Reducing Food Waste
Reducing food waste is an oft talked about concept as of late. It is important for many reasons, but some so obvious they are easy to overlook. Wasting food impacts your wallet directly. And for those who think a lot about our environmental impact, rotting food causes methane gas- in fact a shocking amount of methane gas!
Reduction in food waste can be simply impacted by the way we shop and how (and why!) we dispose of food. I don’t know about you, but I always feel so guilty about throwing out food- the thought of throwing money out the window, the environmental impact, and my mind even goes as far as to think about the farmer that grew my produce with love and care…
But it’s hard, I know. Before sitting down at my desk to pontificate and plan my next bog post, recipe, meal plan or shopping trip in the morning, I have a big task. In the craziness of the house in the morning, which includes lunches being made for school, a variety of different breakfasts (of course each member of the family wants something different), then the rush to brush teeth, and make sure that my middle schooler’s hair looks perfect- then, finally ushering everyone out of the door to the school bus or work, I am left with a kitchen counter littered with half eaten bowls of cereal, half of a banana from a smoothie, etc. So, I do my best to minimize the impact- throw the banana in the freezer for tomorrow (who cares if it browns a bit if it is going into a smoothie anyway.. oh, and you can do that with avocados and apples too by the way.), harvest some of the leftover coconut milk for my second cup of coffee, etc.
The facts are this, according to a recent report by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC)- 40% of all of the food produced in the US ends up being tossed. Let that sink in for a minute- 40%- that’s like 5 eggs out of every dozen, a breast & leg from every whole chicken, almost half of each loaf of bread- all produced with the same water, energy, and fertilizer as the food that we do eat- all dumped into a landfill to rot. Ugh, that’s a lot. In fact, households throw out more food than grocery stores and restaurants combined- accounting for 43% of total food waste. The rest of the waste comes on the farms, who in some instances are being required by our government to be disposed of in order to keep prices artificially high, in transport, or in a miriad of other ways that are so irritating that it is best I save that for another article (read corn and cows raised for milk and beef).
To put in terms that are easy to understand, on average a family of four throws out $1800 of food each year, according to the non-profit Rethink Food Waste Through Economics and Data (ReFed), yet 75% of us believes that we waste less than the average American. That’s not good math. People just don’t realize that they are doing it- throwing out food has become a natural habit- I can just imagine my grandmother shake her head in disgust, in her day every scrap of everything was used- that is the respect for food I was taught. Cutting off crusts and throwing them away was unimaginable.
It is a bad cycle that we need to break- both for our wallets and the environment. A couple more statistics to shock you into wanting to make a difference:
21% of agricultural water in the US goes to food that is wasted
19% of croplands in the US goes to food that is later tossed
21% of landfill content is rotting food- which in turn produces methane gas, which is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. This is a huge problem!
This problem has some fairly simple solutions that can make a major impact in reducing all of this waste, 68% of which is still consumable foods.
Strategies For Reducing Food Waste
Make a Menu First
This is so simple, yet my clients are often so surprised by this concept. Making a weekly menu is a great way to organize yourself, get family input on meals and ideas (which often gets the kids excited to eat healthy food), makes shopping quicker, easier and cheaper, and helps you avoid food fatigue. Each Sunday morning, I write a menu for dinners for the upcoming week. It is 5 minutes extremely well spent, because the family has the opportunity to have input (and they all eat better when they have had a hand in selecting the meals) and I can plan ahead for things such as soccer practices or late rehearsals when making an elaborate meal can be more challenging. Additionally, I work in a different way each week to use any leftover- either for pack lunches or planning a pasta night with left over proteins, or even our family favorite Vietnamese fresh rolls, which are a great vehicle of leftover proteins and vegetables.
Go Grocery Shopping More Often
Once you have your menu, you can plan your shopping lists. We in the US are used to going food shopping once a week and buying in bulk- that leads to one thin only, waste. When you shop that way, you end of picking up way more that you need, the produce doesn’t last (especially when you buy organic not genetically modified to last longer or coated in wax) and the proteins end up not being totally fresh by the time you shop again. Additionally, when you are doing such a bohemouth shop, you are likely to either forget an important ingredient (rendering an entire meal impossible), or buying way too much of something because you can’t really tell when you are throwing something in to an overloaded cart. The best strategy is to plan multiple (2 or 3) quicker, more focused trips to the grocery store or farmers market. This way when you arrive with your small list, it is easier to find, manage, price compare and read labels (which you don’t have time to do when your ice-cream is melting at the bottom of your over-flowing cart). Shopping in this more controlled manner leads you to choose better products, buy in quantities that you actually need and make sense, and ultimately saves you money. I have heard all of the excuses- I don’t have time to shop more often, I hate shopping so I try to minimize it… The fact is (tested and proven by my clients who were resistant at first), shopping more often can actually be faster when you go in with a strategy, stick to your list, and focus on shopping the perimeter of the store.
Understand How to Read Labels
Label date codes can be extremely confusing and can cause a tremendous amount of waste. Having a better understand of what verbiage such as “sell by” or “use by” actually means can help a lot. It is important to know that there are no regulated definitions for following terms, hopefully this will help clarify.
This label is actually meant for the retailer, not the consumer. It lets the people who stock the grocery store shelves know that a product shouldn’t be sold after the date to ensure peak quality, and gives customers the time-usually about a week, depending on the item- to eat it once they bring it home. This term is not an indicator of food safety.
Best by or Best before
Terms like these indicate the food company’s best guess as to how long the product will keep at its peak quality. Again this these terms don’t have anything to do with safety.
Now it gets a bit more confusing. Both the FDA and USDA say that like “best by,” “use by” has to do with quality, and isn’t related to safety (except for infant formula). However, new guidelines from Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and Food Marketing Institute (FMI) define “use by” as a hard cutoff date, after which the product may not be safe. Because these conflicting recommendations are voluntary (for the food manufacturer or processor), there is no way to know whether a product carries the FDA’s definition of “use by” (it is okay to eat after the date) or GMA/FMI’s definition (it is not). So, use your senses- does it look good or smell good?
Think Before you Toss
So even if (or shall I say when) you use all of these ideas and start shopping with more restraint and in a more strategic way, there will still always be some food waste. Get creative, and think before you make the decision to toss food into the garbage. Freeze produce, proteins and herbs in airtight containers to extend their lives. Plan leftovers for weekday lunches or freeze for quick mid-week meals. Use food scraps such as stalks, fronds, shells, bones and peels for delicious broths, stocks or soups that can be refrigerated or frozen. Use carrot tops to make a pesto or egg shells to whiten clothing (see Hacks and Tools for ideas). Consider making compost for your garden. Save Parmesan rinds for pasta sauces and use slightly browning or frozen fruit in smoothies. Use stale bread for fondue, croutons or as bird feed.
Get creative, think outside the box and make a plan to reduce the amount of food you send to the land fill- it’s good for your wallet, the environment, and your conscience.