One of the greatest challenges we face in the world is food waste. Yeah, we hear about it most when it’s colossal, like from countries, or major grocery and restaurant chains, but fact is, it’s every bit as pervasive and problematic right here at home, in our own kitchens. It’s time to talk about kitchen food waste, and act on that.
Dive into food waste numbers just for the USA, and prepare to be seriously bummed out. Overall percentage of what’s produced – 40%. 20% of what goes into landfills. According to a NRDC study in 2015, American households tossed $165 billion worth – That’s billion with a B – or roughly $2,200 per household. Worldwide, the figure is around 1.3 billions tons and $990 billion annually. Sobering figures to say the least. When you hear that the biggest problem with feeding the world isn’t the ability to grow it, it’s pretty much true.
What’s to be done then? Obviously those figures are completely unsustainable. While it might seem like little ol’ us are such a drop in the bucket that we couldn’t possibly alter those numbers, I beg to differ – Understanding the nature and magnitude of the problem is the first step. Every little bit helps, and frankly, we can fairly easily do more than just a little bit at home – That’s important not just to help stop wasting food, but to buoy our pocket books and consciences too.
Battling food waste is huge in the restaurant business, (is if you want to stay in business in any event). We track it closely, in order to construct a viable and effective plan to keep the numbers down. Recording waste lets us study things a bit and decide where the problem lies – That might be how much we order or prep, or a mistaken assumption about how much of what we’ll sell. Waste can also stem from over-portioning, or improper storage – There’s a lot to think about, but once you get a good system in place, it becomes a lot easier to manage.
Considering those figures on average waste are in tons and thousands of dollars per American household, I don’t think there’s any question about the importance of having a plan and system in place at home, is there? Same answer comes to mind for the question of whether or not the additional effort is worthwhile – If you didn’t cook at home a lot and care about that, you wouldn’t be here. What then is a viable and effective plan to help reduce food waste for the home cook?
First thing that comes to mind is how much perishable food we buy, and how often. For the former, we really need to plan our shopping, and not do any significant part of that willy nilly. Having a realistic shopping list, one based on what your household will actually in all likelihood eat in the period you’re shopping for, is key. Secondly, sticking to that list, (and never shopping when you’re hungry), is equally important – Impulse buying does no one any good.
A shopping list is a living thing, usually composed over several days. When it comes time to head to the store, a review is in order, to determine not just if you missed something, but also if there are things there you don’t really need – Especially when the items in question are perishable. If you love to cook and are always looking for new things to try, it’s easy to think you’ll make that crying tiger beef this weekend and then buy a bunch of stuff to do just that – If life then intrudes, you may well be left with things that end up getting tossed.
When you shop, you absolutely must pay attention and be picky, picky, picky. When I go, I see maybe a couple people other than me who are really and truly checking things out – Squeezing, inspecting, sniffing, and rejecting anything that doesn’t look spot on – checking packaging and expirations dates, (and that pickiness includes not buying something you wanted if there just aren’t any good ones that day.) Fact is, very few shoppers do that – Most folks grab whatever and take it home, and frankly, whatever usually goes bad really quickly. You get what you pay for, and if you’re assuming all produce, proteins, dairy, and other perishables are on equal footing, you’re being a pretty clueless shopper.
Same goes for meal planning. Avoiding waste means not buying for, or cooking far too much, for your household to reasonably use before it spoils. Yes, leftovers can and should be refrigerated or frozen whenever possible, but far too many fridges and freezers are filled with things that sit there until they are eventually thrown out – Be realistic about what you can, like to, and really will eat. As we advocate around here, plan meals around judicious and inspired use of leftovers – A single chicken used wisely is two or three great meals for a small family.
The concepts from that last paragraph are especially important for us empty nesters – We had kids and grandkids over for dinner last night, and prepared what was easily two to three times the normal amount of food we’d do up for a Sunday night as a result – That’s fine if it’s going to get eaten and/or sent home with the kids – but not so much if it’s happening several nights a week because we’ve forgotten that, these days, it’s just the two of us. Always keep in mind who you’re cooking for on a day to day basis.
How we store perishables, especially fruits, veggies, and proteins, is potentially a huge contributor to excessive food waste. Bags, plastic or natural, and most crisper drawers, do a fairly shitty job of maintaining fruits and veggies. Of course the first line of defense is knowing what should be in a fridge and what shouldn’t, (potatoes, tomatoes, onions, garlic, shallot, bananas and most citrus fruit don’t go in the fridge.)
We’ve researched a bunch of storage options, especially for veggies since they tend to go bad so quickly, and found that glass or rigid plastic containers with tight fitting lids do a great job for most things, while specialized containers for lettuce, cabbage and the like do an amazing job – We’ve extended the shelf life of a lot of things from 2 or 3 days to 10+ just by using the right container, as you can see from some of the images here in. Yes, they’re plastic in some cases, but they’re not even close to single use.
Realistic consideration of what you will cook in the next few days should dictate what gets refrigerated and what gets frozen. A lot of food gets wasted because we violate that rule. Expensive proteins, from beef to firm tofu, need to be scheduled for cooking, and that schedule stuck to – If you can’t or don’t, wrap them properly and freeze them well before they go bad, (and mark the packages for date and content.)
Yes, clearly marking what something is and when it got stored is critical. Everything in a restaurant gets FIFOd, (First In, First Out rotation), and our home fridges and freezers shouldn’t be any different. As for marking what they are, if you’re seriously thinking about trying to tell me that you don’t have, right now, containers in both appliances that you have no clear idea of the contents or age of, I’ll call bullshit on y’all. freezers need to be emptied, inventoried, and thoroughly cleaned at least twice a year, too – See our post on that.
Look this essay over and you’ll realize there’s really not that much here, and certainly not much that’s genuinely revelatory – Tackling a food waste reduction program at home is no more difficult than reading about it, frankly. That said, common sense goes a long way in the kitchen, just as it does in life, right?