Thankfully, we’re finally, finally talking about food waste in the U.S. Chefs have long been painfully aware of the staggering quantities of perfectly edible food thrown out in restaurants and hotels on a daily basis, but only recently have we started discussing how much food is wasted in grocery stores and, more personally, at home.
Trash tomatoes at a greenhouse operation in eastern Colorado.
I want people to cook at home, obviously, and I also want people to save money. I teach classes on how to reduce food waste, and I typically cite statistics like “40% of all edible food produced in the United States is thrown away uneaten” and “The average American family throws away over $2,000 worth of food every year.” I like to augment these cheery facts with even more cheery facts, like that the annual value of all edible food thrown away worldwide is over $3 trillion. That, however, isn’t even a comprehensible number, nor is the idea that food waste takes up more space in landfills than any other item – including the devil of them all, disposable diapers. Decomposing food contributes more methane to the environment than all livestock together; if food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest polluter in the world, after the U.S. and China.
All destined for the trash and no, they won’t be composted.
Let’s be realistic: I can drone on and on, citing all sorts of numbing statistics, but it makes for boring reading and quite frankly, no one really wants to read a blog where they’re lectured for their appallingly bad habits. Plus, eco-anxiety is an actual thing, and many of us, myself included, feel utterly powerless about our ability to do anything in the face of insurmountable problems like climate change. But minimizing your own food waste is something you can actually do to both save money and save the planet, rather than just wring your hands helplessly. So let’s keep it a bit more positive and I’ll just present a professional chef’s tips for minimizing food waste at home!
We grew these! Unfortunately, only one would be saleable at a standard grocery store. Our aesthetic expectations are utterly unrealistic.
But wait! Before we get into the helpful tips, let’s boost our positivity even further by highlighting organizations actually doing something about food waste!
- In the Bay Area, you can buy imperfect produce and have it delivered, too!
- It’s illegal to throw away edible food in France!
- Numerous programs encourage gardeners to donate surplus produce to local food banks!
- Two influential groups are lobbying food manufacturers to eliminate sell-by dates entirely!
- Here in Colorado, the amazing Denver Food Rescue collects excess fresh food via bicycle and redistributes it to people in need!
We grew these too! Same story as the zucchini above; only one is the correct size.
Americans throw away food for lots of different reasons – mostly because food here is cheaper than anywhere else in the world, and we’re really picky – but at home there are two key factors: meaningless expiration dates and poor planning. A bit of effort on your part will not only save you lots of money, but also keep food out of landfills. It’s a true win-win! (Fun fact: sell-by dates were introduced in Marks & Spencer storerooms in the 1950s; they first appeared on consumer-facing shelves in U.S. and Europe in the early 1970s.)
Honey doesn’t spoil. Ever. It’s been found in edible condition in Egyptian tombs. So why the expiration date?
At the Store:
- Shop with a list and buy only what you need. Before going to the store, check out the coupons and promotions. Make a meal plan for the week and incorporate ingredients on sale, and review the contents of your pantry, refrigerator and freezer. How will you know what you need if you don’t know what you have?
- Avoid “bulk club” buys unless you’ll actually use it. Warehouse-style shopping – i.e. ten pounds of spinach or quinoa – might seem like a bargain at the time, but if you let it spoil it just means money wasted. It seems counterintuitive, but there are times when spending more for a smaller amount is the better choice. Be honest with yourself about how much your household will actually eat.
- Use the bulk department for spices, grains, beans and more. In addition to reducing packaging, you can buy exactly the amount you need and try lots of new ingredients too!
- If you only need a tiny amount of an ingredient, consider the prepped food available in the store’s salad bar. This might avoid buying an entire package that you’ll then throw away, plus you’ll save on prep time.
- If you only need half a cabbage or a tiny portion of cheese, just ask nicely. Most stores will be happy to provide exactly what you need instead of what they’ve already packaged.
- If you’re going to buy a special, expensive ingredient for one recipe, figure out other recipes in which you can also use that ingredient rather than wasting it.
- If you shop at your local farmers’ market and you’re planning on doing any canning or preserving, buy seconds. These are just as delicious as the first-run produce, but you get to pay less and your farmer doesn’t have to throw their hard work away.
It’s a rock. I’m fairly certain we will expire long before it does.
- Most importantly, remember that all best-by dates are only a guideline. Please, use your common sense when deciding whether to throw something away simply because an unregulated date on the package says to. These dates are totally confusing, essentially meaningless and they contribute hugely to our food waste issue.
- Shop from your own pantry and challenge yourself not to buy food for a week, two weeks or a month. Use up everything you have before buying more.
- Learn to repurpose your food: when you make your weekly meal plan, also consider the meals you’ll make from the leftovers. Batches of whole grains or rice can be used for numerous meals.
- Store your produce properly. Certain items should stay on the counter (tomatoes!) and others should go in the fridge (apples!). Know how best to keep everything fresh.
- Use your freezer – if you’re not going to use something, freeze it. Bread freezes beautifully, as do most vegetables, meat and fruit. Use small containers and wrap items well; label and date everything.
- Portion control is important. Start with a small amount on your plate, and get seconds if you want them rather than taking a huge serving and throwing most away. This goes for serving kids, too.
- Devote one dinner per week to “favorites,” and eat leftovers rather than throwing them out.
- Start a compost bin and be amazed by how much less trash your household produces; the compost you make will do wonders for your vegetable garden. Even better: get a flock of backyard chickens and enjoy fresh eggs while they enjoy your fruit and vegetable scraps.
Our compost pile looks a mess, but it turns into the most incredible soil.
What can you make with random odds and ends?
- It mystifies me that people regularly throw away bread and buy croutons. If you’ve got stale bread, you’ve got croutons, crostini and bread crumbs. Tear or cut bread into chunks, toss it in a little olive oil, salt, pepper and garlic powder and toast in a 300 degree oven until golden and crispy. Slice slender baguettes into thin slices for crostini and toast as for croutons. Store in an airtight bag. Process in a food processor or blender to make bread crumbs; store crumbs in the freezer.
- Just about any listless vegetable can become part of a delicious soup. Dice vegetables into small pieces, simmer in stock, and finish with a drizzle of good olive oil and a sprinkling of sharp cheese.
- Tomato sauce can take a lot of extra vegetables without you even noticing! Add in not-so-perfect carrots, celery, greens, onions, squash…and puree the whole thing. The tomatoes will dominate, trust me.
- And all those vegetable trimmings from your soups and sauces? Add onion tops, celery leaves, carrot peelings and other odds and ends to a zip-top bag and store in the freezer. When it’s full, simmer to make homemade vegetable stock. Add chicken or beef bones too, if you’ve got them.
- Parmigiano rinds are every Italian grandmother’s secret to the most flavorful soups, stocks, broths and risottos. Store in the freezer and use as needed for extra umami punch.
- Fruit no longer nice enough to eat fresh? Cut it into small pieces and freeze it on a cookie sheet. Once frozen, transfer the chunks to a zip-top bag and use for smoothies.
- Speaking of smoothies, all your greens – kale, spinach, chard – can be thrown right in with your fruit and yogurt. You might notice the color, but you won’t notice the taste.
Above all else, consider the amount of time, effort and money that went into the food you’re eating – and respect that by treating it carefully and mindfully!