Knowledge for better food systems

Blog: Let’s eat out more! Re-configuring a feminist vision for a sustainable future

Photo credit: Port of San Diego, Port of San Diego's Top Green Chef Cook-off, Flickr, Creative Commons licence 2.0

In this blog Jessica Paddock and Alan Warde outline a feminist vision of how we might change our eating habits in order to meet our food climate mitigation requirements. 

The blog explores the hypothesis that with food consumption increasingly taking place outside of the home, policies seeking to promote sustainable consumption might benefit from an expanded focus targeting less what people eat, and more where and how food is consumed.

This, they argue, is likely to be more fertile ground than asking the majority to shun behaviours that they enjoy, such as consuming familiar foods. Food systems comprise a complex of energy intensive practices, and could be reconfigured by a shift towards more cooking and eating outside of the home, with the potential for sustainability benefits. This would also provide benefits for women, who still disproportionately perform cooking and cleaning within households.

However they highlight that the feasibility of this utopian vision of future food consumption, remains an open question for researchers to investigate.

Supporting an infrastructure for more eating out and less cooking at home might achieve substantial reductions in energy and resource consumption. We do not know for sure, as this question is never asked. More research is needed to understand the shape, size and trade-off involved in moving from one mode of eating to another. For now, we can only imagine what might be possible.

The full article can be read here.

For more writing on food by researchers at the Sustainable Consumption Institute, see also Issue 36 of Discovery Society here.

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Angela Druckman's picture
Submitted by Angela Druckman (not verified) on

Research shown in Druckman and Jackson (2010):

A meal eaten out produces around 83% more greenhouse gas emissions than a meal eaten at home, if travel to the restaurant or canteen is included[1].  If the travel to the restaurant or canteen is not included, then we estimate that a meal eaten out produces around 71% more greenhouse gas emissions than a meal eaten at home. This includes non-alcoholic drink but not alcoholic drinks. It must be remembered in these comparisons that we have, in theory, included, all the embedded emissions both for eating in and out of the home. In particular, for meals eaten in restaurants, pubs and canteens, we include, in theory, all upstream emissions associated with the establishment and the service provided, and this explains why emissions due to eating out are higher than those associated with eating in.

See Druckman, A., and T. Jackson (2010)  An Exploration into the Carbon Footprint of UK Households, RESOLVE Working Paper Series 02-10, University of Surrey, November 2010. 

[1] Travel for food to be purchased at home is included in both cases here.


John Kazer's picture
Submitted by John Kazer (not verified) on

I'm afraid I can't accept the 71% claim from Angela.  If the majority of meal emissions come from food production how can the 71% increase for eating out be attributed to "the establishment and service provided"?  I have assumed that this group of emissions relates to energy use in catering establishments.  Is there a problem of allocation here, whereby general hospitality emissions are being erroneously attributed to catering rather than hotel rooms, general entertainment etc.?  How do we know?  Does the data used for the top-down process allow us to understand what is really going on or are we just guessing?

There is little to suggest that the physical process of obtaining, storing, preparing and serving food in catering establishments is significantly different from in the home.  Please provide more details to pursuade me otherwise!

I could understand if there was a claim for greater food waste but that would be an impact on the upstream (food production) piece of the puzzle.

Will Nicholson's picture
Submitted by Will Nicholson on

I would think (non-evidenced) that, as Angela pounts out below, eating out would normally be associated with meals that are higher in GHG.  Mainly because restaurants are quite "meat-heavy" in their menus.  At the moment.  That can of course change over time.  We have done a lot of work with restaurants, canteens, sandwich bars, hotel buffets etc estimating their GHG impacts per kg of food and per cover.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, meat-heavy restaurants such as burger restaurants and classic "treat yourself" eating out experiences show the highest GHG per cover, followed by varous "theme" restaurants such as pizzerias, curry, some south american-style eatiers, then lower still are "soup & sandwich" cafes and most staff canteens.  Bottom of the list (or top depending on your perspective) are of course vegan restaurants.  So it really depends where you eat, but in general at the moment eating out for dinner would surely lead to higher GHGs.  Lunch is a bit different, and we have worked with a lot of staff canteens that are doing a really good job of designing "phase 1" climate-smart meals.

For eating out to have a positive impact, then the entire concept of eating out would need to radically change in terms of both the type of food served and the cost implications.

Angela Druckman's picture
Submitted by Angela Druckman (not verified) on

If you look at Alfredsson, E. C. (2000). Green Consumption Energy Use and Carbon Dioxide Emission. PhD Thesis, Umeå University,  you will see on page 78 that other studies have found similar results. Alfreddsoon's results are in terms of energy use, and, taking into account the comment by Will above, one could expect the effect to be even more pronounced for greenhouse gas emissions.


Angela Druckman
Professor of Sustainable Consumption & Production
University of Surrey


Simon Ward's picture
Submitted by Simon Ward (not verified) on

I would expect that a restaurant is more efficient at cooking and purchasing since larger quantiies are cooked and purchased. Cooking for many should result in a smaller heat loss per unit of food and since the collection of food is a big source of GHG I would exepect that the restaurant buying larger quatities would also be better in this respect. Personally I don't think the meat argument holds since this needs to placed at the consumers door. Most restaurants have vegetarian menus. It would be interesting to see the GHG per unit of food. In a city where many/most(?) people walk or take public transport to the restaurant does this really have no impact?

Will Nicholson's picture
Submitted by Will Nicholson on

The point is that generalising "eating out" as one homogenous concept is as daft as assuming all people eat the same things at home.  Clearly not the case.  As per my first comment, in terms of the impacts of the food eaten it completely depends on the kind of restaurant (and indeed the meal).  So yes, you do have vegetarian options on menus, but they make up a very small proportion of what customers actually order in most restaurants.  Then you absolutely do need to take into account the type of restaurant : a "classic" restaurant with steaks, burgers, lamb shank, pork chops, chicken curry etc etc will normally have a higher meat content per serving than people would ordinarily eat at home on a (say) Tuesday evening.  If you eat at a vegan restaurant, then hey presto, the emissions from the food will be lower.  Same for lunch - staff canteens almost always show lower GHG per kg of food or per customer than "evening restaurants".  We have worked with a lot of canteens, hotels, restaurants and we measure this with standardised GHG data for menus, sales and purchasing data and it shows a strong pattern.  So whether eating out would lead to lower GHG or not simply depends on where you eat.  For what it is worth, our projects have shown a range of 0.9 kg CO2 eq per kg food (vegan restaurant) to over 5kg CO2 eq per kg of food (burger restaurant).  Staff lunch canteens sit somewhere between 2 and 3, in my experience.  These are real restaurants, not models, and the data is taken from what they actually buy.  Similar non-generalisations exist for energy use : a grill-style restaurant could have the grill on almost all day and evening regardless of how many steaks they actually grill, many restaurants have the ovens on way more than they actually need, same for fryers etc etc.  No grill? No energy use for a grill. etc etc. This doesn't happen at home (at least not at any homes I have been in!).  So the answer is : given the food currently served in "eating out" your emissions could be lower if you ate at a restaurant leaning more towards the vegan end of the scale, but almost certainly will be higher if you ate at what we might consider a traditional restaurant.  And even then it depends ; an italian restaurant's impacts will be driven by how much cheese and meat they use on they pastas and pizzas (not meaning to stereotype their menus!). etc etc.

Jessica Rhiannon Paddock's picture
Submitted by Jessica Rhianno... (not verified) on

Our article was first written for Discover Society - the online magazine of the British Sociological Society - and was a piece in which we sought to think imaginatively and sociologically about the consequences of changes in the practice of eating out over the last twenty years, particularly for more sustainable futures. Our data, and subsequent argument is aimed at prompting a discussion about how we might move beyond researching efficiencies of one mode of provision over another (public vs private vs institutional etc.). Instead, we draw on feminist theory and planning in design and architecture as a starting point to suggest that we look at the relationship between eating out and eating in, and to think about the social palatability of moving away from individual responsibility for domestic chores and towards collective modes that would achieve economies of scale that would bring many benefits beyond lightening the domestic workload. Kichenless homes were not popular in the early 1900's and we might say that collective living arrangements are just as unpopular nowadays. But, does an increase in eating out suggest some shift away from private provision, and an appetite for collective modes?

Alongside a moderate rise of eating out over the last twenty years, which also speaks to its stability as a practice, it also becomes a more ordinary event (we haven't published this data yet, but more to follow), I wonder whether this is a useful starting point for thinking about what the varied eating out landscape looks like, and what opportunities it offers to reconfigure eating in ways that are less individualised and private. Doing so might present opportunities to re-craft eating practices and reduce carbon emissions as a result. By taking into account the whole life cycle of eating- not just restaurant meals or meals cooked at home, journeys to and from restaurants or supermarket - might we imagine a future where more eating out could provide opportunities for intervention that many people would find pleasurable rather than punitive?