Putting the Brakes on Food Waste

FoodWaste_LGHappy Monday! If you were too busy celebrating Christmas over the long weekend to read my latest On Nutrition column in The Seattle Times, “12 tips for keeping food from going to waste – or your waist,” you still can!

As I discuss in the column, food waste is a big problem in this country, but so is our society’s lingering tendency to maintain membership in the Clean Plate Club (even if we ourselves are a few generations removed from the Great Depression, when food was scarce). I have a few patients who told me they were raised to believe that it was an actual sin to not clean their plates (if you think it’s hard to break the Clean Plate Club habit, just try laying sin on top of it).

I myself feel no guilt if I don’t clean my plate, but I also know that if I’m not being mindful, I tend to eat most of what I serve myself. I try to serve myself a little less than I think I’ll need, and find that I generally hit the mark of serving myself just enough. But it’s food waste on a larger scale that I’ve been “guilty” of, and do feel guilty about, in part because not being able to use food I buy in a timely manner means that I’ve wasted money that could have been used elsewhere.

Shopping My Pantry

That’s why, for the past few weeks, I have been aggressively shopping my pantry, freezer and fridge. It’s a new habit that started gathering some momentum when I’ve twice had to throw away pantry staples (grains and dried fruit) because of pantry moths. It really picked up steam when we inventoried our free-standing freezer in the basement a few weekends ago and I was appalled to discover that I had many more of certain items (pork shoulders, ham hocks, andouille sausages) than I thought I had.

I’ve decided it’s long past time to reduce the varieties of things (whole grains, dried beans, dried fruit, jars of curry paste) that I keep on hand. I can still have some variety, but I don’t need my personal pantry to mimic the bulk foods section at PCC or Whole Foods! So I’ve been using up some items (I cooked up the last of my wheatberries this morning) that I won’t be automatically replacing (I still have farro, which is similar). As I watched movies over the weekend, I went through back issues of Eating Well and specifically looked for recipes that use ingredients I have in abundance.

Get Rid of Guilt

If you have the sinking feeling (or outright awareness) that your fridge, freezer and pantry are housing some food that’s well past its prime (or that you know you simply will never use because it doesn’t suit your style of cooking), I encourage you to be ruthless about getting rid of it so you can see and use what you actually have and enjoy cooking with. No guilt! Just resolve to shop smarter in the future. I’ve had to toss a fair number of things, but I also have a bag of still-good items that I’m collecting to donate.

If you aren’t sure whether something has used up its shelf life or not, check out the website Still Tasty (Your Ultimate Shelf Life Guide). It’s also a useful resource for learning the best way to store certain foods so that they last longer (especially helpful with semi-perishable foods like nuts, grains, dried beans and oils).