Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Nine Tips to Reduce Food Waste

This summer, the bigger little and I have been studying World War II together. He's all jazzed about the tanks, battles and bombs, and I, of course, am fascinated by... the food. While he maps out his tactical maneuvers, I'm reading about ration books and victory gardens.

Food scarcity was a big thing during World War II. Britain, for example, imported a whopping SIXTY PERCENT of it's food in the 1930's. The looming threat of war, with it's inevitable shipping blockades and shortages, meant the British government had to scramble to provide sustenance to it's nearly 48 million inhabitants. Flower gardens were turned over to vegetables, every patch of available land was plowed for cereal crops, and Women's Institute members relieved countryside bushes of their berries and fashioned them into jam. Rationing was immediately enacted and persisted until 1952.

Food waste was curbed dramatically. Any remaining scraps that couldn't be eaten were composted, or thrown in the scrap bin to be fed to pigs. Wasting food became a crime. Literally. In August 1940, wasting food became a prisonable offense.

Rationing and shortages existed in America, too, but since we are a significantly larger country with a far more varied landscape and climate, conditions were not so desperate here. Oh yeah, and we didn't have bombs raining on us every night. That helped, too.

Fast forward seventy years, and we have lost all sense of wartime thrift. Watch this (FYI, there are some bad words):

Whoa. FORTY PERCENT. We're wasting forty percent of the food produced in this country. This hurts my heart.

This is insane, especially when you consider one of the big justifications for GMOs and increased pesticide use is 'the need to feed our growing population.' We're told tinkering with plants will make them more drought-resistant and enable farmers to grow more food on less land. Well, that sounds just super, but how about we start by actually EATING the food we're growing now??? Does it strike anyone else as utterly ridiculous to spend millions of dollars developing frankenplants that use less water, while we use MORE water to grow plants that get thrown away? Anyone? Beuller?

Then there is the complicity of our own government in this. My friend Dietitian Deb, whom you may remember from the chocolate milk post, sent me this article about millions of beautiful cherries sacrificed for the sake of 'market regulation.' Insane.

What can we do about this?

On the grand scale, I don't entirely know. I'll work on that, but I do know there is plenty we can do at home. We can make a concerted effort to eat whatever food we bring into the house. I don't want to sound braggy or anything, but I've got our food situation down to almost no waste. Here's how we do it:

1. Clean out the refrigerator every week. Years ago, I happened upon a blog that had a weekly feature called 'food waste Friday.' The blogger cleaned out the fridge every Friday and posted a picture of whatever she had to throw away. The idea was to hold herself accountable to waste less food. It's a good practice and it inspired me to do the same. I actually peruse the fridge every couple of days to see what needs using up, then do a weekly clean-out to make sure nothing has fallen through the cracks. It only takes a few minutes!

2. Simplify your cooking. I read that all the great chefs of the early twentieth century had specialities--only about 10-12 dishes they would simply cook in rotation. In the past, I've done a lot of experimenting with cooking and making different recipes, and I've ended up with cupboards full of obscure ingredients. I'm working on using all that up and just sticking with a skeleton menu. Yup, we're becoming a 'Tuesday is spaghetti night' kind of family.

3. Eat leftovers. I know this seems obvious, but a lot of people don't like leftovers. I don't fully understand why. Plenty of food is actually better-tasting the next day, but I can appreciate sometimes you're sick of whatever you made, or it seems pointless to hold on to just a little bit of this or that. However, you can re-purpose those bits and bobs into new, exciting meals! Quesadillas, frittatas, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink chili, fried rice... they're all great ways to use up little bits of things, and you might even be able to postpone a trip to the market.
Some random leftovers we made into quesadillas one night

4. Eventually, you need to go, and when you do, shop with a list--and stick to it. When people don't use a list, they buy more things they don't need. A friend of mine turned me on to a great iPhone app called Wunderlist. It has a share function, so you can create a list and share it with your spouse, roommate, whomever, so if anyone else is going to the store, you don't end up with duplicates. You buy only what you need.

5. Ignore 'best by' dates. If you watched the video above, you now know that those dates are completely arbitrary. Just because something is 'expired' doesn't mean it isn't still perfectly edible. A better guide is your nose. Even if it smells 'off,' you might still be able to use it. We use soured milk in baking or pancakes, I make banana bread from over-ripe bananas. Use common sense--if meat smells rotten, well, don't eat that. But fruit with a little bit of fuzz? Just cut off the fuzzy part and eat it. It's fine.

6. See if you can use things you didn't think you could--like bones. We save bones from meat, for example. I collect them in a bag in the freezer and when I have enough, I make bone broth. I never buy broth anymore. It's healthier, it's easy, and it's basically free.

7. Preserve what you can. Greens can be chopped and frozen, herbs can be dried or preserved in ice cube trays, lots of things can be canned. That's a bit of a process, but I'm learning. I had a tutorial from my friend Kelli last year. I'm a little intimidated and afraid I'll screw it up and kill my family, but Kelli says my cans will tell me before they kill us, so that's a comfort.

8. Let things rot--on purpose. Fermenting food is a great way to extend it's fridge/shelf life AND improve it's nutrient profile. Foods actually become more nutritious when you ferment them. Pickles and sauerkraut will last for weeks in the refrigerator, buying you more time to use them up!

9. Lastly, compost. Fruit and vegetable peels, corn husks, coffee grounds, grass clippings.... they can all be tossed together in a compost bin (either purchased or of your own making) and over time, they will become beautiful, nutrient-rich soil for plants. Do I compost? Umm, not yet, but I'm working on it. Our town sells bins at a reduced rate to residents, so I'm planning to get one soon and get started.

One of the best parts of not wasting food is the money you save! We pre-pay for our weekly farm share box, and we buy half a grass-fed cow every year, but apart from that, I spend $50-$75 a week on groceries. That includes lunches I pack for my husband and small people. That's milk, cheese, baking supplies, fish, chicken, tortillas, grains like rice and oats and most of our fruit (since we don't get much fruit in the farm box) for $50-$75 a week. We save a lot of money by not wasting food.

I know, I have a real bee in my bonnet (that I would put to work making honey for me, by the way) on this topic. I'm probably on the more extreme end of this issue, but whatever you can do... it helps! I don't want to be preachy, but I really, really encourage everyone to think about how we can reduce food waste. It just makes sense! (cents?! I'm slapping my own knee.)


  1. Thank you for posting this informative article. (and the video was quite entertaining as well!) So surprised by the 40% fact--it's appalling!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Becky. I know--40%!!! Terrible. And I don't even think that is factoring in what is wasted in homes, which we all know from experience is a lot! Right after I wrote this article I found two cooked beets in the fridge that were way past their prime. :( So sad. Beets are so yummy....