What if you could help solve the global climate crisis without giving up cheeseburgers or buying an electric car? And you could save money at the same time?
Just stop wasting food.
Wasted food is responsible for 8 percent of greenhouse gases globally, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. About 103 million tons of food is wasted annually in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
True, some of that food is wasted before you ever get a chance to buy it — at farms, processing plants and grocery stores — but a lot gets thrown out in homes.
According to a 2020 study in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics, the average U.S. household wastes nearly 32 percent of its food — about $1,800 worth a year. That’s like going to the grocery store, buying three bags of groceries and dumping one right in the trash.
“It’s a measurable problem and definitely fixable,” said Liz Erickson, a solid waste analyst for the city of Vancouver. She recently teamed up with Meg Johnson from Waste Connections to teach an online class about how to waste less food. Here are some tips.
Ending waste starts before you even go grocery shopping.
“It takes just a little bit of time to prepare to go to the store, to make sure you know exactly what you need,” Johnson said. “It’s much better to go with a plan than to go by the seat of your pants, for sure.”
Look through your cupboards, fridge and freezer before you start your grocery list so you know what you already have.
After taking inventory, develop a meal plan that uses up what you have, and buy only the perishables you’ll need before your next shopping trip.
Be realistic about how often you’ll actually cook, and what your family eats. If you routinely fail to use up kale purchased with the best of intentions, don’t buy it in the first place.
“Think about your week. Think about when you’re going to be cooking. Think about whether you’re going to be making a meal every single day. Is that necessary?” Johnson said.
Save yourself a bit of work by planning a couple of meals around leftovers, she said.
And don’t go to the store hungry.
“Before you set off for the grocery store, eat a little snack,” Johnson said. “It reduces the amount you buy considerably.”
Best by? Sell by?
When taking inventory, you’ll want to make sure the food you have is still safe to eat. But treat the “best by,” “use by” or “sell by” dates on packages with skepticism.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, manufacturers apply those dates at their own discretion. So use your senses and examine the food. If it has changed in color, odor, consistency or texture, consider throwing it out. You can also check a number of online resources for guidelines, including the USDA’s FoodKeeper app, foodsafety.gov, or stilltasty.com.
Some food might be salvageable. For example, you can cut mold off hard cheese, or use sour milk for baking, Erickson said.
“Don’t do what makes you feel uncomfortable,” she added. “If something smells off, it is, and don’t eat it.”
Don’t stuff your refrigerator.
“Having the fridge too full can hinder the quality of the food in it,” Johnson said. “If you cannot see the sides of your fridge and you overload it … it does not allow air to circulate around the fridge. And having that lack of air circulation can cause things to go bad faster.”
It also makes it hard to see what you have, which decreases the odds that you’ll use it up.
Establish zones in your fridge so everyone in your home knows where to find, say, veggies or cheese and nothing gets lost and forgotten, Erickson said. She suggests labeling a bin, “Eat first!”
Use your freezer
If you aren’t going to be able to eat up Monday’s casserole or a whole loaf of bread before it goes bad, stash it in the freezer.
But be sure to label it.
“Don’t trust yourself to remember that you made lasagna on May 25,” Erickson said.
And if you have trouble using up fresh produce, consider buying frozen instead. Frozen produce retains nutrients, it’s often cheaper, and it lasts longer.
Johnson suggests keeping a list on the freezer of what’s inside so you remember to make use of it.
Free yourself from recipes and learn to riff in the kitchen, Erickson and Johnson said. Omelets and scrambles, soups and stews, burritos and tacos, stir fries and fried rice — these are all flexible meals good for using up odds and ends.
Keep nonperishable (or less perishable) staples in your pantry — rice, tortillas, potatoes — that will help you make a meal out of bits of leftover vegetables and meat.
If you’re out of ideas, you can always search online for recipes or check the website savethefood.com, which offers strategies for using up food that’s on the verge of going bad. Examples include cookies from soft apples, or pancakes from sour milk.
Sometimes you just can’t help it and you burn a batch of muffins or your greens get slimy. Composting will get the last bit of value from that food by turning it into rich fertilizer.
Residents in the Vancouver city limits who opt for organics pickup as part of their garbage service can put food waste out with yard debris. It’s taken to Dirt Hugger, an industrial-scale composting operation in Dallesport. An aeration system keeps the waste at temperatures as high as 170 degrees — hot enough to safely break down meat and dairy, as well as kill seeds and bad bacteria. The introduction of air also means that the waste doesn’t create methane, a greenhouse gas, as it decomposes like it would in the landfill.
For those outside Vancouver or who would like to start composting on their own, Clark County’s Master Composter program offers instruction.