Stop Wasting Your Food
From the abandoned leftovers in the takeout box to the last bit of dinner left on your plate, food waste is easy to find. While tossing a few bites of peas into the trash doesn’t feel like a big deal, it sure adds up into one.
In 2011, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations found that one-third of the food produced worldwide—yes, the entire planet—is either wasted or lost. In the United States specifically, nearly half of all produce ends up in the garbage. This study also found that every year, higher-income economies waste more food than Sub-Saharan Africa’s entire annual net food production.
There is no single practice that can solve these issues, but learning how to reduce food waste in your home is an excellent place to start. Simple practices and mindset changes can, and will, make a difference, for both you and the planet. According to drawdown.org, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reversing global warming, reducing food waste is the number one way to reduce CO2 emissions.
What can you do? Here are some effective approaches:
If You Eat Animal Products, Do Not Waste Them. Period.
Food waste doesn’t just result in loss of food. It means an incredible waste of resources–money, trees, water, energy, fuel, and more—all being needlessly consumed. Not all food waste has the same environmental impact; for every single pound of beef that is wasted, 1800 gallons of water and at least 20 pounds of feed are consumed. Dairy cows also create high levels of greenhouse gasses, and overfarming destroys ecosystems. In comparison, while plant foods are thrown out at higher rates, their waste produces fewer CO2 emissions.
If you won’t give up animal products, consider cutting back. At the very least, be diligent and use what you have. Get creative: use bones and trimmings to make your own stock. Buy smaller packages of meat and cook smaller portions of it. Having less on hand means there will be less to scrape into the garbage.
Adjust Your Mindset About Buying Produce
When shopping for fruits and veggies, we dig around until we find the most pristine items. To our credit, this seems like a logical habit on the surface. We might think that a glossy apple or an unscathed squash will taste better, last longer, or be healthier for us than one with a deformity or blemish. These misconceptions are false in almost every case. The expectations we have for flawless produce are unrealistic and, more importantly, they result in tons—literally—of waste at every level.
Consumers most often immediately reject bruised or imperfect produce. Bruises, discolorations, or odd shapes are instantly associated with spoilage and rot. In fact, due to this high standard, farms will dump or destroy large portions of their crops if they do not meet a certain level of visual appeal. These practices are flawed and unnecessary. Blemished produce can often be just as safe and just as tasty as picturesque produce. Variations are natural and have little to no impact on the quality of your meal.
The next time you’re hunting for apples, don’t overlook the one with the little brown spot. The few extra seconds it takes to cut out the bruised area is offset with the knowledge that it wasn’t dumped into a landfill.
Only Buy What You Need
Grocery stores make it easy to buy more food than you actually need. While a nice buy-one-get-one is tempting, these deals will more than likely result in you buying more than you’ll use. Before picking up that extra cucumber, ask yourself: “Am I going to eat this?” Chances are, you’ll see a few things in your cart that are better off in the store, rather than in your fridge.
To avoid buying too much, make a grocery list only after taking stock of your food. Still have a few carrots? Don’t buy any. Are you sure you don’t have an extra can of corn in the back? Double check. You’ll probably save money, not to mention space in your kitchen.
Meal planning is also an excellent way to combat overstocking your kitchen. Knowing exactly what you need for the week ensures that you don’t end up with extra ingredients. Above all, it keeps perfectly edible foods from going straight from your fridge and into the trash.
Interpret Best-By Dates As a Measurement of Quality, Not Safety
Once it’s past the date, it’s no longer safe to consume, right? As it turns out, this isn’t true! This misbelief paves an ongoing superhighway that moves safe, edible food from store to home to landfill.
If best-by dates aren’t there to let consumers know their food has gone bad, what are they there for?
Best-by, sell-by, and use-by dates are usually designated by the manufacturer. In most cases, they indicate the timeframe for the product’s highest quality, not its safety. If you’re still worried about an “expired” food being unsafe for consumption, the experts say that you probably don’t need to be. The USDA states that food does not automatically spoil once the best-by date has passed. (This statement excludes infant formula.) In fact, they also affirm that your own senses are a good way to detect spoilage.
If you notice that something in your fridge is past the printed date, it doesn’t mean it must be thrown out. Don’t chuck it—check it. Spoiled food will look, smell, and taste terrible. If it’s a can of beans from 1994, it’s probably not a great idea to give it the good ole’ taste test. As always, use your best judgment.
As long as it’s been stored properly, it’s probably safe to eat.
Or if cracking open a can past its expiration date just always makes you uncomfortable, there are ways to avoid this risk. Keep track of what’s in your cabinets and fridge at all times. Go through them often, be aware of what you have, and make sure to use them. And, as aforementioned, only buy what you will most certainly use. If you really can’t bring yourself to eat those peaches or green beans, consider donating them.
Consider Plant Box Gardening & Composting (It’s Easier Than You Think!)
Even if you keep a tight grocery list and a well-organized refrigerator, you will inevitably end up with some level of food waste—eggshells or orange peels are hard to use in a recipe. Luckily, composting is a simple and effective way to reduce food waste and put scraps to good use.
Keeping a compost pile is also an incredible way to kickstart your own mini-garden. Having a few fresh herbs and veggies on hand is a great way to save money. Many vegetables are easy to grow and even easier to cook with. Plus, whatever you don’t eat cycles back into the compost. (Also, who doesn’t want an adorable vegetable garden?)
For those looking to start a compost pile, there are plenty of resources available online that will teach you how to get started. To reduce food waste effectively with a compost pile, a little maintenance is required. Here’s a brief guide to composting:
- Find a composting bin, or build a box for your compost pile. Some types of bins may make it easier to turn the pile, but if you don’t mind a little more work, a box does just fine.
- Start the pile by adding brown debris. Brown debris refers to dry waste, like sticks, paper products, dried leaves, and even hair. Next, add green debris. This includes wet materials and most food waste, such as fruit peels and rinds, eggshells, coffee grounds, etc. For the fastest results, cut the foods into smaller pieces before you add them. Then, add some moist soil.
- Do NOT add animal products such as meat, bones, or dairy—unless you’re willing to put in some extra work. If you don’t bury these materials at the bottom of your pile, they’ll create a strong odor that attracts more pests (and repels more guests).
- A few times a month, turn your compost. Use a shovel or pitchfork to mix things up. If you have a turning bin, this process might be a bit easier. This helps even things out, avoids bad smells, and provides oxygen to all the microbes. If you find that it’s too crunchy, add some water or more green debris. If it’s too wet, add soil or brown debris.
- Keep track of it, but don’t over manage. Compost needs time to develop into nutrient-dense fertilizer. (At the same time, don’t let this be an excuse to let it fall by the wayside.)
- Once you’ve developed a good green/brown balance and have turned it several times, wait. And keep waiting.
- After a few months, your compost will be ready for use in the garden. There are several ways to tell if your compost is ready:
- Can you see any obvious food waste leftover in it?
- Is it dark and moist, like soil?
- Is the pile about half its original size?
- Is the center of the compost warm, or does it have an even temperature throughout? Working microbes in compost generate heat; warm compost is not ready.
Once your compost passes these tests, it’s ready for garden processing. Here’s a quick breakdown to using compost in your garden:
- Begin by filtering out any stubborn bits, such as wood chips. Garden soil should be fairly even and have no chunks. This process is called screening. You can purchase a screen, sift through by hand, or make your own filter.
- Mix one part compost with two parts potting soil. Compost is a fantastic fertilizer but is too moist and soft to grow happy plants on its own.
- Fill garden beds or pots with the mixture. The specifics will depend on the plant you’re growing, but generally, make sure there’s plenty of space for roots.
- Seed, water, sprout, grow and harvest away.
Keep It Up—And Spread The Word
The more awareness there is about how to reduce food waste, the less food will be wasted. Effective activism starts, and ends, with simple things. Encourage everyone in your household to follow good practices. If you have special clean-fridge tricks or composting tips, share your ideas on social media.
Knowing how to reduce food waste is one thing. Consistently doing it is another! The key is to keep practicing. As you convert these mindful practices into steady habits, they really do make an impact. Never underestimate the power of small changes.
Joanna Davison is a tiny life enthusiast, plant-based advocate, traveller, and writer. From the desert to the forest, she’s always eager to explore new places. You can view her writing at joannadavison.com