By Kristi Willis
Americans waste a staggering amount of food. From crops left behind after harvest to discarded leftovers, 40 percent of food in the U.S. is never eaten—wasting precious energy and resources in its unnecessary production. In his book American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food, author Jonathan Bloom details the numerous ways in which food ends up in landfills daily instead of nourishing the hungry.
To encourage the mindset that “food is not trash,” Bloom and other no-waste advocates suggest incorporating small changes into our food buying, storing and preparation habits to get us on the road to reducing waste in the kitchen.
One key to saving food is to minimize spoilage. Start by smart shopping: Take a list and only buy what’s on it. Also, consider taking your own containers and purchasing items that don’t have, or don’t need, packaging. Christian Lane of in.gredients, a local grocer that promotes zero packaging, encourages people to cook at home rather than buying prepared meals to reduce waste. “If we prepare meals and just use the basic ingredients, we don’t need to have any packaging,” says Lane. “Onions come packaged naturally, so do carrots, so do any number of things.”
Once home, store food wisely. Bloom suggests keeping food in plain sight so that it doesn’t wither in the back of the pantry or refrigerator. For foods that must be stored, use clear containers, and place them near the front of the shelf to minimize spoilage or neglect.
Adopting a first-in-first-out method for fresh foods rotates the oldest items to the front of the bin or shelf to be used before they spoil. It’s also helpful to understand the temperature control zones in the refrigerator. The door is the warmest area—making it a bad place to store dairy items, but fine for other drinks and condiments. The crisper drawers are fine for some produce, but food such as hard squashes and tomatoes are best stored on the counter.
Bloom also suggests prioritizing recipes to take advantage of ingredients that easily spoil—preparing first those dishes that call for leafy greens, for example. If produce starts to wilt or sag, incorporate it into a soup or smoothie, or consider creating a pesto or other blended sauce to use vegetables on their way out.
When paying a premium for produce, it’s a shame to waste any of it. There’s a variety of ways to use bits and ends that might otherwise be seen as scraps. Broccoli stalks, carrot peels, asparagus ends and other vegetable pieces can be frozen and saved for making stock. And hard cheese rinds, like the tough ends of a Parmesan wedge, can be used to add flavor to soups.
The greens of radishes, beets, broccoli and carrots are often discarded, but can be used as a delicious addition to a dish. Radish greens offer a peppery bite to a green salad; sautéed broccoli greens are nutritious and fragrant; and in his cookbook, Afield, Chef Jesse Griffiths of Dai Due recommends using fresh carrot greens to make a tangy sauce similar to chimichurri to complement cooked fish.
Inevitably, some foods will make it into the discard pile, but composting it—rather than sending it to the landfill—reclaims the waste and actually benefits the yard, garden or houseplants. The City of Austin Resource Recovery program provides free composting classes—including a convenient online version. They also offer a $75 rebate toward the cost of a composting system for people who take the class and downsize to a 24- or 32-gallon trash cart.
Microbial Earth Farms and Ecowise offer a variety of compost systems that work for any size home—including the Bokashi compost systems that ferment discards, producing a fertilizing "tea" that can be used to feed house and garden plants, and are unobtrusive in both size and odor, even for a small apartment or condominium.
A few lucky neighborhoods in East Austin can join East Side Compost Pedallers to have their food scraps picked up weekly by bicycle for the nominal fee of $16 per month. Urban Patchwork, a nonprofit made up of a network of neighborhood farms, also accepts food scrap donations for their composting efforts, as do a number of community gardens.
With a little creativity and care, shifting the approach from lifting the trash can lid to asking, How can I use this? will save money and prevent the kitchen from becoming a wasteland.
TIPS TO REDUCE FOOD WASTE
Reusable storage bags. In addition to switching to reusable shopping bags—now the law of the land in Austin—replace disposable, sealable plastic bags with washable, reusable bags. Austin-based Blue Avocado offers snack-, lunch- and bulk-size sealable bags that are BPA-free and machine washable.
Switch to glass storage containers. Instead of storing or freezing foods in plastic containers, make the move to glass. Use old Mason or Ball jars to freeze stock or liquids (leave a little room at the top for expansion) or invest in glass storage sets from Pyrex, Rubbermaid, TrueSeal or Glasslock. All of the sets come with plastic or silicon lids and are freezer-to-microwave-safe.
Keep produce fresh longer. Keeping produce fresh and crisp is key to preventing waste. Progressive’s Produce Keeper extends the function of the refrigerator drawers to the shelves with a reservoir and vent that provide the perfect amount of moisture for fruits and vegetables. The collapsible structure makes it easy to fit on any shelf where room is tight. Greens are usually the first to fade in the produce drawer, but storing them in a cloth salad keeper bag can keep them crisp and fresh longer. A number of products preserve freshness by removing the ethylene gas that produce gives off, causing it to age.
Keep cut produce from spoiling. Once cut, produce spoils quickly, but we don’t always want to use an entire banana, onion or avocado right away. Hutzler makes a wide variety of produce savers that will preserve the life of that half-eaten apple or tomato.
Get the last drop. Trying to get the last bit out of a tube of tomato paste or icing can be a challenge. Squeeze Ease Tube Squeezers do the work for you.
Skip the cans of spray oil. Instead of buying cans of spray oil, spritz pans with a favorite oil from a mister or spray pump. Not only does it prevent waste, but it helps us avoid undesirable ingredients in the can.
Collect scraps in the kitchen. Hauling scraps out to the compost heap after every meal can be inconvenient. But a number of attractive countertop compost buckets make it easy to collect scraps in the kitchen. Charcoal filters absorb odors and degradable compost bags help manage the mess. Or freeze peels, nibs and ends for stock.
Kitchen Goods Stores
Blue Avocado: blueavocado.com
Breed & Co.: breedandco.com
Callahan’s General Store: callahansgeneralstore.com
Container Store: containerstore.com
Der Küchen Laden:littlechef.com
Faraday's Kitchen Store: faradayskitchenstore.com
Kiss the Cook: kissthecooktx.com
Serve Gourmet Gadgets & Goods: servegourmet.com
Sur La Table: surlatable.com
The Bluapple: thebluapple.com
Zinger Hardware: zingerhardware.com
Reduce Food Waste
• American Wasteland: americanwastelandbook.com
• in.gredients: in.gredients.com
• Eureka Recycling: makedirtnotwaste.org
• Keep Austin Fed: keepaustinfed.org
• Love Food Hate Waste: england.lovefoodhatewaste.com
• Natural Resources Defense Council: nrdc.org
For more resources, visit edibleaustin.com