Mixed seafood tray with a glass of wine

Photography By Andrew Cebulka/Stocksy

How to make your next restaurant outing a sustainable one

Step one: dont order mixed berries in the dead of winter

Intricate spice blends from Tangier, the best mangos shipped weekly from Pakistan, hyper-seasonal seafood from Japan, which arrives here daily—thanks to these long-distance arrivals, Toronto’s restaurant scene offers up authentic tastes of faraway places and reflects the city’s diversity. But they’re also one example of the ways dining out can have a negative impact on the environment.  

Though we’ve made great strides in other areas of sustainability, diners still don’t tend to think about our carbon footprint—but we should, because portion sizes, where ingredients come from and even what kind of water you order at a restaurant can have consequences. Here are four easy ways to make greener choices when it comes to dining out, with advice from local chefs who are doing things the right way. 

1. Order in-season produce 

Restaurants that focus on local produce play an important role in creating a more sustainable culinary ecosystem.“Diners should be comfortable saying that they want to eat local. Just say,‘I only want to eat things you know the provenance of,’” says Ryan Donovan, the co-owner of Toronto’s Richmond Station.

But while Richmond Station has a strong farm-to-table ethos with a commitment to supporting local farms and producers, diners can do their part at any restaurant, just by ordering fruits and vegetables that are in season. And don’t forget about dessert, a course we tend to overlook when thinking about seasonality, says chef and food advocate Joshna Maharaj. “Reconsider ordering out-of-season fruit desserts. The mixed berries in the winter will not taste good, and that imported tropical fruit is often under ripe and flavorless.” 

2. Ask where your fish is from

We’re eating more fish than ever before (according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the word’s per capita fish consumption rose to above 20 kilograms a year for the first time in 2016), but it’s been well-established that our oceans are facing two serious threats: climate change and overfishing. How to get your fish fix without contributing to the problem? According to B.C. chef Ned Bell, it starts with asking the origin of the fish and how it was caught. “Bottom trawl” involves a large, weighted net that’s dragged behind a boat, and it often leads to large amounts of bycatch, or unwanted fish and marine creatures. Instead, say yes to fish caught by longlines, pots and traps, which are kind to the environment and produce minimal bycatch. “By asking [these questions], and then pulling out our wallets only when we’re satisfied with answers, we have tremendous power to influence the fishing industry,” Bell says. He also recommends diners open our minds to more than just salmon, tuna and cod. These species can be overfished or farmed in unsustainable ways—and besides, Canada is home to hundreds of other species of seafood that are just as delicious.

A glass of tap water with bottle in backgroun

 3. Drink tap water

If there’s one simple decision to make the world a better place, it’s this: Say no to bottled water. And it’s not just because of plastic or glass waste – a litre of water weighs a kilo. Now think about how much fuel it takes to ship a case of water halfway around the world, by plane or barge. The GTA has access to safe (free!) water, so opt for tap when dining out. Bonus: Ditch the Styrofoam containers, too. If you’re getting takeout from your favourite neighbourhood spot, consider bringing your own containers for the restaurant to use when packaging your food. And tell them you don’t need plastic cutlery or bags.  (Photography by Lillian/AdobeStock)

4. Order less food

Brock Shepherd, a Toronto food entrepreneur and the operator of Damn Fine Foods, says diners should be mindful of portion sizes. In Canada, food waste is a $31 billion problem, but diners who share a main or skip the app are helping. “We tend to waste a lot of food here in Toronto, and one way to reduce that is by portion control,” Shepherd says. That’s especially true when it comes to meat. Shepherd suggests diners—and chefs!—take a page from South East Asian cuisine, where meat accents large portions of vegetables instead of taking the starring role. 

Today’s diners have more choice than ever before, and we’re taking advantage of it—a recent Capital One Canada and Credit Canada survey says we spend about $200 on restaurant meals and takeout. But remember: every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want to live in. So, while there are no perfect solutions, Maharaj says small actions still help. “I recommend taking the time to consider a few values that are important to you, and taking those out with you when you eat. If you can accomplish even one, it’s a win.”