Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Food ... Glorious Food

Recently, to kick off the holiday season, we watched "A Christmas Carol". I love the scene where Scrooge comes out of his bedroom to find the Ghost of Christmas Present sitting atop a bountiful table of delicious food. This scene seems to represent everything we hold dear ... a table with plenty ... a generous and happy spirit ... the very essence of human kindness. In homes around the world, we try to recreate that opulence and generosity ... offering our guests much more than they could ever consume. And what is left over often becomes landfill waste.

As landfill contributions go, I've always thought that food would be less imposing than other items. After all, it will compost down and ultimately enrich the soil, right? Unfortunately ... there are problems with this thinking. To maximize the space used for landfills, the trash is compacted before being buried in the soil. These tidy bricks of garbage are air tight ... preventing decomposition. Simply put, the process of composting requires air. No air ... no compost. For landfills which allow organic materials to compost, there's another problem. We simply have too much waste. According to the EPA, methane (the gas produced by food waste) traps 23 times as much heat in the atmosphere as the same amount of CO2. Landfills account for 34 percent of all methane emissions in the U.S.

So ... how do we prevent food waste? I'm glad you asked. Here are some ideas:
  • Planning a party? When entertaining, consider sending leftovers home with guests.

  • Plan ahead ... twice. When I shop, I have an idea of what I'd like to cook during the week. This ensures that I have a use for everything ... and if I stick to my plan, everything gets used. But what happens when that dish that sounded oh so great at the beginning of the week, sounds less than appetizing today? That's where planning ahead twice comes in. Be sure that for every item purchased, an alternate dish is considered.

  • Don't shop hungry ... and bring a list. Grocery stores are in the business of selling. They plan out their displays to entice us. And who can resist that box of donuts when their stomach is growling. So eat before shopping and make up a list ... it'll help avoid any impulse buying.

  • Buy local produce. Have you ever purchased a bag of produce at a supermarket chain, just to get it home and find that there are rotten items at the bottom of the bag? Or how about those lovely tomatoes ... grown halfway around the world ... that are black inside? Produce in big chain supermarkets is older and typically isn't handled with care, causing many items to become bruised or broken which speeds up the decaying process. Buying produce locally ensures that the item is fresh ... which means less waste.

  • Buying in bulk saves money and lessens the amount of packaging that gets sent to the landfill. However, one must use caution when buying large quantities. Ensure that the item being purchased has an adequate "use by" date. Also, make sure that the item is something you'll actually use. Most items, regardless of their shelf life, will get tossed out if, after a year or so, they haven't been used up.

  • Store foods properly. If the food you purchase doesn't come with storage instructions, check out the Internet. Storing food properly will ensure it's maximum shelf life and safety ... not to mention it's taste.

  • Check your refrigerator ... and your pantry. Adopt the grocer's strategy and rotate. Foods that are out of sight, usually get forgotten. Browse the contents of your food storage areas often ... at least once a week. You'll remind yourself what's there and you can move forgotten items to the front where they'll get used instead of turning into fuzzy, green stuff.

  • Use what you have before shopping for more. In our house, we have fun with this. We try to use almost everything before making another shopping trip and this has generated some very creative meals.

  • Cook only what is needed. If you're cooking for two and the recipe is for eight ... cut it down. Even if your family adores leftovers, there comes a point when everyone is tired of the same old thing.

  • Don't toss out bits and pieces. You know the ones ... that last piece of bread in the package ... the crumpled chips at the bottom of the bag ... the peelings from the carrot you had at lunch. These things can be re-purposed. Save pieces of bread to make your own bread crumbs or take them to a park and feed the ducks. Crushed chips are great for topping a casserole or use them as coating for your favorite fried food. Vegetable peelings can be saved and turned into a natural, additive free, broth.

With a little effort, we can reduce ... if not eliminate ... food waste. And that ought to make the Ghost of Christmas Present joyous indeed.

As always ... I would love to hear from you!