Curbing food waste (convictions) on the home front
I often come home from interviewing a farmer or a chef or an environmentalist of some stripe and find myself convicted about where my food is coming from, how I’m cooking it and its impact on the world. As a writer, I don’t necessarily have to act on these convictions.
If I acted on every one of them, I reason, I wouldn’t have time to write about them. I’d be starting a backyard farm and canning and cookbook-ing and generally saving the world. Sure, I dabble in all these things (especially saving the world, of course), but freelance writing on several topics helps me avoid commitment.
That’s why my wee garden grows only herbs, salad and an experiment in front-flower-pot eggplant this year. And why I’m pretty sure Julia Child, much as I admire her, would wince at my quick version of eggs broken and scrambled right there in the hot pan. And why I haphazardly apply environmental knowledge and tell myself we’re growing “biodiversity” when dandelions dot the lawn (maybe we’ll try controlled burning next year).
All this knowledge gets stored along the way, but eventually I act on some of the low-hanging fruit. And some low-hanging fruit we could all do better on is how much food we waste.
I wrote a story that ran today in The Washington Post‘s food section about entrepreneurs who see business opportunities in all the food we waste in this country. (You can read the story here.) They’re turning “excess” and “ugly” into CSAs and apple chips. And they’ve inspired me to reconsider how I see past-its-prime food in my own kitchen.
We all have those days when we come home with a car full of groceries and set them on the counter, only to realize there isn’t room for them in the fridge… and that most of that stuff in the fridge is on the verge of going bad. Then we wheel the trashcan over to the open fridge door and commence the de-shelving of shame, moving produce we bought with the best of intentions into the garbage because we never got around to it.
While I can’t guarantee this won’t happen again because I wrote an article about food waste and “saw the light,” I’d very much like for it to happen less. So here is the low-hanging fruit in my kitchen life that I’m picking up on to curb food waste. And a few tips:
- Meal plan. Meal plan. Meal plan. The EPA says the best way to reduce food waste is to avoid buying and producing food we won’t eat in the first place. I’ve always been a proponent of this one, but sometimes I don’t have time to both make a meal list and get to the store. On those days, I go with what I know, snatching ingredients I am certain I will use in standby recipes (like veggie hash). I take a look at my calendar — even while wandering the grocery or farmers market aisles — and count how many dinners I’m actually going to make. Buying the ingredients for five when you’ll realistically only be home/have time for two will not force you to make those five meals. It will force you to throw stuff out. If you don’t know where to start, check out the meal planning services of the Six O’Clock Scramble or Relay Foods.
- Be realistic. When planning, don’t tell yourself that this week will be different and you’ll miraculously find the time to turn those morels into risotto even though you know they’ll probably languish until they’re frantically tossed into an omelet — or worse. Learn from the mistakes of the week before and, remember, the goal (at least in the new-mom season of life I’m in) is not to make a restaurant-worthy meal every night so much as to make something most nights. Take the long view, give yourself grace and remember that it takes time and thought to change habits.
- Eat what’s going bad first, preferably before it goes bad. And find tricks for masking it if you’re a little too late, like a really good salad dressing, or a good roast. Don’t be afraid to cut around the bad parts and eat the rest. This is especially true for cheese and vegetables. I had a block of feta that was a bit past-due around the edges, but the center was just fine, so I scattered it on this salad. The same goes for the lettuce, which I picked through to remove any bad pieces. And I keep a lot of our meat in the freezer and thaw it a day ahead. Bottom line? Buying good food makes it just too expensive to let it languish unused.
- Grow your own. Just some of it, if you like. And especially the things you find yourself buying but wasting most of it, like herbs and salad. See my post on the case for growing your own herbs here. And a secondary suggestion to that, if you don’t garden but frequent farmers markets instead, is to Can Your Own.
- Compost. We started easing into a little compost last year, and it’s not so bad! It’s been a start-stop operation, to be sure, and it’s not the sort of thing to start when you’re pregnant and a bit queasy about the smell of rotting food. We bought a barrel that flips to turn the compost at a farmers market, and a bin to keep under the sink. Sometimes it’s brimming by the time I make it to the outdoor bin. Even if you don’t garden, you can spread the compost in the yard. The point is, you’re keeping compostable food out of landfills and creating a secondary product for your garden. You can also buy bins at the Alexandria Old Town Farmers Market and bring your waste back there each week for the city to compost it, for example.
There are many more things I could recommend, but I’d also like to hear your ideas. What’s helped you curb food waste at home? And check out my article if you’re interested in supporting businesses that are rethinking the food waste equation.