I recently heard a staggering claim, according to the U.N. World Food Program: If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest greenhouse-gas-emitting country in the world (right behind China and the U.S.). Here in the United States, we waste up to 40% of our food. The more our family learns, the more we are determined to make our kitchen a battleground for food waste. We try to tackle food waste as a game in which we win by leaving our fridge as close as possible to empty by the week’s end. Knowing that this decreases our contribution to greenhouse gas emissions (and, therefore, global warming) is satisfying. As a plus, we save money.
Meal planning can quicken our weeknight cooking routine, help us stick to our nutritional goals, and cut down on waste. It is helpful to be realistic in terms of how many meals we will eat at home versus at a restaurant. We always try to check the refrigerator before making a supermarket run. Sometimes we turn emptying the refrigerator at the end of the week into a cooking-show-type challenge by coming up with recipes based on the ingredients on hand. There are also plenty of apps that provide inspiration by allowing a search by the ingredients on hand. Omelets, soups, pasta sauce, and stir fries are all great ways to use leftovers pieces of vegetables or meat.
Buying produce that is not prepackaged allows us to buy the specific amount we need. Recently, we have tried to take our waste reduction further by using mesh produce bags rather than plastic ones to carry items such as green beans, etc.
Purchasing food in bulk can be tempting, but I try to remember that it will only save money if it does not go to waste.
Think outside the box in terms of freezing. Going on a trip? Rather than tossing leftover food in the fridge, we try to freeze items such as bread and milk. Slightly over-ripened fruit can be frozen to be used in a smoothie or banana bread. Vegetable peels and scraps can be used to make vegetable stock.
Planning a leftover buffet once per week or making leftovers part of our work lunch routine helps us end the week with an emptier fridge.
Hosting an event? Using online portion calculators can help to reduce waste. Keeping track of the numbers of guests as well as how much food was made and left over can be helpful when making the same recipe in the future.
Have a pet? After checking with our vet, we freeze certain leftovers such as fish skin inside a rubber toy. These serve as tasty occasional treat and keep our pooch occupied while we are away.
Sending school lunches? After volunteering in my school’s cafeteria, I have realized the importance of checking in with kids to make sure I know what they are eating at lunchtime (vs. what they might be throwing out in the trash at school). That allows me to adjust if they need a smaller portion or have grown tired of a certain food item.
The more we try to be mindful of waste, the less food we order at a restaurant. After considering portion sizes and side dishes, we can often feed the whole family on less food than we might have previously ordered. Any leftovers are a welcome work lunch and, if we are able to align the stars right, we might even bring our own container and cut down on the plastic restaurant containers.
Despite our best efforts, some food waste will always happen. Composting can return these nutrients to the garden soil while at the same time reducing greenhouse emissions produced by food decomposition. For those interested, there is a variety of composting options in Evanston. The City provides a bin that we use for fruits and vegetables as well as leaves and many other items. This type of composting cannot include oils, meat, or dairy. Other options for those with space constraints are Collective Resources (a paid service that will pick up a smaller bin every week) or, for animal lovers worm rearing by vermicomposting. These grateful critters will quickly eat up scraps and turn them into compost. This is a great time for composting in Evanston since the City has announced a yard waste ride-along program starting this spring. Interested residents will be able to compost in their yard waste bin by paying an additional fee.
Discussing food waste at home has helped our family think about how our everyday actions impact the planet. It is empowering to feel like we can make a difference in a way that is both good for us and good for the Earth.
Dr. Cabiya is a District 65 parent, a physician with an interest in environmental health, and an Evanston resident who is involved in sustainability issues across the district.