An Order of Lo Mein With a Side of Guilt
Is getting takeout that much worse for the planet than cooking at home?
Is it better for the environment to eat takeout or cook at home? The downsides of takeout containers are obvious, but I live alone—and it seems pretty inefficient to cook for just one person. Can I justify ordering to-go on environmental grounds?
The Lantern worries he is repeating himself, but he'll start with a necessary point: What you eat almost always matters more, environmentally speaking, than how you eat it. When you consider everything together, a restaurant-made salad will certainly be a much greener option than a home-cooked steak.
But let's limit the discussion to a pair of similar meals—maybe you have a craving for lo mein, but you aren't sure whether to dial takeout or make it in your own wok. In the process of making your dinner plans, you are forced to choose between two competing ideas when it comes to greening your consumption. The first is that—all things being equal—bulk is good. In other words, it's better to buy one 5-pound can of tomato paste than five 1-pound cans, better to cook one meal for 10 people than to have 10 people cook on their own, and better to do all your shopping at once than to make several different trips. At the same time, controlling what you eat, how your food is made, and the circumstances under which it is prepared allows you a greater ability to manage your own environmental footprint.
In the case of your lo mein, start by tallying the impact of preparing and cooking the meal. Given how much restaurants must spend on running all their appliances, they have a much bigger incentive to invest in machines that are energy-efficient. While you may be satisfied with an aging fridge and an inefficient stove, a restaurant will see a big dent in its bottom line if it maintains a kitchen that dates from the Clinton era. Even more importantly, a restaurant—depending on how much traffic it sees, of course—is likely to use the same appliances to cook more meals at once. The only danger is that those large fryers and ovens are kept running even when business is slow.
Takeout has obvious disadvantages when it comes to getting that food home: Unless you bike or walk, you'll have to drive to pick up your lo mein, and then there's the (typically) unrecyclable container it comes in. But restaurants can cut down on transportation and packaging by purchasing in bulk. Unlike the ingredients in your pantry, many of the ingredients are delivered directly to a restaurant's kitchen by truckers who have a personal stake in planning out an efficient route. Large deliveries also cut down on the amount of cardboard and plastic packaging—that's fewer bags needed to carry noodles and fewer bottles needed to ship soy sauce.
Staying in has clear benefits when it comes to wasted food. When you cook for yourself, you have a better idea of exactly how much you want to eat. As the Lantern has noted before, wasting food has two downsides: First, something has to be done with all those food scraps; second, all the resources that went into producing, cooking, and transporting your uneaten dinner go for naught. Studies of restaurants, schools, and cafeterias have found that anywhere between 10 percent and 25 percent of commercially prepared food gets wasted. Use a little bit of foresight, and you can probably do better than that in your own kitchen.
In the end, research comparing prepared foods with home cooking doesn't provide a strong answer either way. A 2005 paper about Swedish meatballs, for example, found that buying a ready-made meal in the supermarket had about the same environmental impact as cooking at home. But as a general principle, the Lantern favors home cooking—even for one—rather than eating out or ordering to go. (That's strictly on environmental grounds; anyone who has tasted the Lantern's cooking recognizes there are other reasons to eat at a restaurant.) Here's why: Figures from the Food Service Technology Center (PDF) estimate that only about 35 percent of energy used by the average full-service restaurant actually goes toward preparing the food. The balance comes from refrigeration, heating, cooling, lighting, and just about everything else it takes to keep customers coming back. On the whole, restaurants are very energy-intensive, requiring about five times as much energy per square foot as offices or retail businesses. So when you buy your meal from a restaurant, your impact isn't just felt in the kitchen. Your dinner bill subsidizes the entire dining operation.
If you still want takeout, some restaurants are far greener than others. (Good ones follow practices like these from the Green Restaurant Association—and probably aren't shy about advertising it.) But there is an alternative for those who are concerned about the impact of cooking for one: invite your neighbors over for dinner.
Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to email@example.com, and check this space every Tuesday.
Jacob Leibenluft is a writer from Washington, D.C.
Photograph of takeout containers by Getty Creative.