Monday, May 9, 2011

A simple plan cuts the cost of wasted food

For the past two weeks, I’ve been staring down a small container of cherry tomatoes. They haven’t spoiled, but they are definitely past their prime. I don’t want to throw them away, but a dozen lackluster tomatoes aren’t inspiring my inner chef. Plus, I feel a twinge of guilt when I think about wasting food, particularly when we devote such a large portion of our budget to feeding our family.

Having a trio of backyard chickens has made it possible to redeem almost all of our kitchen scraps, and I work hard to use up the food we have. Still, I know I could do better with things like the aforementioned languishing cherry tomatoes. I’ve even been known to avoid opening food storage containers in my refrigerator because I’m afraid of what might be lurking inside.

What’s even more frightening than unearthing furry food is the cost of wasting it. According to the USDA, Americans throw away about 14% of the food they buy; some other independent estimates put that amount closer to 25%. If my family’s experience rings true—even to the more modest estimate—we’re literally throwing away $70 every month, or $840 a year.

I could think of a lot of ways I’d like to spend $840 this year—but wasted food doesn’t make the list. Becoming more intentional with my food dollars and my cooking habits will help ensure that more food gets used, and less is discarded. There’s nothing revolutionary about the plan I’ve sketched out for my family, but it will help me make the most of what I have.

First, I will recommit to creating a weekly meal plan and writing it on the family calendar. Doing so allows me to take stock of ingredients I already have, and plan meals accordingly. (Plus, a meal plan avoids “what’s for dinner?” tension at the end of the day.) For example, I have some small pieces of ham and a bunch of boiled eggs leftover from Easter, so I’ll prepare a chef salad. I also have a large tub of ricotta cheese (and those leftover tomatoes) lingering in my fridge; I’ll put both to use in lasagna.

Second, I want to have a specific purpose in mind for everything I buy. Contrary to traditional budgeting advice, I don’t shop with a strict list. My grocery list includes staple items I need, such as spices and baking ingredients. Otherwise, I shop for what looks good at the best price. Last time I went shopping, for instance, organic beef was on sale for half price. I hadn’t planned to buy beef that day, but I scooped up the last four packages, knowing that I could freeze it or use it to make sloppy joes and taco pizza.

Designating a specific spot for leftovers in the refrigerator is another easy-to-implement strategy that I’ll employ. If I know that all leftovers are on the top, right-hand shelf, then I’ll be able to look past the tubs of homemade playdough and the cartons of eggs to see what we need to eat first.

Lastly, I want to find more uses for leftovers and food past its prime. I’ve always thrown away broccoli stalks, but I know they’re suitable for stir frying, soups, and frittatas; I just need to get in the habit of using them. Carrot and onion peels, wilted celery ribs and other vegetable miscellany will be put to use in homemade broths, rather than going to the chickens.

This plan will take effort, but I’m looking forward to less spoiled food, less cherry tomato guilt, and to stretching my food dollars further.

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