Like flossing and other habits, wasting less food is something I have to constantly re-commit to. Though it has gotten easier over time, sending fewer scraps to the compost bin is still a matter of making the daily choice to scout the contents of the fridge, to finagle a spot for those extra beans in a dish, to buy less at the farmers' market, no matter how tempting that stone fruit looks.
We’re not perfect, in food waste or in anything. But then again, we don’t have to be. Here are some of the strategies we’ve found helpful in the everlasting quest to waste less food:
-Keeping a loose meal plan. We’ve experimented with several types of meal planning over time. What seems to work for us is picking a few recipes at the start of each week, but not assigning them any particular day. If we choose recipes right before grocery shopping, when the fridge is nearing empty, we can make sure the recipes incorporate any last bits and pieces of produce lying about. We write down the list of recipe suggestions for the week and use that to make a shopping list.
Keeping our meal plan loose and flexible means that if we over- or under-estimate how much we’ll eat, we don’t have to shift an entire plan around; we just pull another recipe from the list sooner, or later, than we might have otherwise. I’d never been a meal planner until lately, so it’s strange to be operating on this system and stranger still to be in the position of recommending meal planning. (Everyone recommends meal planning. How tiresome. But it’s with good reason that this is oft-mentioned in regards to food waste and life organization and everything else).
-Shopping for food more often. Maybe this means the farmers’ market on Saturday, followed by a bike ride to the co-op on Wednesday night. Or, like a recent weekend, a trip to the farmers’ market Saturday morning and a bike ride to the co-op Saturday afternoon. However it happens, we’ve had more success buying food for roughly half a week than trying to buy food for a whole week and stressing out about being able to finish it up in time. And since we can’t always know what the week will bring – an unexpectedly large amount of leftovers, dinner out with a friend – it’s helpful to have less food around, not more.
-Using clear food containers. If we can see it, we can cook it. Plus, this saves shuffling around a tippy stack of opaque containers to peer into the back of the fridge, peeling off lids exploratorily only to find the wrong item, and so on. Ours are mostly plain old glass jars or glass food containers bought secondhand. (More on simple food storage solutions, here).
-Creatively repurposing ingredients. A few weeks ago, we made a batch of refrigerator strawberry jam. The homemade variety doesn’t keep as well as something shelf-stable, and we wanted to make sure to use it before it went off. So, we made an oat-y topping and turned the jam into strawberry crumble. Ditto the kabocha squashes sitting on our countertop: reasoning that any squash is basically a pumpkin by another name, into pumpkin bread they went.
When we have cooked red beans and a recipe calls for black beans, we use the red beans already in our fridge. Ditto grains, ditto different types of onion, ditto – as previously mentioned – different types of squash. For us, flexibility is key to using ingredients up. Recipes might be most delicious when you use the exact thing called for, but that’s how the fridge end can end up with, to take the example to an extreme, two yellowing green onions, half a withering shallot, a few dried-out slices of red onion, and a molding white onion on the countertop.
A note: this one requires a little bit of kitchen confidence. I got mine from this book and then years of practice. The years of practice can’t be faked, of course, but the book is still a good place to start.
-Loving our neighbors. (Or, giving food away). Thank goodness for friends who are appreciative, not surprised, when you thrust an onion / sweet potato / garlic head / squash into their hands on their way out your door / at the end of dinner at a restaurant / when you get to their house. I joked in this article that 80% of my friends have received an extra onion from me at some point, and if you add limes, radishes, sweet potatoes, and garlic into the mix, that number probably rockets up to 95%. Part of wasting less food is getting it eaten – and if you can accept that it might not be by you, but that giving it to someone else is much better than feeding your compost or the landfill, you’ll start proffering onions, too.
If you’re left with produce or food you know you won’t have time to eat, offer it to friends, family, neighbors, coworkers. You can swap it, like the neighbor and friend who brought me two of her beets recently in exchange for an extra squash of ours. You can just leave it out in the kitchen at work with a “Free! Take me!” sign. You can bring a few things as a mini host gift when going to dinner at a friend’s house, or invite someone to cook a use-it-up-meal together. Regardless: if you’re lucky enough to have a small community on a similar mission, sharing food both makes good use of that community and serves to build it up even further.
-Maintaining a watchful eye. This applies to food in the fridge and on the countertop, sure. It’s self-evident that checking on your produce and leftovers every day or so will help get things used up before they go bad. But more broadly, keeping a close eye on habits is helpful, too. The places that slip you up are probably different than the places that slip me up. Attentiveness to pitfalls and habits can teach you where to exercise particular caution. And, when food waste happens, as it will, making a mental note about what caused it can turn the moldy leftovers into a learning experience rather than just, um, a waste.
Other tips you'd share?
More resources on food waste, here.
(Photos by Anna Zajac for Litterless).