The 3 Commandments of Food Waste Reduction

With the holidays on the horizon, I’d like to take a few minutes of your time to discuss an often-overlooked environmental issue: food waste.

According to the FDA, food waste accounts for between 30 and 40 percent of the food supply. Yes, we waste one third to two-fifths of the food we produce in this country. In 2010 (outdated statistic), we wasted “approximately 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food”. What’s more, when we waste food, we are also wasting the resources that went into producing it, such as water, gasoline, energy, labor, pesticides (yuck), and fertilizers (also yuck). Food (FOOD!) is the largest category of material in our landfills. And food breaks down into methane, which is a highly potent greenhouse gas. (Read the FDA article here)

So, what can we do about it? The following are my The Commandments of Food Waste Reduction.

Know thyself and thy family. What foods do you and your family actually like and eat? Create an easy meal plan based on the meals your family actually consumes regularly. I have shared our easy family-friendly vegetarian meal plan, and here are a few others from Eating Well, A Couple Cooks, and Healthline. This meal plan will be the basis for your grocery shopping list each week. Having a solid meal plan and a grocery list will help you to avoid the eye-catching displays and random purchases that often lead to food waste.

Here is our meal plan for the holidays last December. It’s messy, but it gets the job done. By the way, we had guests at the house, so don’t get the impression that we are always whipping up Date and Chocolate Truffles or African Peanut Stew! However, this meal plan should give you an idea of how we do it. The numbers are page numbers in various cookbooks and the stars stand for make-ahead or frozen. I kept this meal plan from last year, so I could re-use parts of it this holiday season (hopefully our friends from Vermont will be able to join us again…).

Choose thy food wisely. When you are at the store, choose fruits and vegetables with a longer shelf life, such as apples, bananas, potatoes, carrots, and squash, over those that quickly spoil or are notoriously fragile, like avocados, mangos, and melons. And opt for the ugliest fruit or vegetable available. Chances are it will taste just as good and you will save it from becoming food waste.

My husband rescued this yellow oranges from the sale section of the grocery store.

When you shop for bulk or container goods, know thy family (see First Commandment). Will you really go through a fifty pound bag of oatmeal before it goes bad (we do!)? Will you finish the big thing of mixed greens before it turns to slime (for another option to buying greens at the store, read this)? Pay attention to what has been wasted in the past and don’t buy it again, or buy less of it.

Bulk shopping allows you to get just the right amount of a spice or dry good.

Monitor thy food. Keeping track of what’s in your cabinets, fridge, and freezer is a really important habit. Doing a quick sweep to see what needs to be eaten soon on a weekly basis can really cut down on your food waste. We do a “Sunday Soup” each week to take care of all the random cooked or fresh vegetables, turn leftover oatmeal into cookies, and use leftover or stale bread to make french toast casserole.

If you do encounter something past its “expiration date”, don’t despair. According to the FDA, the only food that requires an expiration date is baby formula. Any other dates are added by the companies themselves and should be understood to be somewhat self-serving. Companies are being encouraged to use the label “Best Used By” in order to signify that the food is still totally edible after that date, maybe just not as flavorful.

Food Recovery Hierarchy Triangle in Six Steps. Top (most preferred) to bottom (least preferred): Source Reduction, Feed Hungry People, Feed Animals, Industrial Uses, Composting, and Landfill/Incineration.
This graphic from the EPA, shows the optimal food recovery hierarchy.

For thine own waste, take responsibility. Knowing what to do with food you don’t want is really important. If you did, perchance, buy ten boxes of a pasta that no one wants to eat, your best option is to donate it to a local food bank. If the food is opened, the food bank won’t be able to take it, but finding a local farmer with chickens or a pig is a great option because your unusable food will essentially be turned into usable food. If neither of those options is available or if the food is truly not edible, turning your food into compost will help feed your garden and thus your family.

An additional note for restaurant, institution, or business owners: you can participate in the Food Recovery Challenge through the EPA and receive lots of help in reducing your food waste.

A Brief Note on Food Waste this Holiday Season:

  • Take stock of what you already have (hint: the random can of pumpkin in the back of your pantry from last Thanksgiving is most likely still good!).
  • Ask your family and guests if they actually want the standard holiday meal (it turns out a lot of people don’t even like turkey and ham). You could even opt for a vegetarian Thanksgiving this year!
  • Ask everyone to bring a few glass containers or tupperware to bring home leftovers.
My mom’s famous pumpkin bread… trust me, none of this went to waste!

I wish everyone happy and waste-free holiday meal planning!

– Hannah

What do you do to reduce food waste at home?

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