How to Outsmart Food Waste
The food waste problem is worse than you think. Here’s how to keep your groceries out of the trash.
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Even after yesterday’s bean soup has been devoured, we still toss out way too much food. Yes, Americans as a whole, waste mountains of food.
Back in 2011, The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations released a much-quoted statement suggesting that up to one-third of all the food produced for human consumption is wasted instead of ending up in our bellies. But, shockingly, that number might be too conservative. An updated study in PLOS ONE that better takes into account consumer behavior in addition to the supply chain finds food waste may be twice as high reaching a staggering 527 calories per day per person. The report linked food waste to wealth, finding that when a person’s spending reaches about $6.70 per day, food waste begins to creep upwards. The findings suggest that reducing waste globally requires reducing high levels of discarded food in wealthier countries – that’s us. On average, Americans, both at the retail and consumer level, toss out about a pound of food daily, which amounts to 30 million acres of cropland used for the sole purpose of producing this uneaten food. Almost a third of all calories produced in the United States ends up in the trash, according to an estimate from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And the shift in the food supply that has been required to go from serving the restaurant side of the food business to serving retail as people eat out less during the COVID-19 pandemic has only made the problem worse.
Why fret about food waste? Let’s face it: We’ve all found liquified lettuce in our veggie drawers. But when you let broccoli rot, you add noxious gases to more than just your crisper. From kale to take-out pizza, food is one of the largest categories of waste in landfills. “Once food enters the landfill, it rots and emits methane – a greenhouse gas several times more potent than carbon dioxide,” says Chris Vogliano MS, RDN, Co-founder of Food + Planet. So there is a direct link between food waste and global climate change.
“And not only is food waste a missed opportunity to put food on the table for the millions of Americans who are struggling with food insecurity, but it is also a waste of natural resources, Vogliano adds. So when you toss curdled milk or a slimy cucumber, you’re not just throwing away the food but he says it also squanders all the resources such as water, labor and transportation that went into producing it and then getting it onto store shelves. Beyond being emissions-intensive, all the trashed food hits the economy harder than a slice of stale bread. Food waste represents a loss of billions to the American economy, not to mention a drain on your bank account. What’s more food waste results in a lost opportunity to take in higher amounts of key nutrients like vitamin D, fiber, and potassium.
On average, Americans, both at the retail and consumer level, toss out about a pound of food daily.
Do you buy too much in the supermarket, cook more food than your family can eat, or typically toss out restaurant leftovers? Once you know where your weaknesses are, you can shore them up and do your part to curtail food waste. Here’s how to earn back those dollars you’re throwing in the garbage.
Monitor Your Waste
Like a food diary, it can be helpful to keep a food waste report to pinpoint bad habits and determine if you are indeed tossing out more food than you thought. How much and what you are throwing away and when? For example, do you buy too much at the supermarket on the weekend, and by the end of the week you’re tossing out a grocery cart full of food.
“Meal planning is incredibly helpful in reducing food waste, as it allows you to strategize which foods to buy and how much to purchase,” says Vogliano. The best approach to this is to map out your meals and snacks for several days, make a detailed grocery list of what you need to prepare these and then purchase only what is required when pushing your cart through the supermarket aisles. A key part of reducing food waste is showing restraint when grocery shopping by avoiding impulse buys of items you don’t need and may not get eaten.
Just don’t get too ambitious with your meal planning. As a workweek gets busy the chances of preparing elaborate meals decreases, which can encourage food waste when what you bought for a recipe on Thursday night doesn’t get used. In other words, incorporate realistic lazy meals into your meal plan to help cook a week’s worth of waste-free meals.
Scan Your Inventory
But before meal planning and grocery shopping, go through your refrigerator and pantry to see what you already have on hand and what needs to be eaten up. “Understanding what your pantry, fridge, and freezer already contains is a critical step in reducing over-purchasing and thus food waste,” notes Vogliano. Come up with menu ideas based on those ingredients and think of grocery shopping as building on what you’ve already got. Why buy fresh broccoli when a bag of florets in your icebox is nearing freezer burnt. Shopping is rarely a blank slate. It’s a good idea to learn a handful of fridge-clearing recipes like stir-fries and stews. There’s even a website where you can choose which ingredients you have on hand and it will give you a list of dishes you can make.
By a long shot, fruit and vegetables make up the largest portion of discarded food. So, while many of us strive to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into our diets for better health, we also need to figure out how to waste less. Home cooks can benefit from reading up on ways to incorporate fresh fruits and vegetables into more dishes, using up produce that’s reaching the end of its edible life in recipes like smoothies and soups, and preserving or freezing extras.
Play the Field
Remember that recipes are just a guideline and you likely have a lot more wiggle room than you may realize. Possible substitutions include spinach for kale, zucchini for peppers, lentils for beans, cilantro for parsley, and yogurt for buttermilk. Sure, the end result might not be exactly as imagined, but if it allows you to use up something that’s been sitting a while and would otherwise go to waste, that’s an accomplishment.
Embrace Ugly Ducklings
Food buyers, such as restaurants and supermarkets, may reject food that doesn’t meet their requirements for appearance or other quality measures. That’s because they rightfully worry consumers won’t want the stuff. One study found that the percentage of consumers selecting apples with defects was no more than 15 percent. So those oddly shaped peaches and stumpy carrots may just end up rotting in fields or landfills. If you shop at a farmers’ market be sure to support a grower’s effort to unload oblong fruits and knobby vegetables that many grocers won’t accept but are just as tasty and nutritious. If your supermarket is now offering “seconds” of less-than-perfect fruits and vegetables be sure to support this initiative.
Put Your Freezer to Work
“The freezer is our best friend in the fight against food waste,” stresses Vogliano. “Freezing foods is an effective way to halt the spoiling process of fresh fruits, vegetables, and even leftovers.” For instance, he often finds himself freezing overly ripe bananas or berries and using them in smoothies weeks or even months after they would have originally spoiled. “I also recommend people to buy frozen foods in the first place, as they can often be even more nutritious than the fresh counterparts because the fruits and veggies are picked at peak ripeness and flash frozen.” And don’t forget that even items like milk, bread, and cooked grains and beans can be frozen for future use instead of letting them spoil.
To extend the life of perishable produce, be sure to keep your fridge set between 35° and 37°, and do some research about the nuances of properly storing items like herbs, berries and greens. For example, since moisture is the nemesis of leafy greens like baby spinach, open up those clamshells and place a layer of paper towel atop the greens, then store lid-side down. Beeswax wraps such as Abeego are a great reusable option as a way to allow foods like delicate herbs to breathe naturally and prevent items from rotting by trapping moisture inside. Use glass jars and storage containers in the fridge because they allow you to see what’s there. Otherwise, what’s out of sight is out of mind and more likely destined for the trashbin.
Learn the Label Lingo
Exaggerated concerns over ambiguous ‘best-before dates’” is a big contributor to food wastage. According to Vogliano, arbitrary “sell by”, “best by”, and “use by” dates are not the same as “expiration dates”, but are rather based on when taste or texture of the food may become altered. “As long as the food has been properly stored, more often than not the food will be safe to consume well after these dates.” For instance, a tub of yogurt that has a “best buy” date set for tomorrow is likely perfectly good to eat for another week or so. It’s better to use common sense to determine whether or not a food is still OK to eat or should be pitched. Vogliano recommends making use of the website StillTasty, which is the ultimate shelf life guide and where you can find nearly any true expiration date.
Give Food a Second Chance
Upcycled products are coming to market to help take a bite out of the food waste weak point of society. Some food producers are getting scrappy and finding creative ways to repurpose ingredients that would otherwise go to waste. Barnana, which turns bananas and plantains deemed too “imperfect” for the produce section into snack foods, and Seven Sundays, which upcycles sunflower protein into crunchy cereal are examples of brands worth supporting for their food waste-reducing ethos.
Break it Down
You are composting, right? At the very least, you should make an effort to compost the food you end up throwing away so it doesn’t contribute to producing greenhouse gases as it slowly decomposes anaerobically in a landfill. (Composting is the second-least effective option on the Environmental Protection Agency’s food recovery hierarchy, but it’s still better than tossing all your scraps in the garbage.) Take advantage of any municipal composting programs or consider using a backyard compost bin that can produce natural fertilizer for your garden. Famed for their crazy powerful blenders, Vitamix now offers a “FoodCycler” Countertop Composter, which breaks down scraps into usable fertilizer for your plants in just hours. It’s tantamount to a machine digesting the food you’re not going to eat.
“I always recommend taking a moment before each meal to give gratitude to the farmers and land who worked hard to provide food for us and our families. Reframing our relationship with food can help us understand that food is much more than simply energy, which can ultimately lead to less food waste,” Vogliano concludes.
For a better bottom line, most chefs are masters of using all parts of food. So follow their lead and don’t scrap the scraps – extract their flavor and nutrients.
- Mushroom stems: Save them in a zip-top bag in your freezer and once you have plenty make a homemade mushroom broth for soups and braising vegetables.
- Broccoli stalks: Peel off the tough outer layer and thinly slice or shred the tender interior for use in stir-fry’s, scrambled eggs, slaws and pasta dishes.
- Beet greens: Gently sauté with some olive oil and garlic for a side-dish. Chop and add them to frittatas or veggie burgers.
- Swiss chard stems: Toss with oil and salt and roast or Google “pickled Swiss chard stems” for your new favorite sandwich or burger topping.
- Carrot tops: Use as you would herbs in tabouleh, bean salads, pesto and chimichurri sauce.
- Potato peels: Mix with oil, salt and any other desired seasonings; roast in the oven at 425 degrees for about 15 minutes until crispy.
- Kale stems: Blend into “green” smoothies or sauté into stir-fry’s and soups.
- Cilantro stems: Chop and add to sauces, pesto, sautés and soups.