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Budget Booster: Trim Your Food Waste

My challenge-to-self for 2012: Reduce my household food waste to less than 5%. I spent the week after Christmas clearing out closets, the pantry and the refrigerator — following my own advice.

The biggest reveal was when I discovered that my largest kitchen appliance had turned into a scary hybrid compost bin/messy biological laboratory. Life got away from me for about six weeks during the most food-focused time of year.

The CSA produce bags kept coming while I ate at home less due to holiday parties, travel and deadlines. When I finally took the time to assess the damage, only half of the food in the fridge was still edible.

My compost bin brimmed, while a back-of-the-napkin tally showed that I tossed nearly 25% of December’s food budget. Ouch. In the United States, food waste is estimated at 40% and more. While a lot of that food loss occurs pre-consumer, a significant amount occurs once food arrives in households.

A 2002 study of American households indicates that families discarded 14% of their food, to the tune of 470 pounds and an annual cost of $600 per year.

Beyond the impact to family budgets, this food waste has startling implications for our national energy policy. An energy study from 2010 claims that the energy embodied in wasted food exceeds that available from most popular “efficiency” programs, such as the annual production of ethanol from (mostly) corn and the annual output from drilling in the outer continental shelf.

An estimated 300 million barrels of oil per year, or four percent of the oil consumed in the US was used to produce and transport food that was ultimately thrown away.

Yikes! With help from some smart, passionate folks here at Whole Foods Market, I came up with the following list. Here’s how I plan to respect food, money and the resources that go into growing the crops and getting them to me in 2012. I will:

  • Plan meals for the week. I can check my calendar on Sunday to determine when I’ll eat at home, spend five minutes assessing what’s already in the fridge and pantry, check online for recipe ideas and make use of the shopping list functionality on this website.
  • Shop at home first. I receive veggies from my CSA farmer for about 40 weeks out of the year. I also grow fruit, veggies and herbs at home. My healthy pantry is well-stocked. I will use these things first.
  • Shop like a European. Many people in Europe visit the market every few days and purchase small quantities of very fresh food — just enough for the next few days.
  • Be less picky about produce. If fruits are going into smoothies, if veggies are going into soups and casseroles, why do they need to be cosmetically perfect?
  • Belly up to the bulk bins. Choosing only the amount I need makes more sense than storing half-filled boxes of pasta or rice — or throwing out two extra cups of cooked quinoa past its prime.
  • Store stuff better. I’m slowly investing in better storage containers — glass where possible — for pantry, pet food and refrigerated items. I’ve also been researching how to store produce properly.
  • Smarten up when eating out. I might spend more per serving on a half-size portion but it costs me even more to toss out what I bring home in a container.
  • Save the gnarly bits for stock. If you cook with a lot of fresh produce like me, the carrot tops, chard spines and celery stubs can be saved in a designated container for the Sunday soup stock pot.
  • Drop off garden extras at the food bank. When my prolific peach tree starts bearing this spring I’ll share the bounty instead of stuffing the freezer.
  • Eat and enjoy my leftovers. ‘nuff said.
  • Make a pig, chicken or backyard bird happy. The neighborhood pot-bellied pig or chickens at a nearby farm will love leafy greens and squashes past their prime. The birds will love soft apples and past-prime berries.
  • Keep a food diary. In addition to the health-focused notes, I’ll include preparation/cooking and food waste disposition entries. I’ll need to track my progress to see if I succeed!

What tips do you have to ensure that the good stuff ends up in your belly and not in the compost bin?