During Earth Month I feel like I need to be extra diligent in protecting the environment. While I try to do my best every day, sometimes it’s good to take a deeper look into what I actually do to help the environment and how I can improve the results. One of the biggest concerns that have been forefront in my mind is food waste – or being wasteful in general. Each year at least 40% of food is wasted in the US, according to the NRDC database. Consider how many hungry people there are in our country alone, that’s a phenomenal amount of quality food that could feed those hungry mouths. Many of these hungry people are children who if lucky, will get a nutritious meal once a day.
Besides all the other things people waste in general, food waste is really unnecessary when you factor in how food end up in our landfill and accumulates illnesses and unhealthy habits. With too much waste, our world creates an influx of diseases through improper disposal of food thus leading to toxic air quality and pollutants. Wasting food is such a major problem in the US that there are hundreds of organizations – private and government – dedicated in reducing food waste through education, proper food distribution, and proper disposal. It doesn’t take much for everyone to reduce their impact on food waste and increase their efforts in cleaning up the environment.
So what should we do to eliminate food waste? There are some simple and basic steps that you’re probably already doing right now. Bear in mind that landfills fill up and eventually must be closed down due to overflow. Just imagine if a new one opens up in your neighborhood or city. How do you think it will affect your air quality, your health, and your children’s health? Below I’ve outlined some basic steps you can take to reduce your food waste. It may take a few days or even a few months to get a good system set up and to make it a natural everyday habit. But diligence and compassion with how food works will eventually pay off for your health and the health of our planet.
STEPS TO REDUCING FOOD WASTE:
REDUCE AT THE GROCERY STORES – Some may live on very limited monetary budgets while others have more money than they can use. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be careful when we’re grocery shopping. Grocery stores need to make money off of us therefore stores will line their shelves with thousands of types of food that we don’t really need. Factor in the food they place at checkout counters and stands, it’s no wonder that America waste so much food every year and gain unnecessary weight. Do we really need that extra pack of chips or cookies? Most likely not if you’re just buying for the sake of buying. In order to reduce waste in grocery store shopping, make a list of what you plan to buy based on what you want to cook during the week. Find creative recipes if you’re stuck on what to make for dinner. Don’t buy groceries on an empty stomach as feeling hungry can send visual signals from your sight to your brains leading you to want to buy more food. Turn on your “blinders” so that you are only buying what is on your list and what your family truly needs. Consider how much money you can save by only buying what you need and not what looks good at the moment in the grocery stores.
PLAN MEALS AHEAD OF TIME – Whether you are a one-person household or a family of ten, planning your meals throughout the week not only saves money but your insanity during those busy weekdays. This step goes along with reducing at grocery stores because if you make a surefire plan on what you want to cook during the week, your grocery bill will also be rewarding. Here are the basics: Start by cooking what you’re good at and what you know. You can try new recipes later when you’re getting the hang of reducing food waste. Then check what’s already in your refrigerator and pantry and add only what you’re missing. Learn about portion sizes and whether you’re feeding for one person or just a few. Stock up on key essential kitchen items such as grains (rice, quinoa, barley, etc.), spices such as salt, pepper, and garlic, dried herbs such as thyme, basil, and cinnamon, and common sauces and oils including ketchup, olive oil, and vinegar (balsamic vinegar has a wide variety of culinary uses). Next, be sure to incorporate two types of protein, one or two grains, and a vegetable medley to make at the beginning and work into the rest of your meals. For instance, sauteed medley of broccoli and peppers can be used as a side dish for one meal, then incorporated into enchiladas for the next, and then added into soups or stews later in the week. Next, double duty your ingredients. If you’re using tortillas, start off with some quesadillas for the whole family. Then save the rest for Asian wraps or something else that’s creative. When you have no choice but to buy certain food items in bulk, such as bread and rice, find clever and delicious ways to stretch them out during the week. One of my favorite uses for rice is to make fried rice where I can add as many ingredients into it as I’d like. The next two steps are buying frozen ingredients. Frozen food are flashed-frozen to retain nearly all or most of their fresher counterparts. If you live in climates where certain fresh fruits and vegetables are hard to come by, rely on frozen foods since they last longer and you can easily use only the portions you need. The final step in meal planning is cook and freeze. Freeze in the portion sizes you’ll want to defrost later so that frozen food stays fresher longer instead of having to refreeze the portions you don’t need. Soups, stews, and lasagna for example are great to make in larger batches and freeze for later consumption.
REVIVING FOOD – Sometimes food may be stale, wilted, or badly seasoned and we feel inclined to toss them into the trash. But most oftentimes these types of food can be saved and revived to taste better. For wilted fruits and vegetables, a quick soak in ice water for five to ten minutes can revive their appearance and taste. Or, chop them up and add them into soups and stews and no one will know the difference. Stale bread and crackers work really well when toasted and crisped. You can even turn old bread into delicious and nutritious croutons for your salads. Small bits of crumbs in bags can be sprinkled over salads or baked into casseroles. If your food is too salty, add vinegar, lemon juice, or brown sugar to dilute the dish or simply add more water. You can also pop in a raw, peeled potato in soup to absorb some of the salt and save the potato for another dish. Burned food can be scraped away and if you still have some of that leftover burnt taste, add in something sweet or spicy such as hot sauce or barbecue sauce. And for those overcooked dishes you can easily puree them into soups or sauces. Add in some milk base, fresh or frozen vegetables and you get instant and yummy soups and sauces.
FREEZING FOOD – Freezing food is perhaps one of the oldest trick in the book when it comes to saving food. While we generally use the freezer to keep ice cream and frozen vegetables in their natural state, did you know that you can freeze cooked food for up to three months depending on the type of food? But just putting cooked food into the freezer isn’t really proper as most of them can still end up being wasted. Here is a guideline to proper food freezing techniques: 1- Freeze in portions to keep your frozen food as fresh as possible. If you don’t plan on eating that entire loaf of bread then freeze only the slices you don’t plan on eating. Use muffin tins to freeze soups or stews so they can easily pop out for a quick lunch or dinner. Freeze berries separately on a cookie sheet and then transfer to a plastic bag so they’re not stuck together when you pop them in the freezer. You can freeze practically anything as long as you know what you want to eat throughout the weeks. 2- Keep frozen food airtight to prevent freezer burns. Remove meat from supermarket trays and wrap well with plastic wrap or freezer paper before storing in zip-top bags. Squeeze excess air from plastic bags and containers, and avoid opening the freezer door unnecessarily. 3- Leave room for liquids as most liquids expand in the freezer, so leave about half an inch at the top of containers to account for this. 4- Blanch certain foods before freezing in order to preserve quality, color, and vitamin content. To blanch food, clean your produce, pop it in a pot of boiling water, then cool in ice water. 5- Label and organize your frozen food so it’s easier to see what’s inside and how long you’ve kept it in the freezer. Large plastic bags are great for soups and purees as they can lay flat in the freezer to save space. Be sure to label the date your food is put into the freezer and what type of food it is. 6- Defrost safely to prevent food contamination and food waste. Defrost properly by allowing it to thaw in the refrigerator portion and not on the kitchen counters. You can microwave most frozen foods by using the proper settings on your microwave.
TEACHING KIDS ABOUT WASTING LESS – Kids learn naturally by what they see so it’s up to parents to teach by example (good examples of course!). While we may be inclined to teach our kids to finish their food, proper food consumption is equally important in maintaining the health of our children. Here are the steps in helping our kids be more mindful of food: 1- Feed them your food. Unless they’re infants or just starting to eat solids, children can eat the same food you eat. If you do plan on serving infants the same food, simply puree the food or cut it into smaller pieces. Serve yourself a smaller portion knowing that you’ll probably end up finishing what they don’t. 2- Serve tiny portions to ease your child into accepting new or unusual foods. Studies show many children have to try a food up to fifteen times in order to accept it. Start with small portions and minimize untouched food. You can always offer seconds when they’re interested. 3- Save tiny portions for the next day or the next meal or incorporate them into something else. Use leftover milk for your coffee or tea. 4- Limit snacks. Teach children early on to eat during regular meal times instead of snacking in between. This prevents unhealthy eating habits, saves money, and reduce waste from packaging and wrappers. 5- Prevent food fights. Kids of a certain age will test their limits by throwing food during mealtimes. Stay nearby young children to intervene and to make sure they are eating and handling their bite-sized food properly. 6 – Packing lunch for school-aged children can be quite daunting at times. You may end up with a lot of leftover food that if your child is diligent enough, might bring them back home. Start by packing their lunch in reusable containers and ask them to bring home any leftovers. Ask them why their food aren’t eaten and you can plan better for their future lunch. Give smaller portions and always include healthy foods in their lunch bags. It’s perfectly okay if your kids don’t finish everything in their lunch containers now and then as long as they’re not sneaking food from their friends or if there might be some other hidden food issues. 7- Have your kids help you with the preparation and cooking during mealtime. Involving your kids in the preparation and cooking process gives them ownership and teaches them how much time and effort is made into cooking. Teach them how to serve themselves (within limits) so that they learn proper table etiquette at a young age. 8- Garden at home is a wonderful way for kids to learn about the farm to table method. Give your child his/her own garden area to plant easy to grow fruits and vegetables and herbs. They will learn to appreciate nature and how food is a valuable asset to the world.
DECIPHERING DATES ON PRODUCTS – Food expiration dates are quite mysterious. Decades ago, food in cans were discovered to contain their original taste and quality. Yet often we throw away perfectly edible food just because the stamped date on the product tells us to do so. According to SaveTheFood.com, food expiration dates have nothing to do with safety, and are only loosely related to quality. They’re the manufacturer’s best estimate of when the product is at its freshest or “peak quality.” Many foods will still be good to eat days, weeks, or months after those dates, depending on the food. So why do we automatically throw food away after the expiration date? Well, because we are mostly programmed to think that certain foods are “bad” for you after the expiration date. While that may be true for certain types of food and how you store them, most products are still edible and remain in their original quality. If the expiration date doesn’t tell you when food goes bad, then how do you know if it’s still good? The difference is between contamination and spoilage. Most of the microbes that spoil food are harmless for humans. In fact, some favorite foods and beverages, like yogurt, cheese, and wine, are made using controlled spoilage. However, contamination is due to a pathogen – a microbe that can make us sick. Poor handling of food is a common culprit in food contamination. Here is a breakdown of the date labeling: “Best before” dates refer to quality rather than food safety. It’s the date before which the brand stands by its product (unless it’s been opened or left out in warm temperatures). Foods with a “best before” or “use by” date should be safe to eat after the date has passed, but they may no longer be at their very best. This is true for “best by,” “best if used by,” “enjoy by,” and other similar expressions. “Sell by” dates are meant for store staff. They actually build in quality so that if the food is sold by that date, you can still get it home and have top-quality shelf life for some time. “Freeze by” is a good way of preserving food past its “best before” dates. Almost any type of food can be frozen if done properly – meat, milk, cheese, eggs, bread, unused pasta sauce are just a few. For a directory of food storage, click on this link for more info: https://www.savethefood.com/food-storage. When it comes to expiring food, you can always rely on your eyes and nose. For most food, your senses can tell you when it’s time to toss the food or salvage as much as possible. For slightly molded fruits, you can cut out the offensive part as the rest of the fruit are safe to consume. Milk, yogurt, juice, and sauces can be sniffed or take a small taste test to know if they’re edible or not. Of course food left out in certain temperatures should always be questioned especially if left out in warm temperature or in the “danger zone” between 40-120 degrees Fahrenheit.
COMPOST – Composting is one of the easiest and most efficient way of reducing food waste. While we should strive to not have too much food to waste in the first place, instead of throwing out food, we can compost certain types of food to create natural fertilizers and nutrients for our garden and for the environment. Many companies naturally compost their food waste as a way of giving back to the planet. Composting benefits agriculture, reduces our reliance on synthetic fertilizers, diverts methane-producing organic materials from landfills, and improves soil’s water retention capacity so you won’t need to water as much. For easy steps, follow the guidelines from NRDC: https://www.nrdc.org/stories/composting-way-easier-you-think.
DONATE TO FOOD BANKS – Food banks are there to help those who really need it. But most of these food banks or food pantries are non-profit organizations that rely on the generosity of people to donate food or money. If you do have an abundance of food leftover and after you’ve tried all of the steps above, consider donating your food to a local food bank. Most food pantries accept canned goods because they last longer and they’re easy to store. But there are also others that take in perishables and unused food from restaurants and grocery stores. Food banks help those who can’t afford enough food so it helps them and you as well.
Food waste shouldn’t have to be a problem in the US but because convenience often wins over common sense, oftentimes we toss out food without thinking about it first. Consider that wasting food uses up precious resources such as water, fuel, labor, and money, reducing food waste should be one of the most important tasks we take on to help improve our world. Try these techniques above to help you reduce food waste. It could be anything as simple as saving fresh fruits and vegetable scraps to be made into broths. Or buying less food at grocery stores and restaurants. Or taking leftovers home from restaurants and making sure to eat them within the next couple of days. Any small step towards saving food and wasting less can make a bigger impact for the future.
*resource – SaveTheFood.com
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