Over the past decade, the notion of sustainable eating has vaulted into the mainstream, as home cooks and professional chefs alike climb onto the organic and local foods bandwagon. But journalist and book author Kate Heyhoe suggests that ingredients are only one part of the story. Heyhoe’s newest book, Cooking Green: Reducing Your Carbon Footprint in the Kitchen, takes a far more comprehensive approach to creating an efficient, eco-friendly kitchen, examining everything from the types of pans we cook with, to rethinking our use of everyday appliances like the oven and refrigerator.

I spoke with Heyhoe from her home in Austin, Texas, about measuring our "cookprint," the joys of home-brewed iced tea, and how green is becoming the new normal.

MNN: How did you first become interested in sustainable living?

Heyhoe: I’ve never really thought of myself as an environmentalist. I am just a person who has, for a long time, faced the same challenges as everyone else. Environmental problems are showing up everywhere, yet they’re not always immediate and drastic like Hurricane Katrina. In Texas, where I live, the drought we have faced over the last couple of years makes our wells and creeks run dry. Other parts of the country face their own subtle or obvious indicators.

My interest has largely been about puzzle-solving and connecting the dots between what’s happening “out there” and what we can each do to change our thinking, habits and ways. As a cook, I know that the sustainable mantra has been to buy local and organic, but by the time organic food starts showing up in Wal-Mart you are preaching to the choir. It is time to move on to the next step. 

You coined the word “cookprint” as a way of measuring a person’s environmental impact in the kitchen. What does the word describe?

The cookprint measures the entire chain of resources used to create the foods we eat, including the ingredients themselves, the energy and water used to prepare the food, and the waste produced in the process.

When I first started working on the proposal for this book, I knew I did not want to overuse the phrase carbon footprint. Cooking is such a warm, inviting thing -- and carbon footprint just felt so cold and ugly. Eventually, I just stumbled upon the idea of a “cookprint,” which feels like a friendlier and more accurate way of talking about and measuring everyday food consciousness.

What is your biggest "cookprint" pet peeve?

Teflon cookware and single-serving containers. I was talking to a friend who bought an expensive brand of Teflon cookware that had already started flaking off after just two years. So aside from being toxic, it was also poorly made and therefore disposable.

[Meanwhile,] when did it happen that everything we eat is in a single-serving container? Everyone is going around saying, “I’m green and hip,” while still buying single-serving containers of yogurt and individual bottles of Gatorade and iced tea. You can buy Gatorade powder and make your own less expensive and wasteful version, or brew iced tea so simply using one of my favorite appliances, the electric teakettle. There is a whole generation of people out there who do not know what real iced tea even tastes like!

The New York Times Magazine recently published an article about why the human brain isn’t naturally inclined towards a green mindset. What are your thoughts about that?

I loved that article and immediately embraced it; actually, that concept is at the root of this book. People have a very hard time processing and getting motivated about things that feel far away, or so big that they feel overwhelming. By breaking down sustainable actions into things one can do everyday, it feels more manageable and you can see the tangible results of your changes.

Are there any tips or ideas in your book that serve as especially good “gateway drugs” to a green cooking lifestyle?

Stop using your oven so often. The oven is the Humvee of the kitchen -- only about 6 percent of the fuel used ends up going towards active cooking. The rest is wasted. Use your toaster oven and your cook-top instead, or do more passive cooking [e.g. softening noodles by soaking them in boiling water, or turning your oven off early in the cooking process and allowing the food to finish cooking from the heat that has already built up inside.].

Also, a lot of people have kitchen faucets that are controlled by a single valve. If you leave the handle titled to the left (the hot side) and turn that on, you fire up the hot water tank even when you don’t want hot water. Simply leaving it turned to the right saves so much energy. There are so many little things that people aren’t aware of -- this book helps them take control of their actions.

A lot of environmentalists and chefs dislike using microwaves, but you are a proponent? Why?

Microwaves consume less energy than the stove. I would not use the microwave for everything, but for things like steaming vegetables, it works great. It doesn’t heat up your kitchen (which is especially important here in Texas), and is more energy efficient. I don’t recommend using your microwave to thaw foods, however -- that is a waste of energy. Thaw food in your fridge overnight.

For more “green cooking” ideas, purchase Heyhoe’s book and check out her website, The New Green Basics.