The scene is a familiar one for us all: in the midst of cooking a new meal, you glance in the fridge to see last week’s leftovers, still in a container. Out they go, and it’s on to tonight’s dinner.
But that momentary decision has consequences. According to the Ad Council’s Save the Food campaign, a family of two wastes around $63 a month on uneaten food, adding up to $750 a year.
In fact, almost half of all food — 40 percent — is thrown away. It then ends up in landfills, “where it decomposes and releases methane,” according to the Ad Council. “In fact, food is the single largest contributor to U.S. landfills today.” Meanwhile, thousands of Americans go hungry each night.
Check out these tips for ending food waste in your own life, helping planet earth and feeding those in need:
Plan ahead. It’s good advice for just about everything, including curbing food waste. Before you head to the grocery store, take some time to plan out your meals so that you only buy what you need. If you purchase a special ingredient that won’t be fully used in one recipe, make sure you also plan for another meal that utilizes it. Once, after making a delicious cabbage soup, I was left with half a head of cabbage and no idea how to finish it. With advice from my mom, it soon turned into a kale cabbage salad.
Make sure the recipe you use will yield the amount of food you’ll need. Many online recipe sites have the option to scale down or increase the number of servings — an invaluable tool.
Go frozen. More things can be frozen than you think, including flour, milk and pizza dough. I like to freeze overripe bananas and later use them for banana bread or milkshakes. For a comprehensive list of freezable items, check out this article from Once a Month Meals . Relying on frozen fruits and vegetables is an easy way to ensure fresh produce doesn't go to waste. Try making meals in bulk and freezing the leftovers for later.
Even before freezing, the way we store our food can make a big difference in increasing its longevity. Cheese should be wrapped in loose wax paper, not plastic wrap. I’ve thrown out more half-used cilantro stalks than I care to admit, but herbs stay fresh longer when placed in water, just like flowers. Save the Food has a whole directory for the best way to store and freeze produce, meat and other food.
Think before you throw. Those wilted celery stalks in the fridge may not be bad, even if they’ve gone a little limp. Give your fruits and veggies the benefit of the doubt before giving them the toss. With celery stalks or lettuce, put the roots in water and watch them grow.
Also, know the difference between “Sell By” and “Best By” dates. The former is just a guideline for grocers about when to have the product off the shelves. “Best By “dates tell you exactly that — when the item is at its peak. Whatever the date on your gallon of milk, it might still be fresh. Just give it a taste before pouring it into a whole bowl of cereal.
Share a meal. You know you won’t be able to finish it alone, but you still want to whip up your grandma's famous meatloaf. Invite friends to share, because who doesn't like a free meal with friends?
If you know you won’t get a chance to eat food before it goes bad, try calling your neighbors or nearby friends to see if they’d like it. This has been especially helpful for me after I’ve thrown a party and ended up with one too many cheese and cracker plates from guests.
Try gleaning. When farmers are finished harvesting their crop, many will allow volunteers to pick up the leftovers and then donate the produce to those in need. Do a little online digging to find an organization that will coordinate gleaning trips to local farms. The Society of St. Andrew can be a great resource, especially for those in the southeast United States. Gleaning is a great way to eliminate food waste and help the hungry.
Give “ugly” produce a chance. The tomatoes you see at the grocery store are all perfectly red, plump and round. But anyone who grows a garden knows they don’t always turn out that shape or color. According to food waste activist Jordan Figueiredo, billions of pounds of produce are tossed each year before they reach the store, just because they don’t live up to consumer or retailer expectations.
Figueiredo runs a Twitter account called @UglyFruitandVeg, which showcases charmingly misshapen produce that’s just as tasty as its better-looking counterparts. He encourages shoppers to buy “ugly” fruit and veggies at the supermarket and farmer’s market so that it doesn’t go to waste. His websiteEndFoodWaste.org lists ways consumers can encourage grocery stores to open stands of discounted “ugly” produce — a win for reducing food waste and your shopping bill.
Get your local food pantry involved. If you volunteer at a local soup kitchen, make sure they’re signed up for MEANS, a database that connects pantries looking to give away excess food to nearby pantries who need those items. American University college student Marie Rose Belding came up with the idea after throwing away boxes of expired mac and cheese at her local pantry.
With a little mindfulness, everyone can kick food waste to the curb.
Di Mauro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter@zoeydimauro.