Dining Out with a Conscience

Jessica Harlan by Jessica Harlan | July 8th, 2009 | No Comments
topic: Green Living, Health & Wellness, Healthy Eating

One of the biggest things you can do to support and encourage responsibly raised food is to vote with your wallet. You may be patronizing CSAs and farmers’ markets for local produce, buying organic brands from your supermarket and studying nutrition labels for evils like high fructose corn syrup and artificial preservatives, but if you’re eating in restaurants blissfully ignorant of where the food on your plate comes from, then you might be undermining your efforts.

Choose the food you eat in restaurants just as wisely as what you choose to eat at home, and your choices will be more likely to influence the foodservice community to change their ways and offer more environmentally friendly choices on their menus. Plus, with restaurants, being green goes beyond the food they serve — restaurants can, and should, be conservative with energy usage, use eco-responsible construction methods and treat their staff fairly. Do a little research on the restaurants in your area — or before you travel to other cities — to find businesses that care about the environment. These tips will help you make the best choices:

Where did that come from?

If a restaurant lists on the menu the farm that raised the lettuce or beef it buys, it’s a good bet that it’s a small, local farm that’s using responsible agricultural practices to grow its produce or raise its livestock. Not only will you be eating more humanely raised meat, but you’ll also be helping to support the small farm movement and you’ll be eating local. Obviously, another good sign is when a menu lists numerous items that are organic, free-range, grass-fed, etc.

Responsible seafood

Compare the fish on the restaurant’s menu against a list of “good” and “bad” choices, such as that of the Environmental Defense Fund and make sure that most or all of the fish the restaurant offers are on the “Eco-Best” list, such as Wild Alaskan Salmon, catfish, stone crab, Pacific halibut or mussels and clams. Red flag fish include farm-raised Atlantic salmon, Chilean sea bass, grouper and monkfish.

Energy use

There aren’t many restaurants that have attained a LEED certification, which means that the building has been designed and constructed using sustainable, energy efficient, environmentally responsible methods. But you can be sure that the ones that do are proudly promoting their achievement. I have yet to find a directory of LEED certified restaurants, but you can google “Leed Certified [city]” to see if you can find any restaurants in your area that have this distinction. It’s how I came across Pizza Fusion, Atlanta’s first LEED certified restaurant (the menu there is also organic and health-focused). Even if a restaurant doesn’t have one of these hard-to-attain certifications, you might still be able to ascertain from its Web site if there have been any special measures taken in design and construction, such as using energy-efficient lighting and appliances, green cleaning methods or reclaimed or salvaged materials and furniture.

Vegging out

Often vegetarianism goes hand in hand with environmentalism, so it’s often a safe bet that a vegetarian restaurant will have other eco-responsible things going for it. What’s more, with the meat industry being so riddled with issues, eating factory-farmed meat or meat that’s full of hormones is not an issue in a vegetarian restaurant.

Community kitchen

If you come across a restaurant’s name again and again in partnership with local festivals, donating to or helping out with humanitarian causes, sponsoring kids’ sports teams and otherwise being involved in the community, it’s a good sign that the owners care about their community and want to be a good neighbor.

Making the list

The Green Restaurant Association has a certification process for restaurants based on aspects like water efficiency, sustainable food, disposal methods and chemical and pollution reduction. While there aren’t many restaurants yet on the list, it’s worth a look to see if there are any in your community.

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