healthy eating for healthy aging

I hate food waste

I hate food waste

Not to be a scoldy nag or anything, but..

I hate food waste.

Food waste was front and center on a recent trip, when I was served the Reuben sandwich I’d ordered at a deli-style restaurant. The menu didn’t have any photos of the sandwiches, but I should have known better. The sandwich was at least 5 inches tall, stuffed with meat. I couldn’t possibly eat even half of it, nevermind that I couldn’t even get my mouth around it.

So much wasted food. It’s heart breaking.

Clean Your Plate!

If you’re of a certain age, you may have heard that command from your parents. Followed by “children are starving in …[undeveloped country].” That was back when portion sizes were modest and people ate regular meals, rather than snacking all day long. Cleaning your plate of modest portions was less onerous. Try going to a typical family restaurant these days and being told to “Clean your plate!” Eat all of the double bacon cheeseburger and the supersized fries. Or eat the entire 5 inch tall Reuben sandwich, along with the sides of slaw and beans. Gah!

True Story: I’m acquainted with a couple who Do Not save leftovers. Doesn’t matter what, it goes in the trash. I found this out one day when we were sharing an order of lovely Chinese take-out food. There were leftovers, of course. They were dumped in the trash. I was horrified.

Food Waste = Energy and Water Waste

The food we eat starts with agriculture. Well, most of it does. Some of it bypasses agriculture and starts at a chemical plant. Ag producers (farmers, large and small) grow plants and raise livestock. They put a lot of time and energy into this endeavor. Also water, and land. The farm products are shipped to processors (more energy use for transportation, refrigeration and packaging) who turn the ag products into more raw ingredients, or into consumer-ready food. More energy (processing, transportation), water and packaging. Eventually all of the agriculture products are ready for consumers, either at grocery stores or restaurants/food service. More transportation, storage, packaging, water and energy. Then the consumer or restaurant prepares the food. More use of energy, water (washing the dishes and cooking equipment, plus water for cooking) and perhaps packaging (take out food). By now, some of the original food products have been discarded due to spoilage, or perhaps preparation mistakes.

Then the consumer eats half of the food served, and throws half away? Wasted food equals wasted energy, water, land, and effort.

How to stop wasting food

This problem isn’t always under your control. See: over-stuffed Reuben sandwich. Restaurants are notorious for serving too much food. Here are some strategies:

  • Ask that fries or other extraneous side dishes be left off your order.
  • Request a half-order of whatever, within reason. You can perhaps get half a sandwich or a half-order of biryani, but probably not half a steak or burger.
  • Plan to take some home. Ask for a take-home container to be delivered along with your meal.
  • Don’t be shy about splitting a meal. I do this frequently and I’ve never had any wait staff argue about it.
  • If you go to buffet/self-serve restaurants, Do Not overload your plate.

I wish restaurants would be more pro-active about this problem. It’s pretty easy to stop serving too much food. Buy smaller service portions, use smaller plates, offer half-portions on the menu so customers don’t feel awkward asking for them. This could be a good money-saving strategy — serve less food without raising prices. But most restaurants seem stuck in the Big Portions Equal Good Marketing mindset.

At home, you do control food choices and portion sizes. But still, food waste happens.

  • You might cook a big pot of soup or chili, thinking leftovers will last you a few days. But then you get sick of that one dish, and it sits around too long.
  • Perishable fruit, vegetables and fresh meat need to be used up in a timely fashion. Don’t buy too much perishable food at one time. I had a client once who was shocked to find out that bananas didn’t keep for 2 weeks.
  • Don’t leave food in the freezer indefinitely. This can be trickier to manage if you pile new items on top of older frozen items. At which point you forget what’s in there; freezer burn and quality deterioration set in.
  • If you find you’re less interested in filling side dishes (rice, noodles, potatoes and so forth), stop cooking them. There’s no rule that says you have to include those foods at meals.

My personal efforts to reduce food waste aren’t going to save the planet, but perhaps I can convince more people to pay attention and spread the word and the behavior. The more of us who request less food at restaurants, the more that behavior will be normalized. Restaurants might get the message and be more proactive. Do what you can around your home. Don’t toss the perfectly fine take-out leftovers! Prepare and serve smaller portions for your own meals, so that you can in fact Clean Your Plate without feeling overstuffed. Because the opposite of Food Waste can be Over Eating and that’s not good either!