Food Waste and 10 Easy Ways to Avoid It
Guest Authored by Joy Mack, of Sustainable Jungle
When we think waste, our minds conjure images of plastic bottles and flip flops covering pristine beaches. No doubt, plastic is one of the world's most deplorable problems, but statistically, food waste is arguably worse.
Defined as “any food that is grown and produced for human consumption but ultimately is not eaten,” food waste accounts for the largest percentage (21%) of landfill mass. In the U.S. alone, that’s an annual 52 million tons and the greenhouse gases equivalent of 37 million cars.
It’s not just the fault of restaurants, grocery stores, and big agro either; 40% of U.S. food waste happens at home!
What can we do? For starters, we can look to companies like ReGrained that are making a business out of preventing food waste through “edible upcycling.”
At Sustainable Jungle, we recently had the pleasure of interviewing ReGrained founder Dan Kurzrock on our podcast. To say the least, our conversation inspired us to examine our own food consumption patterns at home. After all, reducing food waste is a necessary component of our zero waste ethos.
Generally, our solution to food waste is composting. While composting has many benefits, the truth is there are many ways to avoid food waste long before composting becomes necessary. Here are a few of our top tips.
1. Keep Your Pantry and Fridge Clutter-Free
Food usually expires because we forget it’s there.
Before anything, declutter your cupboards and refrigerator so your kitchen doesn’t become a black hole for moldy cheese and stale crackers. Even freezers (an excellent way to prolong food storage) will eventually ruin things with freezer burn.
Keep your kitchen stocked with food you actually eat and organize by “first in, first out”. Put new produce behind old, so you remember to eat it first.
2. Plan your weekly meals.
Stop food waste at the purchasing stage. A simple meal plan can help you develop a concise grocery list so you only buy what you intend to eat that week. If you're into tools, check out Ends+Stems.
Consider how much you eat out and what food you already have. Double check that there isn’t a jar of pasta sauce hiding at the back of the cabinet before buying another.
3. Shop with purpose and a plan.
You have your list, now stick to it while you shop. Shop purposefully rather than perusing which we all know can lead to impulse purchases.
Avoid overbuying by falling for bulk sales promotions (i.e. buy three, get one free). Do you really need four ripe avocados because it’ll save you $0.50? Unless you are making guacamole, you know what saves more than $0.50? Buying just one avocado that you’ll actually use.
4. Treat “expiration” dates as guidelines.
Most people (as in 90% of Americans) throw away perfectly good food because a label tells them to. Contrary to popular belief, “sell by” or “best by” dates on perishables are not the same as expiration dates. They’re simply guidelines, and unregulated ones at that.
Most food is safe to eat long after its “expiration” date. Don’t rely on labels; instead use your judgment and your senses. Is the milk getting chunky? Does the meat smell rancid or look gray? Well, then it might be time to actually get rid of it.
Again, if you are into tools, the FoodKeeper App can helps you understand food and beverages storage. It will help you maximize the freshness and quality of items. By doing so you will be able to keep items fresh longer than if they were not stored properly.
Grocery stores can’t legally sell food past its “sell by” date, so they usually put big discounts on nearly-expired items. Buying these saves you money and stops that food from getting thrown away.
5. Store food properly.
The average family of four wastes $1,600 of produce per year, simply because most don’t know how to store it properly to prevent premature ripening. Admittedly, there are some nuances to it, because every food is different.
For instance, some foods (bananas, avocados, tomatoes, cantaloupes, peaches, pears, and green onions) produce ethylene gas as they ripen which promotes ripening of items around them. Ever wonder why your fruit seems to go from rock hard to overripe practically overnight? That’s why.
Other foods (potatoes, leafy greens, berries, peppers, and apples) are extra sensitive to ethylene gas and thus should be kept separate from ethylene producers.
Produce is temperature sensitive as well. While you should never store potatoes, tomatoes, garlic, cucumbers, and onions in the refrigerator, fruits perform well there because the cold slows down the ripening process.
Bulb vegetables (potatoes, onions) should be kept in dry, dark places, like a paper bag in a cupboard (just don’t forget they’re there).
For non-produce perishables, like bread and meat, the freezer is your friend. If you tend to not go through a whole loaf of bread before it molds, put half the loaf immediately in the freezer. We promise it’ll taste just as good and feel just as fresh once it thaws.
7. Meal prep, meal prep, meal prep!
You won’t even need to worry about proper food storage if you prepare your food right away. Follow your grocery trip with meal prep in which you chop, mix, cook all your new ingredients into meals for the week.
Just separate your meals into jars or Tupperware and place those for the next few days in the refrigerator and those for later in the week in the freezer. Defrost and dine as needed.
Meal prep not only makes life easier through the week, but it generally means less snacking and impromptu take-out orders. In turn, that leads to a healthier diet as well as reducing spoilage because ordering a hot-and-ready pizza was just easier.
8. Monitor portion size.
In most developed countries, overeating is a huge problem, even for those below the poverty line, where it’s the nutrients that are lacking, not the calories.
Our eyes are almost certainly always bigger than our stomachs, and when we overeat, one of three things happen:
- You force yourself to eat it anyway, leading to a different kind of food waste (i.e. consuming food your body just doesn’t need and won’t be able to fully use)
- You throw what you can’t eat in the trash (or to the dog)
- You save leftovers that may or may not get eaten before they start to get fuzzy
Instead of making a whole box of pasta, only make what you know you’ll eat. We’re not saying you should track your calories and meticulously weigh out food, but simply being a little more conservative reduces excess food (and maybe a few excess pounds).
8. Cook creatively.
Everyone knows that blackened bananas make great banana bread, but there are all sorts of similar ways to use scrap or overripe food and upcycle at home:
- Use expired vegetables in stir fries, soups, or casseroles. Wilted spinach may not make a great salad, but cooked you won’t notice the difference.
- Boil vegetable peels, stalks, and tops with water and oil to make vegetable stock. You can also make meat stocks by boiling leftover bones the same way.
- Blend fruit scraps into a smoothie. You can even blend up avocado pits for all sorts of nutritional goodness.
- Infuse fruit peels, berry tops, and wilted herbs with water. Maybe you’ll actually drink the recommended amount!
- On an egg white only diet? Use the yolks to make a moisturizing hair mask.
- Mix used coffee ground with sugar and olive oil to make a body scrub, or overripe avocado with honey for a nourishing face mask. The DIY self-care possibilities are endless.
- Make stale bread into strata, overripe bananas into bread, surplus tomato paste into just about anything, chickpea water into a merengue, and more. The possibilities are endless!
9. Actually eat skins, seeds, and scraps
People don’t eat these parts because they don’t taste as good (apple peels and potato skins), or they think they can’t (mango skin, eggplant skin, and kiwi skin- yes really!). But in fact, they’re the most nutritionally dense and fibrous part of the food. One brand, Rind, is capitalizing on this.
Apple peels possess cancer fighting antioxidants. Chicken skin (which people spurn for being too fatty) is full of vitamins and an anti-inflammatory called selenium. Seeds from pumpkins and squash are dense in fiber and nutrients. Toast them in the oven, add a little salt, and you’ve got a healthy snack alternative.
10. Learn to preserve.
Canning and pickling might remind you of your grandma, but it’s a great way to preserve food for a very long time (and who doesn’t love delicious homemade preserves?!).
Best of all, it’s pretty simple. Pickle your vegetables by just putting them in a jar with vinegar. Dry herbs by hanging them in the window. Mash overripe or bruised apples into jars for applesauce.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON HOW TO AVOID FOOD WASTE
After you’ve gone through these steps to reduce your food waste, THEN you can compost what’s left.
Just remember, reducing food waste largely boils down to putting creativity into action. ReGrained is the epitome of what can come by combining creativity with sustainability. What amazing and innovative way can you come up with to upcycle your food waste? Let us know!