Along with buying local and eating more plants, reducing food waste at home is one of the most impactful ways you can lead a more sustainable lifestyle. Food waste and loss is responsible for 10% of global emissions. For some context, that's less than only China and the United States when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions.
The Natural Resources Defense Council found that the typical American household tosses about $1,600 worth of food annually (that’s a lot of money in the trash). Up to 40% of food that’s produced never makes it to our mouths.
Start with composting
Kassoff notes that the first step is to understand how to compost and start composting regularly. There are certain parts of our food (apple cores, avocado peels) that we aren’t going to eat. Instead of tossing those bits in the trash, store them in a compost bin or a container such as a milk carton.
Here’s our quick guide on what to compost, and where you can drop it off in the greater DC region.
Create something new from something old
You don’t have to be a pro chef to transform food that’s going bad into something new. For example, Kassoff likes to turn carrot peels into muffins. Or, use veggies in the back of the fridge that have gone a little soft for a stir fry.
One of the simplest ways to use extra veggie scraps is to make a vegetable stock. You can toss almost anything into it—such as onion skins and vegetable stems—along with garlic, peppercorns, and herbs. Cover everything with water, simmer for an hour, strain and compost the scraps, then use the stock immediately, or freeze for later.
There are many websites such as Supercook that allow you to enter the ingredients you have, and they spit out relevant recipes.
Make a meal plan for the week
While this isn’t a new concept, it’s helpful to keep top of mind when it comes to food waste. Be realistic about what you have time to cook in a given week. Start with two dinners, and think about how you can use those same ingredients for breakfast or lunch. For example, roasted potatoes can be turned into a hash with eggs.
When you have a plan for the week, your grocery list becomes shorter and less food ends up in the trash. Only buy what you know you will use. (Of course, V+B is here to cover meals for the rest of the week!)
Store your fruits and vegetables properly
Did you know that lots of perishable ingredients can stay fresh for weeks (yes, weeks!) if you learn to store them properly? When deciding how to store fresh food, consider temperature, ethylene, and airflow. For instance: produce stored at room temperature (think bananas or potatoes) should be removed from plastic bags for better air circulation. On the other hand, most produce in the fridge should be in a sealed container, whether that's a zip-lock bag or silicone pouch.
Some fruits, such as apples and bananas, naturally put off ethylene gas and will cause other fresh foods around them to ripen quickly. Make sure to keep ethylene-sensitive foods—such as cabbage, leafy greens, lettuce, and broccoli—away from those ethylene producers.
We love this handy chart from Wirecutter that breaks down where and how to store produce, as well as the best container and foods to avoid for cohabitation. The FoodKeeper App is another great resource for how soon certain foods should be consumed and how long they can stay frozen.
Keep greens with long stems (herbs, spinach sold in bunches) crunchy by putting them in a glass of water in the fridge, covering loosely with a plastic bag, and securing with a rubber band. Loose greens, like those from the farmers market, do best wrapped in a damp paper towel and stored in a seal-tight container.
Know your dates
The FDA estimates that around 20 percent of consumer food waste comes from misunderstanding what the dates mean on a package. The phrase "Best If Used By" refers to when a product will be at its peak quality, but not necessarily that it's gone bad by that date. Similarly, a "sell by" date is an indication for grocers but doesn't mean the food should be thrown out after that.
Make use of your freezer
Just about anything can be frozen, and it's the easiest path to preserving food (no sterilizing jars or buying fancy dehydrators). For ingredients where you need just a small amount for a recipe but can only buy in a large quantity (think: knobs of fresh ginger, fresh herbs, etc.), you can freeze what you don't use. Here are a few pro freezer tips:
- The "individual quick freeze" method is incredibly helpful: pre-cut fruit or veggies (or for small produce like blueberries, leave whole), and lay them on a parchment-lined sheet tray. Freeze for an hour, then pour everything into a larger container. That way you'll avoid having one huge hunk of produce stuck together with ice when you're ready to eat it.
- Use opaque bags so you know what's in the freezer and can find what you're looking for.
- Label and date the bags! This seems like a skippable step, but it will help you eat the oldest produce first.
- Store food in the thickest, most airtight containers you can find, such as silicone bags. If you're freezing leftover meals, use glass containers that can go right into the oven or microwave.
For the month of April, the V+B team is challenging one another to have zero food waste—not only in our kitchens, but also in our homes. Join us! Show us your efforts on Instagram using the hashtag #VBSustainability.
Madeleine Cole is a Texas native, writer, and podcast producer based in Washington, DC.