Appetite for change: six ways to eat more sustainably

From buying seasonally to reducing your food waste, these easy steps will help you form more sustainable eating habits 

BY: Emma Sheppard

This article/content was originally published on as part of the ZENB and Guardian Labs Eat smarter campaign.

From socialising to shopping, the upheaval caused by the Covid pandemic has changed most aspects of our lives – including our relationship with food. With empty offices and successive lockdowns closing restaurants and pubs, we’re eating more of our meals at home. And there are signs we’re embracing a more sustainable diet, too. In its recent Food in a Pandemic report, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) found that 41% of those surveyed as part of the study have wasted less food and 18% have tried growing their own produce over the past year.

Will this become a long-term trend? It would certainly be a step in the right direction, with experts agreeing that many of our current eating habits are

unsustainable. Globally, food production accounts for 70% of water use and is the cause of 60% of deforestation and loss of biodiversity, with around a third of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions relating to the food system.

But when it comes to eating more sustainably, little changes can make all the difference. Here are six easy steps towards a more environmentally friendly diet. 

Reduce food waste

Decomposing food waste in landfill emits methane. It’s thought that if everyone in the UK stopped throwing away food for one day, it would have the same environmental impact as taking 14,000 cars off the road for a year. 

"The average family wastes 244kg of food annually,” says Dr Christian Reynolds, senior lecturer in food policy at City University of London. “That’s equivalent to about one in every four shopping bags that are being wasted.” Plan meals before going to the shops so you only buy what you need, freeze anything you can’t eat fresh, and move older food to the front of the fridge or cupboard so it isn’t forgotten. It also pays to check that your fridge is below 5C. 

One third of fridges in the UK are above 6C,” says Reynolds. “That means we’re getting a day’s less shelf life on our milk, meat, cheese, and fruit and vegetables.”

Change your cooking habits

Cooking accounts for up to 61% of the impact of certain foods,” says Reynolds. “Changing the way you cook – microwaving a potato instead of baking it, for example – can have a dramatic impact.” He also recommends switching to a green energy supplier. Pressure cookers and slow cookers can significantly reduce the amount of energy needed to cook food, and you could also ditch preheating the oven for food with longer cooking times (over 45 minutes), providing it’s not something delicate like a cake or soufflé. Most modern ovens warm up so quickly that it’s seen an obsolete step.

Rethink your recipes

More than 30% of all greenhouse gas emissions from food production come from livestock and fisheries, so reducing your intake of animal products is important. Spend 15 minutes on a Sunday planning your meals for the week, and consider tweaks you could make to your favourite recipes. 

"Pick two of them and think about how you could make it a bit more sustainable by upping the veg and decreasing the animal protein” says Reynolds. He suggests swapping half of your mince for finely diced mushrooms in recipes such as bolognese, as it will reduce your carbon footprint with virtually no change in texture or flavour. 

Sustainably sourced seafood can be a good swap for meat, and there’s a growing range of plant-based meat alternatives and vegan cheese available in supermarkets. A new cookbook such as The Planet-Friendly Kitchen or The Green Roasting Tin can also help with inspiration.

Eat seasonally and incorporate more variety

According to Bioversity International, of the estimated 7,000 edible plant species in the world, only 30 are used to feed the global population. That lack of biodiversity in agriculture is bad for both the climate and food security. Making intelligent swaps can spread your impact – the yellow peas that go into ZENB pasta, for example. Yellow peas are a greener choice because they improve the soil by fixing nitrogen and require less water to grow than wheat.

Reduce those air miles

Try to avoid foods that are air freighted, like highly perishable fruits and vegetables such as strawberries, blueberries, asparagus, green beans and potted herbs. “Air freighted herbs have 10 times the carbon footprint of herbs grown on your own windowsill,” says Jo Hand, co-founder of the social enterprise Giki, an app that helps users find sustainable products. It’s a good idea to choose seasonal produce wherever possible, and to buy tinned or frozen fruit and vegetables, which tend to have more energy-efficient supply chains.

Shop smart

The complexity surrounding the global food system can make it difficult to know which products are more sustainable than others, but there are apps that can help. As well as Giki, which rates the sustainability of 280,000 UK supermarket products, there is the Good Fish Guide by the Marine Conservation Society (MSC), which covers 135 species of UK-traded seafood. You’ll also find the MSC (or ASC) logo on sustainable farmed fish. Other types of certification such as Fairtrade, Freedom Food (protecting animal welfare), organic and RSPO (responsibly sourced palm oil) are helpful indicators of a more environmentally friendly choice. The cultivation of palm oil has had devastating environmental consequences, but frustratingly it can be difficult to spot on food labels because of its many different names, Hand says.

In the UK, we want more help when it comes to choosing more sustainable food. Patrick Holden, founder of The Sustainable Food Trust, says this is something his organisation is campaigning for alongside supermarkets, farming organisations and companies. “We think there should be a score, a sustainability rating on foods,” he says. “It’s got too complicated to measure food sustainability. We want one harmonised system of measurement.”

ZENB’s mission is to inspire change within the food system by helping to raise awareness around the issue of food waste. Find out more about its Yellow Pea Pasta range and why it is a greener choice.