Updated: May 21
This is a guest blog post written by Julia Watkins, author of Simply Living Well. All photography has been provided by Julia.
Even in more normal times, striving for low waste is a challenge. Stuck at home these many weeks during the coronavirus pandemic, with grocery stores restricting the use of cloth shopping bags and shutting down the bulk bins, avoiding waste has only gotten harder – if not outright impossible. And really, given all that’s going on, it’s more than fair to question just how important being low waste is at a time when so many are struggling.
At our house, we’ve shifted our attention to something that really seems to resonate in times of trouble: food waste. According to Dana Gund, author of the Waste Free Kitchen Handbook, 40 percent of food in the United States goes uneaten, with the average American family of four throwing away the equivalent of up to $2,275 a year in food. That’s 400 pounds of food per person – every year.
Where does it go? To landfills, where uneaten food accounts for the single largest component of solid waste, contributing significantly to landfill methane emissions. Although long-term solutions will require greater leadership from businesses and government, there’s plenty we can do right now. Indeed, households represent the largest source of food waste – more than grocery stores and restaurants.
Below are a few of the things my family’s been doing to avoid wasted food. But more broadly, as I think about what I can do to contribute to a more sustainable world, I’m more committed than ever to supporting small, sustainably-minded businesses. Once the pandemic subsides, I also want to purchase as much food as I can directly from local farms through farmers markets and CSAs. And I’ve already started to expand our backyard kitchen garden and grow as much of our own food as I can. These and other things make me more mindful of the food we put on our table and hopefully will help us cut back on the food we waste.
Meal plan and shop wisely. Create a meal plan, shop with a list, and avoid impulse purchases and marketing gimmicks that encourage you to buy things you don’t need.
Take inventory before you shop. Look through your pantry, refrigerator, and freezer and take inventory of your dried goods, spices, fruits, and veggies. If possible, clean out the fridge before you shop so you can figure out what you actually need. If you store your dried goods in clear glass jars and containers, it makes it easy to quickly take stock of what you do and don’t need.
Understand date labels. Treat expiration dates as guidelines rather than rules. Sell-by date labels are neither federally-regulated nor based on safety. Instead they’re merely suggestions from manufacturers for peak quality and freshness. Learn about specific foods so you can use your judgment to tell whether they’re still edible.
Buy and serve small portions and save and eat leftovers. A significant source of household waste is attributed to large portions and uneaten leftovers. Be realistic when shopping and buy only what you think you’ll use. When cooking or eating in restaurants, serve and order small portions. Recycle leftovers into new meals.
Declutter. Keep cabinets, refrigerator, and freezer organized and tidy so you know what you have and what you need. Store foods in glass jars and storage containers to make it easy to take inventory before you shop.
Store fruits and vegetables correctly. Follow the tips for storing fruits and vegetables to prolong their freshness and prevent spoilage. (blog post coming soon!)
Use the freezer. Preserve and prevent spoilage by freezing foods. Almost everything can be frozen from butter, cheese, and meat to vegetables, fruits, nuts, and baked goods.
Prevent spoilage. Turn soon-to-go-bad produce and meet into freezable broths, sauces, or meals such as casseroles.
Keep a stock jar in the freezer. Add vegetables trimmings to a stock jar that you keep in the freezer. When it’s full, prepare a stock that you can use for stir fry, stews, soups, and more.
Ferment or can foods. Learn old-fashioned ways of conserving fruits and vegetables, such as fermenting or canning them.
Shop locally. Grow your own food or buy it locally from farm stands, farmers markets, or community supported agriculture (CSA) programs. Not only does shopping locally keep you in relationship with your food and the people who grew it, it also reduces the energy required for storage and transportation.
Share food. Share excess food – cooked, uncooked, or grown in your garden - with friends, family, and neighbors. This helps prevent waste while building community.
Buy imperfect produce. Support farmers, grocery stores, markets, and companies that sell imperfect produce. Buy so-called “ugly” fruits and vegetables that may look too small, too large, misshapen, bruised, or discolored, but are otherwise safe and nutritious to eat.
Compost food scraps or feed them to backyard chickens. Instead of tossing food scraps in the trash bin, consider composting them through a municipal composting program or using your own backyard system. If you have backyard chickens, feed them scraps and let them help you compost.
Practice closed-loop cooking. Prevent food waste by using fruits and veggies that are often overlooked and discarded. For example, use brown and spotted bananas to make banana bread, juice and nut milk pulp to bake crackers, vegetable scraps to make stock, and carrot greens as a base for pesto.