waste not, want not – 5 tips to reduce waste

After thoroughly purging and organizing the belongings in just one room of our house this weekend, I got to thinking about waste – specifically how much space has been wasted in our house and also what opportunities are wasted when we store belongings away that could be useful for someone else, if not for us.

Recently, my coworker told me about hearing a news report about the amount of food that is wasted because of expiration dates and labels. Her church organizes a food pantry and is not able to serve or give away food that is “past dated” – even if it’s perfectly safe, edible and even delicious. On one hand, I understand why this guidance is in place for groups that are serving large amounts of people – you don’t want to gamble with people’s safety when you are responsible for others, particularly vulnerable populations. But unfortunately, the dates and labels themselves are misleading.

According to the study that has been reported recently, 90% of Americans say they have prematurely thrown out food because they misinterpreted the labels and dates on the package. These labels are generally suggestions from the manufacturers about peak freshness, not suitability for consumption. According to the same article, “in 2012, an NRDC study found as much as 40 percent of the country’s food supply goes uneaten. The cost of that wasted food? Roughly $165 billion, including $900 million in “expired” food. A family of four, the study found, spends an average of $455 a year on food it doesn’t eat.” (emphasis mine) We should look at those numbers and find them unpalatable (no pun intended).

That’s a staggering amount of food waste, especially when industrial agriculture is trying to tell us that they need to produce more to feed the world. We already produce more food than this country needs (not to mention that this country eats more calories a day than it needs to). The reason we have hunger issues in this country is not production – it’s distribution and access.

So what can you do? Here are five strategies we use in our house.

1. Plan your meals.
Each week, we plan out what we’re going to make for dinner and estimate the leftovers to determine lunches. This allows us to have a very good idea of what we can eat in a week’s time and to know exactly what we will need on a given day. We check what we have in our pantry and refrigerator when we are choosing meals – and even have our freezer contents in a shared spreadsheet so we can keep track of what’s hiding at the bottom!

2. Make a shopping list and stick to it.
Use your meal plan to determine what you need for the week and make a list. When you go to the store, don’t veer from the list. We make exceptions when pantry staples are on sale and we can stock up at a savings, but we only buy things we know we will use. If you go to the store without a plan, you’ll buy things that you feel like eating when you’re there, but you might not want to eat later on. You also run the risk of not buying the right quantities. 

3. Buy from the bulk section when you can – and buy only what you need.
We buy spices from the bulk section, as well as grains like oats and rice and dried fruits and nuts for granola. Usually the prices are lower in general than buying the items in a commercially packaged container, but it also helps you only buy what you can use at its peak of freshness. Spices lose their potency over time, so it’s better to buy 4 tablespoons of ginger at a time for a small container at home than enough ginger for a bakery from a warehouse store.

4. Smell and look at your food.
Your milk says “best by 10-8.” It’s past October 8, so instead of getting rid of it immediately, open the container and smell it. You will know when milk has “gone off” or spoiled. We’ve had containers of sour cream we’ve used a month after the “best by” date – no mold, spoilage or nasty smells indicates that it’s safe to eat. The benefit of eating a diet of whole foods is that you’re eating things that are designed to go bad. (We’ve all seen the photos of fast food cheeseburgers that have been petrified for 30 years but somehow never spoiled.) Fruit and vegetables? They rot. Bread molds and so does cheese. Meat rots – in a terribly smelly way. Your food will “let you know” when it’s not safe to eat anymore. (Remember that this is the way that people determined whether or not their food was safe before the advent of the government labels.)

5. Consider labels to be guidelines and not rules.
Go ahead and use the dates as a guideline – but they aren’t rules. You can just as easily get a container of yogurt from the store, open it before the “sell by” date and find mold as you can if the date has passed. Don’t throw away perfectly good food because someone 8 weeks ago estimated that it might not be quite so fresh after a certain point. You will see a difference in your budget when you do!

October Simplified update: Listed about 50 books for sale that had the potential to help me recoup some cost and packed up the rest to donate and repurposed mismatched sheets as drop cloths for Mark’s wood working space. Up next, the guest bedroom!