Day 3: Reduce Food Waste, the Low-Hanging Fruit of Climate Solutions
Do this one thing to slash food waste at home
Worldwide, about a third of the food we produce goes uneaten, which generates up to 10 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions. To put that into perspective, the aviation industry generates about 2.5 percent of emissions. In fact, if food waste were its own country, it would rank third in greenhouse gas emissions, behind only China and the US.
In addition to the food itself, this waste squanders the many resources that went into the food’s production—labor, water, energy, seeds, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and land cleared of trees that can no longer sequester carbon, all for food that no one will eat. To make matters worse, in the oxygen-deprived environment of a tightly packed landfill, anaerobic bacteria break down wasted food and in doing so, generate methane, a greenhouse gas 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period, according to the IPCC.
Where food goes to waste
Food loss (food that never makes it to market) and food waste (food that makes it to market, but not stomachs), happen all along the supply chain—from the farm to the warehouse to the store to our homes.
In the US, some food from the farm never makes it to market because a pandemic causes farms’ customers to shutter their businesses overnight in a centralized food system that has no Plan B, or a crop’s market price won’t cover the cost of harvesting that crop, or grocery stores reject wonky vegetables that do not fit rigid cosmetic standards. (Like people, fruit and vegetables that fall outside of these cosmetic standards are not “flawed.”)
Among the stops on the US supply chain, manufacturing accounts for 14 percent of our country’s uneaten food; farms, 21 percent; and consumer-facing businesses, 28 percent. Households come in first, at 37 percent. (Source: ReFED)
Why food goes to waste in our homes
Food waste at home occurs for a variety of reasons. Here in the US, we waste food not because we are evil but because we number nearly 330 million, with each of us throwing away uneaten bites of food or previously edible food—the whole apples or potatoes or ounces of milk that went south before we could get to them.
In a bid to eat healthier, we often buy more fresh produce—the most commonly wasted item—than we can eat. Sometimes we may not store that fresh produce ideally—keep tomatoes out of the refrigerator unless you want them flavorless and mealy, for instance.
We might choose to cook a dish that requires none of the ingredients already sitting in our refrigerators or pantries—so we buy more food to make that dish rather than eating what we’ve already purchased. Or we don’t know how to deal with that 28-pound bucket of macaroni and cheese from Costco that seemed like a good deal at the time.
Action du jour: Cook something with the food you have on hand
By allowing the contents of your refrigerator and pantry to dictate the menu, you’ll slash food waste.
The ultimate use-it-up dish: soup
Why do restaurants offer soupe du jour? Because savvy restaurateurs who want to stay in business avoid throwing out inventory—vegetables; broth made from vegetable scraps or bones or parmesan rinds; leftover protein; excess cream and so on. Into the soup pot they go. So think like a chef as you manage your kitchen. Go here for my basic soup formula.
More dishes that take food waste off the menu
Pizza. All kinds of food can top pizza. Choose traditional red sauce or pesto or hummus and then layer on vegetables. Or top your pizza with leftover spaghetti.
Pastry. Fill a galette, hand pies or tarts with still-edible fruit that has seen better days. Or fill your pastry with savory vegetables and leftover protein.
Grain bowls. If I have cooked beans and cooked grains on hand, I can make a satisfying dish in minutes. I chop up a few vegetables—cooked beets and sprouts I start on the counter are a couple of favorites—toss everything with some wine vinegar and good olive oil, sprinkle with salt and I’m done.
Potpie. Because you need more pastry in your life. Make a béchamel sauce, thin it out with scrap vegetable broth, sauté some vegetables, combine everything, pour into a baking dish, top with pastry, bake, enjoy (well, maybe cool first for a few minutes).
Roasted vegetables. Have a glut of vegetables you can’t possibly eat before they become compost fodder? Cut them into bite-size pieces, toss in olive oil, spread in cast-iron pans (because they clean up so easily) or baking sheets, sprinkle with garlic and salt and roast at 400°F or so until tender (times vary depending on the type of vegetables you roast). In addition to a delicious side dish, you now have components for a frittata or a pot of roasted vegetable soup or pita filling.
Additional benefits of reducing wasted food
Saves money. Every year, the average American family of four buys $1,800 worth of food that goes uneaten. One day, shortly after my daughter Charlotte was born, the two of us went grocery shopping. After I rolled a giant cart crammed with groceries to my car, I buckled Charlotte in and drove off without the food. I’d have to do that at least once a month to waste $1800 worth of groceries in a year. Any cashiers watching through the store windows would think I’d gone over the edge. And yet, this is essentially what most of us do.
Saves time. Because you’ll eat more of the food you buy, you’ll schlep groceries home from the store less frequently. Need one ingredient to complete a dish? You may have a substitute on hand that will suffice—or even taste better. This is why we have search engines.
Harnesses our creativity. Constraints lead to creativity. Think of the iconic dishes of many cultures. They often came about because our forebears stretched the food they had and ate every last crumb. Ribollita—“twice boiled”—is an Italian dish that starts out as soup to use up all the vegetables. The next day, day-old bread goes into what’s left in the soup pot to ensure that the bread doesn’t go to waste either. Cook once. Eat twice.
Enhances the joy of cooking. Creativity and experimentation will render you more of a fearless cook while making cooking more enjoyable. And making something delicious out of very little brings a feeling of satisfaction.
Results in tastier food. Some of these experiments will lead to delicious discoveries that you may not otherwise have stumbled upon. When I started baking sourdough, for example, I had to think of recipes for the discard—the starter I remove daily when I feed my starter, Eleanor. These experiments resulted in a pizza recipe (the most popular recipe on my blog in 2021), sourdough crackers, tortillas, pita bread, sourdough chocolate cake and more. We all do what we must!
More ways to prevent food from going uneaten
Share the food
If you find yourself with too much food on your hands, ask your friends and family if they’d like it or post it on the OLIO app. People in your area who use the app will see it and take it off your hands—often very quickly. Learn more about OLIO here.
If you run a food-service business or work for one, donate the excess food to a food rescue organization. Find one near you through Sustainable America’s Food Rescue Locator.
Be less picky
I would never recommend eating food that tastes bad or food that has gone bad but is it really so bad to eat your favorite dish three nights in a row? How about two nights in a row, followed by something different the next night, followed by your third serving of what you had on nights one and two?
If you do the cooking in your home, you probably don’t have much of a problem eating the same dishes a few days in a row but the people you live with might. If so, perhaps hand them an apron.
Even more simple food-waste prevention tips
Do a food waste audit. Figure out what goes uneaten. Start eating it or stop buying it.
Prep extra ingredients when cooking. These can become a new dish later. You'll save time and eat more of the food on hand. For example, when cooking rice and beans, cook extra rice to make fried rice the next day.
Learn to preserve food. Fermentation not only preserves food, it also enhances flavors, fosters gut-healthy cultures, often requires no outside energy source and serves as a protest against industrialized Big Food. (Go here for fermentation FAQs.)
Bring clean, empty jars to restaurants when dining in. Pack up any leftovers to enjoy later. Bonus: You avoid the restaurant's single-use plastic to-go containers.
Store food in glass containers. You can see at a glance what food you have on hand in the refrigerator and pantry. If you can see it, you'll more likely eat it.
Save your scraps. Veggie scraps for broth. Fruit scraps for vinegar. Potato peels for a fried snack. Stale bread for croutons, bread crumbs, bread puddings. Citrus peels for candy, zest, citrus salt, cleaning. And on and on.
Compost doesn’t prevent food waste but does, crucially, divert food waste from landfills. We’ll talk about that another day.
I have so many ideas for preventing food waste, I could write a book! I could go on and on but I’ll pause here to reiterate today’s action and the main takeaway: cook something with what’s on hand.
We also need collective change
If you waste an apple today or a piece of bread or a hunk of cheese, don’t feel guilty or beat yourself up about it because that’s exactly how the fossil fuel industry wants you to feel—guilty and responsible. After all, BP dreamt up the “carbon footprint” calculator in order to deflect blame for the climate crisis onto us, the public.
Today’s action is the first individual lifestyle change I’ve written for this challenge. Yes, we need systemic change but we also need change at the individual level. We can reduce food waste and at the same time, protest government inaction on climate policy.
And besides, unless we’ve crammed our cupboards with boxes and boxes of chocolate chip cookies and nothing else, what is the downside to eating all the food we buy? Believe me, if preventing food waste presented a downside, someone would have pointed it out to me in great detail on Twitter years ago.
Of all the available climate solutions, what could be easier than eating?
Please leave a comment or question below for others participating in this 30-day challenge. What dish did you come up with? How did it turn out? What is your favorite clear-it-out recipe?