By Cierra Peterlin, University of Maryland Dietetic Intern
When it comes to thinking about the future of our environment, for some people things can seem pretty gloomy. It may be hard not to feel discouraged by climate change statistics especially when we see the many issues contributing to environmental depredation in our everyday lives. Whether it’s driving behind a truck that’s expelling dark gray exhaust, eating in a food court that doesn’t have a recycling bin, walking out of the grocery store with 3 plastic bags full of groceries, or forgetting about those tomatoes you had in the back of your refrigerator, the reality of our daily habits that contribute to the poor health of the environment are ever-present.
With so many issues around climate change, the problems that face our planet today can be overwhelming. As earth dwellers it is natural to want to stop this destruction and do anything we can to treat our planet well and minimize the negative impacts that we have on our environment. Luckily, there are many things we can do as humans to reduce our personal climate footprints such as limiting our plastic use, using reusable water bottles and bags, carpooling or biking, and of course eating vegan.
When it comes to food choices, following a vegan diet that eliminates animal foods and animal by-products completely is the number one thing we can do for our planet. However, reducing our personal food waste is another huge way we can make a difference and that is what we are going to focus on in this article.
It is estimated that about 1/3 of all food produced in the United States becomes food waste (1). The average person is said to waste around 200 pounds of food per year (2). That means that individually we are creating a little less than half of a metric ton of greenhouse gases annually from the food we waste which is about the equivalent of driving an extra 1,052 miles per year (3). Food waste is happening everywhere: in our homes, at restaurants, at grocery stores, in hospitals, and beyond.
When thinking about the food that’s being wasted we also must acknowledge the time and resources that were put into the production of that food, the energy and fuel that was used in the transportation of the food, and the money it cost for the consumer or business to purchase the food. In terms of household food waste, it’s said the average household of four wastes over $1,300 worth of food annually (4). Not only can wasting less food help to protect the planet it can also save you money through reducing food costs by using what you have.
While food waste is definitely larger than just a personal problem, we can each still strive to do our part to minimize it. Doing anything we can to help protect the environment is more important now than ever and one easy thing we can each start with is reducing our personal food waste.
There are so many ways we can reduce food waste in our own kitchens. Things as simple as saving leftovers and planning your meals are some great ways to start. Once you’re comfortable with those practices there is even more you can do to reduce wasted food in your home by zero-waste cooking, following the FIFO (first in, first out) rule, practicing proper storage, preserving foods, and more! Below is a list of tips and tricks to get you started on the path to reducing your food waste.
- Take inventory of what you have
Check your pantry and fridge before you go to the food store. Taking inventory of what you already have can save you time and money at the store while also reminding you to use the foods you have that may otherwise have gone bad.
- Plan some meals ahead of time
Planning your meals is another way to reduce your personal waste. While much easier said than done, even choosing just 1 or 2 recipes that you want to make each week and then shopping for ingredients for those recipes is a great start to avoiding excess food purchases and then not knowing what to make with them.
- Practice FIFO
The first-in-first-out rule or FIFO, means exactly what it says: if it went into the fridge, pantry, or wherever you store food first, use it first. By paying attention to the food that you’ve had for longer, you can use it before it goes bad or before you buy new things and forget about what you already have.
- Save your leftovers
Save your leftovers, whether it’s your leftover meal from a restaurant or something that you made that didn’t get finished. You won’t have to eat the same meal 2 days in a row. Do be mindful of FIFO (just like with other fresh or cooked foods living in your fridge), and don’t let leftovers sit and go bad in the fridge. If your leftovers are a large meal that you cooked at home, you can put it in a container and freeze it. Make sure to label what you freeze with the type of food it is and the date it was made. Another useful practice could be keeping a running list of what you have stored in your freezer and posting it somewhere nearby for a quick reminder of what’s in there.
- Bulk cook the staples
If you make a big batch of rice or other grains in the beginning of the week, you can use that as a base for meals throughout the week. This can help in a crunch when you have some produce that needs to be used ASAP. Simply roast it or sauté it up and serve it over your precooked rice with spices and a sauce for a quick meal.
- Use the whole food
When it comes to fruits and vegetables most of the time the entire item is edible! Things such as strawberry leaves; kiwi skins; carrot, radish, beet, and turnip tops; and most stems are some examples. So, when you’re making a smoothie, put the whole strawberry in, green leaves and all! Ever thought of eating a kiwi whole? It’s delicious with the skin and makes it a lot easier for a quick snack. Carrot tops and other root vegetable greens can be used to make pesto or be chopped up and added to other dishes like salads or casseroles, or sautéed. Even banana peels can be cooked and consumed! There are so many other things that can be done with the different parts of foods that aren’t typically utilized.
- Try zero waste cooking
This concept refers to the practice of eating every part of the ingredient you’re cooking. When it comes to cooking, cook every part of the food. Zero waste cooking urges you to be more conscious about getting the most out of each food item and ingredient. When practicing zero waste cooking it is important to pay attention to how food waste and other waste, such as water and other resources, can be limited or avoided in the cooking or baking process. Concepts such as saving vegetable scraps to make broths, leaving the skins on fruits and vegetables or using them in another recipe, and freezing foods that you are not going to use right away for later use are all aspects of zero waste cooking. For example, broccoli stems taste just like their pretty florets and cook up really similarly or taste great raw and dipped in hummus. The stems of herbs such as parsley and cilantro also taste just like the leaves and can be chopped and added to dishes. Another cool zero waste cooking hack is using stale bread to make croutons, breadcrumbs, and even full meals like Panzanella (an Italian stale bread salad with onions, tomatoes, and cucumbers) or French toast. If there isn’t mold on the bread it is still safe to eat even if it’s hard. While it definitely takes a little thinking outside of the box, there are so many ideas and ways to practice zero waste cooking in your home kitchen. Don’t be afraid to make substitutions in a recipe! Being confident in the kitchen is the first step to cooking zero waste style!
- Store your produce for maximum freshness
Knowing how to properly store your food to maximize its life span will help you waste less produce. For example, keeping the avocado pit in the half of avocado or in guacamole can keep it from browning (but even when it’s a little brown it is still safe to eat). Storing your asparagus, parsley, cilantro, and mint in the fridge in cups of water so that their stems are submerged will increase their freshness and lifespan for up to 2 weeks. Putting a paper towel in with your greens to absorb excess moisture, and keeping broccoli, squash, brussels sprouts, and green beans in a produce bag can extend their life up to 2 weeks. Taking this a step further and thinking of FIFO as well as knowing what foods last the longest (such as potatoes, onions, gourd-like squash varieties, carrots, and apples) and which foods go bad quicker (berries, salad greens, and bananas) can help you use the foods that are going to become waste first and save the hardier ones for another day. Some fresh foods such as cabbage, garlic, potatoes, onions, apples, and lemons can last 4 weeks or longer!
- Preserve food
There are a few ways you can go about food preservation: freezing, dehydrating, pickling, and cooking things down and then preserving it by freezing or dehydrating. When it comes to freezing, you can freeze any fruit or vegetable. If your berries look like they are starting to get mushy and you’re not going to eat them, toss them in the freezer and use them in a recipe or a smoothie later. Same thing for greens like spinach or kale. Once frozen these will need to be blended or cooked when you do choose to use them. Freezing leftover meals or cooked items can extend their life as well. Using a dehydrator or even cooking foods in the oven at a low heat for a long time can also preserve them. For example, dehydrating bananas, mangos, and apples can make chewy or crispy fruit chips.
There may still be times when a food is truly too far gone such as when it has mold or has rotted. Also, there may be scraps of foods that can’t be used and that is where composting comes in. Composting is the act of recycling organic matter, which includes food, leaves, yard waste, and even some commercial products that are identified as “compostable,” into a type of fertilizer soil that can be used in gardens and given back to the earth. The process of creating compost is pretty lengthy and typically requires a decent amount of work, but collecting compost materials is really quite simple. Keeping a separate bin either indoors or outside that you use for any food waste is a great start. In some areas there are compost collecting services that will pick up household compost, or if that isn’t an option, there are community sites where you can drop off your compost. To find composting options near you check out litterless.com/where-to-compost.
Knowing how to be more sustainable in the kitchen is something we can all benefit from.
Limiting personal food waste encourages creativity and planning to ensure that every part of a food can be utilized, reducing overall waste and contributing to a healthier planet.
All of these tips can be a lot to take in and deciding how to put them into practice in your own kitchen may seem daunting. While reducing food waste may take some extra time, it doesn’t have to be very overly challenging. You don’t need to be perfect, but do what you can.
- Environmental Protection Agency. From Farm to Kitchen: The Environmental Impacts of US Food Waste. https://www.epa.gov/system/files/documents/2021-11/from-farm-to-kitchen-the-environmental-impacts-of-u.s.-food-waste_508-tagged.pdf
- Recycle Track Systems. Food Waste in America in 2022. https://www.rts.com/resources/guides/food-waste-america/
- United States Environmental Protection Agency. Greenhouse Gas Emissions from a Typical Passenger Vehicle. https://www.epa.gov/greenvehicles/greenhouse-gas-emissions-typical-passenger-vehicle
- Food Print. Zero Waste Cooking. https://foodprint.org/blog/zero-waste-cooking/
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