We Need to Learn to Love Our Leftovers

CC BY 2.0. Dave Miller -- Sometimes the best meals are random assortments of leftover foods.

Who cares if it's monotonous or 'weird'? It's time to fight wasteful food habits.

Last week I wrote about the new report on food waste published by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The report found that 27 million tons of food are thrown away each year in the United States, and that households, surprisingly, are responsible for the greatest proportion of food waste.

Nearly a quarter (23%) of that household waste is 'prepared foods and leftovers.' Thirty-five percent is considered 'inedible parts' and 5 percent is oil/grease, but the remaining 37 percent is a mix of produce, baked goods, meat and dairy, snacks, and dry food -- in other words, foods that, ideally, would not go to waste.

In a world where hunger is still a reality for many, and there is concern about how to feed a growing human population, this quantity and source of food waste is very disturbing. As the Washington Post reports, this finding "defies conventional wisdom about the sorts of foods consumers waste — and represents a major obstacle for environmentalists and anti-food-waste campaigns."

Dana Gunders of the NRDC believes there is a cultural aversion to eating leftovers; it's likely a remnant of the psychological shift that occurred in the 1960s with the advent of refrigeration. No longer were people in a hurry to finish off dishes that they knew would keep. The problem has only gotten worse with easier access to prepared foods and their ever-plummeting costs. Food is so cheap and plentiful that nobody worries about where and how they'll get it.

Gunders thinks that the stigma associated with eating leftovers needs to be addressed most rapidly, more so than focusing on "improving consumers' food literacy and kitchen skills." This is about getting Americans to accept that eating leftovers is a good idea, that monotonous meals are a part of life, and that it's immoral to throw good food away. (The morality argument was effective during the World War years, when minimizing food waste was a big part of government propaganda campaigns. There's no reason why it couldn't work again.)

credit: WWI Poster

WWI Poster/Public Domain

Gunders makes a good point, but I think cooking skills -- or, lack thereof -- still have much to do with it. Many American home cooks have lost the ability to use up their leftover ingredients. Reheating a meal and eating it all week long is one thing, but knowing how to turn a motley bunch of sad, lone ingredients into dinner takes practice, skill, and a pinch of determination.

Fortunately, a number of celebrity chefs are trying to change the image of leftovers and inspire people to embrace them. Take Anthony Bourdain's new documentary film, "Wasted," and Dan Barber's pop-up restaurant in London, WastED, earlier this year that used only waste ingredients and many big names to create high-end feasts. Massimo Bottura is another outspoken advocate for breathing new life into unloved ingredients, saying, "We don’t need to produce more; we need to act different."

Nilanjana Roy wrote for the Financial Times:

"The star power of these chefs, and many others, has led to an interesting change -- food waste, and sustainability, has a glamour about it these days. It's going to need that to change entrenched attitudes."

Despite the glamour and star-studded support these days, the essence of using leftovers is, in fact, a return to the humble past. La cucina povera, or peasant cuisine, is where our home-cooked meals need to go in order to incorporate leftover or neglected ingredients. We need to stew, braise, and boil these items to tastiness. By looking to old recipes, and the ways in which our grandmothers cooked (sadly, the grandfathers were usually absent from the kitchen), we will find inspiration for using the stems, leaves, and slightly-off foods that might otherwise get tossed in the trash.

In Roy's words:

"Habits change slowly. To get people to see the possibilities, you have to start by getting them to spend more time cooking, more thought on how they're cooking. It's relatively easy to use leftover bread in a salt, but it takes a new mindset to use cauliflower leaves and stalks in a pulao [rice dish]. And perhaps the biggest shift will happen when people embrace 'poor' dishes, made of scraps and humble things."

Here's to the food of the poor, which, hopefully soon, will be seen as the food of the wise.