Sustainable Family Meals
By Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN
Going green at mealtime is a growing trend. In addition to making family meals healthful and delicious, consumers increasingly want to ensure their meals also are sustainable. According to the 2021 Food and Health Survey from the International Food Information Council, 42% of consumers believe their food choices make an impact on the environment, and 7 out of 10 report that climate change sometimes influences their food purchasing decisions.1 But when you’re advising clients on making sustainable choices, what does that mean on the dinner plate?
While many people consider food sustainability to be primarily focused on the environmental factors of food production, there are other facets of sustainable food systems to consider. According to the nonprofit food systems sustainability organization, Food + Planet, there are four dimensions of sustainability for diets, which are as follows:
• Sociocultural. Sustainable diets respect the welfare and rights of individuals, communities, cultures, animals, and the environment. Factors include animal welfare standards, culturally appropriate diets, food justice and sovereignty, and health equity.
• Nutrition. Sustainable diets support human health through their quality, diversity, safety, and accessibility. Factors include diet quality and diversity, food system safety, optimized health outcomes, and reliable food access.
• Economic. Sustainable diets require economies that balance people, planet, and profits. Factors include affordable food choices, circular economy, ethical labor and sourcing, and responsible governance.
• Planetary. Sustainable diets emerge from agricultural practices that are in harmony with the environment. Factors include biological diversity, climate-smart agriculture, resilient agroecological practices, and water and soil use.2
While planetary considerations, such as reducing the carbon and water footprint of food choices, avoiding food waste, trimming food packaging, and eating a more plant-based diet, are important when making sustainable food choices at the family dinner table, other issues are important for sustainable meal planning. If you’re counseling clients, keep in mind factors, such as honoring cultural food traditions, local food systems, food affordability and access, nutrient-rich food choices, and diet diversity.2
EAT-Lancet Planetary Health Plate [retrieved from https://eatforum.org/eat-lancet-commission/the-planetary-health-diet-and-you/].
One guide for making sustainable food choices is the science-based EAT-Lancet Commission’s Planetary Health Diet, which addresses both the health of people and the planet. To transform to healthful diets for people and the planet, it will take a substantial shift in eating patterns, according to EAT-Lancet. It will require more than doubling the consumption of healthful foods, such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, and legumes, with a greater than 50% reduction in global consumption of red meat and added sugars. Analysis shows these changes result in major health benefits by reducing global deaths by up to 24% while making major impacts on planetary boundaries, such as biodiversity loss, greenhouse gas emissions, cropland and water use, and phosphorus and nitrogen application. This recommended diet pattern is flexible because it provides guidelines and ranges of food groups for an optimal diet, with targets in each section.3
Healthy Diet Targets, EAT-Lancet. [Accessed August 25, 2022.]
Four Tips for Planning Sustainable Family Meals
The pillars of sustainable diets, including sociocultural, nutrition, economic, and planetary factors, all can be considered when recommending wholesome family meals. Try these tips for planning healthful, delicious sustainable meals for the entire family.
1. Consider cultural food preferences. What are traditional family meals that are part of the family’s food culture? For example, a classic food tradition might be beans and rice, which also fit nicely into a nutritious, affordable, accessible, low-carbon footprint eating plan. Help connect families to these traditions by engaging them in favorite foods and memories.
2. Plan family meals that fit the budget. Before making healthful meal suggestions, it’s important to identify access to affordable, healthful foods in your client’s community. It’s essential to work around food availability and their budget. For example, inquire about clients’ food shopping routines to help identify access, and offer economical meal planning advice, such as using pulses in recipes a few times per week and relying on seasonal, canned, or frozen produce to save money.
3. Trim food waste. Low-hanging fruit is helping clients identify opportunities to decrease food waste, which can help save dollars and negative planetary outcomes. Discuss use of leftovers, making second and third meals from ingredients, such as beans and grains, and interpreting expiration dates on labels.
4. Plan more plant-based meals. Swapping meat for beans is a great way to promote sustainability in all four dimensions: economic, sociocultural, planetary, and nutrition. Show clients ways to reduce animal food intake and replace those foods with plant proteins, such as pulses, nuts, seeds, and soyfoods. One tip is to suggest recipes, such as vegetable lasagna, stir-fry, or stews, which use a small amount of meat for the entire dish, in combination with grains, pulses, and vegetables.
— Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN, The Plant-Powered Dietitian, is a plant-based sustainable food expert and cofounder of Food + Planet, a nonprofit food systems sustainability organization.
1. Wellness, nostalgia, innovation and new views of sustainability are among the food trends for 2022. International Food Information Council website. https://ific.org/media-information/press-releases/wellness-nostalgia-innovation-and-new-views-of-sustainability-are-among-the-food-trends-for-2022/. Published January 7, 2022. Accessed August 25, 2022
2. Four dimensions of sustainable diets. Food and Planet website. https://foodandplanet.org/. Accessed August 25, 2022.
3. EAT-Lancet Commission. Food planet health. https://eatforum.org/content/uploads/2019/07/EAT-Lancet_Commission_Summary_Report.pdf. Accessed August 25, 2022.