Cast your mind back over the past month. We bet you’ve eaten out at a restaurant or two. You’ve probably also ordered takeaway a few times when you really didn’t feel like cooking. And there’s a good chance you let your coworkers cajole you into visiting the food court even though you had a perfectly good lunch waiting in the fridge.
Taken individually, these habits might not seem like a big deal. But the impact of feeding every foodie in the world goes well beyond our expanding waistlines – it’s actually damaging to our planet. In addition to all that food waste, when you factor in the carbon footprint associated with the produce that’s flown into our grocery stores, plus the use of plastic in packaging, few of us can hand-on-heart say we couldn’t do better.
The Foodism team set out to become more conscious diners, tasking ourselves with eliminating certain elements of our everyday consumption. From meat-free meals and local-only produce to zero plastic and reducing our weekly waste, we looked into how sustainable it was to make some eco-conscious switches to our diets.
I set out to minimize the amount of food packaging I use. I’ll admit that I went into this challenge feeling pretty confident that it wouldn’t be a significant departure from my current routine. I bring my coffee to work in a reusable cup (although that’s more about saving money than a commitment to the environment). I usually have a canvas tote in my purse for shopping, and I typically cook from scratch at home, which means I tend to buy a lot of unpackaged veggies.
I figured I could just stop putting my veggies in plastic bags at the grocery store (which would actually be a relief because it generally takes me five minutes of fumbling to open up one of those sticky nightmares anyway) and I’d be good, right?
Once I made a more detailed assessment of how much food packaging I was buying in a typical week, I realized it was way more than I had estimated. At my local grocery store, dry goods are only available in boxes and cans. Meat is the worst offender, sold in styrofoam containers and sealed with plastic wrap.
I figured I could just stop putting my vegetables in plastic bags
Bulk Barn turned out to be a pretty easy solution for dry goods – they have a reusable container program that allows customers to bring jars from home. Unboxed Market, a new zero-waste grocery store, kicks this bring-your-own-container concept up a notch, allowing you to fill your from-home containers with goods like olive oil, milk and even household products such as multi-purpose cleaner and laundry detergent.
Shopping at Bulk Barn and Unboxed was sustainable (pun intended) for the duration of the challenge, but I knew even as I was doing it that it wasn’t something I could see myself keeping up permanently.
As much as I wish I could claim that my sense of environmental responsibility is always top priority for me, I know that cost and convenience are more likely to take precedence. Bulk Barn and Unboxed Market are less accessible from my home than the local No Frills, and prices at Unboxed are (understandably) higher.
One thing I learned shopping at Unboxed, however, is that even a zero-waste grocery store struggles to avoid using packaging for certain products, so they ensure the packaging they do have to use is recyclable. While completely zero-waste grocery shopping may be an overly ambitious goal for me personally, taking the time to look at the packaging and choosing recyclable options wherever possible is something I can do regardless of where I’m shopping.
I, and many other people I know tend to overbuy. I stock up on produce because it’s a better deal to buy a bag of six avocados for $3 rather than a single avocado for $1.47. But (spoiler alert) more than half of them go bad before I get the chance to eat them. (This millennial can’t eat avocado toast every day.)
So, in order to reduce my food waste, I set out to only buy enough groceries for one week at a time and consume all of the items without any leftovers or unnecessary wastage.
My first mistake was making the arduous journey to my not-so-local No Frills on a Saturday just as the mid-afternoon hunger pains were setting in. I tore up and down the aisles in a ravenous frenzy, grabbing whatever caught my eye. When I got home, I realized that I had purchased a bizarre assortment of items that didn’t really go together. The first week was a disaster. I shamefully admit that I forced down a slightly rotten zucchini through tears and had to throw an entire package of ground beef straight into the garbage.
i had to force down a rotten zucchini through tears
For week two, I knew I had to come up with a game plan so I called on the most utilitarian person that I know – my father. We narrowed down a list of dishes that I have the (very limited) skill set to make, planned out each day, meal by meal and determined which ingredients could be used for multiple recipes. I allotted one lunch and one dinner for dining out and bought just enough groceries to make all of my other meals. At the end of the second week, all I had left was a quarter of an onion and some sour cream – and neither of them had to go in the trash. While it wasn’t perfect, compared to week one, I would call that a huge success.
Planning really is everything. I was able to cut down my food waste and my grocery bill – it turns out overbuying wasn’t as cost-efficient as it seemed, surprise, surprise – by simply planning ahead before I went to the store. While it may take a little extra time and thought, it’s well worth it to take this step towards a more sustainable lifestyle.
With evidence stacking up that our excessive meat consumption is environmentally unsustainable, this card-carrying carnivore committed to join the growing vegan community in Canada (850,000 at last count) on a fully plant-based diet.
Despite convincing myself (but none of my colleagues) that this would be a breeze, the assignment threatened to unravel on the first morning. No milk in tea for a Brit is tantamount to a human rights violation, plus the absence of butter or cream cheese on my bagel or even yogurt for breakfast was almost enough to make me throw in the proverbial towel before 9 a.m.
I found myself nursing a plate of fries, pining for a steak
The importance of planning became evident. I went back to the drawing board, mapping out my meals for the week with all the intensity of a hangry woman scorned. I stockpiled fruit and vegetables, planned snacks with military precision and cross-examined every food label for rogue dairy (hello, 99.9% of grocery store soup!)
I quickly discovered that with meat and, importantly, cheese out of the picture, potatoes were the real MVP. On Valentine’s Day – an event usually characterized by gastronomic excess – I found myself nursing a plate of fries, pining for a perfectly pink steak and a decadent dessert.
Though I was wary of thrusting my self-imposed veganism on others, the roster of excellent plant-based options like Rosalinda, Vegandale Brewery and Virtuous Pie meant that there are now plenty of great choices for dining out with friends in Toronto.
Like the moral of all good movie montages, I learned that the biggest hurdle came from within – my FOMO. My protein bowl from Kupfert & Kim might be delicious, but as soon as I saw my colleagues scarfing down poutine, my heart grew heavy with cheese-curd longing.
My assignment wasn’t without digressions – to the surprise of absolutely no one, cheese was my undoing. One evening at a gathering, I strode, in a fugue state, straight up to a platter laden in dairy and inhaled several crackers worth of gorgonzola before I realized my mistake. I regret nothing.
One of the biggest surprises was how sluggish I felt. I had assumed that cutting out meat would reward me with boundless energy, but in my panic to find something suitable, I often fell into a pasta-bread-junk hole.
There are plenty of grey areas here, and several vegans I spoke to confessed to drawing the line at honey and wine (bees are living creatures and the vino filtering process often involves animal by-products).
With a longer commitment, I may have felt a healthier change – but even my short spell as a vegan pushed me to my limits. By contrast, going meatless was relatively easy and something I’ve since implemented for a few meals a week.
My goal was to try and stick to a “local only” approach to shopping for ingredients when cooking meals at home. Whether it was the protein or vegetables, the objective was to try and source within the province.
I’ll admit, when I was first asked to espouse on the experience of creating meals with only locally sourced ingredients, I felt my anxiety level rise noticeably. Asking a food writer to live off only locally sourced ingredients, during the final throes of a cold Ontario winter is a cruel sentence.
A good chunk of my meals come from external sources, restaurants and takeout places. I couldn’t control those meals, no matter how hard I tried to stick to “local only” restaurants. So I decided to turn my attention to the meals at home. Trying to source locally grown ingredients only can be very limiting. Unlike any other season, there are few farmer’s markets that operate from the end of fall to the first weeks of spring. The two best that I found are at the Brickworks and in Leslieville. But that wasn’t the hardest part, the trick was the selection of ingredients. The abundance of root vegetables and some hardy greens meant that my biggest challenge was to avoid the boredom of eating turnip-kale soup five times in a week.
Trying to source locally grown ingredients can be limiting
Locally raised meat, on the other hand, turns out to be easy to find. Because we’re such a meat-addicted city, I was easily able to source Ontario chicken, pork and beef, from both the national grocery stores and smaller vendors at the St. Lawrence Market.
There are many reasons why we should try to shop as locally as possible when we’re getting the ingredients we need for our home cooking. The obvious benefit is that it gives the local economy a boost when you support farmers and producers directly; the valuable dollars that you would be otherwise giving to a big box chain ends up in a good place. Supporting local is also an education in learning the biodiversity of our province. From one corner of Ontario to another there is a plethora of ingredients waiting to be discovered – the gateway to discovering it all is regular market visits.
The biggest difference is in the planning. Shopping local is rarely convenient, you need to sketch out your grocery trips because many of them will revolve around farmers’ markets or trying to figure what is actually local from your favourite vendors.