There’s something about the freshness of fall that makes us want to overhaul our kitchens.
Maybe it was watching those crunchy summer greens go limp in the vegetable drawer or the realization that last week’s molded sliced turkey won’t make it into this week’s lunch boxes. Let’s not even talk about the carton of milk that curdled in the fridge during back-to-back vacations last month.
Despite our best efforts, food still seems to go bad before our eyes. And we’re not alone. Americans waste nearly a pound of food per day on average, and a family of four spends about $1,500 a year on food they’ll end up tossing out.
A study in Oregon found that nearly three-quarters of food waste was edible at some point (it’s not all eggshells and chicken bones). Food that could have been eaten fills landfills, helping to make them the third-largest source of methane emissions from human-caused activities in the country.
But you’ve heard much of this before, and you’ve resolved to improve before, right?
When Alison Mountford founded Ends+Stems, a meal planning service aimed at reducing household food waste, she became a de facto priest for people’s food-waste confessions. Occasionally, someone would say they’ve got it handled.
“But far more common is the person who feels a little bit of shame,” says Mountford, who lives in San Francisco. They say “we waste so much food in my house, and I really just don’t know where to start.”
She was inspired to start her business in 2012 after learning, along with the rest of us, how deep America’s food waste problems ran. That’s when the Natural Resources Defense Council released a groundbreaking report (that’s since been updated) that 40 percent of food in America goes to waste. As a chef who learned the food-waste tricks of the trade over 15 years in restaurant kitchens, Mountford says, “I knew I had to use the skills I had to help people at home.”
Dana Gunders, the author of that NRDC report and of the “Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook,” has since started a business to help institutions and corporate clients such as Google reduce their waste. And she says we don’t have to go zero waste overnight to make a difference.
“Pick something you notice in your life that could be a small change and just go for it,” Gunders says. “If you don’t know where to start, try starting with meat and dairy. Those are the products with the highest resource footprint that will have the biggest benefit.”
When it comes to the low-hanging fruit of food waste solutions, Gunders and Mountford have plenty of suggestions for what to try next.
Keep a(n easy) waste diary
Gunders once worked on a study that asked residents to keep a list of what they wasted — then researchers went through their trash to “audit” what they actually tossed.
“It’s great accountability,” Gunders says.
Mountford agrees: “Our memories of what we’re wasting are not always super accurate.”
But keeping a food waste log at home doesn’t have to be extreme. Gunders suggests keeping a piece of paper near the trash can for jotting down once-edible food that’s become rubbish. Simply putting it to paper can be enough to keep you from buying the cucumbers that always get slimy before they get sliced.
Want to take it a step further? Record the value of the food and tally up how much money you’d save by not wasting what’s on the week’s list. Better yet, she says, get your kids involved and let them keep the savings in return.
Be honest about your routine
Gunders calls them “lazy days.” Mountford calls them “Wednesday nights when my husband works late.” But we all know there are going to be nights we don’t want to cook. A great way to keep wasting food is to pretend those nights don’t exist when you’re at the grocery store.
“Part of a good meal plan is being honest that there are nights you’re going to order in,” says Mountford, who has a 4-year-old and an 18-month-old. “And if you decide before the night of, then it’s not stressful.”
To that end, Ends+Stems’ meal plans include recipes for three meals a week, many of which have ingredients in common. The recipes and grocery lists can be adjusted for additional portions, so users can cook once, eat twice, as she puts it.
Make a list
“I think entering the grocery store without a list is even worse than entering on an empty stomach,” says Gunders, who’s studied how grocery stores are geared to sell what shoppers don’t actually need.
One solution to entering the store sans list is to not enter it at all. Online grocery shopping (with pickup or delivery options) is now mainstream, and working off of last week’s list to avoid items you didn’t use can chip away at waste over time.
The other option is the dreaded — but obvious — meal plan. Open the fridge, see what needs to be used, and build the week’s meals and grocery lists around it. Don’t be afraid to repeat meals you know how to make easily.
“We actually tend to be creatures of habit and only want a little bit of variety,” Gunders says.
In 2017, Mountford surveyed 1,000 people in cities from Los Angeles to Boston to Chicago about their cooking habits before starting her business. It turns out, just 7 percent of them said they were willing to do the work of meal planning.
For all her advocacy on meal planning, Gunders admits it’s not her style, either.
“Either you’re a really good planner, or you have some good, emergency, use-it-up solutions,” says Gunders, a mom of two kids under 4 whose book is full of such food-waste hacks.
Get friendly with your freezer
Freezers aren’t just for smoothie fixings and meat bones you thought you’d turn into broth someday. For people who waste less food, their freezers are everyday workhorses.
A half jar of tomato sauce or quarter can of coconut milk a recipe leaves behind? Seal it into an airtight container and freeze. That double loaf of sliced bread that was on sale? Freeze the slices for popping into the toaster later.
Even milk and eggs (Gunders suggests cracking and mixing first so they’re ready for a scramble) can be frozen, along with cheese (shred first).
“You can freeze almost anything,” Mountford adds. “When you use it, it might be a bit different, but it will work for smoothies, soup, frittatas.”
So before you leave on a weeklong vacation, ask yourself if anything in the fridge should migrate to the freezer.
Know your leftover personality
There are some things food waste experts say that make you think, “I know that. Why don’t I do that?” How to handle leftovers is one of them.
Leftovers and prepared foods are the second-most tossed category of foods, behind fresh fruits and vegetables — and one of the most stomach-churning things to find in the back of your fridge.
Gunders thinks some people aren’t honest about their feelings about leftovers. If last night’s meatloaf is going to gross you out as tomorrow’s lunch, make less of it. Or put the leftovers right into the freezer to save for a day when you won’t have just had meatloaf and it might sound good again.
Mountford’s meal plans allow users to increase their portions if they want to have extra for lunches. And, if still more remains at the end of the week, she’s proud to hear about people pulling them out for leftover night.
Live a little
About once a year, Gunders’ husband will unload the pantry shelves onto the kitchen counter for a family food-waste version of “Chopped.” They then plan a month’s worth of meals around using it all up.
They call it “the eat-down challenge,” and it’s one way to make sure you don’t find a 12-year-old can of tuna on a back shelf the next time you move.
If that game sounds stressful, Mountford’s website features a “What’s in my fridge?” recipe finder that’s a cheat sheet to cook with what you have. SaveTheFood.com has more resources like this, too.
“It’s better than looking for recipes by randomly searching Pinterest,” Mountford says.
In the end, Mountford says she isn’t interested in guilt-tripping people, but in enabling them to tweak their habits. Even she wastes lettuce sometimes. “I think I’ll eat salad, but I really don’t like salads.
“Any bit you save is not lost,” she says. “You don’t have to be perfect.”
Whitney Pipkin is a staff writer for the Chesapeake Bay Journal and a freelance journalist focused on food, farms & the environment in and around Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, NPR and The Washington Post. She’s currently working on a mega-report about microplastics.