We’re all guilty of it. Apples go soft before we can finish them, our takeout leftovers start to smell in their styrofoam clamshells, or we make way too much chili and simply get sick of eating it. Remorsefully, we toss it in the trash and promise ourselves we’ll do better next time. But, like many a New Year’s Resolution, this is easier said than done, and even harder to stick to.
The evidence speaks for itself: according to the EPA, 34 million tons of food – around 40% of total production – goes to waste every year. Not globally – in the U.S. alone. In other terms, we are throwing $43 billion a year in the garbage. In the landfills, your
cash food is producing methane that has disastrous effects on the environment. Not to mention, one in six Americans is struggling with hunger, while much of the food thrown out is still perfectly edible.
While a majority of food waste is generated by retail stores and restaurants, you can take action in your own kitchen – and beyond it – to cut down on this enormous problem.
- Plan it out.
There are a lot of reasons to plan your meals each week. In addition to saving time and money, taking the stress out of cooking, and preventing unhealthy impulse buys, it will go a long way in reducing wasted food. If you make a plan, make a list, and stick to it, you’re much less likely to end up with something you don’t get around to until it’s too late.
- Love leftovers.
While this is obvious to most of us, especially those with busy schedules, a lot of people simply don’t get it. And while some foods are really meant to be eaten the moment they’re prepared (ie: scones, risotto), most foods last several days in the fridge and some taste even better with time. This is an easy lunch solution, or a quick heat-up dinner when you come home from a long day. Don’t throw it out unless it starts to go bad.
- Make friends with your freezer.
This is especially pertinent when you simply have too much of something. Some recipes don’t halve well, and others you just have to make in large batches. When that happens and you know it most likely won’t all be eaten, freeze half of it. This is also great for things like brownies that you shouldn’t eat an entire batch of anyway!
- Double up.
Oftentimes a recipe will call for a quantity that cannot be easily purchased – for example, a single carrot or a 1/4 cup of buttermilk. When you know you’re going to end up with extra, make a conscious effort to choose another recipe that incorporates that ingredient. Again, this is where planning is very beneficial. For example, if you’re making buttermilk pancakes, go ahead and whip up some buttermilk salad dressing while you’re at it.
- Master the art of homemade stock.
I can’t encourage you on this one strongly enough. It tastes much better than canned broth. It’s free. It’s easy. You can choose whatever flavors you like best. It’s much healthier (the sodium on most packaged stock is around 25% of your RDA). It will make superior soup.
Wait, it’s free? Yep. All you have to do is keep a gallon-size plastic bag (or tupperware) in your freezer. Every time you peel carrots, trim celery, stem mushrooms, or find your herbs on their last leg, simply tuck the trimmings in the freezer. When the bag is full, put all the contents in boiling water, season to taste and simmer for about an hour. Or, if you cook chicken, make a stock from the bones.
- Go whole.
Stock brings me to my next point: don’t fall for the convenience trap. Pre-sliced produce is an utter waste of money, and tends to go bad far more quickly. Fruits and vegetables have natural defense mechanisms and their skins protect them from contaminants and keep them fresher, longer. Furthermore, you can count on their production having been wasteful: all those scraps get thrown out. When it comes to animals, the demand for particular cuts of meat creates a production process that is inherently wasteful. While you can’t bring home a whole cow, you can diversify the types of beef you’re eating. You can bring home a whole chicken, which is an inexpensive way to feed at least four people and promptly make a delicious stock that will fill your kitchen with out-of-this-world aromas.
Invite friends over for dinner and encourage them to take home some leftovers. Offer an extra plate of food to your roommate or neighbor. Heck, let your furry friends lick your plate (as long as it’s pet-safe food).
- Restaurant rules.
Once again, sharing is an excellent choice when you go out for a meal. Most restaurant meals come in excessive portions. If you split a dish with your dinner date, you both save money, don’t overeat, and prevent food waste. If you’re not sharing, order a smaller dish (appetizers or salads), and box up your leftovers whenever possible.
Start a compost heap in your yard, or a bin if you live in the city. Look into community composting if you don’t have room in your own home.
While soup kitchens and food banks have strict policies about what they can and cannot accept, there are many things you can donate. The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act protects food donors from liability. Look up food salvage organizations in your city and contribute to the fight against hunger.
- Go gleaning.
Gleaning is a win-win-win. Farmers benefit because they often can’t harvest everything or can’t sell imperfect items, and they can get a tax deduction for donating. Most gleaning initiatives provide food for the hungry, making an impact on food insecurity. And, overall food waste is slashed by the volunteers who make it happen. Look up a gleaning organization in your area – it’s good fun for a good cause.
- Dumpster dive.
Now, I didn’t tell you to do this, so if the cops ask you, don’t point at me. Dumpster diving is in a legal grey area, and lots of businesses are downright possessive about their garbage. It’s also not for everyone. But don’t dismiss it right away, even if the idea makes you squirm. The fact is, restaurants and grocery stores are required by law to throw out foods based on dates – not based on the food having spoiled. This means tons and tons of perfectly edible food is thrown in the trash. A lot of it is salvageable. Many times the good stuff is packaged so it doesn’t get contaminated. When I was in college, there was even a bakery that put day-old bread in a separate plastic bin for people to pick up. Oh, and not just food. Lots of other cool stuff gets thrown away, too! So if you’re brave, read some tips, take a friend, and make an adventure of it.
So there we have it. What ideas do you have for preventing and reducing food waste?
*2/13/12 update: I just stumbled across a great website with some additional information about food waste, hunger, and prevention.
I know I’ve been slacking: tasty recipe coming soon, I promise!