I used to toss perfectly good leftovers into the trash or flush them down the disposal, usually because I was in a hurry, living a fly-bythe-seat-of-my-pants life. Then I read a startling statistic. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans tossed out 34 million tons of uneaten food in 2010! How could this be, when so many people go hungry? Feeling ashamed of myself, I wanted to stop being careless about God’s provisions in my life.
The environmental cost also worried me. Landfilled food waste does not biodegrade—it rots. Rotting organic matter gives off methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and turns into a liquid called leachate, which can contaminate groundwater.
I had no idea food waste was such a big problem. But what could a busy person like me do about it? I discovered some strategies that might work for you, too.
Know what’s there. One of the first things I did on my waste reduction campaign was clean out my kitchen. Setting aside an hour or two on the weekend, I swiped out the refrigerator and freezer, sorted through the pantry, identified expired items that really needed to go, and re-acquainted myself with the items I could actually use. Often I buy extras that go to waste because I don’t remember what I have in my cabinets.
Make a plan. During a busy week, my grocery shopping devolves into grabbing what’s convenient or on sale. I waste less if I plan ahead, buy only the amount of food I need, and keep my meals simple. Online meal-planning sites can be helpful, as well as smart phone apps such as Epicurious and Food on the Table. Or I simply flip through my cookbooks and map out two weeks’ worth of family favorites to rotate.
Stick to the list. After I’ve made a plan, I create a list and go shopping, buying only what’s on the list – no overbuying, no impulse buys. This is especially true for perishables, which might look tempting on Monday night, but end up squishy and abandoned in the crisper drawer by the weekend.
Freeze away! Instead of letting food go bad, I pop it in the freezer if there’s any doubt I won’t use it up in the next few days, including bread, meat, even leftovers from a dinner out.
Get creative with leftovers. Years ago, home cooks found all sorts of delicious ways to reuse their odds and ends. Check out the More-with-Less Cookbook by Doris Janzen Longacre, a Mennonite with a taste for good food and a heart for social justice. Her cookbook contains recipes for wholesome, simple meals, and the end of each chapter features a section called “Gather Up the Fragments” with tips on the creative use of leftovers.
Stock up. Here’s another way I’ve tried to use leftovers: I put bones from a roast or baked chicken, along with vegetable scraps, into a gallon freezer bag. When the bag is full, I take it out of the freezer, throw everything in a stock pot or slow cooker, and simmer for stock. Soup stock recipes are found in most basic cookbooks, they’re easy to make, and they taste much better than the canned stuff.
Eat what you have. My friend Becky told me how she learned to cook as a young teen. Her mother, who worked full-time, insisted that Becky learn to make an evening meal with just what she could find in the kitchen. Before I’m tempted to run out to the grocery store, I first look to see what I can use — most of the time, I don’t need anything extra to put a good meal on the table.
Understand hunger issues at home and worldwide. I spend time regularly helping at our local food pantry. Some of the people who go there are my neighbors, and some of their children go to school with my kids. Many of these people are much better meal-planners than I am because they don’t have my easy abundance. If that doesn’t make me a better steward of my food, I don’t know what will.