Whether it's talking about how many gallons of water it takes to produce a hamburger – 660, according to National Geographic – or what the carbon footprint is for lamb – which has the greatest impact on the environment of common protein foods and vegetables, per the Environmental Working Group, generating 39.3 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalents for every one kilogram consumed – it seems like everyone's interested in greening their plates.
How you eat can make a huge impact on the earth, and it may even be the most direct way that you, as an individual, can make a difference. And one of the best strategies for cutting your environmental footprint is to stop wasting food.
Food waste is an enormous problem in this country. We waste enough food to fill the entire Rose Bowl in Pasadena every single day. I'm from the Pasadena area, so I know how big the Rose Bowl is, but if you can't wrap your mind around that estimate, consider this: More than 40 percent of the food produced for human consumption in the U.S. will never be eaten. Food waste is on the rise, too, having increased by about 50 percent since 1974. We are wasting more than 1,400 calories per person per day. That's almost enough to feed an entire person!
Sadly, along with every pound of food tossed out comes wasted resources, as well as increased burdens on the planet. Wasted food squanders 300 million barrels of oil per year – 4 percent of the total used – along with water, soil and pesticides, herbicides and fertilizer to grow the food. Food waste also fills up landfills, accounting for about 18 percent of municipal solid waste, and it produces methane as it decomposes. Even worse, we waste so much food in the face of so much hunger. The annual food waste – just at the retail and consumer level – in high-income countries nearly equals the entire annual food production in sub-Saharan Africa.
Food waste occurs on every level of the food chain – at the farm and in manufacturing, supermarkets, restaurants and home kitchens. But you can do your best to start a zero food waste policy in your own home, with these six tips:
1. Value your food. Why has food waste skyrocketed? Because food is so cheap; it accounts for 10 percent of our total household expenditures, which is very low compared to many countries. Because it's cheap, we don't think twice about throwing it out. So, change your dynamic and honor where your food comes from, realizing that someone worked hard to get that food to your plate. This is especially true for animal food, as an animal's life was forfeited for your plate. Don't let it go to waste.
2. Cut your portion size. One of the main reasons we waste food is because our portion sizes have grown to the point that we can't – and shouldn't – eat the whole thing. This happens at restaurants, cafeterias, schools and hospitals. Try to order small plates, a cup of soup rather than a bowl, or split something with your dining partner. At the very least, pack a doggy bag to take home.
3. Lose the perfection principle. We have now grown accustomed to foods that are so pristinely perfect that if it has the tiniest imperfection we won't purchase them. Do we really think that every apple grows from the tree without a blemish, or that every tomato comes from the vine without a scar? If you try growing your own food, you'll see just how hard this is to do, and why so much food is wasted before it even reaches the supermarket or restaurant. Interestingly, research shows that imperfect produce, with scabs or scars on the surface, may have even higher antioxidant levels because the plant had to mount a defense. Don't stop there; remember to use the whole plant – root, stem, leaf and flower – as much as possible.
4. Plan your meals.Creating a weekly menu and shopping list and cooking just enough food that can be consumed without going bad can really help cut down food waste. When you get home from the supermarket, inventory your refrigerator. Plan to use the ingredients that expire more quickly, such as lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, berries and dairy products, before turning to those that have a longer expiration date, such as carrots, potatoes and celery. Freeze items, such as meats, poultry and fish, if you won't be using them before they expire.
5. Pack those leftovers. There's no need to toss out perfectly good food. Just pack it up for lunch the next day. As a general rule of thumb, leftovers should be safe for about three days if refrigerated properly. Refreeze items, such as beans, stew and casserole into small containers for an easy meal later on. Or start a "buffet night" – one night a week to clean out the fridge, reheat leftovers and use up items, such as cottage cheese, yogurt, sandwich fillings and lettuce that are about to expire.
6. As a last resort, compost. If food has absolutely no possibility for consumption, then at the very least compost it. By composting food, you save it from the landfill, and put those nutrients to good use. Decomposing food makes a wonderfully rich, natural method of nourishing your soil. Composting can be as simple as collecting refuse in a black trash bag, or you can purchase a compost bin to keep things neater.