I’ve written before about cooking habits that reduce food waste, but after cleaning out my refrigerator this week and feeling guilty about all the spoiled food and forgotten leftovers I had to trash, I decided this is definitely a topic worth revisiting.
Food waste is a huge problem in the United States, and households account for almost half of the food wasted, according to Feeding America. The organization estimates that around 72 billion pounds of edible food goes to landfills or incinerators every year in the US. This is tragic, considering that roughly 42 million people living in the US still face hunger and food insecurity. Food waste is also an issue from an environmental standpoint, since more than 20 percent of our landfills consist of waste from food, which causes methane emissions (a greenhouse gas) and other concerns.
Here’s how you and I can do our part:
1. Use all the parts. My friend Kelley is very into eliminating food waste by using every little bit when she buys produce and meats. She’ll turn the green tops of carrots into pesto and sauté the greens from beets. Reconsider what you’re throwing out — if you’re peeling apples for pie, munch on the peels or turn them into a fun crunchy snack. And if you’re roasting a chicken, pick every last bit of meat off the carcass to use in a chicken salad or pot pie, and then make stock with what remains.
2. Store produce properly. It’s so frustrating when berries or vegetables go bad before you have the chance to eat them. Learning how to store produce the right way will help extend its life. You can even invest in containers that will help keep food fresher, such as a berry container with a perforated shelf that helps keep berries from getting wet and mushy.
3. Plan leftovers ahead of time. Part of the trick to actually eating those carefully stored packages of leftovers, is having a plan. When you’re planning your meals, take into account foods you will have left over and know when you’ll use them. We always end up with a little salmon left after grilling a fillet, and since it’s not quite enough to make another meal, I’ll turn it into salmon salad for my kids’ lunch, or stir it into scrambled eggs at breakfast. When I order Chinese food, I often will order an extra carton of rice so that I can use it, along with the leftovers from the other containers, to make stir-fry.
4. Practice FIFO. In the restaurant industry, cooks learn the rule of FIFO: First In, First Out. That means you use up the oldest stuff first, before it has the chance to go bad. Supermarkets practice this method too, that’s why milk and other dairy products are stocked from the back, so that the newer stuff isn’t sold before the older goods. Applying the same principle in your kitchen can help save you from having to throw out expired food.
5. Serve smaller portions. I don’t know why it took me so long to come to this conclusion, but I recently realized that I should dish out smaller quantities of food onto everyone’s plate, especially my kids’. After all, you can always have seconds. Once I got into the habit of beginning with smaller portions, I wasted far less … And the smaller portion was probably healthier for us, too!
6. Buy prepped ingredients. If you know you’re not the type of person who is going to simmer a pot of chicken stocks with the bones of last night’s roast, or make use of the vegetable trimmings, then it’s probably best to just spring for foods that are already prepped. I’m talking about peeled baby carrots, chicken parts rather than a whole bird, and herbs in paste or freeze-dried form. These shortcuts will save time in the kitchen and will minimize what ends up in the trash.
7. Combine odds and ends. It seems like there’s always a handful of dry pasta noodles left, or just a little bit of rice that’s not enough to make a whole meal. I try to combine these small quantities, so I can use them up in ways that make sense. When I make pot pie, I’ll root through the freezer for partially used bags of frozen veggies to stir in, and occasionally I’ll make mac and cheese that comprises three or four different types of noodles, which my kids find fun. I also freeze little bits of cooked meat, from barbecue pork to grilled salmon, and use them to make a variety of Chinese steamed buns.