16-10 Segment 2: Wasteful Eating: Decreasing food waste

 

Synopsis: Americans throw away hundreds of dollars per household on discarded and spoiled food, not to mention wasting the water and energy needed to grow it. Why is that? And how can we decrease waste, save money help the environment and eat better? Our guest has some advice on buying, storing and cooking food to minimize waste and create healthy meals.

Host: Marty Peterson. Guest: Dana Gunders, staff scientist at the National Resources Defense Council and author of the book, Waste Free Kitchen Handbook: A guide to eating well and saving money by wasting less food.

Links for more info:

Stay in the loop! Follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook!

Wasteful Eating: Decreasing Food Waste

Marty Peterson: How many times have you gone into the refrigerator and found some leftover meal or plastic bag full of vegetables that looked like an alien being ready to attack? It’s happened to all of us. That container of Chinese take-out that we were going to bring to the office for lunch somehow became invisible behind the mayo jar; or those green peppers we were going to use in our stir-fry languished in the crisper just a little too long, and now they’re mush. Food waste in the U.S. is so pervasive, that we don’t even think about it much on an individual level. We just throw it in the garbage and tell ourselves we’ll be more vigilant in the future. Dana Gunders says that the future is now, and in her new book, Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook: A guide to eating well and saving money by wasting less food, she has some pretty compelling evidence for how much we waste and why…

Dana Gunders: In our kitchens we waste a huge amount of food, about 20% of all the food we buy ultimately never gets eaten and for the average family of four that adds up to about $1,500 a year.

Peterson: Gunders says that most people aren’t tossing out whole hams and 10-pound bags of potatoes – although that can happen too. The problem is cumulative and often so small that we barely notice we’re doing it…

Gunders: Part of the reason that it’s surprising how much food we waste is that it happens in such little bits and pieces that we don’t really realize it. We’re so price-sensitive in the store, and yet when we come home somehow we forget that we spent all this money on the food and, you know, that’s why it’s quite surprising that it adds up so much. But there’s so many reasons behind it. I think they really boil down to the fact that we have such busy lives and we don’t necessarily plan for them well. So when we’re shopping in the store we’re very aspirational about our week. We buy all sorts of healthy food and meals to cook and then the week happens and by Wednesday we’re throwing a frozen pizza in the oven and all those fresh vegetables are starting to wilt in the fridge.

Peterson: Another reason is that our portions are huge compared to what they were just a few decades ago…

Gunders: The average cookie has quadrupled in calories since the 1980s, if you can believe that. And even a chicken Caesar salad has doubled in calories, so there’s really only two things that are happening with those extra portions: Either we’re eating them, and that’s not necessarily a good thing, or we’re not and they’re going to waste.

Peterson: Gunders says that there are some tried and true ways to keep from buying too much at the store: bring a shopping list and stick to it; use a hand basket or a small cart instead of a large one so you won’t be tempted to fill up; pay with cash so you can’t buy more than you can pay for with the money in your wallet.  Also, avoid the “buy one, get one free” bargains unless you really plan to use up what you buy or if you can store it without having it spoil.  About spoilage, Gunders says that those “best if used by” dates on packages are very confusing and can cause us to toss perfectly good food…

Gunders: Those dates are really just a manufacturer’s best guess at when the product is at its freshest or at its peak quality. So they’re not telling you to throw them out, they’re not telling you the food’s bad and they’re not telling you that you’ll get sick after that date. They’re also not federally regulated. I think a lot of people believe that there’s some government time frames behind those dates, but that’s not, in fact, the case. They’re really just the manufacturer’s best guess.

Peterson: And what about the “sell by” dates you find on foods?

Gunders: The “sell by” date is meant to tell the store that they shouldn’t sell the product after that date. However, usually there’s a shelf-life built into that so the idea is that if you sell it before that date the customer will be able to take it home and have it for a week or, you know, whatever is right for that product and have a good experience with it over the course of that week. So “sell by” dates tend to be even earlier than “use by” or “best by” and you can certainly consume products after the “sell by” date. In fact, a product like eggs can actually be consumed three to five weeks after the “sell by” date on the package.

Peterson: Once you get the food home, Gunders says that you need to take special care in how you handle it to optimize freshness and longevity…

Gunders: One thing to remember is to buy see-through containers. I use glass, but you could use plastic. You want to be able to see what’s in there. It sounds obvious, but anyone who’s stored something in an old yogurt container knows that can hide things really well. You want it to be airtight for most things because that allows less oxygen to get in there and promote decay. And then there are some products for which there are very specific containers these days. You’ll see them for berries, you’ll see it for lettuce and I do think that if those are products that you tend to consume often, it can be worth buying those because each type of food really does have its special way that it needs to be stored. So if you get the aeration right it could really help prolong its shelf life.

Peterson: Some foods that you might be keeping in your pantry Gunders says would do much better in the fridge or in water for the long haul…

Gunders: It turns out that walnuts and almonds keep much better if you keep them in the refrigerator. Asparagus and carrots keep very well if you stand them in a jar of water in the refrigerator, and celery also.

Peterson: She says that it pays to learn how to use the crisper drawers in the refrigerator too. Use higher humidity settings for those vegetables that tend to wilt; and lower settings for foods like peppers, mushrooms and various fruits that will turn slimy under high humidity conditions. Meat is one of the high-value foods that we end up throwing out even if we put it in the freezer. Gunders has a few tips for storing meat so that you’ll get the most out of it even if it’s been frozen for weeks…

Gunders: The first thing to remember is that if you’re buying 10 lbs. of chicken, you’re probably not going to eat that all at the same time, so it’s really important to store in portions that you’re going to want to defrost in. The second thing you want to think about is freezer burn. And freezer burn tends to happen when air is allowed to get into a product and then the temperature in the freezer changes, so you want to try to reduce that airflow as much as possible. And with meat, it’s actually recommended to double wrap it. Wrap it once with plastic or foil and then, again a second time or stick it in a freezer bag after it’s wrapped.

Peterson: In her book, not only does Gunders have advice on buying and storing food in her book, she also includes recipes for using up those small scraps of leftovers that collect in the fridge and freezer…

Gunders: I think it is sort of the source of all creativity in the kitchen so I think it’s really fun. There’s some kind of basic recipes that are nice catchall recipes like, some people call it “refrigerator soup.” You can put anything in a soup. But soups are great for using up bits and pieces of food that are left over. Frittatas are also great, stir-fries, tacos. You know a lot of people think of tacos as Mexican food, but really, if you have tortillas you can put almost anything in them and with the right condiments call it “world tacos” and you’re all set.

Peterson: If you’re a gardener and have a bumper crop of tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini or other vegetables, and you can’t even convince the neighbors to take any more of them, Gunders says you should try your hand at canning or pickling to make your bounty last longer…

Gunders: Tomatoes are the quintessential thing to can and it can be a little bit of a mess, but I actually found it to be much easier than I thought it was before I had tried it. Other things like sauces can be canned. I actually like to pickle foods and I think pickling is a great thing to do with vegetables that are a little past their prime. I have found that you can follow these “quick pickle” recipes and just essentially boil salt water with spices in it and pour it over the vegetables in a jar and within a few days you have pickles that will keep for at least a few weeks in the fridge.

Peterson: When fruits and vegetables are a lost cause, Gunders says you can still put them into service as compost. It sounds like a lot of work, but she says it’s surprisingly simple…

Gunders: If you have a back yard, if you have a garden and you have the room for it, it can be a pretty low-effort way to use your scraps and actually get the nutrients from them for your soil. It really just involves collecting your food scraps, throwing it back in the pile and covering it with leaves each time you do. And then once every so often getting out there with a shovel and turning the pile. For others, you know, in apartments there are ways to do it. I think the best way if you live in an apartment and have a little balcony or veranda is to actually use worms to help process your compost. They work very fast and they can process a lot of food and you’ll be amazed at how many food scraps you can put into a little bin full of worms.

Peterson: Some food scraps can even be used for pet treats, and Gunders has a list of what you can safely feed your dog or cat before you consider throwing out the food.  Food spoilage isn’t only a mess to clean out of your fridge and pantry, as well as a drain on your bank account. Gunders says it creates a lot of waste and drain on the environment as well…

Gunders: It takes a lot to get food to our tables. You know about 80% of the water, half the land in this country are used for agriculture. So when we’re not eating food it’s a huge waste of those resources in addition to the money we spent on it. As an example, when you throw out a hamburger that ‘s like taking a 90-minute shower in terms of the water required to produce that hamburger. So, before you eat, before you throw food away, just give a little thought to what it took to get that food there and maybe that will help motivate you to make sure that you’re using it all up.

Peterson: You can find more statistics on food waste and lots of advice on how to prevent it in Dana Gunders’ book, Waste Free Kitchen Handbook, available in stores and online. She also invites listeners to visit her website at DanaGunders.com. For more information about all of our guests, you can log on to our site at Viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron and Reed Pence. I’m Marty Peterson.

 

Advertisements