When my husband and I were married nearly 15 years ago, his siblings gave us a fabulous gas grill. Since grilling is one of my favorite ways to cook, it has definitely been one of the most useful gifts we received. We use our grill all year-round: I’ve stood on the deck with an umbrella while flipping burgers in the rain and cleared snow off the grill to cook a winter turkey breast. But it’s in the summertime that I – like many people – really give the kitchen a break, turning to the grill nearly every day, sometimes for all three meals.
Whether you are a devoted griller like me, or simply fire up the barbecue for the many traditions of the summer season, there are three simple steps we can all take to make these outdoor meals friendlier to the planet (as well as our wallets and waistlines). Keep these tips in mind as you plan your Labor Day celebrations.
Tip 1: Rethink your meat.
When it comes to barbecues, the biggest environmental impact is not from the grill, but what you put on it. Meat – especially beef – takes a major toll, not only on our waistlines, but on the planet’s natural resources. It is not widely recognized, but cattle ranching is the number-one cause of deforestation in the Amazon. And as the trees disappear, so does the earth’s natural method of absorbing climate-changing carbon dioxide. The livestock sector actually generates more greenhouse gas emissions than all the planes, trains and automobiles on the planet. Even if your beef doesn’t come from the Amazon (in the U.S. it typically doesn’t), the environmental footprint it carries is high. Because of all the grain that animals eat, it takes 10 times more water to produce a hamburger than a soy burger.
Even if you don’t stop eating meat entirely, you can try eating less of it, and possibly choose different types. In my household, I gave up red meat a long time ago, so we opt for chicken sausages and turkey burgers as tasty, less costly alternatives to beef or pork. Poultry takes less energy and fewer resources to raise, so it’s a sustainable alternative to red meat. Instead of special-occasion steaks, we splurge on duck breasts or fish, like wild salmon, which is sustainable and hearty.
Photo by Flickr user Baha’i Views / Flitzy Phoebie (Vegetable skewers awaiting grilling. Used under a Creative Commons license.)
Tip 2: Eat more produce, from good sources.
Adding more fruits, vegetables, and grains is a smart move, for you and the planet. Most doctors advise that these food groups should comprise ¾ of the meal on your plate. Certainly these go easily into salads and side dishes, but lots of produce (asparagus, peppers, corn, onions – and even peaches) can all be thrown on the grill, dressed simply with olive oil and a little balsamic vinegar if you like. Grilled veggies are great in warm weather, lower calorie and less costly than meat. You might even consider making them the main event. And, the lower a food is on the food chain, the lower its impact on the environment.
Especially when farms are bursting with ripe, flavorful fruits and vegetables, try to eat as much from local, in-season sources as possible. Even in the winter, local cheeses, eggs and breads make wonderful accompaniments. Whether you frequent farmers markets, subscribe to a farm-share program, or pick your own, buying in-season produce grown close to home reduces the distance food travels from the farm to your table, and the energy required to grow or to store it. All of these factors add up to help cut packaging and carbon pollution.
Tip 3: Aim for a trash-free event.
For many people, the “ease of summer” attitude translates into a lot of throw-away trash from barbecues and picnics. Instead of adding to bulging landfills, make some small investments that will drastically reduce your impact. Swap paper plates and disposable utensils for serving items, beverage containers and cloth napkins that you can wash and use again. You can save money in the long run and make a nicer impression on guests. And, when cleaning up – definitely try to repurpose whatever you can: recycle empty wine bottles, soda cans or mayonnaise jars, and turn your food scraps into compost.
Sarene Marshall is a Senior Advisor for The Nature Conservancy. Opinions expressed here are the personal opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.
Photo by Flickr user joey.parsons (Salmon on the grill. Used under a Creative Commons license.)
By Sarene Marshall, The Nature Conservancy