Is it possible to eat sustainably without becoming fully vegan or vegetarian? We think it is. In this post, I give an in-depth overview of how our family eats and guidelines for eating sustainably--even without eliminating any food groups.
In my first post on sustainable eating, I gave an overview of our family’s eating philosophy and the science behind our approach to eating, which features a primarily plant-based diet with small amounts of dairy and meat a couple of times each week. If you’re curious why we haven’t made the leap to a fully vegetarian or vegan diet, I encourage you to check it out.
However, if you just want the specifics below I’ve included an outline of what our family typically eats, with guidelines for each food group, The foods listed in order of what should be eaten the most to what should be eaten most sparingly. While I’m definitely not saying this is the only way to eat, I do think that our approach is reasonable, especially for families where going entirely vegetarian or vegan is not feasible, but you still want to do your best to eat sustainably.
We'll cover our approach to eating:
Before we dive into it, I do want to reiterate our hierarchy for choosing to purchase or acquire foods of all types:
Local: Starting with our own backyard and our CSA Vegetable share, we try to get whatever is in season and travels the shortest distance to our home first.
Organic: Produce that has been grown using sound environmental practices is next on our list. We live in a rural area at 5000+ feet elevation. On top of a very short growing season,some things just don’t grow here, so we prioritize organic produce whenever we can find it.
In-Season: If something is out of season, it most likely traveled a long way to get to us, or it’s been stored for a very long time and as a result has lost flavor and nutrition. We opt for in-season produce as much as possible, freezing, canning, or otherwise preserving extras for the off-season.
Minimal Packaging: We do our best to eliminate unnecessary waste in our home. Look for produce that is “naked” as much as possible, meaning it doesn’t come in a plastic clamshell or bag. Instead, put your fruits in veggies in a reusable produce bag, or just go with no bag at all. If packaging is involved, is it compostable? Reusable?
When we’re lucky, we find items that meet all four of these categories: Local, organic, in-season, and package-free. Since this doesn’t happen all of the time (especially in the wintertime) I look for items that are at least a combination of any two.
Our Approach to Sustainable Eating (For All Food Groups):
Whole Fruits and Vegetables:
The Short: Eat every day, ideally as a component of every meal and snack.
The Long: Fruits and veggies are the foundation of a sustainable diet, providing us with the vast majority of the vitamins and nutrients our bodies need. We plan our weekly meals around which vegetables we have on hand. We make sure there is at least one fruit or vegetable featured in every meal, and at our house we call fruits and veggies “all the time foods”. If the kids are hungry, they know they can have fruits or veggies as a snack whenever they want (with the exception of filling bananas right before dinner).
The short: Eat every day, though not necessarily with every meal. Eat a variety of different whole grains to support biodiversity and to ensure you’re getting plenty of nutrients.
The long: When it comes to whole grains, think beyond whole wheat flour and brown rice. While both of these items make frequent appearances at our table, trying new grains is a great way to experience new foods and to support crop biodiversity. Quinoa (not technically a grain but filling a similar culinary space), teff, spelt, whole grain polenta, wild rice, oats, buckwheat, farro, and millet are great options. Spelt flour can be used in place of all purpose flour for baking, while farro makes a great addition to soup, and quinoa can be used as a side, dinner component, or even breakfast.
I use whole grain flour to make bread most weeks, and we rotate our grain-based side dishes. At the beginning of each week, we make a giant pot of rice, quinoa, polenta, or other similar grains, and use that as our side dish with any soups, stir-fries, or stews we will be eating throughout the week. Basically, we eat a grain with most meals, though not necessarily every meal. If I know we’re packing sandwiches for lunch, then I try to make a non-bread grain with breakfast, such as oatmeal. If we have toast with breakfast, then I try to incorporate rice or quinoa with lunch instead, to make sure we’re getting a variety of grains, the same way we emphasize eating a variety of vegetables.
Again, we follow the local, organic, minimal packaging hierarchy, though the way most grains are preserved and distributed means that whether or not they are in season is less important.
Legumes: Plant Protein Powerhouses:
The short: Eat daily or nearly daily as one of your primary protein sources. Legumes are an ideal pantry food as they are sustainable to grow and have a long shelf life.
The Long: Most plant proteins come from legumes, including beans and pulses. Because legumes have the ability to fix nitrogen from the air back into the soil, they are also very sustainable and beneficial crops. That said, we utilize a variety of different beans and legumes as a way of promoting crop diversity and to ensure we are getting a variety of plant-based nutrients in our diets.
We use beans all of the time for soups, stews, to top homemade nachos...the list goes on. I cook with various legumes on average 2-3 times per week, though most of these meals often make enough for legumes, so each one ends up being at least one additional lunch and/or dinner.
Tofu and tempeh are both protein-rich food sources made from soybeans. However, I only cook with these ingredients a couple of times each month because I can only get them in plastic packaging. I’d rather buy dried beans in bulk or beans in recyclable cans before purchasing tofu or tempeh covered in a non-recyclable plastic film.
One thing I love about legumes is their long shelf life. We try to use dried beans as much as we can, though I keep a variety of canned beans on-hand for last-minute dinner emergencies. While canned beans do require more energy to package into aluminum cans and to ship, I definitely think it’s worth keeping some around for a quick meal if it keeps us from ordering a less healthy or sustainable option as takeout.
Nuts, Seeds, & Unsaturated Plant Oils
The short: Eat a small amount daily or nearly daily. Plant oils, seeds, nuts are fabulous sources of healthy fats and a variety of nutrients. Just don’t go overboard on portion sizes, and consider making your own nut and seed butter to cut down on energy involved with shipping.
The long: We cook olive oils, grapeseed oil, and olive oil, and safflower oil is one of my favorite oils for making homemade salad dressing. Personally, I think one of the places people go wrong with plant-based diets is that they don’t get enough healthy fat. A few nuts, half of an avocado, or a smear of nut butter goes a long way toward feeling satisfied, not to mention that vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat-soluble, meaning a bit of fat is necessary to absorb the nutrients. I like to get a nut mix out of the bulk bins during our monthly bulk shopping trip because I can never decide which nuts I want the most! I also keep walnuts and pecans on hand for baking.
We usually make our own nut butter, because this cuts down on the upstream waste involved with shipping most nut butter in heavy glass jars. If you don’t have an allergy, I would say that peanut butter is the way to go (Yes, I know, technically a legume). It’s extremely sustainable to grow (think the sustainability benefits of a legume combined with the health benefits of nuts), inexpensive, and easy to find. We’re also big fans of hazelnut and cashew butter, though honestly, the point is to incorporate a variety of plant-based fats into your diet, so pick your favorite nut and have fun! You can follow the instructions in this post to make your own nut butter. The recipe is for chocolate (or non-chocolate) hazelnut butter, but the process can be applied to making any nut butter.
However, in the fervor for nuts, we try hard not to overlook seeds as an important part of our diet. Seeds are often less expensive than nuts, with many of the health benefits, and generally fewer allergy concerns. I sneak ground flax seeds into oatmeal, smoothies, and baked goods, and sunflower seed butter is as good as any nut butter. Roasted pumpkin seeds make a great snake (learn how to roast your own here!).
As with all food groups, look for local sources (or depending on where you live, the least distant) and organic options with minimal packaging. Nuts and seeds have a decent shelf life but can go rancid due to their fat content, so store them in the refrigerator if you aren’t going to use them right away.
The short: Limited, but not completely eliminated. Use plant-based alternatives wherever it makes sense, and don't consume dairy products every day.
The Long: Here is where things get interesting. While we can all agree that eating more plant-based foods is a good thing, figuring out how much dairy--or whether to eat dairy at all--can be a point of contention. As I mentioned above, our family has not eliminated any food groups, but we do make a conscious effort to eat less dairy. Currently, we’ve mostly eliminated cow milk and cream from our home (except for the occasional special-occasion baked good that might call for a bit of cream or half-and-half). We’ve switched the kids to soy milk while they are at home (though we allow them the freedom to choose otherwise when we are not at home) and we started using oat milk in place of half-and-half for our coffee.
We still use butter, cheese, and yogurt, buying from local, organic, and grass-fed sources wherever possible, and we’ve also been getting more goat and sheep’s cheese for our “fancy cheese” weekend snack. However, we don’t eat these foods every day. Instead, we limit them to a few times each week. I still use real butter when I’m baking and I know that a non-dairy alternative just isn’t going to turn out for me. On special days we might have some ice cream made from cow's milk (though coconut milk ice cream is amazing) or we may have a treat topped with whipped cream, but I think the key here is to remember that these things truly are treats and not everyday foods.
Basically, we enjoy dairy products and have them once in a while, but they aren’t going to be a part of our everyday food repertoire, because we recognize that dairy farms are a major form of emissions, and land that could be used to grow food for people is instead used to grow food for dairy cows. I believe that if the majority of people took this approach, as a society we could enjoy a small amount of dairy products without the devastating environmental side effects.
The Short: Eggs provide a high-quality protein source that is more sustainable than meat. Eat a couple of times per week from local sources, and make sure the chickens are being raised in an environment that maintains sustainable practices and promotes animal welfare.
The Long: I put eggs in their own category because they aren’t really meat and they obviously aren’t dairy...they’re their own thing. Personally, I am very much pro-egg, provided the chickens are kept safe but still permitted to range and be the omnivores they are meant to be instead of being fed on grain alone. As someone who has raised many backyard chickens, our chickens have always been more “pampered pets who happen to lay eggs” than anything else. They are also fabulous garden pest control, produce excellent fertilizer (aka poop), and do a wonderful job of eating up table scraps. Getting your eggs this way also eliminates many of the environmental concerns associated with factory farming.
While not everyone can have backyard chickens, there are alternative sustainable ways to get eggs from happy chickens. If your area has a local farmer’s market, many backyard chicken enthusiasts and small egg operations will sell at the market, providing the same benefits as backyard chickens without the work of taking care of them. Our CSA includes the option for a weekly egg share, featuring eggs from a local, organic chicken farm where it is easy to verify that the farmers are following sustainable practices.
We eat eggs with our breakfast a couple of times each week, and we also have them as our protein source for dinner about once per week. I incorporate them into a lot of my baking (though I will use alternatives if it makes sense).
Meat & Poultry:
The Short: Limit to a couple of times each week, focusing primarily on wild game because of its low environmental impact. For farmed meat, pork and poultry are better options than beef.
The Long: Growing up, my dad was (and still is) an avid outdoorsman. Hunting and fishing were just a part of life, and we grew up eating venison, elk, turkey, and trout. Our family hardly ever bought meat from the store. While I think I will do another post in the future where we can hash out environmental and concerns about hunting in general, the bottom line is that wild game is far more sustainable than meat from a farm or a ranch, as there are no pollutions or emissions involved. A major concern of conventional farming is that huge amounts of land that could be used to grow food for people are instead being used to grow food for farm animals. There are no such concerns with wild animals.
My own family continues to get nearly all of our meat from wild game, incorporating it into our meals a couple of times each week. Personally, I think this forces us to be conscientious and appreciative of what we have. There is a finite amount available each year, and once it’s gone, it’s gone.
I know that not everyone has the means or desire to consume wild game. If you enjoy meat, but don’t want to (or can’t) go that route, poultry and pork are better options than beef. A couple of times each month, I will get some pork or chicken for variety, once again emphasizing local and organic sources. We barely ever purchase beef, as it is so environmentally impactful.
I make a point of eating no meat before dinner, and most days, I don’t eat any animal products at all before dinner, except for an egg here and there. The kids and my husband may have a bit of yogurt, cheese, or a small amount of meat with breakfast or lunch here and there. The key is to be conscientious of how often we are eating meat with various meals so it truly remains a very small part of our diet.
The short: Due to pollution and overfishing concerns, be mindful of which fish you are consuming and how they are caught. If catching your own fish, check your local FWP for the recommended “safe” levels of each fish to consume per month.
The Long: We do enjoy fish once in a while, though overfishing and pollution mean that we are very careful about what we purchase. We also opt to catch our own when we can. Despite years and years of practice, I’m a terrible (or unlucky) fisherwoman, so my dad still has to help me out by sharing his catch with us whenever he goes fishing. However, it’s really important to check the pollution levels whenever you’re fishing. Your local FWP should have a list of the “safe” amount of each specified for a particular area. Keep in mind that safe amounts are lower for pregnant women and small children.
If I can find wild-caught fish such as salmon at the store, I will get it every once in a while, and we do enjoy wild-caught sardines about once a week as a snack. If I’m buying fish at the store, I get it from the deli counter, wrapped in butcher’s paper to avoid unnecessary plastic packaging, or we get canned fish in recyclable containers.
Sugars, sweeteners, and misc. Items:
The Short: Try not to use added sweeteners too often, even from natural sources like honey. However, a bit of real honey or maple syrup is still much better than using artificial sweeteners.
The Long: I use some organic white sugar and brown sugar in baking, though I opt for honey and maple syrup where I can (it can be tricky to adjust the liquid content when baking). At breakfast, I like to use a touch of local honey or maple syrup in oatmeal or in my tea in place of processed sugar. Regardless, sweeteners make it into our diet sparingly, and definitely not daily. That said, we genuinely enjoy treats when we have them and don’t think of them as “bad” foods. Rather, they are special foods that we don’t want to spoil by having them too often.
While sometimes I still struggle to resist the allure of an afternoon diet Pepsi, or I’m tempted by the pile of Splenda in the break room at work, we try not to use artificial sweeteners at all. In addition to their dubious chemical composition (not to mention the waste involved with creating and packaging them), they can also trick your body into misunderstanding its hunger/satiety signals.
No matter what you eat, remember not to purchase more than you can use before it goes bad. Going back to the Eat-Lancet Commission mentioned in Part 1, part of their mission is to cut down on the amount of food that is wasted, in addition to encouraging people to eat in healthier, more sustainable ways. This isn’t to say we force our kids to clean their plates (which has been shown to cause unhealthy food habits), but rather, we’re realistic about how much food we’re actually going to be able to use.
The bottom line is that it is possible to eat sustainably without completely eliminating food groups, and that even the busiest families can feel good about making food choices that are better for themselves and the environment.
Sustainable Eating Guidelines Summarized:
Focus on Local, Organic, and In-season foods with limited packaging (or at least a combination of any two of these things.
Fruits and Veggies are all the time foods
Whole grains are everyday foods, but keep a variety in rotation.
Legumes are protein powerhouses. Try to eat them every day or nearly everyday.
Nuts, seeds, and plant oils are your friend. Try to incorporate them into your diet in small quantities each day.
Dairy is not an everyday food, but you don’t necessarily need to eliminate it completely.
Eggs are fine a few times a week but are best if they come from backyard chickens or small, local operations to mitigate negative environmental factors and ensure chickens are treated well.
Meat can be part of a sustainable diet in small quantities a couple of times each week. Wild game is a good option if you have a source for it. Pork and poultry are better than beef.
Fish: Be conscientious of which species of fish you eat, how it’s caught, and whether the source is a pollution concern.
Sweets and Treats: Sweets and treats are wonderful, but they are and should be special foods and not everyday foods.
More Food For Thought:
If you'd like to explore more information about sustainable eating and tips for reducing waste, don't miss these posts: