindset when using your stove’s burners, as well. This requires planning in advance, but it’s a good practice to reduce unnecessary electricity use and heat.
- When you’re done baking, crack open the oven door to release heat. This is especially nice in the winter, and can make it so your heater isn’t working as hard, at least for an hour or so. Use common sense: make sure the oven is turned off, don’t do this around kiddos or pets, and for Pete’s sake, don’t touch anything in the oven. It’s hot.
- Clean with washable rags, towels, and sponges. Yes, you can get machine-washable sponges that work great. Yes, you can still be sanitary without using a bevy of paper towels every time you cook or bake – just wash the towels and sponges regularly.
- Use environmentally-friendly soap and cleaners in the kitchen. Most commercial dish soap contains a bunch of stuff that’s not necessary for cleaning (think dyes and artificial fragrances), as well as phosphates that can cause algal bloom, and chlorine bleach, something you probably don’t want in your garden or waterways. Is all bleach bad? No. Are all “chemicals” bad? Nope – water is a chemical, my friends. Are all “natural” products and ingredients good? Nope nope – this is a marketing word to get your money. But do your research when it comes to cleaning products, and only use items like bleach and products with phosphates when absolutely necessary (sanitizing dishes in a commercial kitchen, for example), instead of blindly grabbing the prettiest and nicest-smelling products. Oh, and you can make your own dishwashing detergent, too, to save money and unnecessary packaging.
- Use cold or cool water whenever possible for washing dishes. Your hot water is probably not hot enough to sanitize dishes (otherwise, you’d be boiling your hands as you work), and your soap is likely doing an admirable job on its own (especially in a home kitchen), so turn down the heat.
- Keep oils and fats out of the drain. Hopefully, you know not to pour cups of fry oil and gobs of butter into your sink (if you didn’t, stop doing that. It’s so, so bad). But this rule also includes smaller amounts of fats, like butter-laced cake batter left on your mixing bowls and films of oil on your pans. Wipe oil with paper towels (yep, I’m advocating paper here – you can compost most paper towels, and small amounts of oil won’t destroy your compost pile) and make sure you scrape extra fat from pans before washing so it doesn’t all go to the sewers. Don’t default to pouring solids down the drain, even if your home still has a sink disposer – compost if possible, or throw them away.
That’s it for now, but I will add more to the list as they come. Have a great sustainable kitchen practice not on the list? Put it in the comments!