American consumers throw away 27 million tons of food each year, according to the food waste coalition ReFED, clogging landfills, generating greenhouse gasses, and costing the economy an estimated $144 billion.
The solution, however, could be simple: get people to eat leftovers again.
Once the mainstay of weekday lunchboxes and thrifty home cooks, leftovers today constitute the single largest source of edible food waste in U.S. homes, according to a new study by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.
The finding defies conventional wisdom about the sorts of foods consumers waste — and represents a major obstacle for environmentalists and anti-food-waste campaigns. While past efforts have focused on improving consumers' food literacy and kitchen skills, converting them to leftovers will involve changing deep-seated food preferences.
“I don’t think this is just about education,” said Dana Gunders, a senior scientist in NRDC’s Food and Agriculture Program. “It’s a cultural shift that needs to happen.”
In the report, published last week, NRDC sought to measure how much food Americans waste and what types of foods they tend to waste most. The study analyzed the food-waste habits of more than 1,151 households in Nashville, Denver and New York, who agreed to keep diaries of the items they tossed and allow researchers to check their trash cans afterward.
What researchers found was staggering: The average person wasted 3.5 pounds of food per week. Of that, only a third consisted of inedible parts, such as chicken bones or banana peels. And of the remaining, edible trashed food, bin digs found that 23 percent consisted of prepared leftovers, from any source — followed by fruits and vegetables, baked goods, and liquids and oils.
Gunders said that many consumers appear to stash Tupperware containers in their fridge and then forget to excavate them before the food goes bad. Other times, consumers grow bored of eating the same food on multiple occasions.
“There were two big reasons people threw out edible food,” Gunders said. “They thought it had spoiled, or they just didn’t like leftovers.”
This is not a new feeling in the American psyche, although it has come under scrutiny with increased attention to food waste. The food historian Helen Veit has observed that regard for leftovers plummeted in the 1960s, when refrigeration and cheap food became plentiful. Although saving food had been patriotic during the World Wars, and economically necessary in the century before them, rising incomes and agricultural productivity pushed thrift out of favor.
“I’m not saying all Americans did this recklessly, but by the 1960s, people were able to say, ‘I’d rather not eat that leftover pot roast,’ ” Veit said. “They could say, ‘Let’s drive to a restaurant or go to the grocery store or get something out of the freezer.’ ”
Shifting Americans back to that old way of thinking could be tricky. Gunders said the effort could include public-service campaigns, aimed at getting people to “love their leftovers.” NRDC is also emphasizing education around portion size and meal-planning to encourage home cooks to make only what they’ll consume.
Apart from that, environmentalists and anti-food-waste campaigners are holding out for a shift in American eating culture. Gunders is hopeful that cultural influencers, led by the food media, can help convince people that it’s cool to eat leftovers. Some have already tried: Ted Allen, the host of the popular Food Network show “Chopped,” declared that leftovers were not “a dirty word” during one of the show's three episodes on the subject.
But if Americans are truly to embrace the doggy bag, they may need a stronger push, Veit said. After all, it has never been so cheap, from a purely monetary perspective, to ditch yesterday's takeout for lunch elsewhere. Veit sees one possible model in the government propaganda campaigns that got Americans to embrace leftovers during World War I and World War II.
“They succeeded,” she said, “by pushing this idea that it was morally wrong to waste food.”