The next food revolution is here: stemming the tide of food waste. Roughly 40 percent of the American harvest never reaches our mouths. Fourteen percent of the contents of the average landfill is food that has been thrown away. Meanwhile, nearly 50 million Americans are “food-insecure"; globally, one in eight people go to bed hungry each night.
The shopping, cooking, and eating habits of every day consumers are responsible for the bulk of wasted food, which is actually good news—it means we have the power to make a significant and immediate change in the food waste equation.
Of course there are also big structural issues at play—from regulations that encourage grocery stores to discard food prematurely to an industrialized agricultural system that is not nimble enough to make sure the entire crop actually makes it to market—but changes in consumer behavior will ultimately coalesce and move those larger levers in the global food economy as well. Here are a few tips to get started with shrinking the food waste footprint of your own household.
At the Grocery Store
Shop Smart. Becoming conscious of food waste means elevating meal planning to an exact science. To the extent possible, plan your weekly food supply in advance and buy only what you need. Purchases made on a whim are often those that sit on the shelf at home until they are stale or rotten, eventually ending up in the garbage. The old-fashioned approach of making a shopping list based on recipe quantities can go a long way toward preventing the purchase of unnecessary items, but today there are a host of food shopping apps designed specifically for the waste-conscious consumer.
Choose Quality Over Quantity. The flipside of food waste is excess consumption; arguably the most deadly disease in our society. The best quality foods (organic, fair trade, fresh, unprocessed, etc.) may cost more, but that reinforces buying less, thereby reducing waste while improving social, environmental, and personal health outcomes. Put another way: shop like a Zen master, striving to be conscious of the purpose for each item chosen.
Buy Ugly Produce! A tremendous amount of the food produce never makes it to the grocery store shelf, because of blemishes, overripeness, small size, or other imperfections—nothing that makes it inedible. But that’s changing, as “ugly produce” becomes a new niche market. For example, Whole Foods just announced a partnership with Imperfect Produce, one of many recent startups on a mission to re-route produce destined for the compost pile or landfill.
Around the House
Organize the Refrigerator and Pantry. Each time you bring home a load of groceries, make sure to pay attention to all the edible food that is still in the house and make a plan to use it before it goes bad. The acronym FIFO—first in, first out—has been coined as a reminder to consume perishable items in the order they are purchased. On a practical basis, this is made simple by putting new items in the back of the refrigerator or pantry, while rotating older items to the front where you will be more likely to notice them and put them to use before they go bad.
Improvise with Odds and Ends. A soup or stir fry can make use of leftover bits of produce each week. Leftover meat products, including bones and skin, can be combined with herbs and vegetables to make soup stock that you freeze for later use. If you have fruit that is going bad, consider it an opportunity to make pie or a smoothie.
Play the No Food Waste Game. Don’t let your mission to reduce food waste feel like a hardship in your household. Experiment! Be creative! Being efficient with food can be a game for the whole family. Track your progress each week by weighing how much you throw out and use a food emissions calculator to determine the negative environmental impacts avoided in the process. Efficiency, of course, also has economic implications: While your kids are learning math and science lessons through reducing food waste, you can analyze the potential impact on your monthly food bill.
In the Garden
Plan Your Plantings. Growing your own is one way to get around the food waste problem altogether, but even in your own garden there’s plenty of opportunity to improve efficiency. Garden planning involves estimating how many seedlings you actually need to plant based on the amount of each crop you can realistically consume. Timing is everything—you can only eat so much broccoli each week, but by staggering your plantings over time you’ll avoid a glut and enjoy a steady supply instead. Likewise, consider how some crops can be used for multiple purposes: With tomatoes, for example, you can plant one variety that is good for salads, one for sandwiches, and one for sauces.
Preserve the Harvest. An excess of a particular crop doesn’t result in wasted food if you can find a way to preserve it for later. Freezing, canning, and drying are essential skills in a waste-conscious household. Rather then view these tasks as chores, plan a food preservation party with your gardening friends where everyone brings their excess produce to the table and exchanges recipes and techniques.
Share the Harvest. Crop swapping is another way to engage your community in dialing back food waste. You may have an apple tree that produces hundreds of pounds, but a garden where squash borers are a perennial problem. Solution: trade apples for squash. Most cities have organizations that help enable this type of exchange, which is often referred to as gleaning: collecting unharvested food and distributing it to those who will make use of it. Also, consider planting a row for the hungry as a contribution to the food insecure.
Compost. We will never prevent every last lettuce leaf from going bad, but that is less of an issue if it goes back to the land, rather than into the landfill. Composting converts food waste into an asset for food production, whether in your own backyard or on farmland—if you can’t eat it yourself, let the worms enjoy it!