I waste more food than I’m comfortable admitting.
There are several reasons for this. For one, I’ve been told over and over again that fresh produce is best for my family’s and my health, so when I get to the store and see rows of glowing peaches and shiny tomatoes, I go a little nuts. But when I get home and put the produce away, I forget about it. Combine this excessive tendency with kids who change their minds overnight about what they like to eat (“You bought raspberries??? I hate raspberries!” says the kid who ate a pint and a half yesterday). Just for fun, let’s round this off with the fact that I so rarely get to the store unencumbered by children that when I do, I buy all the things because I can’t guarantee when I’ll be back…and we have the makings of a big, hot, food-wasting mess.
I’m not alone. The average American family throws out $640 of food each year — and since I have more kids than the average, I’m probably even worse. 76 percent of Americans say they toss out leftovers on a monthly basis (um. Me again).
There are a few things we can do to cut down on our waste, though…even if we do have picky eaters who constantly change their minds. The next time you’re faced with a surplus of food, try one of these ideas.
Ways to reduce food waste in your household
1.) Freeze odds and ends for stock.
Chicken carcasses, corncobs, ends of hardy vegetables like carrots and onions, garlic bulbs — all of these things can be saved and tossed into a pot for chicken or vegetable stock. And stock is beautiful, glorious liquid gold that you want to have on-hand. I use it to make chilis, soups, stews, and casseroles. It comes in handy to help out a sauce in the crockpot. I usually toss all my leftover veggies and a chicken body if I have it into the crockpot and leave it on low all day. When the stock is cooled, I pour it into ice cube trays to freeze, then save the cubes for when I need them.
2.) Eat ugly produce.
We’ve been programmed to only like round, bright apples, perfectly yellow bananas, or peppers that shine til you can see your face in them. But produce with a few bumps or an occasional bruise is still good. If you need to, trim the bruises off for the kids — at least you’re only discarding a tiny part of the fruit instead of the entire thing. I’ve also noticed my kids will eat bananas with brown spots if I peel them because you can’t tell underneath the peel that they were turning colors. My grocery store even has an ugly produce shelf where food has been discounted so you can save some money in the process!
3.) Freeze things.
I’m trying to think of leftovers you can’t freeze, and with the possible exception of fish, I’ve got nothing. Buy some freezer containers and freeze things. This also gives you a night off of making dinner in the future. You can even freeze things like milk, eggs, and non-fancy cheese. You can dice fruits to freeze for smoothies, and cut vegetables to freeze for soups, stews, and casseroles.
4.) Don’t necessarily buy fresh.
If you’re buying fresh, local fruit at a farmer’s market or picking it out of your garden, it’s probably healthiest. But sometimes frozen or canned produce can actually have more nutrients than fresh. Don’t discount those options when you’re buying food.
5.) Know when things expire.
I tend to think things expire well before they do. Also, I just learned that most expiration dates except for infant formula indicate when the food will start to lose quality, but are not an indicator of the food’s safety. If refrigerated, eggs can last 4-5 weeks beyond the date they were packed, milk remains drinkable for at least a week after the sell-by date, and unopened refrigerated orange juice can last 1-2 weeks past the time it was purchased. Look up expiration dates and find out what they actually mean (is the food dangerous to eat? Or just not as flavorful?)
6.) Try composting.
We have a little kitchen composter to toss our food scraps, cardboard egg cartons, coffee filters, and used tea bags in. And I actually made my own backyard compost bin out of a large Rubbermaid storage box that I drilled holes in for ventilation. Super-simple and not very pretty, but it works and I have free yummy garbage to sprinkle on my garden. Kids can help deciding what things can be composted, and they can put the scraps in the outdoor compost pile and help keep the dirt turned and watered. It’s a fun project to do with them (and usually they find worms! So. Many. Worms.)
I know these things can be hard for a busy family. But when you look at the fact that you’re not only wasting less food, you’re also spending less money, and even doing less work in the long run (leftovers in the freezer! Score!), the initial effort does pay off.