Last month I had an eye-opening experience. I kept a food diary. It’s not the first time I’ve tracked my food consumption in the pursuit of eating healthier or losing a few pounds. But last month was different. I tracked everything about the food I ate, bought and threw away.
I was shocked—and ashamed.
Writing my food habits down made all the difference. The amount of food I tossed into the compost bin or garbage was mind-blowing.
I learned a few things from paying attention to how I dealt with the food I bought, grew, ate or threw away.
Cooking for one is part of the problem. Boxes of crackers or cereal often go stale before I can finish them. Sour, curdled milk is not an unusual occurrence. Dishes made with all the good intentions of eating tasty leftovers are more often than not found in the recesses of my refrigerator covered with a fine blanket of mold.
When I cleaned out my freezer, I found containers sparkling with crystalline freezer burn, unmarked and unidentifiable. Was this spaghetti sauce? Chili? Vegetable soup? I had no idea. A prolonged stay in cold storage ruined even the dishes and freezer bags I had carefully dated and identified.
It’s estimated that between 30 to 40 percent of food is wasted annually in the United States, and yet one in eight Americans struggles with hunger. Like many problems, the solution to hunger lies within each one of us.
I needed strategies to reduce the amount of food I wasted. It’s not rocket science; most solutions are relatively easy. They involve a few extra steps or a minor investment of time and resources.
Here are a few of the things I’ve started paying attention to when it comes to feeding myself and others.
• Because I live alone, even though it is more expensive, I buy the smallest amount of cereal, crackers, cookies, oil, milk and almost anything that comes pre-packaged.
• I buy fewer pre-packaged foods. Making my own granola or cookies allows me to control the amount. If I have to make larger amounts, it’s easy to share homemade goodies with my friends.
• I invested in a food vacuum sealer. This proved to be invaluable when my garden went into high gear after a particularly productive growing season. Freezer burn is now a thing of the past.
• I date and describe everything that goes into my freezer.
• I committed to eating leftovers when I am at home for lunch, which is most of the time.
I’ve also made a promise to myself that, once a week, I will make a meal that uses the bits and pieces left in my pantry and fridge.
And with this promise I give you a totally delicious “recipe” developed over the years, one that has stood the test of time and used the everyday scraps left to wither in cold storage. Keep in mind it’s more of a concept than a recipe. I give you the legendary Karu family favorite, Mess O’ Mac.
MESS O’ MAC
First, I took all the almost-empty boxes of pasta and line them up according to their cooking time. In this iteration I had a few ounces of egg noodles (11 minutes), six spinach fettuccine nests (8 minutes) and four lasagna noodles that I broke into small pieces (7 minutes). I dropped the noodles into the boiling water, waited 3 minutes, added the fettuccine, waited 1 minute and in went the lasagna, all to be cooked and drained.
Next, I scoured the refrigerator for all the veggies that were lonely or about to lose their youthful appeal. I sautéed half an onion, some slightly wilted celery, a small bunch of sullen scallions, a handful of baby carrots, three brave mushrooms that were on life support and two cloves of garlic until they were softened.
I always have a jar of store-bought spaghetti sauce on hand or a frozen container of homemade. For this dish I used a jar of the store-bought stuff, added the sautéed veggies, included three chopped artichoke hearts and set them to simmering. I had a splash of leftover red wine (I know, leftover wine? Who knew?). Into the pot it went along with a dollop of pesto, finishing an opened container. Last Sunday’s bagel breakfast left me with a few ounces of cream cheese that gave the sauce a creamy flavor with a dreamy pinkish color. Finally, I added chicken left over from dinner two nights ago to complete a super-tasty sauce.
The cooked pasta was blended into the simmering sauce along with a few ounces of grated Parmesan cheese. Then the whole shebang went into a casserole dish, topped by three slices of Swiss cheese that were aging, or more accurately languishing, in the meat drawer of the refrigerator.
After 30 minutes in a 350º oven, I had a dish that is practically irresistible. It was loaded with veggies, had three kinds of cheese, as well as pasta. What’s not to love?
Top 10 Tips for Reducing Food Waste
1. Log your food habits. Monitor what you buy, eat and discard for a week. See if you can identify wasteful patterns. If you routinely have to dump the last third of the milk in the carton, buy a smaller size. Freeze half the cereal in the box before it can get stale.
2. Plan your meals and snacks. Before you shop look at your calendar and figure out what meals you will make at home and what you need to buy to make them. Don’t forget to include healthy snacks. Avoid impulse purchases and don’t buy things that aren’t on your list.
3. Invest in storage. A vacuum sealer or high quality freezer-safe containers will help you store leftovers. Don’t forget to identify and date what you freeze.
4. Rotate your freezer. Place newer foods behind already-frozen selections. Choose older leftovers for meals before newer ones.
5. Don’t forget the plain janes. Remember, produce doesn’t have to be pretty to be pretty tasty. Veggies that may have passed the crudité stage can still be delicious in soups or stews. Save stems, ends and wilted produce to make stock. Skins and stems are nutrient dense and full of flavor.
6. Get small. Single serving sizes are a great way for single people to cut down on food waste. Why buy a family size bag of pretzels, when you can get 10 single serving bags for a little more money but less waste? If you buy the large bag, make your own snack packs for the freezer.
7. Stretch it out. Prepare dishes that will make yummy leftovers that you can eat right away. A roast chicken makes for a delicious dinner, but think of the great chicken salad you can make for lunch and the soup you can make with the bones.
8. Have a dump day. Designate one day a week to make a Clean Out The Fridge meal. Check out my instructions for my signature dish—Mess o’ Mac. Other good choices are egg stratas, stews, chili and soup. Chopped veggies, even if less than lovely, and leftover meat or chicken make all these dishes delightful.
9. Learn new skills. Methods like canning and pickling can preserve produce for months and are a flavorful way to reduce food waste. Don’t stop at just pickling traditional veggies like beets, beans and cucumbers. Did you know that lots of fruit pickles perfectly too? You can search the Internet for pickling ideas using watermelon and pumpkin rinds, lemons, figs, pears, mangos and even pineapple. Don’t stop there—try pickled eggs for an old fashioned treat.
10. Compost. If you do have to discard unusable food and scraps, the best way to do it is to compost. If you’re a gardener, you can create your own compost pile. Services like Garbage to Garden (garbagetogarden.org) and We Compost It! (www.wecompostit.com) offer some Maine towns and cities curbside composting pickup for a monthly fee.
Candace Karu makes her living writing about food, fitness and travel. She lives near the ocean in an old farmhouse with two ill-behaved dogs and two hard-working barn cats. Follow her on Instagram: @candacekaru or at www.candacekaru.com.