Hi Umbra,

I practically live on Lean Cuisine (that brand specifically — they are frequently on sale for $2 each). In my community, the plastic tray is recyclable, as is the cardboard box. The only thing that goes in the trash is the film that covers the tray. Microwave time averages five minutes per entree. Total dirty dishes: one fork.

I have a friend who swears I’m a hypocrite — that cooking is “better” for the environment. I maintain that more packaging goes into the trash when cooking, and certainly the stove is burning for a lot longer than five minutes. (I assume economies of scale for cooking in bulk at the Lean Cuisine factory, as well as delivery and packaging of their ingredients!) Then we have hot water and dish soap for all the cooking pans, plus tableware.

Am I a hypocrite? Would the earth be happier if I made my lemongrass chicken and cheese ravioli from scratch? I’ll be hungrily awaiting your reply!

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Finicky in Fitchburg

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free.

Dearest Finicky,

I came, I thaw, I contherved.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Photo: iStockphoto

I have no quibble with your household energy and waste calculations about Lean Cuisine vs. cooking a meal from scratch. Microwaves are very efficient energy users, it’s great that you don’t need to run any hot water to clean up, and the Lean Cuisine factory may indeed be quite efficient as well. When you look at it that way, cooking isn’t particularly better. But I’m appalled that you wrote me this letter, which appears to be a sincere question about the environmental impact of your food purchasing choices.

I must simply be appalled at the lack of clarity in my own messages about food choices to my dearest readers. Plus I must laugh very hard, because you do have a point and I will say yes, you are keeping your home energy use lower through using Lean Cuisine. Lean Cuisine for everyone! I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before, really.

Let me attempt higher clarity about food purchases. When we are overwhelmed by the purchasing choices that surround us, we should take refuge in focusing on food, transportation, and home efficiency. These are three important categories in which our shopping and daily habits have a meaningful impact. Therefore, we should think through our food habits in an effort to refine them and refine ourselves as environmental citizens.

Food production can generate a lot of environmental problems, some of which I detailed in a recent column. For example, it’s best to eat little meat because so much meat is grown in crowded, awful enclosures, and the resultant effluent is concentrated yuckiness dumped in streams and rivers. Plus the food fed to confined animals is corn or soy or other crops grown in pesticide-intensive systems. From use of petroleum to pollution of waterways to air pollution (by smell and particle) to human-health impacts, conventional agriculture is really smacking nature around.

Although I honestly don’t know firsthand the source of foods used in Lean Cuisine meals, only giant farms could provide the consistency and volume of product required by the economies of scale you mention. Lean Cuisine is a Nestle product, Nestle is one of the world’s largest food companies, Lean Cuisine Café Classic meals alone had $241.1 million in sales last year. At that scale we can be fairly certain your lemongrass meal comes from chicken shoehorned in with 25,000 other chickens at a giant stinky chicken farm run by a contract farmer earning poverty-level wages. Who knows about the vegetables, they could come from Mexico or Chile or California, and their very existence is likely completely dependent on fertilizers and pesticides.

Prepared foods such as Lean Cuisine all have this sort of history. It’s just the way it is, the food system that has developed since the Second World War. Our food shopping dollars help to support that food system, but we can also help to create a different food system — one with an emphasis on sustainability. We can see the impact of consumer food purchasing in the growth of the organics industry.

From an environmental perspective, reducing our participation in the conventional food system is a higher priority than recycling, than washing fewer forks, than dish soap. There are multiple ways to reduce our participation in the conventional food system. A few easy ones are to buy less meat, to make at least some organic food part of our diet, and to buy fewer processed food products.

I would never tell you to completely stop eating Lean Cuisine — well, I would. But you seem to love it, so I won’t. Just be aware that a recyclable package is no compensation for the food chain that brought you your meal.