About 40% of our food in the U.S. is thrown out*! 40%! Given all the time, effort, and care that goes into growing food, not to mention all the people in need of more to eat and the environmental impact, this is a really tragic figure.
Loss happens in every step of the process, from food being deemed "unsellable" before making it to transport, spoilage during shipping, items going bad at the grocery store, and all the food we have in our homes that gets tossed for one reason or another. However you look at it, there's room for improvement. Here are some tips on how to help:
1. Buy Local and Seasonal
For foods that can spoil during transport, buy locally to reduce shipping time and potential for loss. And stay within the season that something is grown. Buying berries in the winter, if you live in a northern climate, means those berries travel a long way to reach your home. Save them for the summer season and buy ingredients that are in season at any given time of year.
2. Buy 'Ugly' Food
Ugly foods are getting some attention these days, and for good reason. A lot of food doesn’t even make it to the grocery store shelves because it’s not deemed pretty enough. Perhaps produce is misshapen or has slight imperfections. Most of us like to search for the good looking buys, but purchasing items with marks or irregular shapes gives us a chance to save food from a wasted fate - this is different from buying bruised or spoiled food, that’s not a good idea, but food that simply looks bad can be given new life.
3. Think Long Term
Hello, beans! Beans are awesome for many reasons, but one of them is for their ability to last on shelves forever when dried (although they always taste better and cook faster when eaten closer to the harvest date). For fresh foods, think about adding items like cabbage, beets, and turnips to your diet. Greens like escarole and kale are great too. These foods not only taste great and are good for you, but can last a long time in the fridge. When buying fresh produce, choose foods that aren’t wilting or browning. See above. This is different from choosing “ugly” foods.
Here’s a recipe for black bean tacos with cabbage and carrot slaw topped with pickled onions. We love to keep pickled onions in the fridge. They're great for your gut biome and reduce food waste!
4. Make a Meal Plan
To reduce waste, try making a meal plan for the week. We started doing this at the start of the pandemic when we wanted to reduce our time going to the grocery store and the habit has stayed (for the most part). Knowing what you want to make in advance of shopping will not only save you money, but reduce food that you end up not needing or eating. With planning, you can also use common ingredients across meals to further minimize waste. Here's a sample meal plan in our homes.
5. Use the Whole Food
Have you been throwing away or composting your broccoli stems? Here’s an example of a food that you might have thought was waste, but is absolutely delicious. In fact, the stems are our favorite part of the broccoli. Simply cut away the rough exterior, and you’re left with a deliciously tender stalk. Or use all of your cilantro, stems and all, in recipes calling for this herb. Carrot top pesto is delicious as are sautéed beet greens leaves.
6. Eat Leftovers
Whether you work from home or go to an office, eating leftovers for lunch saves time, money, effort, and food. Leftovers are usually really delicious and hit all the boxes for benefit. Store food in airtight containers and it should last up to three days. Beyond that, you can freeze leftovers. Avoid items getting lost in freezer purgatory, by labeling them and organizing your space well (we are admittedly not great at this one ourselves, but the good news is, our leftovers are usually fully eaten and rarely make it to this stage!). But, like spring cleaning your closet, re-organizing a freezer can be an unexpectedly satisfying activity.
7. Make Kitchen Sink Meals
Before you go out to buy new groceries, look through your refrigerator and try to make meals with whatever is left over. Beans bowls and salads are a great way to do this. If you have lettuce, but not enough for a full salad, try adding quinoa or another grain to fill the bowl. Take older looking vegetables and roast them. Bean bowls work with whatever you have on hand. Simply add a great dressing and you’ll be set. Here are some of our favorite dressing recipes.
8. Store Food Properly
This is a biggie! So, we've written a separate post on this topic (see How to Reduce Food Waste: Storing Food Properly). In the meantime, you can follow these quick rules of thumb (the logic behind this has to do with a gas called ethylene emitted by some fruits and veggies that can make some foods ripen faster).
- Do not store avocado and bananas together
- Do not store onions and potatoes together
- Do not store tomatoes in the fridge. Keep at room temperature in a separate container
- Store garlic in a cool, dry place, not the fridge
- Keep apples in a crisper in the fridge, not on the countertop
- Cut the leafy tops off of tubers and carrots and store them separately in the fridge
- Do not wash leafy greens before putting them in the fridge
9. Use your Freezer
When in doubt, use your freezer. If items are nearing expiry, freeze them. Think bananas for smoothies, leafy greens, and loaves of bread. The trick here is to clean out your freezer every so often, just like you would do Spring cleaning on your closet. FYI, cooked beans can stay in the freezer for up to 3 months. You can batch cook beans and freeze them until you need them.
Photo: Lenka Dzurendova
We learned a lot about composting, or the lack thereof, in the U.S. when we started looking into sustainable packaging. Sadly, the U.S. doesn’t have the infrastructure to compost in a lot of cities. Good news is that this is changing. Food waste in landfill is a big contributor to greenhouse gas emissions (rotting food in landfill produces methane). So composting greatly reduces emissions.
While we’re waiting for better city programs, there’s a lot we can do at home. Backyard composting is easier than it sounds and there are items to buy for our homes that can help with composting indoors. Visit our friends at The Carbonauts to learn about products to buy - from Bokashi bins to a Vitamix food recycler. And read up on Wirecutter for a guide on how to compost at home. Oh, and we haven't yet tried the Lomi, but it's definitely on our radar. If you have any feedback, please let us know.
This is a lot to digest (no pun intended) - but goes to show that there's lots of room for improvement. Small changes made by a lot of people go a long way! Once something new becomes a habit, it can feel like second nature. And, beyond the environmental benefits, think about how much you can save by wasting less food!
Good luck and let us know if any of these tips stick!