The way we produce, transport, and consume food has tremendous impacts – both positive and negative – on human health and the environment. An exciting new concept called “regenerative dining” aims to maximize the positives while minimizing the negatives.
What is Regenerative Dining?
Regenerative dining refers to a holistic approach to food that nourishes our bodies, restores ecosystems, and strengthens communities. It goes beyond just sustaining our current food system to actually improving environmental and human health through the power of dining.
Sourcing Local & Seasonal Ingredients is a cornerstone of regenerative dining. Ingredients grown locally and eaten during their natural season greatly reduce the fossil fuels required to preserve and transport food across vast distances.
Choosing local means selecting ingredients from nearby farms and producers, typically within 100 miles. Seasonal eating involves shifting the vegetables, fruits, and other produce we consume throughout the year based on seasonal availability.
For example, in the Northeast United States, sweet corn is in season during summer months while squash reaches peak freshness in fall. By picking food at its seasonal prime, local and seasonal ingredients also offer maximum nutritional quality and flavor. Supporting food that didn’t travel far to reach our plates also significantly reinforces regional economies and creates resilience.
Focusing on Plant-Forward Meals is another key principle. A nutritious diet with vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes as the foundation and modest amounts of animal protein like meat, eggs or dairy is inherently healthy for both human health and planetary health.
By emphasizing plants, regenerative dining minimizes resource intensive livestock production which generates high levels of greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change. Research suggests if the majority of the global population shifted towards plant-forward diets, we could reduce food-related emissions by over 60%. Regenerative dining makes plant-based options tempting, satisfying, convenient, affordable and mainstream.
Supporting Regenerative Agriculture means preferentially choosing ingredients grown using farming techniques that improve, rather than degrade, ecosystems. Regenerative methods focus on rebuilding soil health, planting cover crops that aren’t harvested, composting plant materials and rotating livestock grazing – essentially imitating nature.
These techniques actively pull carbon out of the atmosphere and effectively rebound it into the ground to enrich soils. That carbon enriches microbiomes and draws back earthworms, pollinators and other wildlife by enhancing natural biodiversity. Regenerative agriculture also replenishes watersheds rather than polluting waterways since chemical pesticides and fertilizers are avoided.
The result is incredibly nutrient dense food. Strengthened soils retain more minerals and therefore plants grow substantially more vitamin and antioxidant rich. Regenerative techniques even improve human nutrition through the produce we eat. Finally, when farmers can capture greater value by actively healing farmland, it also sustains vibrant rural economies and communities.
Minimizing Food Waste is urgent whether dining out or cooking at home so that all the energy invested to grow and transport ingredients isn’t squandered. Diners can reduce waste by ordering and preparing reasonable portions, taking leftovers to-go, and repurposing anything unused into new dishes later at home.
Meanwhile, restaurants and food suppliers must be meticulous about smart purchasing, storage, inventory control and creative uses for typically discarded byproducts. Being vigilant requires assessing waste at every step from farms to processing plants to grocery stores to commercial kitchens.
Overall, nearly 40% of the total food produced in the United States gets thrown out each year. That adds up to a devastating 63 million tons of avoidable food waste while 49 million Americans face food insecurity. If global food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China and the US. Minimizing waste is a moral imperative that regenerative dining makes key.
The last central pillar of the concept is Building Community. Shared meals eaten together have always bonded people during celebrations, religious ceremonies and family gatherings. Regenerative dining taps into that human predilection for connection through food.
It provides an avenue for diners to expand awareness of how eating links them to farmers, fishermen, chefs and others within a regional food web. That sense of connectivity deepens relationships between eaters as well as builds resilience against disruptions like supply chain interruptions, higher prices and food access gaps.
Community matters since transforming the food system requires cooperation, especially support for regenerative producers making the effort to nourish ecology and human dignity. Ultimately, dining is communal – every meal eaten is a piece of a vast interconnected web of soil, rain, sun, sweat, labor and love.
Why Regenerative Dining Matters
Adopting the principles of regenerative dining is one of the most meaningful actions we can take as eaters. It matters on multiple fronts:
Climate Change Action
Food production accounts for nearly 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions, with resource-intensive livestock production making up the majority. By supporting regenerative agriculture techniques that actively rebound carbon into the soil, dining can transform from a major climate change culprit into a climate hero. Coupled with minimizing food waste, embracing regenerative dining across homes, restaurants and broader food services could achieve over 60% of the reductions needed to limit global warming.
Our current industrialized food system relies heavily on monocropping vast fields of the same crop, degrading habitats and using chemicals that pollute critical ecosystems. Habitat loss is the top threat to nearly one third of all threatened species on the IUCN Red List.
Regenerative farming methods like cover cropping, no or low tillage of soil, and integrating mixed livestock grazing mimics nature and actively fosters renewed biodiversity. That includes rebuilding healthy soils, which contain a wealth of microbial biodiversity equal to that of the Amazon rainforest. Regenerative techniques quite literally restore habitats and species richness vital to a healthy planet.
A wealth of research confirms that food grown regeneratively and locally retains substantially higher nutritional quality than industrially produced ingredients shipped over vast distances. The vitamins, antioxidants and other compounds responsible for positive health benefits peak at ripeness rather than getting bred out for transport resilience.
One recent study found double the vitamin C and polyphenols in tomatoes grown for local consumption versus industrial scale production. Further, produce sold to local outlets is typically fresher, losing less nutrients between field and final sale usually within just 1-5 days. Supply chains spanning thousands of miles and weeks means nutritional density drops severely by the time those conventionally grown items reach grocery store shelves.
Regenerative dining powered by regional food systems also increases income, stability and resiliency for smallholder producers worldwide – over 1.5 billion people participate in small-scale agriculture globally.
When farmers and fishers can capture greater value by actively healing regional lands and waters, it sustains vibrant rural economies and food security. In the U.S. alone, localized supply chains generate 13 full time farm jobs for every $1 million in revenue compared to just 3 jobs per $1 million for production oriented towards distant markets.
Shared meals allow us to foster deeper relationships – with ourselves in terms of customs, health and values; with others across generations, cultures and communities; and with the places and people that produce what we eat.
That sense of connection combats isolation and builds the social foundation to address complex challenges like transforming food systems. It also breeds understanding of how our dining decisions impact people and ecosystems in far flung corners of the world.
We cannot create change without first feeling part of the broader web of life that links soil and rain and farmer livelihoods to the food on our plates. Regenerative dining helps spur the empathy that community building requires.
How Restaurants Can Apply These Principles
The food service industry employs over 12 million people in the US alone and wields tremendous influence through menus offered to billions of diners. As such, restaurants have an outsized role to play in catalyzing a regenerative food system.
Chef & Farmer Partnerships
Developing strong relationships with local food producers like farmers, ranchers, and fishermen ensures restaurants have reliable access to the highest quality seasonal ingredients. These partnerships also allow chefs to make special requests of suppliers to implement specific regenerative production practices – like reduced packaging, food waste diversion to animal feed, or cover cropping on acreage. Maintaining a direct line of two-way communication between restaurants and nearby regenerative farms and fisheries is invaluable. In turn, the business can directly support producers healing ecosystems.
Plant-Forward Menu Offerings
Showcasing daily vegetarian, vegan, and other plant-centric specials makes it effortless for diners to eat lower on the food chain. Creative options like grain bowls layered with an array of local vegetables, or a vibrant sweet potato coconut curry over brown rice, entice patrons to order plant-based. Many spots now dedicate entire sections of the menu to regenerative choices. Adding symbols or explicit descriptions that indicate sustainable and ethical sourcing also helps educate diners.
Zero-Waste Kitchen Practices
Restaurants can train staff in conscientious cooking methods like accurately batching broths and soups to avoid waste; preserving excess produce through fermentation, pickling or dehydration; repurposing vegetable tops, skins, and stale bread into new menu items; and whole animal butchery of cows, chickens or fish so that so-called scraps become stocks, pet food or the basis of other dishes. Taken together, such steps add up to major reductions in unnecessary waste leaving kitchens.
Eliminating Single-Use Items
Many eateries are phasing out disposable straws, switching from plastic to glass or metal tableware settings, replacing bottled condiments with house-made in bulk, and encouraging reusable to-go container options. These tangible changes away from single-use items conserve resources and keep waste out of oceans and landfills.
Energy & Water Conservation
Restaurants contain high electrical demand and heavy water usage but also ripe opportunity for savings. Simple efficiencies like swapping lighting to energy efficient LED bulbs, installing low-flow faucets in bathrooms, upgrading to ENERGYSTAR certified kitchen equipment, and enabling eco-settings on laundry machines and dishwashers cumulatively conserve substantial energy and water. Some eateries now even compost all food scraps on site to close the loop.
Carbon Offsetting Emissions
For aspects like ovens that involve unavoidable fossil fuel usage or food miles that accrue getting nonlocal ingredients to the restaurant, some owners are investing in verified carbon reduction projects to counterbalance.
These projects – like forest conservation to sequester CO2, building solar farms for clean energy access in developing regions, or distributing efficient cookstoves in off-grid communities – quantifiably and permanently offset emissions.
How Home Chefs Can Apply These Principles
While restaurants and commercial operations shoulder heavy lifting to transform food systems, home chefs also play a powerful role through our daily dining decisions. Small changes in how we source, cook and eat meals ripple out as we choose vote with our forks.
Shop Seasonally at Farmers Markets
Make visiting local farmers markets a weekly ritual to discover what’s ripe and stock up. Tuning into nature’s calendar for harvest times connects us more deeply with regional agriculture and builds relationships with producers. It also reduces waste from lengthier supply chains. Boost nutrition by exploring new seasonal items each trip.
Spotlight More Plants & Legumes
Aim for meals with vegetables, fruits, whole intact grains, beans, lentils and peas as the foundation versus meat centric plates. Incorporating produce at peak freshness ensures maximum flavor and vitamins too. Keeping even small pots of herbs like parsley or basil on the kitchen sill brings snips of green vibrancy year-round.
Breathe new life into previous meal components by folding leftover proteins and roasted vegetables into creative bowls, sandwiches, flatbreads and tacos. Stale bread also makes excellent croutons or breadcrumbs. Smooth leftover bits of vegetables into soups. Repurposing leftovers into new combinations eliminates waste while sparking inspiration.
About a third of household waste comes from food and yard scraps. Diverting this organic matter from curbside bins to an at-home compost pile, or community compost service where available, saves considerable methane emissions from landfills. It also completes the food cycle by nourishing soils that grow more food.
Grow Sprouts & Microgreens
Even urban fire escapes and sunny windowsills can support productive pots of soil for easy homegrown greens. Sprouts like lentil, radish and alfalfa offer superfood nutrition, while microgreens take minimal space for basil, arugula, kale adding flavor all winter.
Host Community Potlucks
Gathering friends, neighbors and local groups for meals strengthens community ties while minimizing each household’s individual purchasing footprint. Make potlucks intergenerational by inviting older members to share cherished dishes too. Preparing surplus garden vegetable yields or preserved foods to share also helps reduce personal waste.
Forge Farmer Relationships
Home chefs can also skip the grocery store middleman by connecting directly with regional farmers and fishers through CSAs, on-farm buying clubs or dockside seafood. These relationships incubate understanding and deliver ultra-fresh regeneratively grown ingredients from slaughter, catch or harvest to kitchen within 24 hours.
Our collective power as neighbors choosing what to feed our families ripples out through supply chains – demanding tasty, healthy, just options. Small conscious decisions at home dining tables compound into the transformation our planet needs.
The Future of Regenerative Dining
The principles of regenerative food systems and dining align human and environmental health – creating a model that can sustain and nourish all life on Earth. This paradigm shift is still nascent but momentum is accelerating globally.
From small mom-and-pop farm-to-table establishments to large chains like Chipotle rolling out carbon neutral menus – companies recognize the demand for sustainable fare. Home chefs are also awakening to their own impact and agency around dining decisions.
In many ways, the Coronavirus pandemic jolted communities into reconsidering vulnerable food supply chains, public health failures and who has access to nutrition. Out of crisis springs progress. There is no separating economic resilience from human health from planetary health – they are interconnected.
Regenerative dining provides a holistic roadmap towards a future food system in which everyone eats well, farmers earn dignified livings, and the planet rebounds to abundance. It is an invitation to rediscover the sacredness of shared meals – the original community glue.
How we choose to break bread matters. But beyond individual actions, the essential catalyst is a cultural shift in how we relate to food. Once we remember that dining together has powerfully fed social movements throughout history, the motivation for change sparks to life.
Food is the ultimate connector across cultures, generations, and nations. It binds us in the most primal and joyful of ways. Through embracing regenerative dining principles, we can uphold meals as a vital conduit of health, justice and sustainability.