“Waste not, want not.” This was my grandmother’s mantra. God forbid she saw you scraping food off your plate into the trash. She smoothed out aluminum foil and reused it. She covered bowls of refrigerated food with plates, not plastic wrap. She rinsed out jars and bottles and saved them to store leftovers or used them as vases or to grow herbs.
We called her thrifty, but today we would say she was “living green,” something everyone from U.S. government agencies to environmental nonprofit groups are encouraging Americans to do, especially when it comes to food-related waste.
The reason: The average U.S. family of four discards about $1,500 in uneaten food each year, according to the Agriculture Department. In the United States, food waste is estimated at between 30 percent to 40 percent of the food supply, with about 30 percent loss at the retail and consumer levels, according to the USDA. And this does not include waste due to packaging.
“The amount of food wasted in home is of such consequence, so changing what happens in your home can actually make a difference,” said Jerusha Klemperer, director of FoodPrint, a project working to increase awareness of the impact our eating habits have on the environment, animals and other people.
Readers: Please share your ideas and tips for reducing waste when grocery shopping and cooking in the comments below.
What can one person do? While there is no way to mitigate every negative impact, we can change our habits to make our footprints a little lighter. One area where we can have an immediate impact is in how we shop, store and cook our food. Start by doing some self-reflection.
“It’s unfair to expect people to take this [whole issue] on because it is true that most of the problems are systemic,” Klemperer said “So, you can start small and pick what you care about the most.”
She encourages people to consider what motivates them: Is it cutting down on waste and pollution? Is it the small farm or farmworkers’ welfare? Animal cruelty? Or perhaps it is their own personal health.
“There is a way in for everyone,'' she said. “It’s about figuring out what you care about most.”
Amy Gorin, a plant-based registered dietitian in Stamford, Conn., urges clients to be honest with themselves about what they have the bandwidth to tackle. For example, if buying a bag of mixed greens means you’ll eat salad but buying whole heads means you’ll waste that food, buy what you will use, otherwise you’re not helping yourself or the environment.
“You have to pick and choose what works with your budget, what works with how much time you have,” she said. And, she adds, don’t bite off too much at once.
If you want to ease into greener grocery shopping or are looking for fresh ideas, read on.
Before you leave home
Keep a running inventory
Use pen and paper, download an app or tack a whiteboard to the refrigerator — find a way to keep track of what you need, noting as items run out. Gorin and her spouse use a shareable Google Doc so each can add what is needed.
Decide what you will eat in the next week or two and add those ingredients, with the amounts required so you won’t overbuy. Then make a sweep of the freezer, refrigerator and pantry and, before you finalize your list, consider making dishes that might use up those last bits of pickled peppers, wilted vegetables or leftover chicken thighs, such as a frittata, soup, fried rice, stir-fry, tacos or casserole.
This can help you avoid wasting food, make room for fresh foods and allow a delay in your shopping for another day or two.
One final tip: When you make your grocery list, write it in the order that you will shop. Gorin suggests starting with pantry items and nonperishables, then adding fresh produce and meats and ending with frozen items.
Limit your shopping
Cutting back on unnecessary trips to the grocery is especially important during the pandemic when we are practicing social distancing, but also it’s a good habit to form. To do this, you’ll need to create a meal or cooking plan.
Sometimes you have to shop frequently, especially if you don’t have enough cash to buy large amounts of food or have physical or transportation issues that make hauling lots of groceries difficult. If you can, however, aim to visit the store or order your food through a service no more than once a week or even every other week.
Once the pandemic is behind us, Gorin recommends making a second midweek trip to replenish fresh foods and fruit and vegetables. In the meantime, to continue to get your servings of fruits and vegetables, consider frozen or canned goods, she said.
Buy locally grown/raised foods
Look into nearby farmers markets, on-farm markets or community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs. Many of these use limited packaging or allow you to bring your own containers. Often vendors grow or raise their food organically and humanely. And because the food is grown nearby, less fuel is used to get it to you.
“Many growers will harvest their crops less than 24 hours before they sell, so you can get really fresh vegetables that way,” Gorin said, adding that the farmers market hens are often fed organic diets.
If you do invest in a CSA box, be sure you are flexible enough to use the foods you receive. If you have leftovers, find someone to share the bounty, or a community refrigerator or pantry where you can donate. Locate CSAs and farmers markets through sources such as the USDA directory, litterless.com and localharvest.org.
“Telling people, ‘You should just start buying everything organic’ is unreasonable and unfair,” Klemperer said. Some people do not have access and for others it is too costly. Instead, she said, focus on food you enjoy. If your child devours strawberries, for example, switch to organic ones.
Gorin suggests prioritizing buying organic when eating the food whole, but less so for items that are peeled, such as bananas or oranges. Regardless, if you plan to buy whole produce, be honest about whether you will take the time to clean, prep and put it away, she said.
Use the whole item when you cook. For more nutrition and less waste, peel and trim only when essential. Celery and beet leaves are great, and scrub rather than peel carrots and thin-skinned potatoes.
Finally, grow your own food. No yard? Look into community gardens or grow food on the patio or even windowsill. Herbs may be the best way to dip your toe into this, Gorin said. “Fresh herbs are one of the things you buy and use just a fraction of, so growing your own is great for saving money, from a waste standpoint,” she said.
Bring your own bags
Many of us are bringing our own shopping bags to cart our food home but still peel off bag after bag in the produce section. For produce, especially big items like bananas, put them directly in your cart. For smaller or more tender items, invest in reusable bags, such as washable mesh bags like ones sold for laundering delicates. Those can do double duty. When buying grains or nuts, look for bulk bins and ask your grocery if it is okay to bring your own containers. Wash all produce as well as your reusable bags regularly, Gorin said.
At the store
Read labels carefully
Just because an item is labeled Earth-friendly doesn’t make it so. “Greenwashing,” deceptive labeling with words like “eco-friendly” or “all-natural,” abounds. Educating yourself about labels will be an ongoing process.
Start small: Figure out what kinds of products or issues you are most interested in and do your research on those specific food labels.
“The gold-standard labels [such as Animal Welfare Approved] are the ones you can’t find in most supermarkets, so it is okay to look for the next tier,” Klemperer said. For seafood, both Gorin and Klemperer recommend looking for the blue Marine Stewardship Council label. Another good resource to check out is the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch website and app.
Seek out the USDA Organic seal, which requires a lengthy and expensive certification process but does not address “fair trade” issues, for example. Third-party certification by a government agency or some other trusted organization is key to trusting a label, Klemperer said. She also looks for pairings in labels such as “organic” and “certified humane.” She seeks out products with “fair trade” labels, which purport to support farmers, farmworkers and food businesses that value the same things she values.
Both Gorin and Klemperer encourage shoppers to eat less meat overall and, when buying it, to look for animal products that are fed more natural diets and humanely raised and slaughtered.
“If you have the grocery dollars, this is where I’d advise people to spend them,” Gorin said of sustainably raised animal products, such as beef and chicken.
Buying these products may be more expensive, so consider eating fewer high-ticket items and adding less expensive, plant-based sources of protein, such as tofu, canned or dry beans or quinoa, to your diet, Gorin said.
Consider the packaging
Look for food packaged in cardboard, cartons, cans or glass rather than plastic or foam. And look for food in recycled or recyclable containers (more on this below). Some grocery stores also offer biodegradable, package-free or package-light shopping. Look for options at litterless.com.
“You can really make yourself crazy with all of this,” Klemperer said. “My first choice is always to pick the thing that isn’t plastic.” She cites environmental issues with its production and growing alarm over plastic-related pollution.
Also, avoid single-serve convenience foods, including beverages. Rather than sliced fruit and vegetables or mixed greens in plastic, buy whole produce. This may mean you’ll have more on hand than you need, so learn the methods for preserving, freezing and drying the ones you use most.
Put food away thoughtfully
Use the first-in, first-out system for arranging the pantry, refrigerator and freezer, Gorin said. Move older foods to the front and fresher foods to the back.
As you put food away, consider what you will use right away and properly process and, if possible, freeze the rest, dating it and recording weights/amounts. Produce such as fresh herbs, garlic, onions, peppers and celery freeze well. If you buy a large package of chicken or pork, divide it and freeze it, so you can defrost just the portion you need.
Wash everything, Gorin said. This includes your reusable shopping bags.
Recycling guidelines vary from community to community, and tossing in nonrecyclable items can mean even the appropriate ones get taken to a landfill. One guideline: Most recyclers will take hard plastic with a resin identification code, or RIC, of 1 and 2 (look for 1 or 2 inside the little recycling symbol). Most require that items be cleaned of all food residue.
Aim to reduce what you bring into your home, and take a cue from my grandmother by reusing the containers that your purchased food comes in to store other foods.