Eat the food you buy!
Updated: Jan 12
Bad climate news can leave us feeling depressed, paralyzed, and resigned to our fate. And yes, our leaders need to start representing the people rather than the fossil fuel industry, but we as individuals can take one action today that will significantly help combat climate change: Eat the food you buy!
Firstly, some facts about the problem.
Up to 40 percent of the food we produce in the US goes uneaten. National Resources Defense Council
Worldwide, a third of the food we produce goes uneaten. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
Americans waste, on average, one pound of food per day per person. Guardian
If food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, just behind the US and China. World Resources Institute
When food decomposes in a landfill, it releases methane gas, a greenhouse gas that warms the planet at a rate 86 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 10 to 20-year period before decaying to CO2. Scientific American
Worldwide, food waste contributes 8 percent of all anthropogenic (humanmade) greenhouse gas emissions. Project Drawdown
Wasted food squanders 21 percent of all the water used in US agriculture. National Resources Defense Council
By weight, food is the largest contributor to US landfills. National Resources Defense Council
1 in 8 people living in the US is food insecure. While this statistic doesn’t relate to emissions, I included it because it is obscene. National Resources Defense Council
Now, let’s move on to the solutions – what we all can do to reduce food waste and, at the same time, combat climate change.
1. Start a food waste audit
You will have a better idea of what you waste if you measure it. At the end of each day, jot down what food went to waste and why. If you discover that no one in your household likes your red velvet ketchup cake, stop baking it. Or perhaps you find shriveled Romaine in the back of the refrigerator all too often. In order words, you need to plan your meals more.
2. Use your senses
If you have leftovers in the refrigerator that you worry has gone south, give them a sniff and take a look at them. If they smell OK and look OK, they probably are OK to eat. If not, compost them. With packaged food, make this same judgment rather than relying on the best-before, sell-by, and use-by dates stamped onto the packaging. Generally unregulated, these dates do not indicate food safety. Rather, these suggested dates from the food manufacturer indicate the food company’s opinion of the peak quality. In other words, they are often a marketing gimmick.
3. Plan a few meals
Think of a dish or two you can make with the food you have on hand and make a list of any missing ingredients. What else would you like to eat within the next few days or weeks? Add the ingredients you’ll need for those dishes to your shopping list—and stick to that list when you shop. Go here for easy meal planning and a planner you can fill or download.
4. Shop the pantry and refrigerator first
If you use up food that you have on hand, you’ll waste less of that food—and save money. Before you shop, take a glance through your pantry and refrigerator and make a mental note (or paper note or digital note) of what you find.
5. Buy less food
When we see all the delicious food at the farmers’ market or grocery store, many of us can’t resist it and buy too much. Or we vow to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables in a noble attempt to eat better—and we buy too much. Or we go shopping hungry. Generally, to waste less food, buy less food. If you can, also consider buying smaller amounts of food more frequently. This ensures your food will always be fresh. (Covid makes more frequent shopping difficult, however.)
6. Choose ugly fruit and vegetables
Some of the 40 percent of the food we waste in this country never actually makes it to the store. Why? Because most grocery stores reject ugly produce—kinky carrots, oblong apples, misshapen potatoes. But thanks to awareness-raising movements like the “Ugly” Fruit and Veg Campaign, people have begun to discover that produce that doesn’t fit into the supermarket image of ideal beauty still tastes delicious—and costs less.
Some grocery stores have begun to sell ugly produce. However, if you shop at the farmers’ market, much of the crop is wonky because that’s how fruit and vegetables grow. A few vendors at my farmers’ market sell cosmetically challenged apples, avocados, and occasionally other types of products for a deep discount.
7. Do some prep work when you return home from shopping
Leafy greens like lettuce, kale, and spinach tend to wilt quickly, so I plan to eat them soon after I buy them, and I prep them when I return home from the farmers’ market. I trim them, cut any large pieces into smaller ones, wash and then spin them around outside over my head in a clean cloth produce bag. I then put the bags of prepped and ready-to-eat greens in the vegetable crisper of the refrigerator. This way they stay fresh for a long time—at least a week.
8. Store food properly
Not everything needs to go—or should go—in the fridge. Cool temperatures render tomatoes mealy and bland. Apples, however, will keep longer in there than they will at room temperature. Citrus—oranges, grapefruit, lemons—can develop spots on their rinds in cool temperatures. Click here for my A to Z list of storing produce without plastic.
9. Store food in glass containers
If you store leftover lasagna in an opaque container, you may forget about it until you stumble upon its decomposing remains a month later. Store food in glass in your refrigerator, your freezer, and your cupboards, and you can see what you have at a glance.
10. Freeze excess food
If you have some food on your hands that will start to turn before you can eat it, freeze it. You can freeze all sorts of food—soup, bread, cooked beans, nuts, cheese, milk, blanched vegetables, roasted tomatoes, fruit (slice it and spread it out on a tray and then transfer to jars), and more. Click here for how to freeze food without using plastic.
11. When the time comes to buy a new refrigerator, consider choosing a smaller one
The Western diet, consisting of pre-packaged, processed convenience foods, does not require cooking skills. People used to preserve food through fermentation (see number 14), salting, and smoking. They would put up food when it was plentiful to prepare for when it would not be.
Today, we rely on our refrigerators to prolong our food’s shelf-life, essentially preserving our food for us. And refrigerators—big energy hogs—just keep getting bigger and bigger. This trend affects our wallets, our health, and our waste streams—all for the worse. Because the larger the refrigerator, the more food you buy, the more food you eat, and likely some of the food stashed in the fridge will end up in the trash.
In the next blog post, you will learn about cooking strategies to slash food waste at home.
Blogger @Zero-Waste Chef