Food waste. We’re all guilty of it. Whether it is the result of bad planning, purchasing too much or simply not knowing what to do with our leftover food. So, what’s the problem? We throw out the occasional leftovers or vegetables left in the fridge too long. Well, it turns out food waste is a big problem and not just at the retail level but at the household level as well. Worldwide household food waste adds up to 1.3 billion tons heading to our landfills annually according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. In North America alone, it is estimated that 40% of the food we buy ends up in the landfill and makes up the largest component of solid waste in American landfills.
To tackle the problem of food waste at the retail level, one French grocery store launched a successful campaign selling the “ugly” and misshapen (yet perfectly edible) produce that would have ended up in the landfill. This program proved that the “inglorious” fruits and veggies can gain consumer acceptance and reduce the fruits and veggies being sent directly to the landfill. Sadly, programs like this don’t exist everywhere (yet). Until that time, there are still some things you can do to reduce your household food waste.
Sitting down and planning out your meals for the week ahead is a major way you can reduce your household food waste. One survey found that 60% of food waste in the home was because of poor planning.
If planning meals for the whole week seems overwhelming to you, try sitting down and planning 3 days at a time. After all, how are you suppose to know on Monday what you’ll want to eat on Friday? Limiting your planning to a few days at a time will also encourage more frequent grocery store visits which in itself has been shown to reduce household food waste.
If you are tech savvy, perhaps try out some of meal planning websites or mobile apps to keep you motivated and organized. For those who prefer something a little simpler, try a dry erase board on your fridge or even an old fashioned pen and paper will do, too.
Plan fruits and veggies use wisely
We have all done it. Tempted by the bright and beautiful fruits and veggies in the produce aisle, we load up our basket without a plan to use it all. And what happens? Some of those once beautiful fruits and veggies get wilted, soft or fuzzy and they end up in the garbage.
Planning your fruit and veggie consumption (as well as any other ingredient that will spoil faster) by it’s perishability is also key to reducing household food waste. Plan your meals around the fruits and veggies that go bad first, like leafy greens, saving the heartier ones, like cabbage and root vegetables for later. Don’t be afraid to plan meals using frozen vegetables, either. The freezing process is quite good for preserving the nutritional quality of produce and they will last forever (well almost!) in your freezer. Check out www.stilltasty.com a detailed guide of the shelf life of different food products.
When picking out items in the produce aisle, if possible select a range of ripeness stages. For items like such as pears, peaches, bananas, and avocados, it is very helpful to pick some that are ripe, to be eaten right away and others less ripe, to have later in the week.
Remember to store your fruits and veggies unwashed until you are about to use them. Storing washed produce in fridge leads to more rapid spoilage.
Check your inventory
This may seem obvious but checking your refrigerator and pantry before you head out to the grocery store can prevent you from buying multiple items and save you a little money at the same time. Of course, this is most important for fruits, veggies, dairy and meats with shorter shelf lives as those canned and boxed items can stand to gather a little dust on your shelves and still be perfectly edible.
To keep things rotated efficiently in your kitchen, practice first in, first out. Those of you who have worked in grocery stores or restaurants will know this as FIFO. FIFO is a good little rule to prevent the back of your fridge from looking like a science project gone bad.
Look at best before dates before buying
Even if you find yourself rushing through the grocery store, it’s a good idea to take a quick glance at the ‘best before’ or ‘expiration date’ of the items you are buying. Who wants to get a large tub of yogurt home just to notice that it’s about to expire? If you want to get the most out of your purchases take a look little dates printed on the containers. For items that may take you a little while to finish, grab from the back of the shelves as these will be newer. Remember FIFO? Well, to get the most shelf life out of food you might want to use LIFO (last in, first out) when buying at the grocery store.
For those of you confused about the meanings of expiration labeling, the best before date is required for food with less than 90 days shelf life and is the date in which the company guarantees the quality of it’s product. The food does not necessarily go bad after this date, it just may not be as tasty or nutritious. The expiration or expiry date is the date in which food should not be eaten past. If the food is past the expiration date, throw it out.
It’s not always easy to prepare the perfect amount of food for a meal. You do your best and sometimes you make too little, leaving your stomach grumbling while other times you make more than is feasibly possible to finish. It’s these times when we make too much that puts the uneaten food at risk of ending up as waste.
Leftover meals get a bad rap. They don’t necessarily need to be a boring, less appetizing version of last night’s dinner. Leftovers can be jazzed up to make new and, possibly, even tastier meals. When making your meal plan for the week, leftovers can even be slotted into your meal line up, simply as reheated versions of the original (especially if it’s something you just can’t get enough of) or as completely new creations. Reusing leftover food can be a real time saver which, on busy weeknights, is important.
Leftover roasts or chicken breasts makes makes great fajitas. Mash excess potatoes for a shepherd's pie or potato pancakes. Revive rice with some frozen veggies and eggs for a fried rice. Chop leftover veggies for soup or pasta sauces. Stale bread makes great croutons or bread crumbs. There are many ingenious ways to reuse your surplus food and even websites that can help you come up with ideas for your leftovers.
Did we also mention that dinner leftovers make great lunches the next day? Throw your leftovers into a reusable container and BOOM your lunch for the next day is done!
Whether your freezer is small or large, it can be your best friend. No, not because it stores your ice cream (but that’s pretty awesome in itself) but because it can be your leftover’s savior. If you don’t think you can finish up your leftovers in time, pop them in the freezer to be used another day. If you have an especially large freezer, it’s a good idea to label your leftovers with the date so that you can remember to use them in a reasonable amount of time. Leftover freezer meals are great for those days when you just don’t feel like cooking but are in need of a hot meal.
Your freezer isn’t just a saviour for leftover meals, it can be used to preserve unprepared food that can’t eaten in time:
- Have you ever bought meat thinking you’ll use it but when the day comes, other plans arise for dinner? Well, this is a good time to stick it in the freezer to be used at a later date.
- Have trouble finishing a loaf of bread on your own? Place that loaf directly in the freezer when you get home from the grocery store. Frozen bread slices can go straight from the freezer to the toaster. Frozen bread can also be used to make perfectly good (i.e. not soggy) sandwiches to bring for work or school lunches.
- Ever had a bunch of yogurt that’s about to expire? Stick it in popsicle molds for a frozen and healthy treat that the kids will love.
- Got too much fruit, cut into chunks and freeze for smoothies. Using frozen fruit in smoothies creates a thick, frothy texture. This works especially well with bananas, berries, mango and stone fruits. Frozen bananas also make delicious dairy-free "ice cream". Most frozen fruit can remain in good condition for 8-12 months.
- If you have too many lemon or limes, squeeze juice into ice cube containers and freeze. These citrus cubes can be used anytime a recipe calls for lemon or lime juice.
- Have you ever purchased a container of soup broth, only to use one cup and leave the remainder in the fridge until it expires? Solve this problem by freezing the excess broth in 1 cup portions. This can be done in either a plastic zip top bag (especially for those with a small freezer) or in muffin tins which are about 1 cup in size.
Bring your veggies back to life
Ever thought it was too late when your vegetables start to wilt? This isn’t exactly true. There are some vegetables that you can revive into their perky old selves. All you need is a bit of water.
Leafy greens or fresh herbs can be restored by placing them in a bowl of ice water for 20-30 minutes. Remove from water and dry. Let them sit on a towel or in a colandar for another 15-20 minutes to drain excess water. After this your leafy greens or herbs will be ready to use.
Other veggies like carrots, parsnips, celery and asparagus will also crisp in cold water. Potatoes can also crisp up by placing peeled potatoes in cold water. Broccoli can be revived by cutting the bottom and placing upright or by placing cut florets in water.
While this option is not available to everyone, those lucky enough to have gardens can compost some of their food scraps. A simple web search can give you info on how to start your own compost bin. Some communities even have curbside composting programs which can compost a greater variety of items including meat, paper towel, cooked food and pizza boxes. If you live in one of these communities it’s easier than ever to prevent your household food waste from ending up in the landfill.
Do you have a flourishing garden and find it hard to eat all that you are producing (I’m looking at you zucchini growers…)? Or perhaps you have a fruit tree that you just can’t keep up with. Check to see if your community has any programs that will take excess fruits and veggies off your hands. Perishable foods like produce usually can’t be donated to food banks but there are other organizations that will gladly accept them. Look to see if your community has a local Fruit Tree Project or check out websites like veggietrader.com and neighborhoodfruit.com for opportunities.
Household food waste is a problem but there are steps you can do as an individual to reduce your ecological footprint in this regard. Being more aware of your household consumption and waste can make a difference and save you money at the same time.