I saw a new public service announcement ad the other day. King County wants to stop people from wasting food, which is a problem a lot of us struggle with (a true first world problem). They had some advice on how to do that…
1. check to see what you need before you go shopping
2. only buy things you need and learn how to keep it fresh and
3. eat everything you buy.
If only I had realized it was so easy!
(oh wait – that’s all f-ing obvious stuff that doesn’t really help me on a practical level! I hope they have a website or flyers that actually offer useful advice on how to achieve those things. It’s definitely something I need to work on.)
That’s what I wrote on Facebook after I saw the ad. It seemed a bit pointless really. Of course you can stop wasting things by only buying what you need and using it all up. That’s what not wasting things means. But it turns out they do have a website and further resources to help people cut down on the amount of food they waste.
From the website:
“Whether it’s moldy cheese, limp celery or those long lost leftovers in the back of the fridge, chances are you’ve wasted food this week. And you’re not alone. Americans waste about 25 percent of all food and drinks we buy, adding up to more than $1,600 each year.
It’s a growing problem with profound financial and environmental impacts. When we throw away food, we also waste all the water and energy used to produce, package and transport food from the farm to our plates. Uneaten food accounts for 23 percent of all methane emissions in the U.S. – a potent climate change contributor.”
I know I waste food. Hopefully not 25% of my food (we bring home 4 bags of groceries most weeks – I hope we don’t throw away one bag’s worth!) I buy things that I think I need, that I want to use, or want to want to use… And then sometimes they go bad before I get the chance. Sometimes I simply forget what I have until it’s too late to eat it. Sometimes I don’t like the food I’ve bought. We have a lot of food in the house, maybe not compared to many Americans, but certainly compared to most people in the world. We keep a decent stock of pantry staples on hand, and a bulk supply of the things that we use all the time. But of course those are not the things we waste, because they generally last a long time.
The things we waste are the fresh foods, the things that are so full of vital nutrients that they need to be eaten as soon as possible. The best, freshest foods are the ones we most need to eat and also the ones most likely to go to waste. I walk a very fine line here – I try to buy fresh fruits and vegetables because I want and need to eat them. But I try not to buy too many because I don’t want to waste them.
I’ve been thinking about why this happens so much, and one part of it is because where we live isn’t handy to a green grocer or market, so we shop weekly. The food I think I will eat on Sunday morning when we shop is not necessarily the food I think about preparing at 6pm on a Thursday after a busy day. I need to make sure I have a variety of things to cook from during the week – so many meal plans are thwarted by not having the right fresh ingredients available when dinnertime rolls around. But more often than not I am overly optimistic about how much cooking I’m going to do or the variety of meals I’m going to make, in which case I find myself on a Friday having not touched the lettuce or the bell peppers or the snap peas or the mushrooms all week.
The other way we waste a lot of food is when I open up a jar or can of something and use half of it for a recipe. The other half goes into the fridge, sealed up in a glass container. And then time goes on, and I find I still haven’t needed half a can of refried beans or half a jar of spaghetti sauce again. More often than not I will make a point of using up the remainder before it spoils, but not always. I find myself wishing for half sized cans of refried beans quite often… (I need to start freezing the leftovers in single serve portions.) Sometimes the veggies get wasted the same way – I will use a handful of asparagus, but I don’t really want to eat a handful every day to use up the bundle. I’ve never used up a whole bunch of cilantro either, but conversely, I never have cilantro handy when I need it. I guess I need to grow a plant…
We are actually very good about eating leftovers for lunch or snacks. And I’m pretty good about making just enough of things that don’t reheat well – no one really wants to eat day old stir fry around here, but leftover fried rice or pasta or curry makes a great quick eat the next day or the day after. And we like to make bigger batches of some things to freeze for easy meals in the future.
Planning is a big part of using up what you have but I know I’m not good at planning. I’ve tried making meals plans for the week, but I just don’t stick with it. I like to cook and eat what I’m in the mood for right now. I often make a list on my fridge whiteboard of the foods that need to be eaten soon, especially the ones that hide in drawers in the fridge where I can’t see them. King County suggests making a space in your fridge for “eat now” foods so they are more visible.
This whole problem comes back to the excess, and excess of choice, we have in this society. Our supermarkets are full of options, we can eat almost anything we want at any time of the year, and if we don’t feel like cooking a meal we can eat out at any number of places (most of which are serving huge portions that could feed a person for several meals).
There’s also a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation on what ‘use by’ and ‘best by’ dates mean and how to tell if a food has gone bad – most people feel that it’s better to be safe than sorry, but sometimes that means throwing out food that really isn’t bad at all. Some of us have heard the adage that certain foods are ‘better wasted outside the body than inside’ so when we realize that we’ve bought a lot of junk food, throwing it out in a fit of regret or will power seems like a better proposition than eating it. But not buying crap in the first place is a far better option. If only food marketing wasn’t so darn effective!
The food waste campaign seems to be aimed at consumers buying and preparing food at home, but as is quite common with these issues the business side of things is probably a lot worse. How much food do supermarkets throw out because the stock wasn’t properly rotated? Do they really sell all of the produce they put out each day or does someone throw out a big pile of it at the end of each day? And restaurants must be a huge site for food wastage. Anyone who has watched “Hell’s Kitchen” knows how much food can be wasted in a restaurant kitchen – if something gets messed up or sent back the whole portion goes into the trash. And those huge portions don’t always end up in doggie bags to be eaten as leftovers (or thrown out at home 4 days later). I have been frustrated many times over the years by the lunch portions in food courts, far too big for a person to eat alone, and unsuitable to carry around all day – not everyone is heading straight back to a place with a fridge. I love places that serve sensible portions – that’s real value for money to me.
Thinking about this issue as I wrote and edited this post today, I looked in my fridge with fresh eyes. I saw a lot of different foods in there. Too many. I saw some produce that needs to be eaten today. I chose some of it for lunch. Now I just need to follow through at dinnertime too. I thought about planning my meals a little bit – at least so that we eat the most perishable things earlier in the week and save the longer lasting polish sausage and sauerkraut for later in the week. I need to give myself fewer choices too. I have already decided not to cook certain cuisines at home so that I don’t need to stock so many spices and supplies. I probably only need to plan 5 real meals per week. The rest are made from basics, leftovers, or eaten out. I’m already doing pretty well with using my freezer, portioning out meat, but there are probably more things I can freeze to save waste (those refried beans!). I could also do better by pre-prepping some foods on the weekend to make them easier to grab and go during the week.
My food waste goes into the yard waste bin to be turned into compost, but that is only slightly better than tossing it in the trash. I think I can do better about eating the produce I buy. At least we almost never waste animal products – the massive resources that go into producing a pound of meat makes that kind of waste truly obscene.
Do you have any good ideas for me?
Do you have any secrets for avoiding waste in your kitchen?