I know I’ve mentioned this before: I grew up in Iowa, and on a very typical Midwestern diet.  So typical, in fact, that I’m pretty sure I ate the same meal every day of my life for eighteen years straight: meat, a potato, and a side of vegetables, usually from a can.  The details would change – one day it would be pot roast, mashed potatoes, and peas, the next it was round steak, boiled potatoes, and corn – but the substance of the meal was always the same.  Besides being repetitive, this diet was a problem for other reasons: it was so water wasteful.

Every food you eat has what’s called a “virtual water footprint.”  This is the water used to produce what we eat – water that irrigated crops, the cumulative water for the feed and water livestock consume, and the water used in processing for prepared foods.  Everything you eat has a virtual water footprint, but something like beef, with a virtual water footprint of 22,000 liters per kilogram,  is far more water intensive than, say, cabbage, which uses 297 liters per kilogram.  

Of course, everyone’s diet is different and I don’t want to imagine everyone else eats the same way I did growing up, but there’s a reason “meat and potatoes” is a cliché, so let’s look at how to transform my most frequent childhood dinner into a water-conscious meal.

Let’s start with the biggest change one would need to make to turn a traditional Midwestern meal into a water-conscious meal.  We’ve touched before on  how meat and animal products add up to major water usage, but meat is also a nutritional source for protein, amino acids, and other dietary needs.  

The replacement?  Nuts are a great source of protein.   They get a bad rep, especially since most people can quote that statistic about each almond requiring a gallon to produce, but our argument is they’re not as bad as they sound.  As for amino acids, once you eliminate meat and animal products like eggs and dairy, you’re left with grains like quinoa or soy.  

Potatoes are actually quite water-friendly, clocking in at 287 liters per kilogram.   It may seem strange to eat two starches in one meal if you’ve already committed to quinoa, but this may be a matter of taste.    We’ll leave that part of the meal untouched for now.

How about the canned vegetables, though?  Processing adds major virtual water, as factories use massive amounts of water to add preservatives, flavorings, colors, and other artificial ingredients.  We’ve touched on this before, observing how corn and corn syrup are made of the same things, and yet the processed corn syrup has a virtual water footprint two times higher than that of corn.  Sure, corn syrup and canned green beans aren’t exactly the same thing, but the comparison holds.  Instead of canned vegetables, we recommend going fresh and preparing them yourself.

What are you left with?  Nuts, quinoa, soy, potatoes, and vegetables.  That might seem like a random combination, but we think it sounds like the start of a stir-fry.  Or heck, dice the nuts into your veggies and serve a dinner entirely of sides.  Let your creativity run wild.  That last step might be anathema to the notion of a standard “meat and potatoes” diet, but didn’t this post begin with a call for more variety?