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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?

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35 comments

Comments

Yvette says …

I find it helpful if I can spend (part of) one weekend day each week just prepping the vegetables (and other ingredients if I have time). Everything is washed, dried, cut into the size I need and then stored in zip top bags or containers. This really helps with meal planning because I see what I have and identify what I need to buy and still remain flexible with what recipes I want to use. I often get ideas as I'm prepping and seeing what I have on hand. It also makes the actual cooking on weeknights a breeze because prepping is usually the most time consuming part. It always works great when I do it. The trouble is to be disciplined about doing it!

Sarah says …

I keep scraps from everything to make stock and encourage everyone to do it if you have room. I keep gallon sized ziplock bags in the freezer for shellfish heads and shells, chicken and turkey bones, the parts of beef that are trimmed away before cooking, and all vegetable scraps (peels, corn cobs, stalks, etc). When I have enough in the freezer, I roast the scraps until very brown (veg, bones, or whatever stock I'm making) and cook a huge batch (like 10 quarts or more), then freeze it in 1, 2, and 4 cup containers. It's shocking when you see all that stock how much could have potentially gone to waste just from scraps you wouldn't have otherwise eaten. Waste not, want not, right?

Lauren says …

I used to have a really hard time using up all my CSA stuff. I started to really make an effort to use at least 2 items every time I cooked, and always eat the leftovers for lunch the next day. I also saved the ends and such for soups (just like you suggested), and even started eating the greens attached to those radishes and beets! Another great help was posting in my blog to keep me accountable: http://laurenlikestocook.wordpress.com/2011/11/08/adventures-in-csaing/

leslie morrison says …

If I buy too many mangoes and my kids aren't eating them, I peel, chop, and freeze them for breakfast smoothies or homemade sorbet. If they aren't keeping up with apples or pears, I make fruit sauces or pies with them. Or, they end up in the morning oatmeal. Tomatoes past their prime can get thrown into tomato of vodka sauce. Leftover rice dishes can be frozen for another time.

Ruth says …

This is a great reminder, thank you!

Sally says …

Wow!! I had no idea that wasted food came at such a high cost. I'm with you Anna and pledge to reduce my household food waste. Thanks for the great tips.

says …

@Marcie These are great tips! I especially like the part about herb-cubes. What a revolutionary idea. :D

says …

@Barbara G That sounds amazing! Thanks for sharing your system. I bet a lot of our readers would benefit from adopting your system.

Bri says …

I like the idea of maintaining a bag in the freezer for food scraps for soup, but don't you have to blanch certain of the vegies first?

kim watkins says …

I'm reading "An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace" and love it. Great ideas on using every bit of food I buy, especially for those of us who have grown up in a food culture marked by waste. This book defines a food culture we can be proud of, and it's easy to adopt.

Eleni says …

I put bits of sauteed veggies (that are about to go bad) in an airtight container in my freezer for weekend egg dishes. Pancakes get older fruit and nuts added and the left overs are frozen, which heat nicely in the toaster durring the week. Thanks for the reminder and all the good tips :)

NoRecipeRequired says …

I'm a big believer in throwing old vegetables into stocks...you can freeze them and use them later. It seems simple, but a great stock http://www.noreciperequired.com/technique/how-make-beef-stock can really improve the quality of your finished meal, and it's a great way to use old veggies.

Karen604 says …

I have discovered that the type of refrigerator I have does make a difference.Last Fall old faithful of 18 years passed on to the appliance heaven in the sky. Having an older home gave me limited space for a new fridge. I was left with three that I decided were large enough and would fit in the spot. The decision was made when the scratch n' dent model was $500 less than the other two. it was a freezer on the bottom. I now can see what is in the fridge and what needs to be used. I now use more and toss less. The second problem I have is that I seem to end up with limited fruit choices and some goes bad. I have now decided that it is the family's problem if there are only tangerines and oranges for two weeks. Live with it and eat them. Less spoiled fruit.

vharsh says …

Between freezing meat and veggie scraps for stock, composting uncooked food waste, and feeding cooked plate-scrapings to our chickens, we do pretty good compared to the bad old days. I hear that you can get a rotating compost bin if you don't have chickens, and compost your cooked food scraps that way.

Karen Johnson-Nieuwendijk says …

Every few days I go thru my fridge and make soup/stew/chili/spaghetti/omelets and throw all my extra meat and veggies into the pot. It is amazing how good everything tastes together, and even better the next day. I try very hard not to waste anything; must be all the times my mother used to tell me about all those starving kids in China.

Ariana says …

If I'm going out of town and still have veggies in my fridge, I'll freeze them for later use. Yellow squash, zucchini, asparagus and even grape tomatoes freeze well. For the squash, I wash, dry, then slice and dice them however I best see fit. Then I store them in reusable plastic containers in the freezer. These frozen veggies steam up nicely straight from the freezer. And the best part...no wasted food!

j.J. says …

I just wish I could buy smaller allotments of vegetables at Whole Foods. I'm a single person and love various vegetables, but it takes me a week to eat a bunch of brussel sprouts or swiss chard. It's hard to get variety when what you have to eat a whole large bunch before it goes bad. At least the worms in my composter eat well.

Ashley says …

I agree with Yvette. Pre-prepping not only makes you more mindful of what's in your fridge, but makes it that much easier to toss things together on a busy weeknight. (Meaning there's a better chance you will actually use it.) At the very least, when I bring home a head of lettuce, I immediately tear (DON'T chop, it makes it wilt on the edges) all the lettuce, wash and dry (salad spinner is very handy) and store it in a large container lined with either paper towels or a tea-towel. This makes it super accessible for quick salads or putting it on sandwiches. I've also noticed that the lettuce stays crisp and green longer when stored this way.

Barbara G says …

I have 3 magnetic list pads on my frig. One for whats in the freezer, one for pantry contents and one for refrigator contents like produce and fruit. I cross out or add to a list when I shop and when an item is used. I always know what I have and I refer to a list when planning a meal. My method has eliminated a lot of waste, especially in the frig where its easy to forget an item and find it hidden in the back and beyond use. Once a month or so I start a new page on the refrigerator list which usually has a lot of activity.

BG says …

Regarding reusable glass containers... I recently bought a set of pint sized storage containers at Crate and Barrel. 12 in the set with plastic lids for $20. Made in the USA. LOVE THEM! They stack so nicely. Everything in my fridge seems so organized now, and they are in lunch sized portions. I find myself taking leftovers more and more to work for lunch since they are already pre-packaged, and I can heat the glass in the microwave. Definitely throwing away less leftovers and saving money on Lean Cuisines!

Graphoniac says …

You said that you'll keep the bits of produce for stock--you can do that with the bits of meats too! My husband smoked a small turkey last weekend. I saved the yucky bits that come stuffed inside the bird for stock--and after we pulled all the edible meat from the bones of the turkey, I took it all and make an amazingly flavorful, smoky stock. We then used the meat for 3 different additional meals (and gave the rest to my family) that week. I then took the stock I made from the leftovers, and have made 2 meals from it, and still have a quart of stock for next week. 1 bird into 6+ meals. Nothing wasted there! :) I also want to point out that if produce goes bad, and ends up in the compost bin, that's not a bad thing entirely, either. Whatever nutrients are left in those leftovers return to the earth, and will be added to next year's garden. Not to mention the worms and bugs that will eat bits of it, and the critters that eat them... circle of life! At least you are composting! :)

dyan eisenberger says …

I did go to reuseable glass containers, canning jars work well. pack leftovers for next days lunches, or freeze in single portions and you have some easy frozen dinners, made the way you like, and no paper or plastic tv dinner packaging to toss. And you can see what it is! I just recently saw a recipe for crock pot stock, use those almost old veggies and the peelings, and tops. Freeze until have enough, then toss in the crockpot with water or bones,if you like, and cook all day, strain and freeze for broth.

Debbie T says …

I have been freezing leftovers for a future meal, it's been working out especially when I don't have much cooking time. Reheating is a lot easier! I also just discovered the wonderful tip to save veggie scraps in the freezer to make stock. It's literally free veggie stock!

Donna says …

Thank you for the encouragement and the ideas. I am so thankful that I ran across this blog today! Whole Foods excursions always delight me with new discoveries.

Claudia Rivera says …

Whenever I purchase fresh seasonal veggies, I wash them well and freeze what I'm not going to use. I also freeze large meals and it's actually very handy on days that I cannot cook. I've witnessed hunger and I make a big effort to be less wasteful. I also feel the responsibility to make my children more conscientious. :)

Katie Jesionowski says …

Thanks, Anna! This is such an important topic that we, unfortunately, have NO problem believing is true. Here's to making changes of any size to help reduce our waste! http://mysuperfoods.wordpress.com/2012/01/18/305/ Katie

Emily says …

Thanks so much for the blog. This is obviously a topic on the minds of many right now, as I also wrote a blog about this, only to find out about the Food Network's "The Big Waste" which was on TV the night before. Additional ideas (condensed versions) from my own post: -Reconsider bulk. Not the bulk bin kind, but the Costco kind where you buy a (sometimes ridiculously) large quantity of food – amount uncontrollable by the purchaser – because it seems like a good deal, then end up throwing half of it away because you are unable to consume it all in time. Consider instead finding a smaller volume of those perishables from a more sustainable source. Then pay the producer (probably the same as you would at the Big Box) so they can make a living. And finally, waste none. -Remember what’s in your fridge. This one is a “personal experience” idea. My husband and I were members of a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm for several summers and would often get way more food than we could deal with in a week. In addition to not knowing what to do with all of it before the next box came, I also struggled with remembering what the heck was in the drawers and on the shelves in my fridge. So I put a magnetic white board on the fridge door and I now track everything in the fridge (at least in the summer when we have lots of fresh produce from the garden and farmers markets). If you keep it updated, it will help with reducing waste, as well as meal planning. Not to mention that it will help reduce the energy wasted every time you stand there with the door wide open deciding what to eat. -Leftovers – eat ‘em or freeze. If you and your family cannot eat leftovers within a few days (or get “leftover fatigue” after a few meals), consider freezing a portion. Check out more: http://foodaccordingtoemily.wordpress.com/2012/01/09/wasted/

Cat says …

Mason jars are the perfect pantry and fridge storage solution. They come in so many sizes, including half gallon, and are so versatile. I use them to store everything in the pantry: nuts, coconuts, flours, grains, pastas, dried fruit...they are just fabulous!!

S Brooks says …

It upsets me when I have to throw away heads of lettuce and spinach that I know were lovingly grown by local farmers. I now make more frequent and smaller purchases from farmer's markets. Would love to order from local farmers, but with a small household, we can't consume the quantities larger families can. Hmmmm, time to check with the neighbors about splitting a delivery. Thanks for the reminder!!

Van says …

Oh, another thing is to saute any greens that have wilted (but not turned black)--including boxed/bagged salads. My favorite way is to use sesame oil and sprinkle black sesame seeds on at the end.

Van says …

I would also suggest making juices and (green) smoothies. I try to always have some frozen fruit on hand so I can just add in whatever greens I have that need to be consumed before going bad and blend it all up. Same goes for juicing but fruit isn't always necessary for that. I have a blog with recipes and tips if anyone's interested in getting started: http://greensvegfruit.blogspot.com

Peter Wiles says …

You may want to consider "shopping like a wartime bride": Shopping like a European is now a choice, in my Mothers day it was necessity. You might be interested in a couple of items on my blog. http://spadesandspatulas.blogspot.com/2011/09/world-war-ii-rationing-original-diet.html http://spadesandspatulas.blogspot.com/2011/10/waste-not-and-you-shall-eat-well.html http://spadesandspatulas.blogspot.com/2011/09/last-of-summer-wine.html

Marcie says …

I found fresh herbs do not last long and often have to throw away. Now I make them into purees or pestos that can be freezed in small cubes. Even some greens as spinach, I freeze if geting old and use in smoothies. I also had a problem with cheese when too large a block or buy too many. They get moldy after a while. To prevent this I invested in a Food Sealer ; it is the best investment and money saver. I divide the cheese (or other foods) that I will use for the week and since is vacumned packed , it will last forever. This is also very good to prevent freezer burn on meats. Third, I am learning to buy small amounts and shop more often however when sales are on, the food sealer is very handy.

Beverly says …

wilted greens (romaine, spring mix, arugula, etc) make a great addition to many soups, especially potato or tomato-based ones. Chop the greens, put them in a soup bowl, pour very hot soup over them, and let stand one to two minutes. The greens don't get overcooked, and they add nutrition, taste, and texture to the soup.

Trudy Lane says …

Ice cube trays are my best friends....freeze stock in these small quantities for use with vegetables, a sauce or braise meat or poultry. Also useful for pesto, herbs, left-over fruit and vegetable juices that can be added to cereal or smoothies or sweet or savory sauces.