Food waste: we’re all guilty of it. But how do we reduce food waste?
I know I often take the ready abundance of food I find in my fridge for granted. When I let a bundle of cilantro sit on the shelf too long, I toss it without a second thought. I don’t consider the nutrients it pulled from the soil, the water it required, the fuel used to store and transport it. I think only about its slimy leaves and the way they stink up my fridge as I throw it away.
But I should be thinking about all those things. The food that we throw in the trash takes an enormous toll on our land. Chris Mooney from The Washington Post reports that about 25% of all consumable food in the US is thrown away. Mooney writes that the environmental cost of that trashed food adds up to “30 million acres of cropland (about the land area of Pennsylvania), 4.2 trillion gallons of water and nearly 2 billion pounds of fertilizer.” These numbers outline the environmental toll of our food waste—if we consider the labor and fuel that goes into filling our fridges, they rocket exponentially higher
As Americans, we sometimes stumble into the perspective that food is something that can be thrown away. The reasons for this are many. Our crops are subsidized by the government, which distorts our view of foods’ worth. Many products we purchase are processed amalgamations of several foods, so we don’t actually know where the food comes from. I teach children about growing food, and their lack of knowledge of fresh fruits and vegetables absolutely mind-blowing. For many of the kids I work with, everything red is an apple and everything orange is a carrot.
The whole concept of “food waste” and not knowing about the food we eat is a first world problem. We have the luxury of ignorance, of being able to waste without repercussion. While there’s the whole problem of systematized food waste within our culture, we can reduce food waste while at home.
I’ve contributed to these numbers more than I’d like to say and wasted so much money in the process. But by using these easy tips, I was able to quickly decrease my food waste with little effort.
1. Meal plan
Meal planning is probably the #1 way to reduce food waste in the home. By doing a little bit of recipe collecting and building a shopping list, you can drastically reduce food waste. That small bit of planning on Sunday means less moldy produce in your fridge at the end of the week. With meal planning, you buy what you need, and you use all the food you buy because you already know what you’re making with it
But meal planning is more than just a shopping list—it’s taking a moment to pause and set a foundation for the week. Starting the week knowing your dinner plans is a huge stress reducer. It’s so nice to not panic about what you’re making for dinner when you get home after a long day. With meal planning, you already know what you’re making and that you have all the ingredients you need for it. You can relax and enjoy the process of making a meal, using all of the food you bought, instead of spending time figuring out the menu and feeling guilty about tossing out another slimy thing of lettuce.
Meal planning helps connect us to the food we eat by putting intention into the meals we make. Aside from reducing food waste, meal planning helps reverse the false perspective we have when it comes to food. By planning your menu for the week, you can appreciate the meals you make and learn how to group recipes week by week to use the most of what you buy.
When it comes down to it, meal planning reinforces one simple idea that will totally reduce food waste: buy only what you need and use only what you need.
Stay tuned for a post all about zero waste, vegan meal planning!
2. Use what you already have in the pantry and fridge
This may seem like a “no duh,” but hear me out. How many times have you gone to the store and bought a new container of chickpeas just to put them in the cabinet and realize that you already have a can sitting right there? How can you reduce food waste by buying more of what you already have
By taking a quick look in the cupboards before planning meals, making a shopping list, and trotting off to the store, you’ll use what you already have instead of buying repeats. Not only does this keep the food you already have from going rancid Using the food you have keeps your ingredients in rotation and prevents them from expiring and going rancid. You can also plan a fridge cleanout dinner every week (or however often you need to clean out your fridge). Throw all your wilting veggies into a pot with veggie broth and, hey presto, delicious soup that will also reduce food waste. That’s a win for everyone
3. Make larger meals
I know some people are not a fan of leftovers, but I am far from one of them—I’m kind of a leftover queen. Part of this leftover queendom is laziness and part of it’s loving the way flavors deepen as they have time to marinate together (but, let’s be honest, most of it’s laziness). However, this laziness is actually a virtue because making a big dish and portioning the “leftovers” for other meals can actually reduce food waste
It’s simple: if you make a smaller dishes throughout the week, you 1) have to buy more ingredients and 2) will seldom actually use the full portion of the ingredients you buy (yes, I am definitely talking about that half-used bundle of cilantro in my fridge). Together, these point right toward food waste unless you meal plan and buy very carefully. But why plan super carefully when you can save time and money and reduce food waste by making larger meals and planning on leftovers
Planning on making a big portion of a meal that you can freeze or store the leftovers to have for another dinner or lunch, which is a huge time saver. Making a larger meal also means that you’ll have less dishes to wash (hello!!!), which also uses less water and soap, and that’s the best kind of bonus to have. However, you need to do more than just make the food; you need to store it properly too. Check out tip #4 and #5 below for info on how to do just that.
If you are one of those people who hate leftovers, I don’t understand you, but I know a secret that may help, and I’m willing to share it. Ready? Not all leftovers are created equal. Some meals just don’t reheat well (mac and cheese/any other creamy-sauced pasta, I’m looking at you), but other dishes improve in flavor and consistency with time in the fridge, and those are the leftover all-stars. I recommend starting your journey to loving leftovers with an old champ like chili, soup, or pasta salad. These dishes are stars because, like fine wine, they just get better with time and reheat beautifully (or don’t need reheating at all in the case of the pasta salad). And maybe don’t think of them as leftovers—consider them premade meals, a gift you’re giving your future self. Future you says thank you. 😘
4. Embrace your freezer
I honestly believe that the freezer may be the magic answer to most of our food waste problems. Bananas turned too quickly and now you can’t eat them as an afternoon snack? Throw them in the freezer to use for smoothies or banana bread on another day. Your cilantro is on its last leg? Chop it up, add it to some olive oil in an ice cube tray and freeze to later throw in a pot of soup or sauteed into tacos. Can’t get through all the soup you made at the beginning of the week because you made a double batch? Pour the extra into a freezer-safe container and voila: a perfect bowl for that rainy day.
You can easily freeze portions of the big meals you make in mason jars or pyrex containers and create a veritable to-go section in your freezer for those nights when you just don’t have time to make a meal. Just remember to leave a little room for the food expand as it freezes in those pretty glass jars, yeah?
5. Store your food properly
Just like storing your pre-made meals so they stay delicious, you also want to store the rest of your food correctly. The container your food comes in may not actually be the best way to store it. If you can buy your produce container-free, then even better! Either way, you still need to store the food you buy. Storing it correctly can greatly extend the lifespan of difficult produce, like lettuce. I recently read an article from the Kitchn that tested a few ways to store greens, and I trust their results. Side note: You could easily replace the paper towels with reusable tea towels.
You can also get more mileage from your dry goods if you store them in airtight containers because no one likes rancid rice. If you’ve ever been in the zero waste section on Insta or Pinterest, you’ve seen the fascination with airtight jars. You don’t need to spend a fortune on fashionable containers, though; a mason jar does the job just fine.
6. Buy the ugly fruit
This one is hard for me; I’m a sucker for aesthetics. I love searching for the fruit people lust over: the most perfect blushed apple, the most fragrant lemon. But what about the misshapen orange with a scar deep in its peel? The single lonely banana with a brown blemish cascading down its side? No average consumer will pick those up. That’s where we come in. We’re the ugly fruit saviors. When you see that ugly, sad fruit by its lonesome, pick it up. Every time you do so, you reduce food waste. I’ve started to do this with bananas, but I’m still working on purchasing the ugly apples. Baby steps.
7. Use all you can
Take a look at your cutting board after you finish a meal—you’ll likely see scraps you planned to throw away. But, you don’t have to. Those scraps are still nutritious and can be used in surprising ways. For example, you can chop up those broccoli and kale stems and add them to basically anything for added extra crunch and fiber. If you have a good blender, you can even add them to smoothies. Likewise, the leftover nut powder from making nut milk can be thrown into smoothies for an extra dose of fats, protein, and fiber.
Potato and sweet potato peels contain large quantities of the potatoes nutrients, so why take them off? If your recipe necessitates peeling, then save the peels and add them to a jar full of veggie scraps to make veggie broth. The opportunities and options really are endless to reduce food waste by using all of the produce we buy.
Food waste plagues many American homes, but yours doesn’t have to be one. Take charge of your fridge and pantry and commit to using the food you buy rather than throwing it away. You can easily reduce food waste by following these simple steps. Mother Earth thanks you!