Picture in your mind FirstEnergy Stadium overflowing with garbage.
That’s how much food is thrown away in our country every single day. It equates to each of us trashing about half a pound of food daily, and totals more than 230 billion pounds of food squandered annually. Now consider that 80 percent of our nation’s water, 40 percent of our land, and 10 percent of our energy is used to grow our country’s food.
What does this mean for our pocketbooks? According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, a non-profit international environmental advocacy group, a family of four loses $1,500 a year on wasted food. Americans are wasting the equivalent of $100 billion in food each year, while 40 million Americans are food insecure and 800 million people worldwide suffer from hunger.
Food waste is enough to make you lose your lunch. Whether your concern is for the environment or for the well-being of your wallet, here are some ideas to help you and your family reduce food waste.
1. Don’t over shop
It has been estimated that we don’t eat 25 percent of the food we bring home from the grocery. Our eyes are bigger than our stomachs, indeed. While shopping, our kids talk us into buying treats and other things we don’t want them to eat. We see bountiful displays of farm-fresh produce and buy more than we need because it looks so pretty. We want to make fewer trips to the market, so we overload our carts.
To avoid over-shopping, try changing these key habits:
- Purchase only what you need for the next few days. This will help keep fresh food from getting buried in your refrigerator.
- Plan your meals ahead and shop from a detailed list.
- Don’t shop on an empty stomach to avoid impulse buys.
2. Love the Bruised
Maybe you’ve noticed that the fruits and vegetables displayed beautifully in your market’s produce section look photo-ready — each piece perfectly shaped with just the right hue. That’s not an accident, and it’s definitely not because all produce naturally looks perfect. It’s because your grocer thinks you expect perfection.
The truth is that 30 percent of food grown in the U.S. never makes it to your grocery store. Some gets plowed under or sent to the landfill because the orange peel is scratched, the potato is misshapen, or the cauliflower is yellowish-white instead of pure white, for example. Other imperfect misfits get sent back to the distributor by grocery store personnel who know their customers want oranges with no scratches.
Consumer demand for picture-perfect produce plays a large role in widespread food waste. While some items might look a little imperfect on the outside, most wasted produce is still fresh and safe, and it offers the same nutritional value as its airbrushed-looking counterpart.
Parents strive to teach their children that beauty is skin deep and that what’s on the inside is more important than what’s on the outside; unfortunately, we’re not walking the walk when it comes to giving ugly produce fair rights.
As consumers, we all want to get what we pay for. We don’t want to pay full price for bruised apples, and we’ve been groomed to pick eggplant large enough to cut into perfect sized slices to use in grandma’s perfect eggplant parmesan recipe. And certainly you don’t want to buy rotten food. However, consider how what you choose at the market informs your store’s decisions about what you want. Think about how it affects demand on a much larger — even global — scale.
3. Proper Storage
By better understanding where and how to store fresh produce and when to wash it, you can significantly extend its usability. Many fruits and vegetables should only be stored at room temperature, away from direct sunlight. For example, refrigerating melons, mangoes, pineapple, and citrus fruits too early can cause cold damage or prevent them from ripening to good flavor and texture. Washing some fresh food long before use can remove some of nature’s natural preservatives.
4. The Freezer is your Friend
In the craziness of life, running from school to dance class, soccer practice and more, we all have some items that “go south.” Don’t fret: That’s when the freezer becomes your best friend. Those bananas that are now black, the bruised peaches, the pale strawberries, the mushy mango… toss them all into storage bags and pop them in the freezer to use in your next morning smoothie. They will help make your breakfast even more delicious, because riper fruit becomes sweeter.
5. Get Scrappy
If there is one time-honored method for reducing food waste, it is to utilize leftovers in recipes that call for overripe fruits and vegetables or meat scraps.
- Turn soft tomatoes into fresh tomato sauce.
- Bake bruised apples into applesauce or pie.
- Cut up last night’s roasted chicken to add to tonight’s chili.
- Save scraps such as broccoli stalks, carrot tops, or beef or chicken bones to use for soup stocks and broths.
6. Get Creative
Inside Out Peanut Butter & Jelly: I often think about how I could feed all the hungry people in the world by finding a way to save the ends of everyone’s loaves of bread. Until I figure that out, I will keep making sneaky PB&Js for my kids by spreading jelly and peanut butter on the dark outside crust and putting those together — leaving the uncrusted part visible on the outside of the sandwich.
In fact, there are many uses for stale bread: Try using it for French toast, chopping it up and toasting into croutons, or grating it into bread crumbs.
7. Grow Your Own
When you grow your own food, you are less likely to let the fruits of your labor go to waste. You know the amount of time and effort it took to plant, weed, and harvest. When you grow it yourself, you will embrace the carrot that looks like an alien and those tiny one-bite beets. You will cook and serve them with pride. And your child who helped in the garden (or at least watched) will eat every last Brussels sprout when they understand this, too.
8. Portion Control
If you ask your child’s teacher, I bet they will tell you most moms pack way too much food in their kids’ lunches. An appreciable amount of food waste can be avoided by learning to prepare appropriately sized meals and snacks for your family. If you are thinking, “But I just don’t want them to be hungry!” don’t worry. If you don’t pack enough, they’ll be certain to tell you as soon as they get off the bus. For now, pack less.
When your children are eating meals at home, let those ages 3 and older serve themselves. While it seems impossible to believe, kids ages 5 and younger will instinctively choose the right portions. According to the Early Sprouts Institute, young children are naturally able to self-regulate their food intake. After that, they are susceptible to environmental factors that control their cues to eat and stop eating. The key is starting this practice early.
Visit childrenshealth.com for information on portion sizes by food group.
Rather than throwing your food waste in the garbage, put it to good use. Keep a bin in your kitchen in which you can add compostable food scraps throughout the day, and take them out to the compost pile each evening. Put your scraps to work creating rich, fertile soil that can be used to grow new food or beautiful flowers. Less food waste in landfills means lower emissions of dangerous gases like methane, a greenhouse gas 100 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Visit howtocompost.org for more resources.
10. Take Inventory
It is common to have several containers of leftovers lingering in the fridge, as well as bits and pieces of fruits and veggies that were not finished during your family’s busy week. Try to use everything that remains on Friday and Saturday. Look through your refrigerator and pantry for items about to expire and see what creative meals you can devise.
Cut up that pear your youngest never finished, the handful of grapes left at the bottom of the bag, the kiwi hiding in the bottom of the fruit drawer, and those last bites of melon and put them into a colorful fruit salad. The kids won’t even realize that fruit was sitting in the fridge for days.
Dice up remaining vegetables to create a vegetable stew, stir-fry them and serve on rice for a unique Asian feast, sauté them to add to your burritos, or use them atop your favorite pizza crust.
Ashley Weingart is the Director of Communications & Community Outreach for The Forest City Weingart Produce Company. She is the founder of their Perfectly Imperfect Produce program and is passionate about reducing food waste while increasing access to affordable fresh fruits and vegetables. Ashley has three children and lives with her husband, Andy, in Chagrin Falls. Learn more at perfectlyimperfectproduce.com.