Updated: Oct 31, 2020
Last week I posted Part 1 of my series on how to slow down time by reducing plastic waste. You can call this lifestyle slow living, simple living, intentional living, or anything in between, but the end goal is the same: escape the addiction to being busy in favor of being present and enjoying life in the now.
In my case, I stumbled upon the slowing down effect in an effort to be more environmentally conscious. I first noticed a change when I reduced my plastic waste, and I’ll continue sharing all the other ways in which I’ve discovered the magic of slowing down time.
Like Part 1, Part 2 of my series on slowing down has everything to do with food — because when it comes to convenience (which so often equates to plastic), food is the thing most often made convenient.
How to Reduce Food Waste
Imagine going to the grocery store and spending $100 on food. As you leave, you walk to the back of the store and toss $40 worth of your newly purchased groceries into a dumpster.
No one in their right mind would do that, right?
Unfortunately, we do it as a country every day. According to the USDA, food waste is estimated at 30-40% of the food supply. That means that between 30 and 40% of the food that’s created in the US is being tossed into landfills. THAT’S BONKERS! Besides being an enormous waste of resources (water, land, money, time, fuel…), food waste is highly problematic when disposed of in the trash.
When food waste ends up in landfills, it doesn’t break down the way we normally think of decomposition, such as in nature and in a compost pile. Some of the basic guidelines of composting are to keep your compost damp, give it exposure to air, and stir it frequently. The conditions in a landfill are quite literally the opposite of this: landfills are built in such a way that waste is kept isolated both from air and water (1). This prevents leakage into our water supply, which is obviously important, but it also prevents natural decomposition.
While some breakdown does occur due to the bacteria present in this environment, it is anaerobic, meaning it occurs without oxygen. The byproduct of this kind of breakdown is methane gas, which is a greenhouse gas more potent than CO2 and is one of the biggest contributors to climate change (2). But wait, it gets worse. Food waste is the largest contributor to landfill waste, making landfills the third largest source of methane production in the US (3). More specifically, fruit and vegetables have the highest rates of waste (4).
To put it simply, tossing fruit and vegetables in the trash is a significant contributor to climate change.
Armed with that knowledge, it’s clear that we need to make a change. To decrease the amount of produce ending up in our landfills, we need to figure out solutions for 1) reducing food waste at home, and 2) disposing of food waste in a more responsible manner.
Reduce Food Waste by Shopping Consciously
If you want to reduce food waste, like with so many other things, prevention is the best cure. Keep your produce out of the landfill by stopping it at the source: buy less, eat what you have, and learn how to keep your produce fresh.
For many of us, we go on autopilot at the grocery store and toss things in our carts we already have in excess at home. The result is having more than we can eat and tossing the older stuff in favor of the fresher. The antidote is easy: take stock of what you already have before going to the grocery store. Keep a list in the kitchen and write down what you run out of. Then when you go to the store, only buy what’s on the list. After doing this for a few weeks, it’ll become clear what foods you need to buy weekly and what you can stock up on less frequently.
During this same time period, take notice of what goes bad before you have a chance to eat it. If you keep tossing out wilted kale week after week, it’s probably time to face the fact that you just don’t like kale.
Meal planning is another great way to reduce food waste. Check out a couple recipes and write the specific ingredients on your grocery list.
If, like me, meal planning somehow never ends up working out for you, take stock of what you have on hand before starting to cook. If you have some staples like chicken, veggies, and grains, you’ll have no problem throwing a delicious meal together.
Learn the Best Ways to Store Produce
Prevent food waste by keeping your produce fresh longer.
I think that when we buy produce at the grocery store, we forget that we’re buying plants.
We forget that our produce is still moving through its life cycle, and that we can do something to care for it, just like with our house plants. I don’t know about you, but I’ve shamefully tossed out more slimy bunches of cilantro than I care to remember.
I’m going to share some magical secrets about how to keep your produce fresher longer, no infomercial gadgets required. Prepare to have your mind blown.
Bananas: To prevent bananas from ripening too quickly, tear the bunch apart. Fruits and veggies give off ethylene (a ripening agent) that can make them mature and spoil sooner than you’d like. If they’re pulled apart, these signals aren’t transmitted as easily. Bananas are particularly generous when it comes to ethylene production, so use it to your advantage. If you have some avocados you’d like to soften, put them in the same bowl as the bananas. By the same token, separate bananas from foods you don’t want to ripen quickly.
Broccoli, carrots & celery: Store these in water. Store carrots and celery in a cup or jar of water; the more that’s submerged, the better. Trim the ends of the broccoli stalks and stick them in a bowl of water like they’re flowers. If you didn’t put these guys in water and they start to get soft, they’re not trash! Stick them in water and they’ll firm up again in an hour or two.
Ginger: Buy a chunk of ginger and store it in the freezer. When you need fresh ginger, pull it out and slice / grate after a minute or two. (If you let it sit for too long, it will get mushy.)
Greens like kale, lettuce, and spinach: Store these in the fridge one of 3 ways. If you have leaves with stems, you can store them in water upright (like flowers). You can also either wrap them in damp towel or store in a bowl with a cloth napkin at the bottom to soak up moisture. This prevents slimy lettuce.
Herbs: The best way to keep herbs fresh is to treat them like flowers: trim the stems and stick ‘em in water. To keep them fresh even longer, store in the fridge with a bag over the top. (This tip has changed my world when it comes to cilantro. Now my bundles of cilantro last for a week or even two.)
Peaches & avocados: If you need to ripen stone fruits like peaches and avos, put them in a paper bag in a dark place for a day or so. You could toss a banana in there to speed up the process, too.
Tomatoes: Don’t store these in the fridge! When tomatoes are exposed to cold temperatures, it diminishes their flavor (5). Buy them soon before you’ll use them and store at room temp.
Make Tossing Produce in the Trash Your Last Resort
When you see your produce start to go bad, get creative on how you can make use of it before tossing it in the trash. For veggies, cook, add to soup, or freeze them. For fruit, chop and freeze them for smoothies or bake them into muffins.
Save veggie scraps in the freezer to make your own veggie broth. You can throw in things like pepper cores, onion bits, carrot butts, sweet potato scraps, and the tops of celery. Just avoid anything bitter like Brussels sprouts or kale. Get in the habit of pulling your container / bag of scraps out whenever you cook so you’re more likely to throw scraps in there rather than in the trash. Once your scrap bag is full, empty it in a pot, add some water and spices, and simmer for an hour or two to make your own broth. Then start filling it up again!
Many of us also have a waste-prevention buddy running around the house on four legs: it’s called your dog. I fondly think of my pup as a garbage disposal for scraps like carrot butts, apple cores, broccoli stalks, kale ribs, and watermelon rinds—all in small amounts so they don’t harm him—as well as dog-friendly leftovers we don’t want to eat. Sometimes we’ll roast potatoes and have 7 little bits left, or grill chicken that’s too dry. We’ll toss a small amount in with his regular food. He loves it!
→ Please don’t feed your dog any of these things before looking it up online and/or asking your veterinarian! I’m not an expert, just speaking from anecdotal evidence. When feeding your dog human leftovers, be conscious of salt content: dogs’ kidneys are sensitive and can’t handle a lot of sodium.
If all of those options are out for one reason or another, the best case scenario is a compost pile. More and more cities are offering composting alongside garbage and recycling pickup. If that’s not an option, you can store compost in the freezer and drop it off at a community garden or somewhere else that will appreciate the scraps. Of course, you can always create your own compost, too!
How to Make Your Own Compost Bin
There are a bunch of fancy compost bins you can buy, but you can also diy it and save some cash. I created my compost out of an aluminum garbage bin. I drilled a bunch of holes in the sides and bottoms to allow for air flow, and wrote on the lid in permanent marker what to throw in and what to leave out so my neighbors can use it too. I keep it damp and shake / stir it once a week or so. You can also collect the liquid that drains out and pour it in your garden.
Here are some guidelines for composting.
Do feed it:
fruit and veggie scraps
coffee grounds and tea leaves (no tea bags)
dead plants, leaves, and flowers
plant milks (like almond, soy, rice, and coconut)
shredded paper bags
shredded cardboard egg cartons
grains like pasta, quinoa, oats, etc. (as long as they weren’t cooked in oil)
nuts and nut shells (except walnut shells — these are toxic to plants)
seeds (chop them up so they don’t sprout)
corks from wine bottles (chopped so they decompose faster)
hair and nail clippings
Limit feeding it:
The general advice is to keep the amount of these to 10% or less of the total compost.
Don’t feed it:
any animal products — no meat, cheese, milk, or yogurt
anything cooked with oil
dog / cat poop
ash from bonfires
stickers on fruits and vegetables
Benefits for the earth:
The environmental benefits of reducing food waste are powerful. Just by tossing less produce into landfills, you can significantly decrease the amount of fossil fuels you contribute. Think about all the resources that go into even a single apple. It’s planted, tended to (by manual laborers and/or machines), watered, harvested, and shipped to a grocery store. If it’s not organic, it’s also sprayed with various pesticides and requires more water than organic produce. Since 30-40% of food created in the US is going to waste, we could realistically cut down our food production by 30-40%. That means we could save 30-40% of the water, manual labor, energy used by machines, land used for farming, energy used to harvest, and fuel used for shipping.
Benefits for your body:
Maintaining an eye on your produce encourages you to eat it before it goes bad, which can easily translate into eating more plant-based meals and snacks. Immediate benefit for your bod: plant-based diets are high in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and healthy fats.
Benefits for your mind:
Remembering that your produce is a plant shifts the mindset of how you shop, eat, and store your food. Suddenly it becomes about caring for something precious and alive rather than just dumping some vegetables into a drawer in the fridge.
Benefits for your wallet:
The economic benefits of reducing food waste are obvious: imagine cutting your grocery bill by 30 or 40%!
Have any other life-changing tips on ways of reducing food waste? I’d love to hear them! Comment below or leave a message on my Instagram.
For more on how to slow down and tune in, check out the rest of the series!
Here are my sources:
(2) Contributors to climate change: https://eos.org/editors-vox/methane-climate-change-and-our-uncertain-future
(3) Landfills and methane production: https://www.usda.gov/oce/foodwaste/faqs.htm
(4) Produce has highest rates of waste: http://www.fao.org/save-food/resources/keyfindings/en/
(5) Tomatoes: https://www.pnas.org/content/113/44/12580