FoodPrint Guide to Eco-Friendly Grilling

by Katherine Sacks

Published: 5/25/21, Last updated: 5/25/21

Nothing says summertime like a cookout: friends gathering in the backyard, grill heating up, beers chilling in a cooler, music playing on the speakers. Burgers, s’mores, the works.

Unfortunately, that cookout has a pretty big foodprint. The charcoal grill isn’t great for the environment. And if your burgers are made with inexpensive beef — the kind you might find in those iconic Styrofoam packs — they’re most likely a product of the industrial beef system and packed with environmental, animal welfare and labor issues. Even if you’ve grown your own tomatoes and lettuce (or bought them at the farmers’ market), or baked your own rolls for burgers, what about those side dishes? Strawberries, grapes and cherries — some of fruit salad’s biggest stars — rank among the highest for the fruits and vegetables with the most pesticides, if they’re not organic. So much for a feel good cookout.

Luckily, there are ways to start eco-friendly grilling, from swapping in reusable products to switching the menu to local, organic foods. Next time you want to fire up the grill, take one of these steps, a few of them, or take them all to keep it more sustainable.

The Food

The biggest impact of the cookout, and easiest thing to adjust, is the food.


Step one: Shop for local, seasonal produce at the farmers’ market, a local farm stand or your favorite grocer, and talk to the farmers or shop owners about how the ingredients were grown. Ask about the issues that matter to you when it comes to growing vegetables: pesticide usage? fair pay to food laborers? GMO seeds? Not only will the food taste better, you’ll be supporting the local economy and really understand the food you are eating. Plus, it’s summer, which means this is produce at its very best.


Summer cookouts are often focused on meat — hot dogs, hamburgers, BBQ — and our meat-heavy diets are putting serious strain on the environment. No matter what your diet or tastes, there’s a way to reduce your meat consumption when it comes to eco-friendly grilling. Here are four options:

  • If a 100 percent beef burger is what you are craving, take the steps to make it a “better” burger: use certified grassfed beef.
  • If you love meat, but want a more sustainable option, start with grassfed beef or pastured poultry. Then try cutting out 50 percent of the beef, chicken and other meat from your cookout. Blended burgers, patties made by combining ground meat and chopped vegetables, are a good option for meat-eaters who want to cut back, but who also want that real beef burger.
  • You can swap out some of the meat for vegetarian options, or make the entire cookout vegetarian. Carrot dogs, veggie burgers and vegetable shish kebabs are great stand-ins for the classic meat options. There are a wide variety of veggie burger options to try — nut based, bean based, veggie based, and more.
  • There are more plant-based meat options than ever. Try meat-like plant-based dishes like seitan ribs, pulled jackfruit, or grilled tempeh, or serve a prepared imitation meat burger such as Beyond Burger or Impossible Foods.


Once you’ve switched to organic produce and you’re eating meat-free or choosing less meat but better meat, kick up your eco-friendly grilling skills one notch further and make the menu waste-free. Use your cookout as an excuse to use up ingredients from your pantry and refrigerator. Some ideas: turn half a bag of rice into a rice pilaf side salad; rescue carrot fronds to make a carrot salsa; save the carton of milk from turning by using it for a cheesy dip; and grate the odds and ends of your vegetable crisper drawer into colorful coleslaw. This list goes on and on: You can roast extra chickpeas for an easy snack; turn stale tortillas into homemade chips; turn a bin full of potatoes (or even better, sweet potatoes) into potato salad or mashed potatoes; and roast older, about-to-turn mushrooms into “bacon” and toss them into salads.

Green Drinks

Beverages are another thing to consider when you’re trying to entertain sustainably. Whether it’s wine, beer or liquor, beverage production carries a pretty significant foodprint, including the high quantities of water and packaging used to produce them and large amounts of waste materials produced during the brewing or fermenting process. To reduce the foodprint of your bar, look for producers using heirloom grains or grapes and choose organic bottles. Even better, choose items from local breweries, wineries and distilleries. And even if you are keeping the party dry, buying juice, soda or other beverages in larger containers instead of individual cans and bottles helps cut down on packaging waste. As we suggest below, try to use reusable or biodegradable cups instead of plastic.

The Heat

Charcoal grills may provide the much-loved smell and flavor of childhood campfires, but unfortunately, research shows that gas grilling is much better than charcoal: according to researcher Eric Johnson, charcoal grills generate about three times the amount of greenhouse gas as the gas ones. Plus, not all charcoal is made from renewable sources, and lighter fluid (which is usually how you start a charcoal fire) is made from fossil fuels. Because you can’t easily turn off charcoal, the way you can with a gas grill, charcoal burns a lot longer as well.

Luckily, if you can’t give up your charcoal habit, there are some ways to make charcoal grilling more sustainable. First, you can change the type of grill you’re cooking with. The round Weber might be iconic, but a ceramic kamado-style grill (like the Big Green Egg) retains heat better and is more efficient than a traditional charcoal grill. Although it’s a single-use option, the Casus Grill, made of organic and biodegradable materials that are largely recyclable, provides an option for camping and other grilling on-the-go needs.

Beyond a new grill, a second option is to avoid the classic charcoal bricks — usually made from a combo of wood byproducts, sawdust, lighter fluid and other additives which release high levels of carbon dioxide and volatile organic compounds when they burn —  and look for organic, sustainably-sourced charcoal, including organic lump bamboo charcoal and coconut shell charcoal. Lastly, skip the toxic lighter fluid and use a chimney starter, electric charcoal starter or other alternatives instead.

Say Goodbye to Single-Use Supplies

Cookouts often happen away from home: parks, community centers, beaches. And that usually means a ton of single-use items like plastic silverware, plates, cups and napkins. According to the EPA, almost half of the trash in the US is food and food packaging materials. If you’re throwing the cookout at home, switch to reusable plates, silverware, cups and napkins. It may mean more time spent washing up, but you’ll be reducing your foodprint and saving money in the long run. If you’re grilling away from home and reusable just doesn’t make sense, choose compostable options instead of single-use plastic. But FYI: make sure you place them in a bin headed to a commercial composting facility, where those materials can be properly handled.

All the Rest

Summer cookouts, parties or any gathering of large groups usually involve a few other odds and ends. If it’s a fancy affair and you’ll be sending out invitations, send out evites instead of paper invitations. Thinking about decorations? Skip the balloons and use wild flowers instead. Stock up on non-toxic and biodegradable sunblock and bug repellent to share with guests.  Every step of the way, there are changes you can make to throw a more environmentally friendly gathering; once you have your eco-friendly grilling hat on, you’ll see the variety of changes you can make.

Top photo by babsi_w/Adobe Stock.

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