Households are responsible for 40 percent of the food that goes to waste in the U.S. every year. That leaves a lot of room for improvement.
You probably know the feeling -- that terrible guilt when you dump an entire bunch of parsley or a few once-beautiful tomatoes into the compost bin because you've forgotten to use them before they went bad. Whenever this happens to me, I feel a sharp stab of pain for the money thrown away and an ache for the resources wasted.
And yet, this problem of food waste persists in our society on a scale that is difficult to comprehend. An estimated 40 percent of edible food in the United States goes to waste, and 40 percent of that is attributed to individual households like yours and mine. As Carolyn Beans wrote for NPR,
"Producing this [wasted] food requires up to about one-fifth of U.S. croplands, fertilizers and agricultural water. Once tossed, food becomes the No. 1 contributor, by weight, to U.S. landfills, where it releases methane, a greenhouse gas, while decaying."
Beans is a science journalist and mother of two who wrote about her efforts to track personal food waste, weighing everything that she and her husband threw out between May and July that they intended to eat but didn't. While she knew about the problem in theory -- as so many of us do -- it was another thing to push beyond the guilt and actually address the problem at its root.
There are the basic tips for reducing food waste at home, like menu planning, not shopping while hungry, using leftovers, and serving smaller portions, but Beans offers insights that go beyond this. She gets into the nitty-gritty of how one's thinking needs to shift if one wants to get serious in the fight against food waste. I share some of her thoughts below, along with things I've learned based on personal experience.
1. Don't be afraid of family-generated food waste.
Just because your family members have left food on their plates doesn't mean it should go straight into the trash (unless they're sick). Collect leftover bones and boil for stock. Place a clean washable mat under a baby's highchair to collect bits that can be placed back on their plate or saved for the next snack.
2. Save small quantities of things.
Have small containers on hand for easy storage. If a kid doesn't finish their milk, put it in the fridge and add it to your coffee or scrambled eggs the next day. A half-bowl of leftover soup can be a good mid-afternoon snack. A partially eaten burrito can add to a packed lunch. A handful of cooked vegetables can be added to a stir-fry or curry the next day. And cheese is insanely expensive! Never let it go to waste.
3. Work lazy days into your meal planning.
There will be nights when you are too tired to follow through with an optimistic meal plan that was created on a perky weekend morning, or perhaps your plans change and you'll go out unexpectedly for dinner. Know in advance that this is likely to happen and either keep those meals open or buy ingredients that will last in the fridge if you don't choose to use them right away.
4. Know your food waste patterns.
Do you tend to overbuy food before leaving town? Starches like pasta, rice, bread, and potatoes are notorious culprits for food waste. Take note of what you throw away most often and give most of your attention to that area. When cooking foods that don't reheat or keep well (like French fries and lettuce-based salads), be careful not to make too much.
5. Be willing to stray from recipes.
Just because one chef decided that sweet potatoes work best in a particular recipe doesn't mean that regular potatoes will taste terrible. When it comes to scallions, shallots, and onions, I'm always mixing them up, depending on what I have. For herbs, use dried if you don't have fresh, and don't buy an entire package of fresh if you don't think you can use it.
6. Eat food in order of perishability.
If, for example, you know some peaches are soft when you bring them home from the store, make a point of using them up before getting into the strawberries that keep longer in the fridge. Establish backup strategies, i.e. fruit-filled desserts, vegetable-cheese phyllo pies, pesto, minestrone soup, etc. that are easy ways to use up large quantities of food that's about to go bad.
7. Never, ever underestimate the power of the freezer.
But the freezer's efficacy depends on your diligence with paper and pen! Be sure to label everything you freeze because, once covered with frost, it is difficult to tell things apart, and you'll never remember, no matter how certain you feel in the moment. Make it a habit to check the freezer before each meal-planning session so you know what to work with.
The battle against food waste is an ongoing one, but as awareness spreads of its implications and intrinsic costs, hopefully more people will take steps to reduce it at home; after all, that's the one area of our lives we control the most.