Clear back in 1576, Richard Edwards commented in The Paradise of Dainty Devices, “For want is nexte to waste, and shame doeth synne ensue.” Eventually, that became modernized to “waste not, want not.” We live on a finite planet, and many of our daily activities degrade our living space. Not to mention that waste is basically pouring money down the drain.
Did you know that 25 to 40 percent of the food grown in America is wasted? Or to put it another way, of every four food calories grown, at least one is lost. Sometimes, it’s unavoidable — if a pipe bursts in the kitchen and floods the pantry, odds are high you’ll have water damage. But much of the food waste in the US is because we buy too much, serve too much, throw away leftovers and don’t actively think about not wasting food. Some food waste occurs in fields and processing, but much of it is in the home.
We’re all susceptible to advertising, impulse buys or, in my case, planting more than I think I’ll need. In my defense, however, I’m well aware that crop failure, insects and critters may eliminate some of what I plant. I do need a cushion to make sure I’ll have enough. But I can also get busy and not make the best use of what I’ve planted. Like everyone else, there are times when I find something at the back of the fridge that I can’t identify. I do have a back-up system, because excess food can go to the chickens, the pigs or into the compost pile. Even, so, I’m still wasting the energy I spent in planting, harvesting and preparing the food, and I’m also wasting money. So here are my tips to avoid food waste:
1. Keep records. I know about how many eggs my chickens will lay at certain periods of the year. This is important because laying varies according to the season, food availability and age of the chickens. Extremely hot or cold weather can affect output. If I have lots of extra eggs, I may want to freeze some. Alternatively, I can keep enough chickens to ensure we have enough eggs year round, and the surplus can feed other animals, like the pigs and dogs. I can even hard-boil the eggs, chop them and feed them back to the chickens (this is a great way to supply protein to baby chicks). I also know that my milk cow will reliably produce one-and-a-half to two gallons minimum for people use (as opposed to what she produces for her calf) for all the 10 months of her lactation. I get about one pound of butter per gallon of milk, so I freeze enough to have on hand when she’s dried up in the last two months of pregnancy.
2. Monitor serving sizes. If I serve too much, the leftovers can go to the dogs, pigs and chickens. For that reason, I almost never put excess food in the compost heap. If I lived in town (God forbid!) I would be more likely to compost food waste. One way to avoid food waste is to serve less — a single serving spoon full of each offering, for example. You can always go back for more if you’re still hungry. This can also help decrease your intake for weight control purposes (many people tend to eat everything on the plate until they get stuffed) and in the case of kids — who are notorius for having more eye than stomach — eliminate the eat-two-mouthfuls-decide-you’re-full syndrome.
3. Get creative with leftovers. There’s no law that says you have to eat certain foods at certain times of the day. Last night we had stir-fried rice with shrimp (shrimp is a rare treat around here, so there were no leftovers of shrimp!). This morning I had stir-fried rice with some leftover ham for breakfast. Leftovers from last night’s tacos can become the base for an omelet. Leftover vegetables can become creamed veggie-whatever soup. One of the biggest soup hits ever with my grandkids and a friend was the cream of cauliflower/Romanesco/broccoli soup I made them for lunch one day. Cooked rice can be a hot breakfast cereal. Leftover popcorn can replace croutons in cream of tomato soup. Any kind of cooked meat can become hash; if you don’t have a lot of meat, serve the hash with a fried egg for each person. Leftover oatmeal and other cooked grains can go into a bread recipe.
4. Use everything. Peeling onions? Save the skins and that too-dry layer. Ditto the center stalks and trimmings from celery, or the peels from carrots. Pop them in a zip-lock bag and freeze. Next time you make soup, add them to the water in which you boil your soup bones. Once they’re cooked to death (which means all the flavor is in your soup broth), strain them out and feed to the chickens or your compost heap. If the lettuce is bolting and going to seed, you can mix it half and half with basil to make pesto. A little sprinkle of sugar cuts the bitterness of the lettuce. Dry the bread heels and make bread crumbs. Aged bananas can be frozen. Once you have several, make breakfast smoothies or banana nut bread.
5. Store and cook for maximum nutrition. You don’t want to waste nutrients any more than the food itself. If you have a garden, harvesting your food the same day you cook or serve it is the best way to ensure you get lots of vitamins, minerals and enzymes. If you buy at the grocery or farmer’s market, take a cooler with ice to keep the foods fresh until you get home. Learn which foods really should be cooked; for example, cole crops contain substances that inactivate iodine when eaten raw. Much better to stir-fry that kale than eat it raw. Ditto for spinach, which has more antioxidants when cooked; cooking also increases the availability of calcium and magnesium, which would otherwise be tied up by the oxalic acid in spinach. Nothing wrong with an occasional spinach salad, though — just don’t overdo it.
6. Keep your menu plan very loose. Planning ahead can help you determine about how much to plant or buy and to stockpile foods that keep. The problem with planning is that you can miss a great buy if carrots are on sale when your menu plan calls for squash. The other problem with planning is that when you’re eating real food (as opposed to processed food), the lettuce may be about to bolt or the broccoli in the fridge should be eaten today, no matter that the menu calls for green beans. I try to plan about 48 hours ahead. That way I can defrost something or soak something. I try to do a daily check of the garden and fridge, so I catch the foods that should be eaten ASAP.
A final thought: the latest figures from the USDA (February 2016) say that a family of four with two kids between the ages of two and five spent $568.50 a month on food if they followed a thrifty meal plan. With two parents and two kids aged six to 11, the cost was $655.20. That means those families threw at least $142.12 and $163.80 in the trash each month. Sobering, isn’t it?