Restaurants can be wasteful when cooking on a large scale. Food waste, animal welfare and sustainable food sources are all issues chefs and guests alike need to consider.
For the sustainably-minded amongst us, eating out has become as much as a minefield as preparing food at home. Fortunately, there are some questions you can ask to ensure a meal out doesn’t come at great cost to your conscience as well as your wallet, from the sourcing of meat and fish to the restaurant’s tipping policy, to whether or not you can take your leftovers home.
1. Consider animal welfare
Animals which have lead happy, high welfare lives with minimal stress at slaughter aren’t just a more ethical option – they taste better too. Look for ‘native’ or rare breeds which must meet high standards in order to be registered: Gloucester Old Spot, Hereford beef, Herdwick lamb and Belted Galloway beef are some of the most common and will invariably be listed on the menu.
2. Go for sustainable fish
90 per cent of the world’s fish are either fully or overexploited. The Marine Stewardship Council app is a godsend for anyone who feels a bit at sea when it comes to eating fish sustainably, with the best seasons and sources for every edible type of fish. Broadly speaking you want to avoid those which are caught by trawler, and plump for those in season, in abundance and caught on a small scale.
3. Eat seasonally
If a restaurant is offering you asparagus and strawberries in December, they aren’t going to be sourcing them from Britain. They’ll have been flown in from around the world or grown in hot houses, both of which are fairly poor options as far as sustainability – and taste – goes.
See what’s in season year-round with our seasonality calendar.
4. Look beyond the menu
Look to the lights, the kitchen equipment, the heating. ‘More and more restaurants are reaping the benefits for their bottom line and the planet by investing in a mix of technology,’ Andrew Stephen of the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) explains. These include LED lights and induction hobs, as well sophisticated technologies like capturing excess heat from fridges and freezers to power the hot water in customer bathrooms. If you’re wondering how you might access that information, contact the restaurant management directly, or look the restaurant up on the SRA’s website.
5. Are the staff being looked after properly
If you’re a repeat customer, you can infer this from how many staff members you recognise over time. If you’re a one-off, ask about the tipping policy and working hours. ‘An industry with a reputation for anti-social hours and poor conditions faces yet more trouble recruiting with the anticipated changes in immigration. The winners will be forward-thinking restaurateurs like Neil Forbes at Cafe St Honoré in Edinburgh, whose philosophy of treating his team as if they were his own children means it’s pretty much as it was a decade ago,’ observes Stephen.
6. Spot the plastic
Plastic bottles, polystyrene boxes – these are tell-tale signs of an unhealthy plastic dependency. Look for restaurants with filtered still and sparkling water systems – the Cinnamon Collection in London have them across the board – and try to support places who insist their produce is delivered in reusable crates rather than polystyrene: ‘the absolutely worst to dispose of’ according to Katie Toogood, co-owner of sustainable fish restaurant Prawn on the Lawn in Padstow.
7. The last straw
We’ve watched that video of a sea turtle having a plastic straw removed from it’s nose so you don’t have to. Now all you have to do is avoid them like the plague and ask your local restaurant and bar to do likewise.
8. Ask for your leftovers
9. Look for menus that minimise food waste
This could be bread from yesterday’s potatoes, cheese from used coffee milk, or carrot top pesto – but it could also be soup or pickles. The principle, says Stephen, is ‘using what some might discard as surplus scraps into delicious dishes. Skye Gyngell with her scratch menu at Spring at Somerset House is one of the new breeds of chefs taking the old-fashioned value that food is too good to waste.’
Discover our advice on how to reduce food waste
10. Go veggie
Or, partly veggie. At least don’t discount a vegetarian dish as an option. The biggest impact we can have on our carbon footprint as individuals is reducing the amount of meat we eat, and there is no better place to explore vegetable-based meals than in places like Tredwell’s in London (they do a vegetarian tasting menu) or 1847 in Manchester.
Want to learn more about a flexitarian diet? Check out the benefits of a plant-based diet and get essential advice from a dietitian.
Check out our tips for sustainable cooking and eating…
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