As a kid, I remember enjoying a roast chicken dinner on Sundays. Any leftover chicken was mixed with mayo and transformed into chicken salad sandwiches for lunch the next day. The carcass was simmered in a large pot of water, and my mother, a poultry surgeon, chiseled off every edible piece of protein before tossing the stewed bones. The pot, with this meat-off-bone broth, was reheated on the stove, and any aging veggies in the produce bin were chopped and tossed in along with egg noodles for the next day's dinner. No food ended up in our trash cans.
Those days of waste-not-want-not are a memory for many of us. The US Department of Agriculture estimates that up to 40 percent of food in this country is wasted, which translates to more than $161 billion worth of food being tossed. To put this in perspective, that kind of money would be able to buy each person living in Boston (whether they can drive or not) about six brand new Lexuses annually.
Sadly, this wasted food, the single largest component of our landfills, rots in our town dumps producing that ugly greenhouse gas, methane. To add more misery to this story, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, over 12 percent of US households experience food insecurity, forcing them to go to bed hungry at times. So how can we stop wasting food and hurting the environment, while helping our hungry neighbors?
To answer this question, the USDA and EPA have challenged the food industry to reduce food waste by 50 percent by 2030. General Mills, Kellogg's, Morton Salt, Wegman's, and Blue Apron have all made public commitments to waste less in their operations.
Restaurants are also stepping up. Food waste reduction at restaurants is going to be one of the hottest concepts in dining this year, according to the National Restaurant Association. This "stem to root" trend of using the entire plant and wasting less is nothing new to Jason Bond, the chef-owner at Bondir in Cambridge. According to Bond, if broccoli florets are on the menu, the stalks are not far behind. "The peeled stalks are sliced, cooked, and served as a tender side dish." To further reduce food waste, restaurants can sell their uneaten entrees to the public for up to 80 percent off the menu price by using the FoodForAll app. It's takeout at bargain prices.
While all of this industry alliance is needed in the fight against food waste, this is just the tip of the garbage can. The single biggest culprit in wasting food is you, the consumer, who tosses up to 25 percent of all food purchased. Why? Because we tend to overbuy at the supermarket, trash edible foods we think are spoiled, underutilize our freezer, and have forgotten about the luxury of leftovers.
These tips can help you play a key role in the fight to reduce food waste.
Be supermarket savvy
Access your supermarket's online weekly circular and plan meals around what's on sale. Stick to your list, which will reduce waste and save you money. Produce is one of biggest culprits for food waste, so buy only what you plan to — eat even if it is on sale.
Get out of the food dating game
Tossing food based on food label product dates is a huge cause of food waste. Dairy foods are tied with produce as the two largest food groups that we wastefully toss. Since the dates on the food label pertain to food quality, not food safety, consumers needlessly often toss foods that are safe to eat. Use the nifty StillTasty app, which will tell you when the foods in your refrigerator really need to be tossed.
Put your freezer to work
If you plan to make dinner but your schedule changes, your freezer is your sous chef. Except for foods in a can, eggs in shells, and salads, you can freeze most foods. Freezing foods at 0 degrees or below will keep food safe indefinitely, although the quality may decline in time. The USDA's FoodKeeper app will tell the maximum length of time you should give your food the big chill.
Fall in love with leftovers
In this time-impaired society, leftovers are the ultimate buy-one-get-one-free deal. Cook once and eat the leftovers for another night with little food preparation. Ditto for bringing home leftovers from a restaurant. If you are not going to eat the leftovers in a couple of days, see the above freezer tip.
Spread the wealth
If you are saddled with too much food, AmpleHarvest.org can help you locate the closest food pantry to donate foods to those in need.
Joan Salge Blake, EdD, MS, FAND, is a clinical associate professor in the nutrition program at Boston University. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @JoanSalgeBlake.