04/13/2012 01:52 EDT

How To Eat Green: Ways To Dine Out And Save The Environment


Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin once said, "tell me what you eat and I'll tell you who you are." However, unless you're into 18th-century French history, you're probably more familiar with the old adage, "you are what you eat." Both stress the importance of what people are putting on their plates, but in terms of environmental consciouness, where you eat can have as much of an impact as what you eat.

Case in point, the decisive moment of what to eat for dinner: do you cook, order take-out, or dine out? For those looking to minimize their impact on the environment, there are options to go green across all three fronts.

Restaurants tend to be pretty terrible offenders in terms of environmental friendliness with 10 percent and 25 percent of commercially prepared food that gets wasted annually. There's also the inefficient energy usage that's costing the commercial food service sector 80 per cent of the $10 billion dollars in annual spending, according to a report by Pacific Gas & Electric's Food Service Technology Center.

And it's this hemorrhaging of cash that explains the rash of reforms the sector's taken on in the last few years. While some are more apparent to patrons, like straws made from biodegradable paper, others can be found behind the scenes, like low-flow valves in the sprayers that pre-rinse dishes.

SEE: The best and worst take-out containers for the environment. Story continues below:

Photo gallery The Best And Worst Take-Out Containers See Gallery

And by going green, it looks like restaurants can earn more green.

In 2011, the National Restaurant Association reported that 65 percent of restaurant operators had recycling programs in place -- and for good reason. Sixty per cent of consumers prefer restaurants that recycle and 51 per cent of diners will even pay more to eat at an eco-friendly restaurant.

Restaurants may take the cake for waste, but ordering take-out doesn't fall far behind. While more eco-friendly containers are becoming available, the volume of take-out containers that end up in the trash is causing trouble for many North American cities. It's also paved the way for some states to ban Styrofoam take-out containers altogether, because of the time-consuming and expensive recycling process.

While cooking at home may be the most environmentally friendly option for eating, it also produces a fair amount of waste, though significantly less compared to dining out and take-out. For energy usage, it's the best of the three, thanks to its smaller scale. And for the time-pressed at-home chefs, there's more good news. According to a Swedish study, there's little to no difference in buying pre-packaged food compared with cooking a meal from scratch.