A food-waste primer

Eat it up

October 12, 2011

Wasted food is the elephant in the sustainable kitchen. Not only is our squandered food somehow ignored, it’s both massive and stinky. Unfortunately, the majority of the smell occurs not in our homes, but at the dump. That’s unfortunate for two reasons: rotting food in landfills prompts environmental problems, and were we to notice our waste, we’d be more motivated to do something about it. Like anything.

Hopefully the following eight items will prompt you to heed your own wasted food and take steps to reduce it.

  1. Buy less. On average, we don’t eat a quarter of what we bring into our homes. Yes, 25 percent! We bring this trouble on ourselves by simply buying too much food; we either don’t plan ahead for our shopping trips, or we feel compelled to fill our mammoth refrigerators to the brim.
  2. Think small. We’re wasting some serious bread. In my conservative estimate (based on USDA averages) a family of four throws away $2,200 each year in uneaten food. The main culprits are buying far too much food (leading to spoiled food) and dishing out more food than our family and friends want to eat (leading to plate waste).
  3. Composting is a good way to divert food waste from landfills.
    Avoid the garbage pail. We’re aiding climate change with our kitchen-waste bins. A full 97 percent of discarded food ends up in landfills, where it produces methane, a greenhouse gas about 25 times as potent at trapping heat as carbon dioxide.
  4. Cherish the meat you eat. We waste a lot of meat, at a steep environmental cost. Almost 20 percent of all edible meat ends up in landfills, and more than 20 percent of meat’s greenhouse-gas emissions come from what’s discarded (as opposed to the environmental impact of production).
  5. Ignore labels. Expiration dates send much food to a premature death. First, date labels are voluntary; infant formula is the only product mandated by the FDA to have a use-by date. And because there’s so much caution built into these dates — which refer to food quality, not safety — they are best ignored. Trust your senses instead.
  6. Eat restaurant leftovers. According to Brian Wansink, an eating-behavior researcher at Cornell University, we don’t eat about half of the restaurant leftovers we bring home. It’s odd, because doggie-bag contents make ideal lunches — heck, they’re already packed up! Yet more often than not, we don’t use these foods, forgoing the potential savings of time and money. There’s no sense in bringing something home — and using up a take-home container — only to toss it two weeks later.
  7. Freeze. Freezing food is a fabulous waste-delayer. You’d be surprised by just how many foods can withstand a spell in the freezer, from apples to zucchini. (Milk, bread, herbs, and eggs are other surprisingly freezer-friendly edibles.) Freezing food can keep those buy-one-get-one deals from going awry. And freezers are a godsend for anyone who enjoys smoothies and soups (who doesn’t?!).
  8. Recycle. When you have food you’re not going to use, it’s easy to divert food from landfills. With garden excess, you can spread the wealth by donating to those in need. (Ample Harvest helps locate recipient food banks.) And whether it’s composting, feeding scraps to chickens, goats, or worms, or using an indoor-composting contraption, it doesn’t take much to separate food scraps from the rest of your trash. Once you start doing so, throwing away something as small as a banana peel will feel as strange as not recycling the newspaper.

Based in North Carolina, Jonathan Bloom is a food-waste expert who writes the blog Wasted Food. He is the author of American Wasteland.

There are 11 comments on this item
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1. by maxie on Oct 12, 2011 at 1:16 PM PDT

When I saw the photo, I thought it was going to tell us to save those bits for flavoring stock. Why compost that celery? Use it instead!

2. by Laura Parisi on Oct 12, 2011 at 2:59 PM PDT

Agree about stocks. That’s the best way to cherish the meat (and veggies) we eat. Scraps = delicious homemade stock.

3. by Barb Freda on Oct 13, 2011 at 12:57 PM PDT

Loved reading this here. I linked to your blog from our Laura’s Lean Beef blog (http://laurasleanbeef.com/blog/waste-not-want-not-true-word-live-kitchen) when I tackled the same topic--actually, I confessed about my own waste...We’ve gotten good comments and I’m especially #2 above (think small) is showing up in my weekly meal plans so far...

4. by Kristen on Oct 13, 2011 at 2:09 PM PDT

Check out www.compokeeper.com for a good indoor compost container.

5. by anonymous on Oct 17, 2011 at 8:46 AM PDT

A friend of mine taught me to throw stock-worthy waste into freezer bags for later use. I put in onion ends, corn cobs, celery bases & leaves (some leaves go in a jar of salt, though--yum!), mushroom stems, shelling pea shells, parsley stems etc. into freezer bags. Then, on a cool day, I drop my pasta strainer into a stock pot, empty the bags into it, fill the pot with water, and simmer for an hour. Pull out the pasta strainer (now it’s compost) and let it cool. That goes into freezer containers. I do it about every 3-6 months.

6. by maxie on Oct 17, 2011 at 10:00 AM PDT

#5 Anonymous: That’s a great idea. Uses the vegetable “leavings” and still have something for the compost pile.

7. by zegg on Oct 21, 2011 at 12:39 PM PDT

I was surprised you didn’t include eating up the left-overs (from home, not just restaurant). Since I started taking last-night’s dinner remnants to work for lunch, I have thrown away almost no cooked food, and saved about $25 per week in lunch costs.

8. by drfugawe on Nov 2, 2011 at 6:12 PM PDT

I’ve got one additional idea that is guaranteed to make sure you don’t overload your refrigerator - trade in your normal single door model for a side-by-side. We had a 25 cubic ft single door fridge that was feeling its age - so we got a 25 cf side-by-side model, thinking they were equal. Wrong! We discovered that the side-by-side only held apx half what the old fridge could hold. Amazing.

But, after our surprise and disappointment, we discovered a silver lining - now we can’t fill the fridge with leftovers as we did before, and we are eating much more of that food. A pleasant surprise.

9. by arlene oliver on Nov 11, 2011 at 10:51 PM PST

OMG I was like a kid in the candy store. I was all over. I have put it in my favorites, bookmarked and did a short cut on my desk top. One more place to look at and then I have to quit. It is one forty five in the morning. The only complaint I have is that I did not find sooner.

10. by angela microinjerto de cabello on Jan 19, 2012 at 11:42 AM PST

It is not necessary to give a very negative aspect to food waste, these can be reused as fertilizer for your plants or trees, if your have trees, United food waste the work of anaerobics and aerobics bacteria to create one of the best existing fertilizer

11. by Annete Lipoescultura no Invasiva on Feb 16, 2012 at 3:10 PM PST

excellent post, I agree with many of the points that touch, this type of articles are what make our lifestyle improve waste and food is a great opportunity for reuse, so as I mentioned angela in the previous comment

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