The Environmental Protection Agency determined in 2013 that 35 million tons of food was wasted that year in the U.S. Some 95% of it ended up in landfills. The Washington Post has reported that in 1980 wasted food accounted for 10% of what went into landfills. Today, food waste makes up well over 20%, a larger percentage than metal, plastic or glass. When that waste decomposes it puts out levels of methane that contribute to climate change.
In a hungry world, food waste is a global problem. National Geographic reported in 2014 that the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations estimated that one-third of food produced for human consumption worldwide is annually lost or wasted. (The term “lost” refers to food lost between fields and markets; “waste” refers to food that makes it to our kitchens but because of poor planning, storage or other factors never makes it to the plate.)
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The notion that wasting food is a bad, bad thing has been with us since childhood when we were reminded that there were starving children somewhere in the world that would be grateful for our uneaten canned peas or steamed beets. Even then we knew that distribution — how were we going to get those beets to Asia? — was just as big a problem as are adequate production and affordability.
There’s other good motivation for not wasting food at home: it saves us money (PDF).
Minimizing food waste in our own kitchens and gardens takes planning, a knowledge of proper storage techniques, and a willingness to use what’s on your shelves. Here’s a short list of practical tips and suggestions to help you avoid wasting food in your refrigerator, during preparation, and on your dinner plates.
- Take stock of what’s already in your kitchen before menu planning and shopping.
- Plan ahead to use up perishable items such as fruit and vegetables as they ripen.
- Pay attention to expiration dates. Many foods will last longer than the “sell-by” date stamped on its packaging. Always err on the side of caution. Never use any food stuff that smells bad or off in anyway.
- Keep items you already have forward on cupboard and refrigerator shelves. Don’t let items become hidden as you unload groceries. Make sure the new items go behind the ones you already have.
- Avoid buying in bulk if you can’t consume everything you buy. (A big family is often a prerequisite for bulk non-wasteful bulk buying.)
- When buying from bulk bins at your Co-op or natural food store, buy only the amount you need. Don’t be tempted to buy more.
- Make a habit of unpacking lunch boxes after school with your children to see what was and wasn’t consumed. Change menu and portions with your child’s help accordingly.
- Get creative with leftovers. If all those Brussels sprouts weren’t consumed the first go around, plan a casserole or stir-fry that for the next meal to which they can be included.
- Get creative with foods before they expire or go bad. Make croutons with stale bread, add canned beans to soups, make cream sauce with long-held half-and-half. As lemons go soft and ripe, make lemonade.
- Transfer products like cereal from the boxes they were packaged in to jars or other air-tight, glass containers. (If you eat your cereal up within a few days of openings this isn’t necessary.)
- Have a garden? Learn to can, pickle, freeze, dehydrate, and otherwise preserve your harvest. Raise a lot of apples, onions, carrots, or other root vegetables. Consider a root cellar.
- Have food that you’ll never use? Consider a donation to your local food bank.
- Some wastage seems unavoidable with the trimmings and peelings of kitchen work. Here’s what can be done with that.
The internet’s full of suggestions for reducing wasted food. Here’s a handy “A-To-Z of Food Saving Tips” from the folks at Think Eat Save with particulars about buying and storing individual food products. Wondering how to keep half an avocado? From the list: “Leave stone in the half you don’t need and it will stop it from going brown as quickly.”