9 Ways to Green Your Kitchen Routines

These simple tweaks make meal prep and cleanup less wasteful, so you'll save a little money and help the planet in the process.

My green awakening kicked in right after I had my baby. Once I began to think about my kid's future, my vague ideas about living sustainably were put into sharp focus. For me, like many parents on a path to a more earth-friendly lifestyle, the kitchen was an obvious first step. Aside from the diaper pail, our cooking space was where my family created the most garbage; it's also the place where we used a significant amount of energy.

Over the years, I've shifted my shopping habits, leaned into plant-based eating, and even embraced composting. Becoming more respectful of our environment doesn't require a total lifestyle overhaul. Starting small makes a world of difference, as other eco-minded moms I talked with point out. So if, say, you just can't quit paper towels, no shame in baby steps. As all parents know, those lead to big strides.

Work Your Small Appliances

The slow cooker, pressure cooker, toaster oven, and microwave all consume less energy than the main stove. "If you're cooking half a head of broccoli, why heat up the big oven?" says Melanie Mannarino, author of The (Almost) Zero-Waste Guide. When you do turn on the oven, fill it up: Roast some nuts or vegetables along with whatever you're making so you can use the energy to its full potential. Peek on the progress using the oven light, because opening the door causes the oven to drop 25 degrees, and then it will need to reheat.

Wash Your Dishes Smarter

Happy news for those of us who hate standing at the sink: The dishwasher is more efficient than hand-washing, according to a study in the journal Environmental Research Communications. Wait to run your dishwasher until it is full, skip the prerinsing, and opt for the air-dry function over heated dry to reduce your energy footprint even further.

Upcycle Glass Jars

If you remove the labels and wash your pasta sauce and pickle containers, they're basically free food storage containers and art-supply organizers, says Elise Hay, mom of two and founder of Organized Sanctuaries, in the Seattle area. Hay makes a paste of baking soda and cooking oil that works wonders for taking off the sticky labels. When she stores leftovers in glass, she can see what she has more easily, which helps her use the food before it goes bad.

Don't Lose Your Leftovers

No one likes to throw out food because they forgot it existed. Some estimates suggest that a family of four in the U.S. will toss about $1,800 worth of groceries in a year. Mom of two Sophie Egan, the author of How to Be a Conscious Eater: Making Food Choices That Are Good for You, Others, and the Planet, suggests designating a section of your fridge as an "eat this first" zone. Another idea: Set aside certain days to focus on using up leftovers, like Waste-Less Wednesdays, Stir-Fry Fridays, or Souper Sundays.

glass bottle of lemon mint water
Bottle your own water and make it taste just the way you like it. Linda Xiao

Turn On the Tap

Drink from the faucet instead of using bottled water that generates plastic waste. If you're concerned about your water's safety, invest in a filter that screens out contaminants. Then reconsider other beverages you buy. "It's funny how the same people who tote their reusable water bottle will churn through three cans of seltzer a day. I know, because I have been one of those people," Egan says. She suggests a home bubble maker like SodaStream, which will also save money in the long run.

Grow Herbs and Veggies

A pot of fresh herbs means you never buy a plastic clamshell of basil or thyme again. And a small setup can lead to bigger things: "I hate dirt, I hate bugs, but a container garden of tomatoes was the gateway for me," Mannarino says. "The next year we had one raised bed, and now we're up to three." Christine Wong, coauthor of Living Without Plastic, saves the root ends of scallions and potatoes, puts them in water to sprout, and then replants them. "It's a fun way for kids to feel more connected to their food," Wong says.

Use Fewer Paper Towels

Wong likes Swedish-style sponge cloths, made of a mix of cotton and plant fibers, to wipe counters. The absorbent cloths (amazingswedishdishcloth.com sells cute patterns) can be used many times, laundered, and composted at the end of their life: win-win-win. Or make free "unpaper" towels: Cut up old T-shirts and put them in a plastic-bag dispenser for easy access, suggests Kiesha Yokers, a holistic wellness coach and author of the blog Green + Well. After you use a T-shirt towel, drop it into a laundry basket. If they're extra grimy, prerinse or give the rags their own load.

Shop Secondhand

Cast-iron pans, dishes, glassware, mixing bowls, and knives are all great things to buy used or, if you prefer, "vintage." Browse Facebook Marketplace and eBay to find great scores. Your hunt should save you cash and will keep still-useful things out of a landfill. Just steer clear of nonstick pans and plastic items, which can degrade over time.

(Finally) Start Composting

Letting food scraps decompose naturally is not as icky as it seems. Those countertop bins? That's not where you actually compost; they're a holding place for onion skins, egg shells, coffee grounds, and the like until you empty them outdoors. If you give scraps away, you can store them in a lidded bucket in the fridge or the freezer (a charcoal filter will reduce odors) until pickup or drop-off. Your options, in brief:

Do it yourself

Fill the Geobin—which is about the size of a garbage can and kept outdoors—by alternating kitchen scraps with leaves or other dry plant materials. If it looks dry, sprinkle on some water to keep it moist. Stir it every month to help it transform into rich soil for your yard.

Put it on the curb

If your city or town has a composting program, use it. Read the guidelines, since they differ by town (tree branches, for example, are sometimes yes, sometimes no).

Contract it out

Pay to get rid of scraps. Compostnow.org lists service providers in 40 states plus Washington, D.C., or search Google for "compost pickup service."

Compost with a neighbor

ShareWaste is a free app that directs you to where you can donate scraps to gardeners or farmers.

Find a drop-off site

Check the farmers' market or local park for a collection day.

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's May 2021 issue as "Green Your Kitchen Routines."

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