We have a major problem in this country, and frankly most of the developed world, that is a huge driving force for everything from water scarcity, to toxins in the environment to climate change. It's something most of us do with no thought and it is helping to kill out planet. Food waste.
Every day Americans waste 35-40% of all food that is produced or around 80-120 Billion Tons per year. How is that food wasted…
That waste represents…
18-20% of all the farmland used in the US.
10% of all energy used in the US.
14% of the fresh water – sorry California!
22%-24% of all the landfill inputs.
Over 6% of our global annual greenhouse gas emissions. While that might not sound like much, if food waste globally was a country it would rank 3rd behind China and the US in greenhouse gas emissions.
Costs the average family of 4 $1,800 per year.
That's what we throw in the garbage. Think about walking out of a grocery store with five bags of groceries and as you went to your car you dropped two of them. Would you pick those up or leave them there? Well everyday as a population we leave those two bags in the parking lot and move on with our day. There has to be a radical change in our mindset to understand that food is a precious resource and when we waste it we may as well burn some coal in the backyard for no reason because we are having just as big of an impact.
This is a HUGE problem that has impacts on everything from water scarcity to greenhouse gas emissions to food security for 35 million Americans and it’s one we can all tackle together, since as much as 42% of food waste happens in our home! You and I can do this every day and it's pretty simple if we just do a bit of thinking ahead and tweak our mindset.
Here is the type of impact we can have. If we exclude our food insecure Americans, there are roughly 300 million of us. If we each cut our weekly food waste by just a measly 25% that would save more than 10 billion lbs. of food annually. Think of those impacts…
Reducing approximately 75,000 million gallons of fuel reducing CO2 emissions
440 Million tons of pesticides not sprayed finding its way into water ways.
10 Billion tons of trash diverted from landfills reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 2%.
Reduce ground water usage by millions of tons.
We would be able to give back 2% or nearly 200,000 acers of farmlands back to native forests and grasslands to improve bio-diversity (plant, insect and animal diversity) and pull even more CO2 out of the atmosphere.
Saving a family of 4 as much $450 per year
All of those benefits to reduce our food waste by a measly 25%, which we can personally do everyday through our choices and actions.
So, what are the things we can do to reduce our food waste. The great news is there are tons of ways we can do this.
Thinking through your meals before going to the store and making a list
I know this sounds so simple but know what each ingredient is going to be used for in each meal you are planning. The more “I don’t know” things you buy at the store, the more they tend to get shoved in the back and the better the chance they go bad before “you do know”. Personally, I like to make 2 trips to the grocery store per week, plan out 3 meals per trip and then reevaluate. If you are somebody who likes only making one trip buy enough items for 3-4 days of fresh cooking and plan the rest using items that have longer shelf lives so there is a low chance of waste.
Using a list to make your grocery decisions also helps guide you away from impulse buys that you do not have a plan for. I’m not saying don’t by that Giant Kit Kat bar at check out, that will definitely get eaten. I’m talking about buying that big pineapple with no plan and just hoping it will get eaten because it looks good. If you really want that pineapple think through what you want to do with it and grab those ingredients so you can make it. Get some rice, soy sauce, ginger, Siracha and cashews and now you have a meal and not an ingredient that may or may not get eaten.
A last note on thinking through your meals…if you are going to buy things like fruit for snacks have back up plans for those items if they get to the point of going bad. Personally, I like to keep some frozen fruit around so I can take older fresh fruits and whip them into smoothies. A couple other easy to make options with ingredients most kitchens have handy are crumbles or cobblers. You can make these in pretty small batches and turn a couple of peaches headed for the trash into a delicious dessert.
Check out our recipes and nutrition section for ideas.
Do not over make.
I know we always are paranoid that we did not make enough food for our family or that last 5lb BBQ plate for Bob who showed up late BUT stop worrying. There are some amazingly simple things we can do to cut that meal or BBQ down to a quantity that WILL get eaten and still have some back up. Have some things in the pantry that have long shelf lives like mixed nuts, trail mix or dried fruits. Have some long-lasting fruits or veggies on the counter or in the fridge like carrots and apples to whip up a quick healthy snack plate. Have some block cheese and crackers which both last for long periods before needing to be used.
Simply having a few of these things as a back up plan means you don’t have to figure out what to do with 6lbs of potato salad or eat leftovers for a week because the kids didn’t like it. More importantly it will not get thrown out!
Plan complementary meals.
This means planning meals where leftover raw materials or even the finished meal itself can be incorporated into another meal. For example, let us say on a Monday for dinner I make roasted corn for a side dish, but I do not use all the corn. Next, I toss that into a spinach salad for a sweet pop for lunch on Tuesday. Tuesday night I make a spinach Dal with lentils. On Wen I have a bit of corn and some of the Dal left. Easy. I brew up some vegetable stock, add the Dal and Corn and any other vegetables I have around, and I have a delicious and nutritious soup while making sure nothing goes to waste.
You don’t have to be master chef in order to do this. For example, if you buy a 5lb bag of potatoes for a meal you are going to use 3lbs for; what else can I make later this week that will use the other 2lbs? Soup? Some home fries? To plan complementary meals that reduces our waste and saves us money in the long run does not have to be complex.
Learn to make stocks and breadcrumbs.
Whether we are making a big salad or roasting some mixed vegetables for dinner we always end up with bits and pieces and scraps that end up in the garbage. Instead of tossing this to the landfill it can be quickly and easily made into vegetable stock by simply adding salt and water and setting it to slow boil. What’s more we can add leftover veggies from the fridge or even the parts of future meals that we won’t use in our dish. Think the leaves of celery, end stalks of broccoli or the outside thick leaves of cauliflower. All those can be added to create a stock that’s full of flavor that can enhance dozens of dishes, utilizing what was garbage prior. Same can be done with the left over parts of that roasted chicken.
Another of my favorites is using old bread on its last leg to make breadcrumbs or croutons. If I’m making breadcrumbs I simply cut or hand break up the bread into small pieces, set the oven at 170 and let it go until they are fully dry and then break them up further once cool. If making croutons cube them up in large pieces, drizzle with olive oil, garlic salt and Italian seasoning and again cook at 170 until fully dried. Nobody should ever waste a single slice of bread.
The nice thing about creating breadcrumbs, croutons and stocks is not only do they avoid waste they are perfect vehicles to add to some of our next food waste reduction solutions.
Plan a Use It Up Meal
During the week have a planned meal where it has great flexibility to incorporate several different ingredients so you can use up things. This would include things like meatloaf, soups and even pasta. One of my favorites is Pasta Puttanesca. If you have pasta, and a 28oz can of tomatoes (or a half dozen fresh ones) you can make this dish from just about any leftovers in the fridge. Onion, carrot, garlic, green beans from last night’s takeout…all welcomed to the party. A few leftover black olives floating in a jar, throw them in there. The point is these types of foods allow us to keep a few things with really long shelf lives (bread crumbs, pasta, canned tomatoes, dried beans, rice) that are cheap and easy to have on hand that we can incorporate our left over raw ingredients into so they become new delicious dishes and not waste in a landfill. Visit our recipe and nutrition section for more information.
Learn How to Pickle
A great way to extend the life of many vegetables is by pickling them. While there are a million recipes the basic needs are white vinegar, salt, sugar, dill and garlic. While there are lots of other things you can put into a pickling spice those are basic ingredients many of us have around our pantry and spice rack. But do not just hold your pickling to the basic cucumber. Things like peppers, green beans, asparagus and dozens of other things can be pickled thereby extending their shelf life and saving them before they potentially go bad. This is also a nice way to take advantage of peak season for various products when their prices drop at the store or your garden makes more than you can eat.
There are tons of creative ways to repurpose all sorts of products around your house to get extra uses out of to not only be more sustainable but save a bit of money to. Citrus peals for instance have numerous uses once the fruit is eaten. Example, fill a mason jar with plain white vinegar, add the peels and set aside for 2-3 weeks. Pour the liquid into a reusable spray bottle and you have a sanitizing cleaner that is also food safe. You can even add a bit of Castile soap (more on that later) to provide a surfactant. But that is not all…take the leftover citrus peals from the solution and put them down your dish disposal to clean, sanitize and deodorize the unit. Now I’ve taken that orange peal that I would have thrown away and was able to gain two more uses that I would have purchased other products to perform. Another item I repurpose is pickle juice. Instead of pouring this down the sink I’ll add veggies to reuse that liquid to pickle new items.
A later episode will have more tips on how to repurpose a dozen household products to reduce waste and save money.
Understand the Dates
One of the biggest areas in which consumers waste food is not understanding what the dates on our food really mean. So let’s talk about 2 dates that many of us see. First, “sell by date”. This is the date in which the manufacturer tells the retailers “if you sell it by this date it will still have shelf life at the consumers home and be perfect”. This is by NO MEANS the date we should discard the product as the product still has several usable days left. Second, “best if used by”. This is the date that the manufacturer has told the consumer “if you eat by this date it will give you our best experience”. This again by NO MEANS says the product will not be perfectly safe and ok to eat beyond that date. In many cases if the product is unopened there can be significant time between the “best by” date and actual product spoilage.
Most people believe the “best if used by” date is an FDA mandate or some other governmental body pushing for this labeling. The fact is that is an arbitrary date that manufacturers put on their products. The best determination if something is still edible and safe is using our senses. Think of it like fresh fruit. There is no “best if used by” date on fruit and yet we know when it is ok to eat and when it isn’t. How can this possibly be? We look at it, we smell it, maybe we even taste a bit of it and can quickly determine if it is, good or if maybe I should live to fight another day. All food is the same. Trust your senses not the date on the package.
Wasting food contributes to a myriad of negative environmental impacts from greenhouse gas emissions, to energy utilization, to water quality and it’s something we can all have a huge positive impact on. In addition to the environmental impacts of food waste, it’s also morally reprehensible that we waste enough food to fully feed 73 million people in a country where we have 35 million people with food insecurity.
Food waste was a problem we created ourselves as industrial food production made it cheap, it became very small portion of our expenditures and our mindset was it was no big deal. Now we know it is a very big deal because it's a huge portion of our environmental issues from pollution, to climate change to water scarcity and it's something we can virtually eliminate out of our lives tomorrow if we change our mindset once again.
So next time you are ordering food from a restaurant, headed out to the grocery store or making diner, stop and think about how you can make sure that food does not get wasted and you are already part of the solution.