You don’t have to live off the grid or lobby Congress for green initiatives to care for the Earth. In fact, sustainable initiatives can start in a surprisingly simple place — on your plate.
Sustainable eating can reduce your carbon footprint, spare precious resources, and support more ethical food systems.
Plus, it can even save you money. Contrary to what you might believe about needing to purchase all organic ingredients, pricey vegan products, or only grass-fed meats, an environmentally friendly diet doesn’t have to drain your bank account.
Here are 10 ways to eat green and save some green too.
The local food movement is surging in the United States as people take an interest in supporting the local economy, getting to know farmers, and trying out regional foods.
Food grown close to home requires less transportation to reach you, cutting down on emissions and fossil fuel use. In turn, this cuts down on costs.
Plus, the more you invest in eating locally, the more you may find yourself exploring exciting new flavors and foods. For example, you can cook with nopales or bake with mesquite flour if you’re in the Southwest or try marionberries if you’re in the Northwest.
If you’ve ever tasted a perfectly ripe strawberry in June or a crunchy stalk of asparagus in April, you’ve experienced the delicious rewards of seasonal eating.
Foods harvested in season tend to be at their peak of ripeness and taste — and they’re sometimes even higher in nutrients. For instance, one study found that broccoli grown in season was higher in vitamin C than broccoli grown out of season (
Seasonal foods also tend to be less expensive than those purchased out of season. (When a farm or food retailer has an abundant crop on hand, they’ll often price it low to get it into consumers’ hands before it goes bad.)
Grab a cartful of fresh corn in the summer or a crate of oranges in the winter and you’re likely to pay bargain prices rather than the top-dollar amounts you’ll fork over out of season.
From an environmental perspective, seasonal eating supports foods’ natural growing cycles (2).
To grow crops year-round — as the industrial food system demands — food producers sometimes have to use more inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides, or water, thus consuming extra resources. (Using gas or electricity to create heat to grow fresh herbs is one example.)
Eating seasonally also goes hand in hand with eating locally. When nearby crops are harvested according to their natural cycles, it takes less time — and therefore fewer resources — for them to reach your plate.
Curious about seasonal foods?
Get to know what’s fresh in your area with the Seasonal Food Guide, a database of seasonal produce in every U.S. state.
Meal planning can help you follow a healthier diet by putting you in control of exactly what you’re going to eat and letting you make intentional, nourishing food choices that align with your health goals.
Creating a detailed list of what you need at the store keeps food spending on track, preventing impulse buys.
Moreover, when you plan out your shopping, you don’t waste as much food.
Food waste has major effects on the environment. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, one-third of food produced in the United States is never eaten, and wasted food is the single most common item in landfills (3).
Since minimizing discarded food is an excellent way to take action for the planet, it’s best to keep — and eat — your leftovers rather than throw them out. If you’re unsure how long leftovers stay good for, check out this article.
Besides cutting back on food waste, eating leftovers prevents you from spending on takeout or new groceries you don’t really need.
If you’re not a leftover lover, try creative approaches like repurposing a bit of leftover meat as a pizza topping, tossing extra fruits and veggies into a salad, or adding extra pasta or rice to a soup.
Community-supported agriculture (CSA) allows farms to sell their excess in-season produce directly to their community. For a low fee, you can pick up a box — typically filled with a cornucopia of seasonal, local produce — at a specified drop-off point.
CSAs reduce farms’ food waste by getting their fruits and vegetables directly into your hands without the need for transportation or preservation.
Plus, they’re often competitively priced — some CSAs start at around $10 per box — and offer scrumptious fruits and veggies like turnips, chayote squash, and unique melon varieties.
To find a CSA near you, visit Local Harvest.
How affordable are CSAs?
Many CSAs offer 20-pound (9-kg) boxes of local, organic produce for around $25. That’s just $1.25 per pound. Compare this with organic fruits and veggies at the grocery store, which can cost 2–3 times as much.
If you’ve decided to join a CSA (or load up on seasonal foods in other ways), your next step will likely be figuring out how to keep your produce from going bad. After all, most of us can’t use up bunches of grapes or a pallet of squash in a matter of days.
Fortunately, you don’t have to be a homesteader to try your hand at food preservation. Freezing, canning, and drying are all simple and accessible ways of preserving food at home.
Freezing is the easiest method, and many foods freeze well (though it’s best to do your research before popping just any item into the freezer). Canning and drying take a little more effort but can help you keep food on hand for weeks or even months to come.
The bulk aisle of your local grocery store doesn’t exist just for its colorful visual of Willy Wonka-style food dispensers. It’s also a treasure trove of savings and environmental benefits.
Purchasing dry goods in bulk often cuts costs significantly, especially when it comes to more expensive items like nuts, dried fruits, or specialty flours. Plus, when you get the exact amount you need (rather than however much is in a package), you’re less likely to waste food.
Shopping in bulk can cut down on plastic usage too. You can bring your own clean, reusable food-grade bags so you don’t have to use plastic bags every time.
Choosing more plant foods over animal foods may save you money, help the environment, and boost your health.
Plant-based proteins such as beans, lentils, and tofu often cost less than half as much as meats, ounce for ounce. For instance, the average price of dried beans in February 2022 was $1.55 per pound, while the average price of ground beef was $4.63 per pound (7).
Of course, this isn’t true for every vegetarian option — nut milks tend to cost significantly more than cow’s milk, for example — but, when done right, subbing plants for animal products can help cut back on expenses.
Not ready to nix meat from your meals?
Try easing into it with a half-and-half mixture of meat and beans, mushrooms, or lentils. This tactic works well any time you use ground meat, such as in tacos, casseroles, or pasta sauce.
During World Wars I and II, the Victory Garden initiative encouraged people to grow their own food to reduce costs and relieve pressure on the industrial food system. These days, planting a garden can still bring these benefits (8).
Depending on how much food you grow, the fruits of your labor may be able to supplement your meals at minimal cost.
Meanwhile, food doesn’t get much more local (or seasonal) than when it’s grown in your own backyard.
Unsurprisingly, one study found that home gardening may significantly reduce a household’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, if you compost food scraps for your garden, you’ll send less waste to the landfill (9).
While gardening can be time consuming, you should also consider it as a method of stress relief. One study found that getting into the garden just twice a week boosted people’s sense of health and well-being while reducing feelings of stress (10).
Ultra-processed foods have undergone multiple industrial processes and usually contain lots of added flavors, sugars, fats, and chemical preservatives. Examples include cheese-flavored corn chips, snack bars, and artificially flavored cereals.
Plus, ultra-processed foods harm the environment because their numerous ingredients mean that their overall carbon footprint is quite large (
Therefore, it’s a good idea to replace them with nutritious whole foods whenever possible. Doing so might even save you money, since certain snacks, such apples or cheese, are often cheaper than a bag of chips or candy.
Doing your part for the planet doesn’t have to start big. Even a few small changes, like choosing the occasional plant-based protein instead of meat or shopping for staples in bulk, may start you on a path toward significant environmental impact.
You may even find that environmentally friendly choices save money. Getting fresh produce from a CSA or your very own home garden often costs less than stocking up at the grocery store. When you do go the store, seasonal produce is usually priced low.
Try these dietary tweaks for a pro-planet, pro-budget lifestyle and see if they inspire you to broaden your environmental efforts.
Just one thing
Try this today: Try a plant-based protein such as beans, lentils, or soy at a meal at which you’d regularly eat meat. It’s a small step toward sustainability and a great way to save some cash.