26: No Food Waste

photo credit: Anna Tukhfatullina via Unsplash

The day after Thanksgiving seems to be a good time to talk about not being wasteful, don’t you think? Especially considering the fact that lots of people probably didn’t have as nice a Thanksgiving meal as you and I just had. The Turkey Trot that I ran yesterday is called “Run to Feed the Hungry” and benefits the Sacramento Foodbank that serves 250,000 people in our community. It’s a good reminder that lots of people experience food insecurity and need assistance.

My friend Stefanie asked me if I could write a post about “no food waste” and I thought it was a great idea as I am pretty committed to the concept. Not just because I hate throwing out food (makes me feel entitled and wasteful when I know others go hungry), but also because I am budget-conscious. I think of every item of food that spoils and that I have to throw out as money wasted (and let’s not forget the environmental impact of food waste!).

Coincidentally, but fittingly, I came across a local newspaper article last week announcing that starting next year, Sacramento will launch an organic recycling program. Residents will be required to recycle organic waste (food and other matter) to reduce the disposal of organic waste (by composting), recover edible foods for human consumption (by redistributing), and curb the effects of climate change (by avoiding for food to end up in the landfill).

The article stated that Californians disposed of about 27 million tons of organic waste in 2017, while one in eight Californians is food insecure. That’s mind-boggling. Also, food waste that ends up in the landfill decomposes and turns into Greenhouse gases.

Well, recycling organic food and other matters sounds great, not creating food waste in the first place sounds even better. Of course, we can’t completely avoid it, but using some smart tactics, we can reduce food waste, redistribute edible food to people who don’t have a steady food supply, and recycle food and organic matter (like coffee grounds, garden clippings, etc.) to actively participate in curbing the effects of climate change. It’s a win-win situation.

So if you are one of the people who claim “they want to do something, but don’t know how to go about it”, well, it all starts at home with rather small, manageable steps. 

Meal Planning

Earlier this month, I blogged about our meal planning routine. Back in the day, I used to be “against” meal planning (I just didn’t know any better), because I felt like it would be restrictive and how could I possibly know on grocery shopping day what I would like to eat the following Tuesday? These days, I honestly don’t know how people live without planning their meals. 

Meal planning is THE number one most important thing to stop food waste, IMHO.

Besides the fact that it is highly stressful to have to deal with the decision of what to make for dinner every single day, it’s a logistical nightmare to always shop for food at the last minute. And during pandemic times, it’s also become a risky way to handle things. 

But if you plan out your meals for a foreseeable time period in advance and shop accordingly, you’ll have what you need, but ideally won’t have any food that runs the risk of spoiling before you shop again. I mean, unless you eat pasta with canned pasta sauce every night and stock up on that for the month in advance. I guess that is its own kind of meal planning. 

Check your pantry

I know, this seems like it doesn’t deserve mentioning, but how many times did you end up cleaning out a cabinet or pantry, because you had stowed away food and completely forgot about it until months (sometimes years) later? 

This is why you need to be on top of our pantry. Know what you have, know when you bought it, and plan meals around pantry items that need to be used up. 

FIFO (First in, first out)

This goes hand in hand with the previous point: what goes in first, should come out first. So, if you stock up on certain items regularly, make sure you put newer purchases in the back and use up older purchases first, so they won’t expire. 

Check expiration dates

Paying attention to expiration dates is not wrong, but more often than not, expiration dates are no solid deadlines for when your food expires. Have you noticed that sometimes it says “sell buy, use by, best by, or freeze by” on the packaging? Believe it or not, none of these are “safety dates”. Get comfortable relying on your senses: if you handle food properly and it looks and smells normal, it’s safe to eat. Learn more about food product dating here.

Make a shopping list

One of the biggest problems with food waste is over-buying and then not being able to eat the food that you purchased. What a waste of food and money! There’s a reason why people write shopping lists: yes, on the one hand, to not forget anything that they might need for a specific meal, but also to stick to the meal plan (that they have hopefully created beforehand) and only buy food that has a planned purpose (esp. when it comes to perishable items).

Use Your Freezer

If you have produce or leftovers that you can’t eat, consider freezing them. Most fruits can be frozen and used in smoothies. Cooked grains and rice can go into the freezer, leftover sauces, and meat, too. Just remember to make plans (hence the meal planning) to use it rather sooner than later.

And did you know that most bread that you can buy here in the US always ends up on purpose in the freezer in Germany? I don’t remember ever having “toast” at home that was NOT stored in the freezer as a backup option. But not just toast, you can also freeze any other bread before it goes stale and pop it (frozen) in the toaster later.

Donate to food banks

Well, you should donate (money, if feasible) regardless of personal “no food waste” tactics, but if you have leftover nutritious, untouched foods that you won’t be able to consume in a timely manner, consider dropping them off at the local food bank or homeless shelter.

This is not yet an exhaustive list, but Jon and I have greatly reduced food waste in the last few years. We hardly ever throw anything out. It’s either food peelings or scraps (which I know we should have already found a way to compost or use to make stock, or what have you) or the very rare occasion where something spoils prematurely and unexpectedly. That just happens, but I’ve gotten better at estimating how long produce keeps fresh, how to store it, and checking occasionally on the freshness to make sure we can stick to the meal plan as planned or if we have to bring a meal forward on our meal plan. It’s all about a bit of organization and flexibility.

Any tips you’d like to add in order to avoid food waste?

  1. I HATE throwing out food and think our family has very minimal food wastage, adhering to almost all of the suggestions you mention above (this was a really great post, by the way!). Sadly, avocadoes seem to be the one item I can’t get quite right.

    Related to your “check the expiration date” advice, our local grocery store has entire sections for reduced items. I often source produce here – bell peppers to chop up into a chili, spinach that’s already a bit wilted that I can throw into a soup and, of course, overripe bananas for muffins and breads. I also source bread that is reduced and we just freeze it and toast one piece at a time (as needed) from the freezer. Often the items in these sections aren’t PAST their expiration date, they’re just getting close…and this tip helps reduce food waste at the store-level!

    1. That’s a great tip, Elisabeth to reduce food waste at the store-level by shopping the section for reduced items. I have done the same thing on occasion but could pay attention to that even more!

      Did you know that like 40% of produce is tossed at the fields for being “ugly” (not conforming to size/shape-standards)? That’s insane. I feel oddly drawn to weirdly shaped produce for that reason LOL

  2. Make notes on recipes! We tend to make changes to recipes as we move along (half an onion instead of a whole onion, crushed tomatoes instead of fireroasted crushed tomatoes, whatever) and I can think of times when I’ve had to get rid of half an onion, etc. because I just didn’t have it notated on the recipe. If you find an adjustment that works, take note! It will help you have more delicious food in the future and be less wasteful.

    1. Great tip, NGS! It’s important to know how much of something you really need for a recipe (esp. when it comes to produce that might be leftover). I tend to just throw in the whole thing if I suspect that it otherwise won’t be used in something else ;)

  3. We have an organic recycling/ compost/ green bin program here and it’s great. We do not waste (much) food around here – partly because of having teen boys, they eat basically everything like the food monsters they are. But mostly it’s because I meal plan and shop accordingly.

    1. Good for you for having an organic recycling/comport program in Canada. It’s been implemented in Germany for decades, but I feel like the US has ways to catch up in that department!

  4. This is such an important topic and I am constantly battling it. I hate throwing out food for the main reason that we live in such a luxery and carelessness while so many people in this world are going hungry. I always remember my grandparents talking about how they made ends meet during WWII when they had nothing. When they cooked soup form potato peels. Or from stale bread.
    That said, unfortunately the husband is very strict about not eating anything after the best by date. So I end up trying to hide it in dishes because its just not bad. I struggle with citrus fruits. It seems like they are always going to be moldy as soon as I have them home. specially organic lemons. I hate it.
    I think I need to get back to a bit more meal planning. Or at least having some meals ready to cook.
    Here is another tip. I often freeze stems of broccoli, asparagus peels and other veggie scraps and make a vegetable broth. I also freeze smaller veggies amounts like pea pods, mushrooms, beans and can throw together a quick soup.

    1. Oh, I know these stories from my grandparents as well… how little they had during WWII and to what length they went to create a meal. We really are spoiled these days.

      I love the idea of freezing peels and leftover veggies to make broth! I should start doing that!!

  5. We’ve had organic recycling here for probably 4 years I think? I love it! We have a little bin on our counter with a charcoal filter – I never smell it, even in the summer! I think it’s definitely lowered our waste. We throw out 1 kitchen garbage bag of trash each week which I think is pretty good for a family of 4. Using cloth diapers certainly helps, too.

    I hate wasting food, too. But we do a good job avoiding that. For me, cutting up things like peppers, celery, etc, helps us go through them quicker. The easier it is to grab something for a snack, the more likely I am to eat it. But like you’ve said, meal planning and knowing your inventory is so key!

    1. Oh, I’d love to know more about the bin/charcoal filter that you use in the kitchen. Can you share more information?

  6. Thank you so much for highlighting this issue – because it is a HUGE problem in this country! I’m so glad to hear that Sacramento, at least, is progressive about reducing food waste in landfills. Yay, California.

    I rarely if ever throw away food (it’s literally throwing money away!). However, I also rely heavily on frozen foods (sometimes fresh produce is hard to come by here, in the winter, especially) and those come in plastic bags. I don’t know if they are #4 recyclable… I should check, though! It does frustrate me, because I know the packaging is not good for the planet, either.

    I rarely pay much attention to expiration dates… except when it’s really bad (e.g., I just threw something out the other day with an expiration date of… 2018! Yikes!). I usually use the sniff test, lol.

    The benefit of it just being me, though, is that I know what I will eat, and eating the same thing for breakfast and lunch a) simplifies things, and b) makes it so that I know exactly how much to buy each week!

    1. I can imagine it’s hard to plan food for one person, but it also makes it easier to simply meals (I guess).
      I understand that you sometimes rely on frozen foods. While frozen food in itself is not bad, the packaging can be “horrific” for the environment. Kudos to you for trying to pay attention to that.

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