How to reduce your impact on the planet and still enjoy a takeaway or meal at a restaurant.
Food tends to be one of the first areas of our lives we look at when trying to be more eco-friendly. But when it comes to sustainable dining, whether it’s a meal in a restaurant or a takeaway at home, it’s very easy to overlook ethical and environmental issues, because sometimes we just want a night off (from everything).
The good news is that living a greener life doesn’t have to mean foregoing that takeaway or meal out. We just need to be a little bit more conscious about our dining choices. In this post I list six things you can do to make a difference while treating yourself.
How my takeaway habits have changed
Recently, my husband and I decided to reward ourselves with a takeaway for getting through a challenging week and achieving some big goals. Not having to cook dinner is a massive reward in my book (I’m a bit of a disaster in the kitchen).
I got thinking about how my approach to ordering a takeaway has changed. Back in my student days, I’d eat a LOT of takeaways. Mostly greasy pizzas from a takeaway that we gave the nickname ‘E.coli’ (a play on the actual name that probably gives a fairly accurate impression of the place). Pretty gross.
Safe to say, my standards and expectations of food quality are now much higher.
Takeaways are much fewer and further between for me these days too. I now see them as a treat (which is how I’ve always looked at dining out) rather than a default option. This is partly down to wanting to eat more healthily and partly down to living on a low income.
I’m also a lot more aware of the impact my choices as a consumer have than that 18-year-old, who ate countless portions of fries served in styrofoam trays and didn’t give it a second’s thought.
The truth is, you have less control over what goes in your food and what waste is produced when you outsource your cooking. Cooking your own food is (almost) always going to be the more sustainable option. But life is for living and I for one am not going to give up dining out (or ordering in).
A big opportunity
In the UK, ordering takeaways costs the average person £1,000 per year (around £80 per month), according to this article. By my estimates, that means many of us are eating at least one takeaway a week, on average.
As for going to restaurants, the average Brit dines out three times a month, spending just under £700 per year (around £60 per month), according to this article.
These stats include those living in London and are therefore slightly skewed due to the capital’s higher prices. However, there are clearly a lot of people who enjoy dining out regularly and even more people who order a takeaway frequently.
This means we have a huge opportunity to reduce our impact on the planet and influence others, when ordering a takeaway (or dining out).
So what can we do? Here are just six ideas…
1. Choose somewhere that uses local/seasonal/organic produce
Eating locally grown, seasonal and organic produce is one of the best things you can do to make your lifestyle more sustainable. If you extend this to eating outside of your own home, even better!
A quick browse of a restaurant’s website or social media should tell you all you need to know about their values and how they source ingredients. If there’s no mention of using organic/seasonal/local produce, chances are they don’t.
Even if they only mention one of these three things, it’s better than going somewhere that doesn’t make any effort to be sustainable.
I’m not suggesting you boycott places that don’t serve ethically grown food. But perhaps you can start a conversation with them about it and encourage them to do so.
2. Order a vegan option
This greatly reduces the impact of your meal and also tells the restaurant/cafe that vegan food is what people want. The more people who order it, the more options they’re likely to put on the menu.
Failing that, choose the vegetarian option. And if there’s no vegan or vegetarian option available, go somewhere else. Importantly, feed back to the restaurant why you didn’t choose them.
Vegan and vegetarian options often tend to be cheaper than their meaty counterparts, so you’ll likely be saving money too. It’s a win-win!
3. Keep leftovers for tomorrow’s lunch
This is very easy to do if you’ve ordered a takeaway. Simply keep the food in the fridge overnight, using the containers it arrived in or your own.
If dining out and you don’t eat everything on your plate, ask to take a ‘doggy bag’ home. That’s assuming it’s something that will keep. Most dishes will but the restaurant should be able to advise if it won’t. For extra sustainability points, take your own containers with you, just in case.
I know some people might feel embarrassed requesting a doggy bag but I’ve never had a negative response to this request. If you’re not happy with the response you get, ask to speak to the manager and let them know. If you don’t feel confident doing this in person, send them an email afterwards.
Most food should be ok to keep to eat the next day but do refer to the government’s advice of food safety.
4. Refuse disposables
We can be faced with a lot of single-use items when it comes to getting a takeaway and even in some restaurants. Cutlery, sachets, straws, napkins – the list goes on. Even if it’s not plastic, anything designed to be used once and thrown away is bad news for the planet. Refuse such items if possible.
When ordering a takeaway, either write an instruction (if ordering online) or tell them over the phone that you don’t want any disposable cutlery or other single-use items. If you can, tell them why you don’t want them.
When dining out, if you’re going somewhere that you know or suspect will only have disposable cutlery, you could take your own cutlery with you. If you don’t want to carry metal cutlery around with you, consider buying a reusable cutlery set made from a lighter/safer material such as bamboo.
Instead of using a paper napkin, you could go and wash your hands. Alternatively, take your own reusable napkin/wipe/flannel with you.
Go without a straw (unless you have a disability that means you need a straw to drink). Paper straws are not a sustainable solution. If you do need a straw, consider purchasing a reusable metal straw and carrying it with you.
If a restaurant offers sachets of condiments, sugar etc. then ask them to consider switching to bottles of sauces and pots of sugar. Many restaurants do without sachets, so there’s no reason why any should still be using them, in my opinion.
5. Reuse containers
This one’s all about the takeaways (unless you happen to go to a restaurant that serves food in takeaway containers – not something I’ve ever experienced).
Whether your food comes in plastic tubs (not widely recycled), foil trays (can be recycled) or card boxes (possibly recyclable/compostable*), try to reuse them as many times as possible. For example, you could use them for storing leftovers in the fridge or taking your lunch to work (depending on how spill-proof they are of course).
I find the plastic tubs especially useful when stocking up on dry foods (pasta, cereals, etc.) at the zero waste shop. If you store dry foods in glass containers at home, plastic tubs are a safer and lighter option for transporting them – just transfer the contents when you get home.
*Food containers made from card are usually coated in a plastic film so they hold liquid, which means they’re not recyclable/compostable. However, some companies are now using recyclable/compostable boxes. It will likely say on the box if can be recycled or composted.
6. Refuse the freebie (unless you really, really, REALLY want it)
A lot of takeaways give a free item of food when you spend over a certain amount, such as prawn crackers. Ask yourself, do you really need or even want the extra food?
By refusing the freebie when you place the order, you’re creating less waste (packaging and potential food waste). It also sends a message to the restaurant that they should work to improve their sustainability (assuming you tell them why you refused it).
Even if you only take on board one of these ideas, if you do it consistently you’ll be affecting positive change. As with all lifestyle changes, start small and build up from there. Once you’ve got one of these down, you’re likely to feel more confident tackling another, and so on.
I think one of the most important things we can do is to feed back to companies who are getting it right and to those who need to improve.
Oh, and if you forget to do something every now and then, like I do, remember to give yourself a break!
I’d love to hear your thoughts on these and if you have any more ideas. Let me know in the comments below.