Food brings joy to our hearts, comfort to our souls, and, sadly, a hefty pile in our waste bins. Astonishingly, up to 50% of all food produced in the US annually meets a premature end in landfills, an unpalatable encore to our daily meals.
It averages out to a staggering 350 kg of discarded food per person each year. But our wasteful ways are not just an issue of waste. It's a climate catastrophe, too, with the UN reporting that food waste is responsible for belching out a whopping 3.3 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases each year.
But fear not, dear reader, for amid these daunting statistics, there is hope. We're here to serve a buffet of practical food waste solutions that can help us all make a difference.
1. Meal Plan
Begin by inventorying what you already have in your pantry, refrigerator, and freezer. Look especially at perishable items that need to be used soon.
Next, find recipes that use these ingredients. For instance, if you have a lot of carrots and celery in your fridge, consider making a vegetable stir-fry or soup. If you have leftover roast chicken, you can make chicken salad, chicken noodle soup, or chicken fried rice.
Create a meal plan for the week based on the recipes you've found. Consider your schedule — if you have a busy day, that might be a good day for a slow cooker meal or a simple salad using leftover proteins.
List out any additional ingredients you'll need for your recipes.
Recheck your pantry to ensure you're not buying something you already have. Stick to your list when you go shopping. Resist the temptation to purchase items not on your list, especially perishable items.
When you get home from shopping, prep your ingredients. For instance, if you bought a head of lettuce for salads, wash and dry it, then store it properly. Having ingredients ready to go makes sticking to your meal plan more manageable.
Be flexible. If you plan to make a salad for dinner but are not in the mood, swapping meals around within your plan is okay.
2. Store Your Food Properly
The way we store our food is crucial for several reasons. Firstly, it dramatically impacts the longevity of food, influencing how long it stays fresh and safe to eat. Improper storage can cause food to spoil or become contaminated more quickly, leading to unnecessary waste and potential health risks.
Secondly, it has significant economic implications. By storing food properly, we can avoid waste and save money on grocery costs. The less food we throw out, the less we need to buy.
Thirdly, appropriate food storage helps preserve the nutritional value of food. Some nutrients can degrade over time, or when exposed to air, light, or heat, so proper storage can keep our food healthier.
Lastly, sustainable food storage practices are essential for environmental reasons. Using reusable and plastic-free storage solutions can significantly reduce waste and our overall environmental footprint.
Plastic-Free Storage Solutions:
- Glass Containers are ideal for storing leftovers, dry goods, and freezing food.
- Beeswax Wraps: Reusable, washable, and compostable, these wraps are great for covering bowls and wrapping produce, cheese, and sandwiches.
- Silicone Bags: Reusable and dishwasher-safe, these bags can replace single-use plastic bags for storing all sorts of foods.
- Stainless Steel Containers: These are durable, long-lasting, and great for storing food in the fridge, freezer, or pantry.
- Cotton Produce Bags: Useful for shopping and storing fruits, vegetables, and bulk goods.
- Ceramic Containers with Bamboo Lids: Stylish and functional, these are great for storing dry goods on open shelves.
- Mason Jars: Perfect for storing dry goods, leftovers or making meals like overnight oats or salads.
- Wooden Boxes or Baskets: Ideal for storing items like onions, potatoes, and garlic in a cool, dark, well-ventilated space.
Tips for Storing Food to Help Them Last Longer:
- Refrigerate Produce Correctly: Some fruits and vegetables prefer the fridge, while others do better at room temperature.
- Store Dairy Products on Fridge Shelves: Not in the door, where the temperature fluctuates.
- Store Raw Meat and Seafood on the Bottom Shelf: To prevent their juices from contaminating other food.
- Keep Fruits and Vegetables Separate: Some fruits emit ethylene gas, which can cause vegetables to spoil faster.
- Use a Bread Box for Bread: This prevents the bread from drying.
- Store Nuts and Whole Grains in the Freezer: To keep them from going rancid.
- Store Herbs Like Flowers: Trim the ends and store them in a glass of water in the fridge.
- Store Bananas, Apples, and Tomatoes by Themselves: These produce more ethylene gas and can make other produce spoil faster.
- Don't Wash Produce Until Just Before You Use It: Moisture can lead to mold and spoilage.
3. Organize Your Fridge
Organizing your fridge more optimally and strategically can drastically cut back on food waste. This is all about ensuring the visibility of items and understanding where in your fridge items should be stored based on temperature.
For instance, imagine you've just returned from the supermarket with fresh produce, dairy products, raw meat, frozen foods, and pantry items.
Starting with the highly perishable things, like raw meats and dairy products, it's advisable to store these on the lower shelves of your fridge. This section maintains a consistently colder temperature, ideal for longer preserving these items.
Remember, the aim is to consume older items first, so you should place the newly bought items behind the older ones. This system, often called 'First In, First Out,' ensures the older products get used before they spoil.
The crisper drawers are designed to hold fruits and vegetables. These compartments provide a humid environment ideal for produce, preventing dehydration and helping these foods last longer. As a pro tip, try to separate fruits from vegetables, as some produce ethylene gas, which can speed up the ripening (and subsequently the spoiling) of certain vegetables.
The top shelves and the door sections of your fridge are the areas with the most temperature fluctuation. This makes them perfect for items that needn't necessarily refrigerated, like condiments, jams, and certain fruits.
Plastic-free options are available when it comes to freezing items, particularly meat. One of the best ways to store meat without plastic is using glass containers. These are not only sustainable, but they're also convenient since you can freeze, thaw, and even cook in the same container. Silicone freezer bags are another excellent option. They are durable, reusable, and perfect for storing all sorts of foods, including meat.
4. Preserve Food
Learning to preserve your food is an incredibly rewarding and practical skill that can dramatically extend the life of your produce, prevent waste, and provide a wealth of culinary options.
This is perhaps the simplest and most accessible form of food preservation. Most foods, including fruits, vegetables, meats, and prepared meals, can be frozen.
For instance, if you find an overabundance of ripe bananas, you could peel them, slice them up, and freeze them on a tray. Once frozen, you can transfer them to a reusable silicone bag for later use in smoothies or baking. Similarly, leftover soup or stew can be portioned into glass containers and frozen for convenient future meals.
This method is a fantastic way to preserve various foods. Home canning can be done through water bath canning, perfect for high-acid foods like tomatoes, fruits, and pickles.
For example, during peak tomato season, you can make and can your tomato sauce to enjoy year-round. Or if you've got a bounty of fresh strawberries, you could make a batch of homemade jam.
Pickling isn't just for cucumbers! You can pickle various vegetables, extending their shelf life and adding a tangy flavor. For example, if you find yourself with more radishes, carrots, or green beans than you can eat, you can quickly pickle them by immersing them in a simple brine of vinegar, salt, and possibly some herbs and spices.
This method removes the water from food to extend its shelf life. It's particularly effective with fruits and vegetables and can add an exciting twist to their texture and flavor. Imagine you've bought a large bag of apples.
You can slice a few, spread them out on a dehydrator tray, and let them dehydrate until they become crispy apple chips. Similarly, you can make your sundried tomatoes by thinly slicing ripe tomatoes and dehydrating them.
5. Understand Expiration Dates
Understanding expiration dates can be like deciphering a secret code, but once you grasp these terms, they can serve as valuable guidelines rather than hard and fast rules.
"Best by," "sell by," and "use by" dates are often misinterpreted as safety indicators when, in fact, they usually reference the product's peak quality. In other words, it's about when the food is at its best, not when it becomes unsafe.
Let's take a closer look at each term:
"Best by" or "Best Before" dates:
Are recommendations for when the food will have the best flavor or quality? It's not about safety. For instance, a jar of salsa might have a "best by" date two weeks from now. It doesn't mean you'll get sick after eating it after this date, but it might not taste as fresh.
"Sell by" dates:
Help retailers manage their stock, ensuring they rotate their products adequately. It tells the store how long it takes to display the product for sale. As a consumer, you should buy the product before this date expires, but it doesn't mean the food is unsafe to eat after this date. For example, a carton of milk might have a "sell-by" date a few days away. It should still be good to drink for a week or so after that if it's been stored correctly in the refrigerator.
"Use by" dates:
Are the last date recommended for product use at peak quality? This doesn't mean the food is unsafe after this date, but its flavor and texture might start going downhill. For instance, a pack of fresh pasta might have a "use by" date of today, but if you cook and eat it tomorrow, it's likely still perfectly safe — it might not taste as good.
The key to remember is that proper storage is critical. Even a product within its "best by" date can go bad if it's not stored correctly, while an item past its "use by" date could be perfectly fine if properly stored.
It's also important to trust your senses. If something looks off, smells bad, or has a strange texture, it's best not to eat it, regardless of the date.
So, next time you're about to throw something away because it's past its "sell by" date, remember that this date is about peak quality, not safety. You could be throwing away perfectly good food and wasting your money. Understanding and acting on this can significantly reduce food waste at home and make our food habits more sustainable.
6. Buy "Ugly" or Discounted Food
Ugly" food, despite the name, is not to be shied away from but rather embraced with open arms. The term is used to describe fruits and vegetables that, while perfectly nutritious and delicious, don't meet the stringent cosmetic standards of supermarkets.
These could be apples with blemishes, crooked carrots, oversized zucchini, or even potatoes with a few too many eyes.
You see, supermarkets often have rigorous aesthetic criteria for produce. It's based on the assumption that we, the consumers, prefer our produce to look a certain way - apples should be round and shiny, bananas perfectly curved and blemish-free.
This means a lot of produce that doesn't meet these criteria gets left behind on the farm despite being perfectly good to eat.
Now, this is where buying "ugly" produce comes in! When we buy these aesthetically imperfect foods, often at a discount, we can make a massive difference in reducing food waste. Here's how.
Firstly, by purchasing this type of produce, we're sending a message to retailers and farmers that we value the content over the appearance of our fruits and vegetables. This can lead to a shift in supermarket standards, resulting in less waste at the farm level.
Secondly, buying "ugly" produce can be a win for our wallets. Since this produce doesn't meet the beauty standards of most supermarkets, it's often sold at a discount.
So, you can save money while still getting the same nutritional value. Imagine coming home with a bag full of perfectly good (if a little odd-shaped) peppers, tomatoes, and cucumbers, all for less than you'd typically pay.
Lastly, it's a win for the environment. Food production uses many resources, from water to grow crops to the energy used in harvesting and transportation. When we waste food, we're not just wasting the food itself but all the resources that went into producing it.
Buying and consuming "ugly" produce, we help ensure those resources aren't used in vain.
Ultimately, it's essential to remember that nature doesn't produce everything in perfect shapes and sizes, and that's okay. That too-small apple or that slightly discolored lettuce leaf can be just as tasty and nutritious as their picture-perfect counterparts.
7. Eat Your Leftovers
Leftovers can be the unsung heroes of our zero-waste kitchen, serving as the base for creative and delicious meals. The trick is to start seeing them not as remnants of past meals but as ingredients for your next culinary creation.
Let's take an example of a roast chicken dinner.
It's a delicious meal, but you often have leftover chicken and veggies. Instead of reheating the same meal the next day, why not transform it into something new and exciting? That leftover chicken could be the perfect protein for a chicken salad or a chicken and vegetable stir-fry.
You could shred it up and use it for chicken tacos or mix it with some mayonnaise and celery to create a quick chicken salad sandwich.
Similarly, consider a situation where you've cooked too much pasta for dinner. Instead of tossing it, you could repurpose that pasta into a pasta salad for lunch the next day.
Add some cherry tomatoes, olives, cucumber, feta cheese, a simple vinaigrette, and voila! You've got a refreshing and quick meal.
How about leftover veggies from a variety of meals? You could gather them all, sauté them in a pan, pour over some beaten eggs, and create a delicious and nutritious frittata.
Soups and stews are also fantastic ways to use up leftovers. For instance, let's say you have some leftover roast beef. That could quickly become the base for a hearty vegetable beef soup. Add chopped vegetables, broth, and seasonings, and let it simmer.
Leftover rice can become a quick-fried rice dish, and leftover mashed potatoes can be transformed into potato pancakes. The possibilities are truly endless when you start to get creative!
Another good idea is to freeze leftovers if you can't use them immediately. Most cooked foods freeze well, including grains, meats, and vegetables.
8. Control Your Portions
Portion control is essential to reducing food waste, which we can easily incorporate into our daily routines. To start, let's paint a picture - imagine you've cooked a big dinner for your family.
Everyone enjoys the meal, but there's too much food. Some of it is uneaten, scraped off plates, and into the trash. It's not a nice feeling, right? That's where portion control comes in.
Portion control is about preparing and serving the right food for each person. This doesn't just help reduce food waste, but it's also an excellent practice for maintaining a balanced diet. So how can we practice effective portion control?
One easy method is to start with smaller servings. If everyone finishes their first serving, they can go back for more. This is much better than loading up plates only for half the food to end up uneaten.
It's important to remind everyone that having seconds (or even thirds) is okay if they're still hungry, but let's start small.
When cooking, estimate how much each person eats and prepare your meals accordingly.
If you have kids, remember they generally eat less than adults. If you're making something easy to reheat (like soup, stew, or casseroles), consider making a larger batch and storing the leftovers for an easy meal on a future day.
For foods like rice, pasta, and other grains, a handy trick is to use measuring cups to ensure you're making less. For example, a serving of cooked pasta or rice for one person is usually about half a cup.
Another helpful tip is to use smaller plates and bowls. It's a psychological trick, but it works. A smaller plate full of food is much more satisfying than a larger plate that's only half-filled, even if the actual amount of food is the same.
Lastly, remember that it's okay if you don't get it right every time. Learning to estimate the correct portion sizes can take a bit of practice. But every time you do it, you're helping to reduce food waste and contribute to a more sustainable food system.
9. Start Composting
Composting is one of the best food waste solutions at home and a fantastic way to contribute to a healthier environment. It's a practice that turns your kitchen scraps into nutrient-rich soil, perfect for gardening.
Composting at home can seem daunting, but the process is relatively straightforward, even if you're living in an apartment. You don't need a big backyard or complex equipment to get started. You could repurpose an old Tupperware container or invest in a specially designed indoor compost bin.
To begin composting at home, start by collecting suitable food waste. You can compost fruit and vegetable peels, coffee grounds, eggshells, tea bags, and certain paper types. However, it's usually best to avoid composting meat, dairy, and cooked food as they can attract pests.
In your chosen compost container, balance 'green' waste (like vegetable peels, fruit scraps, and coffee grounds) and 'brown' waste (like paper, dead leaves, or cardboard). The green waste provides nitrogen, while the brown waste supplies carbon. This mix is vital to a healthy compost heap.
Now, the magic of composting comes from the microorganisms that decompose the waste material into compost. They need air and moisture to do their job, so make sure your compost bin has ventilation (holes in the side or top work well), and aim to keep the compost as damp as a wrung-out sponge.
Once you've set up your compost bin, add your food scraps, give the compost a turn or stir occasionally, and wait. Over time, the food waste will decompose into a rich, earthy substance perfect for nourishing your plants.
So why compost? Well, there are numerous benefits of composting.
Firstly, it reduces the amount of waste going to landfill. Food waste in landfills doesn't have the air to decompose properly, producing methane, a potent greenhouse gas. By composting at home, we can reduce methane emissions.
Secondly, compost enriches the soil in our gardens. It improves soil structure, helps retain soil moisture, and even suppresses plant diseases. Plus, it reduces the need for chemical fertilizers, promoting healthier and more sustainable gardening practices.
Lastly, composting connects us with nature's cycles. It's a tangible reminder of the journey from life to decay to new life again. Plus, there's something genuinely satisfying about turning waste into something useful.
Whether you have a sprawling backyard or a tiny apartment, composting is an excellent, sustainable solution for managing food waste. We can all take this action to contribute to a healthier planet, starting in our homes.
10. Broader Food Waste Solutions
Reducing food waste is an environmental necessity, impacting every food production, distribution, and consumption phase. Reasons for food waste are manifold, including spoilage due to inadequate storage, overstocking in stores, consumer neglect of leftovers, and the discarding of visually unappealing but edible produce.
The EPA and USDA have formulated a food recovery strategy that prioritizes:
- Source Reduction: This is the highest priority and most effective strategy. It aims at minimizing waste right at its origin. This involves careful planning and management in the production, distribution, and consumption stages to avoid surplus and, thus, reduce waste.
- Feed Hungry People: The second priority is redirecting surplus food to those needing it. This could involve donating to food banks, shelters, and soup kitchens. It's a socially beneficial way to utilize excess food that would otherwise be wasted.
- Feed Animals: When surplus food cannot be used to feed people, the next best alternative is to use it for livestock feed. It's a practical and sustainable way to deal with excess food and can also help reduce the ecological footprint of livestock farming.
- Industrial Uses: Surplus food, mainly organic waste, can be converted into various industrial products. This includes biofuels and other renewable energy sources, which can be used for electricity and heating. It's an environmentally friendly solution that utilizes food waste to generate energy.
- Composting: If food cannot be prevented from being wasted, used to feed people, animals, or converted into industrial products, composting is an effective alternative. This process turns food waste into nutrient-rich soil, which can be used to grow more food. It's a sustainable solution that helps create a circular economy.
Organizations, categorized by the different sectors they operate in:
Food Manufacturers and Suppliers
- Apeel: A company that produces an invisible, edible coating for fruits and vegetables, which can extend their shelf life by five times.
- Full Harvest: Builds a B2B marketplace for growers to sell surplus or imperfect produce to food companies.
- Hungry Harvest and Imperfect Produce: Two companies directly deliver food boxes of imperfect produce to consumers.
- Hazel Technologies: Produces small sachets that release a potent plant hormone which delays the ripening of fruits.
- Outcast Foods: Works with farmers, suppliers, and retailers to prevent produce from going to waste and turns it into plant-based products.
- OneThird: Provides suppliers with cloud-based software and handheld produce scanners to predict the shelf life of produce using AI.
- Neurolabs: Uses AI to predict supermarket sales, and provides real-time shelf monitoring.
Supermarkets and Retail Stores
- Wasteless: Israeli startup that uses machine learning to optimize the prices of items near their sell-by date.
- Flashfood: An app that allows users to browse food items approaching their best before date, purchase them at a discount, and pick them up in participating stores.
Restaurants and Food Services
- Tenzo: A software that uses AI to predict how much a restaurant will sell, enabling them to reduce food waste.
- Winnow: Provides products that allow kitchens to monitor their waste, using a weighing scale and an AI camera.
- Too Good To Go: A platform that allows restaurants and cafes to sell off about-to-be wasted food at a marked-down price at the end of each day.
- Copia: Connects businesses with surplus food to local shelters, after-school programs, and other nonprofit organizations.
- TotalCtrl: An inventory management platform that tracks inventory, automates manual tasks and provides reports to help reduce food waste and carbon emissions.
- Olio: An app that connects neighbors to share surplus food.
- FridgeCam: A wireless camera that takes a photo every time the fridge door is closed, allowing users to view its contents from anywhere via a mobile app.
- Bluapple: A product that absorbs ethylene gas, enabling fresh produce to be stored for longer.
- MyFoodways: An app that suggests recipes based on users' ingredients.
- Food Waste Alliance: A coalition of industry leaders seeking to reduce ecological footprint and eradicate hunger in America.
- Food Shift: Recovers and revitalizes surplus and imperfect locally available food in the San Francisco area.
- Food Cowboy: An app that connects those most likely to have surplus produce with the emergency food charity sector.
- Maeko: Sells composters to various institutions, helping the world achieve zero food waste.
- Food Cloud: Connects surplus food from businesses to over 7,500 charitable groups.
Retail Food Delivery
- Misfits Market: A platform for purchasing imperfect produce that wouldn't be sold in traditional grocery produce aisles.
- Imperfect Foods: Offers direct delivery of "ugly" produce to consumers.
- Hungry Harvest: Delivers boxes of imperfect produce directly to consumers' doors.
A final word on Food Waste
The implications of food waste stretch far beyond just discarded leftovers on a plate. It pertains to lost economic investments, unnecessary strain on natural resources, and heightened greenhouse gas emissions.
Implementing tangible food waste solutions directly contributes to environmental sustainability, resource conservation, and global food security.
As the world grapples with the increasing challenges of climate change and hunger, prioritizing actionable strategies to reduce food waste emerges as a responsible choice and imperative for our collective future.
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