Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
It’s easy to cut back on the edibles you’re trashing.
I recently came back from a weekend away to find a bunch of slimy Swiss chard wilting in the fridge, next to a clammy grilled chicken breast. I’d had every intention of sautéing the greens and chicken—but I had barely finished unpacking my pots and pans in the kitchen of my new apartment, and was reluctant to slosh around olive oil. I’d shoved the ingredients to the back of the fridge, sure that I’d get to them eventually, until they were long past their prime.
The next morning, I trudged to the kitchen to blend a spinach, berry, and almond milk smoothie. In my sleepy stupor, I eyeballed the ingredients instead of measuring them out, and made much more than I could fit in my travel bottle. I poured a half-cup down the drain. In two days, I’d tossed away about $9 of food that I could have eaten if I’d been more strategic in my planning.
I’m not alone in my wasteful habits. An informal survey of my CityLab compatriots Tanvi and Eric found they too throw away usable food. Tanvi used to stock up on enough produce to last two weeks, but found that she couldn’t eat it fast enough—tomatoes were always going mushy or molding. Eric scraps his potato skins because he doesn’t like them.
We’re guilty of contributing to an epidemic of wastefulness, which Dana Gunders of the Natural Resources Defense Council tackles in the new Waste Free Kitchen Handbook.
About 40 percent of all food in the U.S. is uneaten. That totals nearly 35 million tons, and outnumbers plastic, paper, metal, and glass. It’s not all because we let it fester in our fridges and cabinets. Food can go to waste before it even makes it to our store shelves. One of the reasons: growers think it’s too unappetizing to market. Lopsided apples or misshapen peaches don’t get a lot of love in the supermarket.
But a lot of it does get pitched by consumers. Americans households throw away $120 worth of food per month. That works out to be about $165 billion a year. The scale of the problem has not gone unrecognized: the USDA and EPA recently announced a goal of reducing food waste by 50 percent by 2030.
How much food are you throwing away? Gunders prepared this chart to help readers take stock of their habits:
We tend to throw out food for three reasons:
We buy too much. Sometimes, in our enthusiasm to try out a new recipe, we overestimate how much time and energy we’ll have and end up buying food we don’t consume because we don’t want to make that seven-course meal after all. Gunders categorizes this as “wishful thinking.” We may also buy in bulk, when a smaller quantity is all we need or want.
Our portion sizes are out of control. Gunders reports that the surface area of the average dinner plate has ballooned by 36 percent since 1960—and we heap on additional piles of food to fill the extra space. Cookbooks are now tailored for bigger servings, too. For instance, a recipe in The Joy of Cooking that once served 12 now serves 9—meaning that if you do cook it, you might get more than you expected.
We don't know what to do with leftovers. Most of us, Gunders says, lack the “kitchen know-how” that our grandparents had: we don’t necessarily feel comfortable hacking up a whole chicken or confident that we could can tomatoes without developing botulism. (Hipsters might be an exception. Take, for instance, this confident duo from “Portlandia.”)
Gunders offers four smart tips for making conservation-savvy decisions at the grocery store and making the most of what you cart home:
- Buy the amount you need. It’s not always possible to nab just a pinch of cilantro. But when you can, aim to buy the amount that you’ll use. Farmers’ markets can be helpful, because you can often buy in more precise quantities than you can at the store. If you need to buy more than you’ll use, opt for frozen food, which will remain edible longer.
- Keep the temperature in check. The ideal fridge temperature is 40 degrees Fahrenheit. “If the refrigerator is too cold, delicate food like salads can freeze, and it will also use more electricity. If the temperature is too warm, the food can spoil more quickly or pose a health risk,” Gunders writes. The bottom shelf is often the coldest place in the fridge, so reserve that for food that’s prone to cause a safety risk, such as meat.
- Don’t write off weird-looking food. It’s best to steer clear of food that’s truly rancid (think: curdling milk, green potatoes). But wilted lettuce or puckering tomatoes are unlikely to contribute to food-borne illness, Gunders reports. “In fact,” she adds, “they can often be reversed by a 5- to 10-minute ice water bath or by cooking.”
- Make use of your scraps. Of course, you can compost much of your kitchen waste. Here’s another idea: use the leftovers to propagate new plants. Gunders suggests chopping off the bottoms of celery or bok choy, rooting it in water, and then transferring it to soil.