By Sarene Marshall, The Nature Conservancy
“Children are starving in Africa.” Did your parents ever say that, to encourage you to finish all your food? Mine did – because watching food get thrown away was like watching money get flushed down the toilet, and we couldn’t afford either. Ironically, as we deal with a growing obesity epidemic (fueled by changing meal habits, processed and fast foods), the “clean plate club” has fallen out of favor.
Americans now waste a shocking 50% of the food we produce. And even in Africa – where children are still starving – the percentage is similar. So, we’ve got hungry people all around the world and half the food we produce is going to waste? The reasons are complex, but I think we can all agree that we can’t afford to keep this up.
For one thing, food is the largest source of waste in municipal landfills and incinerators. Meanwhile, we are going to have a lot more mouths to feed, with 9 billion people estimated to be on Earth by 2050. And many more of those people will be rising out of poverty into the middle class ranks, where their eating habits will include much more meat. To accommodate both, it is estimated that we will need to double food production. But the planet has a finite amount of land and water, so that will mean dramatically increasing the yield from each existing acre.
Or – maybe we can focus on making sure much less of what we currently produce goes
Here are 8 tips for avoiding food waste that my family follows:
- Eat less meat, and waste less too. The amount of land, water and fossil fuels that go into producing meat, especially beef, is astonishing. Ranching is the primary cause of forest clearing in the
Amazon, and it takes over 600 gallons of water to produce a hamburger, but only about 50 gallons for a soy burger. Eating lower on the food chain is good for you and the planet. My family eats burgers, chili and meatballs – but we opt for turkey or chicken. You can also swap in beans and mushrooms as cost-conscious, tasty and filling protein alternatives. With all the resources it takes to produce meat, we should be especially careful not to waste it. If a ham or roast headlines a weekend meal, plan work week sandwiches or a casserole with the leftovers, and use the bones for a rich stock.
- Only buy/cook what you need. My Italian and Jewish grandmothers schooled me to never let guests go hungry, but a tremendous amount of food is wasted in the world because people overbuy, over-prepare or over-order. I create weekly menu plans and keep a running shopping list on our fridge to cut down on impulse purchasing. Farmers’ markets let me purchase flexible quantities, so I don’t end up with half a package of herbs or greens rotting in the fridge. It’s fine to double a recipe for a hungry crowd, but think about cutting it in half for an intimate meal. When eating out, I often ask restaurants if they will do a half-portion (or split the entrée with my husband), saving money and calories.
- Freeze and store smartly. Reusable, air-tight containers for the fridge and pantry, not to mention lunch packing, are an investment that will pay dividends for years. You can extend the life of produce, meat and bread by freezing, but do it in user-friendly ways: flash-freeze items on a cookie sheet so you don’t end up with a solid mass of berries or cutlets that takes forever to defrost. Label leftovers, since no one wants to eat UFOs – ‘Unidentified Frozen Objects.’ I use bright labels so everyone knows what’s inside and enticing phrases like ‘Yum’ or ‘Eat today.’
- FIFO your fridge. In warehouses, they call thisthe ‘First In, First Out’ principle. My seven-year-old calls this ‘eat the old food first.’ The idea is the same: prioritize perishables that will spoil more quickly, like delicate greens, over items with a longer shelf-life, like hardy carrots. Organize dairy products by date. The same applies to perishables in your pantry, like nuts.
- Learn label lingo. The words ‘Sell by’ and ‘Best by’ don’t mean ‘use or toss by.’ None of us want to put ourselves or our families at risk from food-borne illnesses, but most of these labels have nothing to do with that. Educate yourself on the meanings of label phrases, and use common sense before tossing perfectly good food.
- Reimagine Ingredients. Veggies that are about to pass their prime can be blended into soups or baked into casseroles. Over-ripe fruits make great smoothies or baked goods (take, banana bread, for example). Chutneys and salsas are another great choice. And most of those things can be frozen for another day. Challenge yourself to invent a meal from the ingredients you have on hand. Internet recipe sites make this easy. I recently re-purposed some leftover smoked trout and cream into a pasta dish on one night and a breakfast hash another.
- Feed others. With so many hungry people in the world, it’s a shame to throw away perfectly usable food. We might not be able to transport our leftovers to Africa, but we regularly scan our pantry for shelf-stable items we are unlikely to eat and donate them to our local food pantry. Our local animal shelter also is in routine need of peanut butter for dogs and lettuce for rabbits.
- Compost. Agriculture contributes to global warming via land clearing and fossil fuel-based fertilizers, but also when produce is left to rot in landfills, where it generates methane – a potent greenhouse gas. Composting is free, and it helps. You can check to see if your town has a municipal composting facility. Our fruit and vegetable scraps – along with coffee grinds and eggshells – go back into our backyard garden.
What are your favorite tips for wasting less food? Please share!
Sarene Marshall is a Senior Advisor for The Nature Conservancy. Opinions expressed here are the personal opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.
Photo by Flickr user Island Vittles; Used under a Creative Commons license
By Sarene Marshall, The Nature Conservancy