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5 Ways to Address Climate Change From Your Own Kitchen

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Oct 15 2019

There have been some exciting changes in the food industry over the last decade. Our purchasing choices collectively forced food brands to rethink their offers and evolve their practices. There’s still a tremendous amount of change that needs to happen at the corporate level, but we now see some big food companies responding with greater transparency in sourcing, cleaner labels, and more natural ingredients.

Project Drawdown, one of the most comprehensive and respected plans to reverse climate change, lists the top 100 solutions to reverse global warming. Eight of the top 20 are connected to the food system, including reducing food waste, adopting a plant-rich diet, and supporting regenerative agriculture.

For example, the food we waste is responsible for about eight percent of global emissions. And it turns out your own kitchen is ground zero for potential impact: US households account for 27 million tons of the 63 million tons of wasted food per year.

We use design thinking to help our clients run towards big challenges like food waste, but the same principles can make an impact in your own home. We can each prototype our way towards new practices in our kitchen. Food is, after all, one of the most forgiving materials, and even the most abject kitchen failure is usually edible.

Here are five simple ways to design think your way towards addressing climate change in your own kitchen.

1. Adopt an experimental mindset

I bet you've heard some of this before, but it bears repeating: If each of us replaced a third of the beef we eat with pork, chicken or legumes, the World Resources Institute reports that our food-related emissions would fall by around 13 percent. But adopting a more flexitarian, plant-rich diet is a serious behavior shift, and not an easy one.

What if we reframed “never eating steak again” as “experimenting with eating mostly plants”? Trine Hahnemann, a Danish culinary writer, tells a story about her family’s generational transition to a plant-rich diet. Her grandma’s recipe for a pork dish called for meat as the main ingredient. Later in the 1970s, her mom adjusted the recipe so it used only half the pork. Today, Hahnemann cooks the same family dish but with no pork at all.

The design challenge is crafting plant-based options that are so satisfying and enticing that you don’t miss the meat. Like Hahnemann, we can experiment our way there. Start slowly by removing meat from traditional recipes. My meat-free pozole soup was an experiment, and though it lacked the oily richness of the pork version, it was a satisfyingly rich broth with hearty beans—another edible prototype.

2. Buy less

Not all food waste is created equal. That moldy tomato you never got around to eating used up more resources than a tomato left on the vine: Resources were used for it to be picked, packed, shipped to a grocery store, unpacked, stocked, selected, paid for, brought home, and now rotted. It takes two months for that tomato to decompose in the compost, during which time it releases methane into the atmosphere—which produces eight times more emissions than carbon.

When you head to the store or farmers market, simply bringing home less food will do wonders to cut down food waste. Embrace discomfort—a key design principle—by grabbing a smaller shopping basket to constrain your purchases, even though it might feel like you’re not buying enough.

Once you get home, use a Sharpie to date your food to remind yourself to enjoy it within a particular time frame. Place your “cook first” ingredients in the front so you’re more likely to reach for them.

3. Buy better

Design requires inspiration. To bring this to your food choices, make going to your local farmers market every week a habit. With each visit, you’ll get inspired by seasonal produce and begin to unlearn the mentality of having anything, anytime (and having it look perfect). Nature has constraints, and this is one of them.

Shopping at farmers markets also helps farmers and can promote sustainable soil practices, which is one of our only proven ways to sequester carbon. Not only is good farming beneficial for the soil, but it’s a bonus for your taste buds. Healthy soil helps farmers grow flavorful, nutrient-rich produce. Good flavor is often a proxy for good nutrients. If you buy an apple that was grown using regenerative agriculture techniques, you will taste the difference: It will be juicy and delicious, not to mention rich in nutrients. But an apple picked a year ago, shipped across the country or world, and kept in cold storage only offers you sugar and fiber—the nutrients died long ago. As Alice Waters put it, “You want aliveness in your food.”

4. Embrace constraints

Design constraints in the kitchen range from your cooking skills, to your work space, to your available equipment, to your budget, to the ingredients themselves. Whatever those constraints are, embrace them. Most chefs say quality salt, quality olive oil, and heat (whether a hot plate or six burner) are the only critical elements.

Culinary confidence in the kitchen—feeling like you have the skills to make something worth eating—can help you boldly embrace constraints. The good news is that culinary confidence is a muscle that grows stronger as you use it.

To build your culinary confidence, read Tamar Adler’s book, The Everlasting Meal. It’s made me give up on exactitude in the kitchen, and instead take delight in using a recipe as a jumping off point and improvising by cooking with what’s on hand. Her simple approaches to dealing with food that might otherwise go to waste—like smashing leftover garlicky beans on toast for an easy dinner—help us look at our fridges with a new sense of frugality and hope.

Try making pesto out of leafy greens (even carrot tops), nuts, and hard cheese you have around, rather than feeling like it has to be basil, pine nuts, and parm. There are no rules, just constraints that make you more creative.

5. Collaborate

At the United Nations Climate Summit last month, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg told a group of world leaders, “The world is waking up, and change is coming whether you like it or not.”

We’ve reached a tipping point, and change is coming. With your friends and family, let’s make time to cook and eat together. Let’s share a meal and talk about how to have a better life with less waste and more joy. And if there are leftovers, send your guests home with them, date them in your fridge, or use them to make soup tomorrow.

  • Vivian Barad

    Managing Director, IDEO San Francisco
    Vivian focuses on helping clients find new business opportunities as well as developing brands that let people enjoy healthier and better food, beverage products, and experiences. She spends a lot of time thinking about the intersection of food and health—from personal health to the health of the environment.
  • Marta Harding

    Design Director, IDEO San Francisco
    Marta is passionate about building brands, developing visual systems, and marrying strategic thinking with beautiful design—all best enjoyed with a glass of wine.
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