While the genesis of this article came from a podcast episode that I recorded recently — I have my own podcast, “Office Hours with The Nutrition Professor,” if you weren’t already aware — this month’s recipe was inspired by an unexpected guest from Thailand who was craving vegetables!
I just attended a wonderful conference called P-POD (Plant-Based Prevention of Disease) in North Carolina, and one of the excellent speakers, Kathy Pollard (www.kathrynpollard.com), shared some of the following fascinating statistics about food waste in the U.S.:
Forty percent of food is never eaten ... which is valued at $160 to 165 billion! While some of the food waste occurs at a retail level (e.g. grocery stores, restaurants), 25% of food/beverages consumers buy gets thrown away (despite the flood of ultra processed products with unbelievably long-shelf lives)!
Also, only 5% of the uneaten food is diverted from the landfill for composting and rotting food in landfills is the single largest component of municipal solid waste.
Reducing food waste by 15% could feed more than 25 million people per year, which is significant since 1 in 6 people in the U.S. are considered food insecure (unsure from where their next meal is coming).
Even if you are fortunate enough not to be struggling with hunger or food insecurity at the present time, not only does it just make good sense not to waste food, it will also save you money and time (since prepared food won’t get thrown away).
Kathy Pollard’s talk inspired me to brainstorm some ideas for helping all of us reduce food waste on an individual level. Here are 10 strategies you can put into practice right away (and save money):
1. Use your freezer.
Our dedicated freezer is easily one of the best investments we have ever made, and their energy efficiency, especially when kept well-stocked, will likely surprise you. We chose a vertical freezer that opens upright (as opposed to a chest freezer) to help make it easy to access items. I use it extensively!
In my freezer, you will find a variety of whole grains, nuts, seeds, soups, sauces, fruit, veggies and cooked legumes, “planned-overs” (instead of leftovers), citrus juice in ice cubes, zest, and ginger and turmeric root (super easy to grate with the microplane when still frozen).
2. Don’t peel those fruits and veggies unless you have to.
The only vegetable that I peel is jicama, and the only squash that I don’t eat the peel is spaghetti squash. Some of the most health-promoting phytonutrients and fiber are found in or just under the skin of many fruits and veggies, so I choose to eat the skin of all types of potatoes, kiwi, ginger and carrots, just to mention a few that you may have peeled in the past.
3. Meal plan and prep (including ‘planned-overs’).
When you know what you are planning to make, you won’t buy more than you need. If you just aimlessly put thing in your cart that look good and hope they will somehow come together to form an array of edible meals, you might be disappointed.
Regarding “planned-overs”: Why not double or triple a chili or soup recipe and divide it into three containers? Put two in the freezer (label them with masking tape and a Sharpie). That way you won’t have to serve it every day for a week, risking that everyone will get “tired” of it and not want it again for the foreseeable future.
4. Find recipes that use up extra odds and ends.
Speaking of soup, get comfortable with an “everything but the kitchen sink” recipe to help you clean out the fridge when veggies are looking a bit wilted.
You can also create a multi-veggie stir-fry, like the one I made with our foreign exchange student from Thailand this week. Not only was it quick and incredibly delicious, it cleaned out much of my produce drawer.
5. Consider adopting The Foodie Bar Way approach to meals.
If you end up throwing away casseroles at your house because someone doesn’t like olives or tomatoes, begin to set up your meals like Foodie Bars, where you have lots of options set out, but everyone assembles their own plate/bowl of food.
When I tell someone new about my cookbook, “The Foodie Bar Way,” I open it to a picture of my salsa bar, which shows a variety of bowls filled with ingredients for salsa. I explain that if I make the salsa, my daughter won’t eat it because I’d put jalapeño in it, and my son won’t eat it because it would have cilantro. However, if i set out the ingredients and they make their own, everyone’s happy.
I have applied that concept to breakfast through dessert and have 32 Foodie Bars (such as loaded potato bar, pasta bar, burrito bowl bar and even dessert nacho bar) and 94 recipes to support those bars.
On the back cover, I explain that it is as if “Forks Over Knives” was crossed with Chipotle with a sprinkle of “The Flavor Bible.”
If you don’t have a copy of the book, you should definitely get one, either in print or ebook at www.foodiebars.com.
6. Shop smart when it comes to food that ripens.
Instead of purchasing a bunch of bananas that will all need to be eaten in the same 24 hour window, why not buy a few green ones, some a bit riper and a few that would be ready to eat that day or the next? The same goes for avocados, stone fruit and pears, just to mention a few.
If your bananas, avocado and other fruit is ready before you are, put them in the fridge without washing or slicing them, and it should be at least another day or two before they get too soft.
In my cookbook, I devote a section to helping you make the produce you purchase last longer, with specific advice for every fresh ingredient in the book. This is a must-read if you have ever thrown away rotting fruit that you put in bag to speed the ripening process.
7. Pay attention to food safety.
While Kathy’s presentation at the P-POD conference touched on the fact that the most common reasons for food waste in developing countries included poor refrigeration, infrastructure and packaging challenges, I suspect that we waste plenty of food in the US because we don’t minimize the amount of time prepared food is in the temperature danger zone (40 to 140 degrees), when the rate of bacterial growth doubles.
Per the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service FSIS website on storing leftovers: “One of the most common causes of foodborne illness is improper cooling of cooked foods. Bacteria can be reintroduced to food after it is safely cooked. For this reason leftovers must be put in shallow containers for quick cooling and refrigerated at 40°F or below within two hours.”
And on reheating: “Foods should be reheated thoroughly to an internal temperature of 165°F or until hot and steaming. In the microwave oven, cover food and rotate so it heats evenly.”
8. Keep your refrigerator closed, at all costs.
I know that this sounds silly, but one my of pet peeves is when someone in my family opens the fridge, just to see/think about what they want to eat, as all of the cool air rushes out of the fridge and warm air moves in.
An easy fix can be a list of meal ideas and available fruit and veggies that you put on the front of the fridge on a simple sheet paper or a light dry erase sheet. Don’t list every condiment — just the items that make sense.
9. Be deliberate about where you place items in the fridge.
The door will be the warmest, so don’t put homemade dressings there! The back of fridge will be coldest, but some things will freeze if in certain locations, high up or on the side that shares a wall with the freezer.
If you happen to have two refrigerators, one the garage, be sure to use it wisely. Don’t just keep drinks in there. I place containers of the food that I am most worried about going bad in our garage fridge, including our beloved Tomato Almond Pesto Sauce, Southwestern Scramble, homemade salad dressing and Cheezie Sauce, as that refrigerator gets opened so infrequently compared to the one in the house.
10. Get creative with ingredients.
Recently in one of my Facebook groups, someone asked for suggestions to use up a ton of carrots. Carrot muffins and carrot cake came up (both of which are freezable), and I added finding a yummy carrot ginger soup or making my Zippy Citrus Carrot Salad. I also have several additional oil-free stir-fry recipes on my website, but wanted to share this one that I whipped up for our unexpected guest.
Why not choose one or two of the 10 strategies above and have fun reducing your food waste and saving money? If you’d like to listen to this information (and more) by way of my new podcast, you can find a link on www.thenutritionprofessor.com or search for “Office Hours with The Nutrition Professor” on your favorite podcast platform.
Timaree Hagenburger is a registered dietitian, certified exercise physiologist with a master’s degree in public health, and a nutrition professor at Cosumnes River College. Timaree is excited about the new Plant-Based Nutrition and Sustainable Agriculture certificate program, her Thrive On Plants Club, and her hands-on cooking class. She also conducts local events, corporate wellness work and has a regular segment on California Bountiful TV.