Food waste in the US is an enormous climate problem. In the U.S., over a third of all food produced goes uneaten, and about 95% of discarded food ends up in landfills. And that food in landfills generates a whole lot of methane as it breaks down, which is bad news for our environment. And that’s not even talking about the energy and emissions involved in growing, processing, and shipping that food!
My husband and I are both professional chefs, and managing food waste in our restaurants is a huge part of the job. Throwing food means wasted time, wasted money, and wasted effort of the people that bothered to grow the food.
A lot of restaurant tips can be useful for cutting back on waste at home too! Here’s some of what we do at home to keep our wasted food (and wasted money) to a minimum.
Even if you’re a fantastic cook, it’s hard to look at a fridge full of ingredients and know exactly what to do with no plan. So just like we would at work, my husband and I sit down and write ourselves a menu for the week before we go to the store.
We base the menu off of what we already have at home and the proteins that we want to buy. Fresh vegetables and meats are expensive and perishable, and so planning around these to avoid waste is important to us. Not to mention that agriculture (beef production in particular) is a huge contributor to emissions in the US, so responsible consumption matters!
For us, since we’re only a household of two, we also plan for what we’re going to do with leftovers. A roasted chicken turns into chicken Caesar salad, then into chicken soup. A grilled steak rice bowl turns into fried rice and a steak sandwich.
This process of assessing the pantry and planning meals before shopping can help you avoid that awful feeling of letting a drawer full of veggies spoil in the fridge, or getting home and realizing you bought yet another bottle of soy sauce you didn’t need.
Unpacking and organizing the food you purchase is a huge part of avoiding food waste. Many restaurants have an employee whose whole job it is to unpack the deliveries every day, just to make sure that each item is stored in the best way to make it last, and to make sure everyone can find what they need easily. We do this in our own home too!
With perishable groceries, there are tricks to make things last. For fresh fruits and veggies, check out this guide. And then for herbs, which are notoriously delicate but also delicious, here’s an extremely nerdy but useful guide to getting the best shelf life. And for dry goods, any kind of pantry organization that works for you will help a lot when it comes to over-purchasing.
If there is one pro tip I would give to every home cook, it’s just this: Label. Everything. Sure, you can probably figure out what is in the Tupperware in the back of the fridge if you try, but do you remember when you made it? And are you going to bother looking inside the container, or are you just going to put on “leftover blinders” like I do?
Get yourself a roll of masking tape and a Sharpie. Put them somewhere convenient and get in the habit of writing a clear label and date on anything that isn’t in packaging. Having the visual on the container makes it so much easier to see what you have throughout the kitchen, and the date can help you avoid eating anything that’s potentially too old and unsafe, too.
There’s a thing called zero-waste cooking that means exactly what it sounds like: cook without throwing parts of the food away. This means figuring out how to use lemon peels, onion trimmings, parsley stems – the weird parts you would normally just toss. What this means for you depends a lot on what you like to cook! Here are a few ideas from our kitchen to use some of the scraps:
There are thousands of recipes that can help you use the parts of the food you’re throwing in the trash before they even hit the pan. Just pay attention to what you’re throwing away and do a little research!
Ah, the freezer. Almost no restaurant has enough freezer space because it’s the most valuable storage space. A freezer lets you buy and cook in bulk, which saves you money and time. From bulk ingredient purchases to making big batches of soups to keeping breads fresh, the freezer is a great option to reduce waste.
Chest freezers in particular are pretty energy efficient. If you have the space and like to cook, especially if you grow your own food and want to preserve it without the hassle of canning, a little extra freezer space can be a real blessing. (Just remember to defrost occasionally, as ice buildup makes them less energy efficient: more on energy-efficient refrigeration here.)
And to avoid the headache of thawing big items, try freezing food in portion sizes you can easily use. Wrap chicken breasts individually, freeze stocks in 1 cup portions, slice bread before freezing, that kind of thing. This will make it so much easier to cook with what you have in the freezer!
A weird thing about our food system is that the FDA (the regulatory body responsible for food safety) doesn’t regulate or even require dates on packaged foods. Food manufacturers and retailers use dates for inventory management and to help the consumer decide when food is at its best quality, not if it is safe to eat.
So basically, the dates on the foods you buy are, at best, guidelines. Even the FDA advises that food can very well be safe after the best-by date, as long as evidence of spoilage isn’t present. Look out for things like mold, weird odors, and changes in texture. But don’t throw something away just because of the date on the package! Use your head, and specifically, use your nose. As every chef will tell you, the nose knows!
We’re all busy, and the reality is that sometimes, the time and effort of using every single citrus peel just isn’t practical. That is completely understandable and fine! The best way to minimize your impact is to keep food out of the trash. Keeping food out of landfills will minimize methane emissions.
Whether you do it yourself or use a third-party pickup service, try to compost your food scraps.
Also, there are some really great newer ways to compost that aren’t the traditional stinky compost pile on your counter. Here are some of my favorites:
This one is on the pricier side, but it’s great quality, low smell, and easy cleaning. It’s the top of the line for counter top cyclers. You’ll never waste food again!
If you have your own backyard, this is absolutely worth it. This one could also be something your neighbors or people in your apartment complex share. It’s huge and made from recycled plastic.
A very good reason to have a worm farm! This one boasts zero smell and indoor composting year round.
This one is made from sustainable bamboo, it’s inexpensive and it comes in a lot of different colors! Great for collecting scraps in between adding them to a larger compost pile.
And there are lots of services that will pick up your scraps and do the dirty work if the DIY route isn’t for you. Either way, a good countertop container will help keep your kitchen odor-free while collecting food scraps.
Minimizing household food waste is a constant project, but even small steps can make a big difference for the environment. The more that we can use the food we produce and limit food waste in the landfill, the better off our environment will be.