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The Problem with Food Waste

Go Food-Waste Free with Tips From the Priestess

Words by Joi Sears

The average American family wastes about 25 percent of the food they buy annually. This equates to around $1,500  that is literally thrown in the trash. Our trash cans eat better than 25 percent of the world’s children. The amount of food waste produced globally each year is more than enough to feed the one billion hungry people in the world.

However, despite our efforts to clean our plates and stuff ourselves to alleviate the guilt we feel about the ‘starving children in Africa,’ there are actually a number of more practical ways to combat food waste in our daily lives.

Coined the “Priestess of Waste-Free Living” by the New York Times, speaker, blogger, and author, Bea Johnson, has mastered the art of living waste free. Her family generates a mere quart size jar of waste per year.

Bea proves that the zero waste lifestyle can not only be stylish, but can also lead to significant health benefits, along with saving time and money. Through her blog and book Zero Waste Home, Bea has launched a global movement, inspiring a growing community of people to live simply and take a stance against needless waste.

Through the application of five basic principles: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Rot, Bea found that when applied in order, these actions are most effective in eliminating unnecessary waste.

“We refuse what we do not need (for ex. single use plastics, junkmail and freebies), reduce what we do need (furnishings, clothes), reuse by buying secondhand and swapping disposables for reusables (that includes shopping with reusables such as cloth bags, jars and bottles), recycle what we cannot refuse, reduce or reuse and rot (compost) the rest (fruit peels, lint, etc). We apply these rules to every aspect of our lifestyle, including food.” Bea explained.

Bea and her family manage to completely eliminate food waste from their home, abiding by the following rules:

Shop smart

One of the easiest and most important things we can do to combat food waste is to be smarter about what we buy and how we shop. This includes planning meals, using grocery lists, and avoiding impulse buys. This way, you’re less likely to buy things you don’t need and that you’re unlikely to actually consume.

One of the best ways to do this is to be realistic about the amount of food you buy. Bea suggests buying food from bulk bins as much as possible. If your recipe calls for two carrots, buy two carrots. You don’t need to buy the whole bag. If you live alone, you probably don’t need the same amount of apples as a family of four (unless you are obsessed with apples).

Before going to the grocery store, take a quick inventory of what you already have. Note expiration dates and perishables that are close to going bad. Build your next meal around that forgotten eggplant or spaghetti squash and use it as a source of inspiration for your next culinary venture.

Bea suggests keeping your grocery list up to date and never leaving home without it. She refuses to buy packaged food in bulk because it encourages food waste. Additionally, she recommends making smaller, more frequent shopping trips will allow you to wait until perishables are used up before replenishing them.

Finally, don’t be afraid to buy funny looking produce. While shopping, people tend to choose the most attractive produce while the blemished produce gets thrown away. Many fruits and vegetables are thrown out because their size, shape, or color doesn’t quite match what we think these items “should” look like. However, these things are perfectly good to eat. Give this funny looking produce a chance by buying the food that might otherwise be tossed.

Unclutter the kitchen

Another great tip to combat food waste at home is to maintain an organized and uncluttered kitchen. “We have elected our pantry staples and stick with them” Bea explained. In her book she describes a system of rotation which promotes variety in her family’s diet without having to stock a large variety of products.

“In our pantry, we organize our dry food on one row and we have refrigerator drawers (instead of a typical refrigerator) so that nothing gets lost in the back of a shelf” she said. She also suggested storing food in glass jars, which makes everything visible so that nothing is hidden or forgotten.

Alternatively, Real Simple suggested practicing the rule of FIFO which stands for first in, first out. When unpacking groceries, be sure to put new items into the back of the fridge or cupboard and push old items to the front. This way, you’re more likely to use up the older stuff before it expires.

Don’t throw it out

Ultimately the key to eliminating food waste from your home is to simply refuse to throw food in the trash. Eat and reinvent your leftovers. Brown-bag them to take to work or designate one dinner a week as a “use it up meal.” If you don’t want to eat leftovers right away, freeze them and save them for later. 

Treat expiration dates as guidelines. When it comes to "expiration" and "use-by" dates, use your senses before throwing something away. If food looks, smells and tastes normal, it should be safe to use even if the expiration date has passed. Oftentimes these expiration dates refer to food quality and not necessarily food safety.

When cooking, use every piece of whatever food you’re cooking with, whenever possible. Leave the skin on your potatoes and sauté broccoli stems along with the florets. As an added bonus, skins and stems often have provide additional nutrients for our bodies so you can do good for the planet and your body at the same time.

Another great tip to eliminate food waste is to upcycle leftover food scraps. Repurpose vegetable scraps to make homemade stocks, or use citrus fruit rinds and zest to add flavor to other meals. You can also grow some fruits and veggies from leftover food scraps which can save you money and provide some interesting kitchen decor. Win/Win.

Got more fruit than you know what to do with? Try canning it so it’ll last for months to come. (Plus, who doesn’t love eating “fresh” peaches in winter?) Also both fruits and vegetables can be preserved through an easy pickling process. 

Bea suggests composting food as a last resort. Hate potato skins? Don’t feel like turning wilted vegetables into soup stock? Food scraps still don’t need to be tossed. Just start a compost pile in the backyard or even under the sink, and convert food waste into a useful resource.

Bea also mentioned that her family lets their dog clean their plates and dishes before putting them in the dishwasher. Now, this is an example of true innovation. All in all, it is incredibly easy to take small steps towards eliminating food waste from our homes. And, if we each play our part we can have a tremendous positive impact on our health, wealth and the prosperity of our planet.


Photo Credit: Zero Waste Home

Joi Sears headshotJoi Sears

Joi M. Sears is the Founder and Creative Director of Free People International, a social enterprise which specializes in offering creative solutions to the world's biggest social, environmental and economic challenges through the arts, design thinking and social innovation.

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