Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

Always Making Too Much Food? This New Tool Helps You Cut Food Waste

Food
Kim Sielbeck for NRDC

By Jodi Helmer

When it comes to meal preparation, I thought I was a pro: I make shopping lists, eat leftovers and bake overripe produce into breads or simmer them into jams. My husband, Jerry, and I even have a compost bin — but we still end up tossing plenty of food into the trash can. And every time we dump another spoiled yogurt or fuzzy zucchini, we tell ourselves, "We need to do better."

Jerry and I agreed to test Meal Prep Mate, a new tool from NRDC's Save the Food initiative, to see if the planning tools, recipes and storage tips could reduce our food waste. Entering information into the site's calculator on what proteins, produce and grains we planned to cook, plus how many people we were feeding and how many meals each person needed, helped us create a smarter shopping list, gave us suggestions for supplemental recipes using some of the same ingredients, and offered new ideas for spicing up our leftovers.


I also learned a few new strategies for reducing food waste — an important goal when you consider that up to 40 percent of the food in America is wasted. In fact, discarded food is the top category of material in our landfills, contributing more to climate pollution than all of the cars in Georgia. Food waste happens at all stages of the food supply chain, from farms and processing facilities to supermarkets and restaurants, but 43 percent of food waste is generated at home.

That said, many of us think of tossing food as perfectly normal. But spending a couple of weeks using Meal Prep Mate helped change my mind about this. It also helped me to change my habits. Here's what I learned.

Think beyond the recipe.

Who hasn't spent hours scrolling through Pinterest drooling over recipes? Experimenting with new dishes is a great idea — and social media can help you find new favorites — but collecting everything needed for just one big meal can lead to a lot of leftover ingredients. After all, it's hard to buy just a splash of cream or a few stems of parsley.

Instead, choose recipes in duos or trios that use a lot of the same ingredients — and "think about using things in new and innovative ways," says NRDC sustainable food systems specialist Andrea Spacht. Use leftover stir-fry veggies in omelets; make pasta salad from the remaining half box of penne; chop up leftover roast chicken to make soup.

Meal Prep Mate offers suggestions for "remix recipes" that use extra food. I selected yogurt, berries and granola for breakfast and got a recipe for protein pancakes made by adding yogurt to pancake mix for a more filling morning meal; it turned out to be a great idea when we had a few tablespoons of yogurt in the bottom of the container. Pancakes with leftover berries: Yum!

Pay attention to portions.

Meal Prep Mate's planning tool suggested portion sizes for our stir-fry meal (the tool offers different recommendations for how much of any ingredient you'll need based on whether you're cooking breakfast, lunch or dinner), and its guidance was spot-on. Knowing I would need only one cup of chopped bell pepper (about one pepper) saved me from buying an extra "just in case" we needed it.

Spacht cautions that making several meals' worth of a dish to last all week may sound like a good idea, but lots of leftovers can lead to boredom. "You may end up with meal fatigue from having the same thing over and over," she says. To avoid this, consider how many days or nights of the same dish that you and your family will happily eat. Meal Prep will help you scale down the recipe accordingly. You'll be more excited about that tub of refrigerated chili or chicken enchiladas if it's the second time you're reheating a plateful instead of the third or fourth. And Meal Prep Mate has suggestions to help "remix" your meals; if you get tired of your meal plan, use your building blocks to create a whole new dish without wasting the food.

Do a quick kitchen survey before shopping.

Confession: Although Jerry and I are compulsive meal planners and list makers, we tend to do both without looking at what's already in stock in our kitchen. As a result, we often come home from the store with items we don't need. It's not a big deal to keep extra nonperishables like oats or quinoa, but buying extra mangoes or milk (and not consuming them quickly enough) creates waste.

We changed things up, first "shopping" in our refrigerator and pantry to see what items we had on hand that we could build our meals around. This helped us shorten the grocery list we were taking to the store, where we also followed Meal Prep Mate's suggestions for ideal quantities of food to bring home. The combination of strategies led us to reduce both our waste and our grocery bills.

"There is a climate benefit to paying attention to the foods that come into the house," Spacht points out. A lot of resources go into producing our food. According to a groundbreaking NRDC report, wasted food uses 18 percent of farming fertilizer — the production and transport of which is an energy- and greenhouse gas–intensive process in itself — and generates 2.6 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. It also consumes a lot of water: A whopping 21 percent of agricultural water goes toward food we end up tossing.

Don't forget about breakfast.

Even the most enthusiastic meal planners tend to focus on dinner and take what Spacht calls an "ad hoc approach" to the other meals of the day. I'll admit to making a meticulous shopping list for all of our evening meals and guessing at how much bread, bananas and eggs we need to get through the week (and I'm often wrong).

"When you plan for some meals and have an 'anything goes' approach to others, you miss opportunities to potentially reduce a lot of food waste," Spacht says.

Look at the calendar.

We shop once a week — but that doesn't mean we always need enough food for seven days. I forget that lunch with a girlfriend or ordering pizza with our nieces means fewer meals we need to prepare. Spacht suggests looking at the calendar to determine the number of days you'll actually need meals instead of assuming that you'll always need to plan for a full week.

Study up on storage.

Improper storage is one of the main reasons that food spoils in our kitchens. Save the Food offers a comprehensive guide to food storage that will help you prolong the life of your produce, pantry staples and everything in between. For example, did you know that wrapping meat in two layers of plastic prevents freezer burn? And that natural nut butters will last up to three months after opening when stored in the refrigerator? That's twice as long as it will last if kept in a cabinet.

"Rather than tossing food because you're not sure if it's still safe to eat, learn how to store food so it'll last longer," Spacht says. "It's such an easy step to cut down on food waste."

Since using Meal Prep Mate, I've also gained a new appreciation for my freezer. Jerry and I keep chickens, which means lots of eggs. Thanks to the tool, we now know that lightly beaten eggs can be frozen in an airtight container. We've already added a few batches to our freezer — which gives me an idea for next weekend's brunch plans.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Residents plant mangroves on the coast of West Aceh District in Indonesia on Feb. 21, 2020. Mangroves play a crucial role in stabilizing the coastline, providing protection from storms, waves and tidal erosion. Dekyon Eon / Opn Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Mangroves play a vital role in capturing carbon from the atmosphere. Mangrove forests are tremendous assets in the fight to stem the climate crisis. They store more carbon than a rainforest of the same size.

Read More Show Less
UN World Oceans Day is usually an invite-only affair at the UN headquarters in New York, but this year anyone can join in by following the live stream on the UNWOD website from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. EST. https://unworldoceansday.org/

Monday is World Oceans Day, but how can you celebrate our blue planet while social distancing?

Read More Show Less
Cryptococcus yeasts (pictured), including ones that are hybrids, can cause life-threatening infections in primarily immunocompromised people. KATERYNA KON/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY / Getty Images

By Jacob L. Steenwyk and Antonis Rokas

From the mythical minotaur to the mule, creatures created from merging two or more distinct organisms – hybrids – have played defining roles in human history and culture. However, not all hybrids are as fantastic as the minotaur or as dependable as the mule; in fact, some of them cause human diseases.

Read More Show Less
National Trails Day 2020 is now titled In Solidarity, AHS Suspends Promotion of National Trails Day 2020. The American Hiking Society is seeking to amplify Black voices in the outdoor community and advocate for equal access to the outdoors. Klaus Vedfelt / DigitalVision / Getty Images

This Saturday, June 6, marks National Trails Day, an annual celebration of the remarkable recreational, scenic and hiking trails that crisscross parks nationwide. The event, which started in 1993, honors the National Trail System and calls for volunteers to help with trail maintenance in parks across the country.

Read More Show Less
Indigenous people from the Parque das Tribos community mourn the death of Chief Messias of the Kokama tribe from Covid-19, in Manaus, Brazil, on May 14, 2020. MICHAEL DANTAS / AFP / Getty Images

By John Letzing

This past Wednesday, when some previously hard-hit countries were able to register daily COVID-19 infections in the single digits, the Navajo Nation – a 71,000 square-kilometer (27,000-square-mile) expanse of the western US – reported 54 new cases of what's referred to locally as "Dikos Ntsaaígíí-19."

Read More Show Less
World Environment Day was put into motion almost fifty years ago by the United Nations as a response to a multitude of environmental threats. RicardoImagen / Getty Images

It's a different kind of World Environment Day this year. In prior years, it might have been enough to plant a tree, spend some extra time in the garden, or teach kids the importance of recycling. This year we have heavier tasks at hand. It's been months since we've been able to spend sufficient time outside, and as we lustfully watch the beauty of a new spring through our kitchen's glass windows, we have to decide how we'll interact with the natural world on our release, and how we can prevent, or be equipped to handle, future threats against our wellbeing.

Read More Show Less

Trending

Experts are worried that COVID-19, a primarily respiratory and airway disease, could have permanent effects on lungs, inhibiting the ability for divers to continue diving. Tiffany Duong / Ocean Rebels

Scuba divers around the world are holding their metaphorical breath to see if a coronavirus infection affects the ability to dive.

Read More Show Less