I hate food waste. It really sickens me to see good food thrown away. But I’m guilty of wasting food. We all are, to some extent.
Successful campaigns to get us all recycling and composting at home have convinced consumers that we are solely responsible for food waste. Yet most of the $31 billion worth of food that’s wasted every year in Canada is wasted at the industrial level: things like perfectly edible peppers or zucchinis that get thrown out by the tonne because they’re not visually appealing enough for supermarket shelves or because they won’t be sold before a fresh shipment arrives. Still, we do share some of the blame.
Part of the problem is cultural — we have a compulsion to over-shop and over-serve.
“Most of us don’t like the look of a sparse fridge, so we maintain a consistent abundance,” says Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food. “Yet, the cost of always having enough is often having too much. When much of that food is perishable, that culture of excess dooms us to waste a significant portion of the food we buy.”
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Between cooking school and working in restaurant kitchens, I’ve learned how and why to break the cycle of excess by using every available piece of food. I’ve had teachers and chefs pull scraps of vegetables out of the garbage and demand to know, loudly and in front of my peers, why I had thrown so much food away. I can still hear them: “Who taught you to cut a pineapple? Are you working for the raccoons?”
I won’t go door to door chastising people for what’s in their compost bin. But a reader did recently challenge me to write more on this topic — so here are my tips for avoiding food waste at home.
1. Buy imperfect produce
A major factor in large-scale food wastage is that consumers expect fruits and vegetables to look uniform and ideal. Edible items often get scrapped because they’re too ugly to sell to picky buyers. But if consumers start buying those spotted peppers and bent eggplants, then suddenly there’s a market for them. Some supermarkets and startups have started marketing this stuff as “ugly food.” I don’t think the name matters as much as the action does: creating demand for imperfect produce reduces its chances of being thrown away.
2. Clean and organize your fridge and freezer
You won’t eat your food if you can’t see it. I’m looking at you, Styrofoam box of leftover pad Thai placed in the fridge inside a plastic bag, obscuring anything behind it on the shelf. Make sure you know what’s going on in there: the interior of your fridge should be part of your regular cleaning routine. I remove all of the contents, wipe down the shelves, then return food to the fridge, throwing out anything that’s no good (based on smell — not on “best before” dates, which are just guidelines). This will also help you spot the foods that need to be eaten sooner. If you’ve never cleaned inside your fridge, be prepared to scrub that maple-syrup spill from three months ago. Done on a regular basis, though, it should take no more than 10 minutes.
3. Plan out your meals and avoid impulse purchases
Everyone plans, shops, and cooks differently. There’s no one right way. But going to the supermarket and just winging it is a sure way to buy more food than you need. Once a week, I like to plan my share of my household’s dinners and lunches. I start by looking in the fridge and deciding what needs to be used up. If there’s half a head of cabbage or some leftover sauce that my wife really liked, then I’ll make sure one of my meals incorporates that. By choosing which recipes I’m going to cook and writing a list only of the ingredients required, I can cut down on impulse buys at the store. This method makes me less susceptible to those convenience foods at the supermarket that are designed to take advantage of me when I haven’t planned ahead.
4. First in, first out
The golden rule for maintaining cleanliness and efficiency in any professional kitchen is FIFO: first in, first out. For example, this means rotating your stock of milk when you receive a new shipment. The newest should be placed at the back of the shelf so that you’re always using up the oldest first. At home, we don’t have 10 cartons of milk and six pints of strawberries. But we do tend to buy new items before using the old ones up. And even if it’s something that can live nearly forever, like mustard, once you open the new one, you’re unlikely to touch the old one. FIFO is crucial for proper vegetable-drawer management.
5. Leftover meals
The biggest source of waste in our fridge is probably the ingredients that remain from recipes we’ve already cooked. The other half of the cabbage, butternut squash, or zucchini that sits at the back of the crisper until it looks inedible and finally gets tossed out. Once a week, try preparing a meal using only what you already have. When we avoid purchasing fresh ingredients — or impulse-buying frozen or delivery meals — we end up saving money. Doing this also forces us to use up what’s available. It’s my favourite type of cooking: it demands spontaneity and creativity, it rescues food that would otherwise have gone off, and it saves me a few bucks. Sometimes it doesn’t work out — I’ve choked down my share of bad ideas — but plenty of well-planned meals have come out worse. And experimentation has led me to try dishes that I never would have thought of just reading cookbooks. If you’re stuck for ideas, just Google the three of four ingredients that you’re hoping to use. Once you’ve found a recipe, substitute whatever ingredients for stuff you have. The pleasure of making a meal out of rescued food is its own deliciousness. And if you’re really unsatisfied with what you’ve made, well, that’s what hot sauce is for.
6. Deli cups
This is another tip from my restaurant days. Most of us have a mismatched collection of Tupperware and yogurt containers. In restaurants, they use deli cups — transparent plastic containers that come in three sizes (250, 500, and 750 millilitres). They all use the same size lids and are sold in sleeves of 25, meaning it doesn’t really matter if you lose some. Cheap and plentiful at restaurant-supply stores, deli cups make it easy to stack leftovers and dinner prep in the fridge — and to move things around without having to de- and reconstruct a Jenga tower of differently sized cylinders, squares, and rectangles. They can also be used as scrap containers: fill them with the nubs of grated carrots, diced onions, or shaved fennel. That way, the otherwise-doomed vegetables will be available the next time you make a salad, soup, or stir-fry.
7. Store your food properly
Whole vegetables, such as potatoes and eggplants, have a skin that helps them retain moisture. Leafy produce that’s already been cut — lettuce, spinach, herbs — dries out more quickly. But you can extend its shelf life by covering it with or wrapping it in damp paper towel.
8. Weigh your food waste
This is a radical, last-ditch approach. I met a restaurateur once who told me that he had tried everything to get his cooks to reduce food waste. He focused on instructing them to use skins in their mashed potatoes, trying to convince them that the final product was more flavourful and more nutritious, and that it saved on food (by yielding 30 per cent more mash) and labour (since there’s no peeling). But when all that failed to persuade, he had them weigh their food waste: every day, they put the compost bags on a scale and found that they were wasting 1.3 pounds (admittedly, not just in potatoes) per guest. Given that they were serving 6,300 people a week, the brutal math turned the cooks around. This is a step I’ve never had to take in my home — but if you’re trying to make changes in your kitchen, and a family member refuses to get on board, consider using this method as a last resort.