Always Making Too Much Food? This New Tool Helps You Cut Food Waste
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.
The Fight Against Food Waste Starts at Home https://t.co/V4OFzAV2eo— TIPA-Corp (@TIPA-Corp)1545884160.0
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"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
Words That Reflect the Science<p>But while the West Coast governors all fervently link the fires to an unfolding climate crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to avoid any reference to climate. In a briefing about the fires, he responded to overtures by Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary, to work with the states on the climate crisis by stating: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch." Crowfoot replied by saying that scientists disagreed. Trump rejoined with "I don't think science knows, actually." </p><p>It was reminiscent of the anti-science approach to the coronavirus pandemic within the Trump administration, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-admits-playing-down-coronavirus-risks/a-54874350" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least publicly</a>. Fossil fuel companies are also benefiting from his disavowal of climate science, with the Trump administration having <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-trumps-paris-climate-accord-exit-isnt-really-a-problem/a-51124958" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pulled out of the Paris Agreement</a> and reopened fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline. </p><p>But the science community has responded, with Scientific American magazine endorsing Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. </p><p>Hanson-Young says the use of explicit language like climate fires has also been important in Australia due to the climate denialism of politicians and the press, especially in publications owned by Rupert Murdoch. As fires burnt out much of Australia's southeast coast, they were commonly blamed on arson — a tactic also recently used in the U.S.</p>
Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
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