Waste not, heat not

Fighting the climate crisis from your kitchen

What if I told you the #1 way for you to fight the climate crisis in your daily life will also save you a bunch of money and make your life easier? You would be all over that, right?

Well, buckle up: the #1 intervention for individuals (and the #3 overall!), as ranked by the international research team at Project Drawdown, is reducing food waste. In fact, if we cut our food wastage by half, by 2050 we’ll have prevented over 70 gigatons of CO2 from entering the atmosphere. That’s more than we could avert through rooftop solar and solar farms combined. And food waste is some low-hanging (rotting) fruit. Right now approximately $49 billion worth of our food in Canada is wasted every year. On a household level, Canadian households are burning up $1,766 a year while we burn up the atmosphere. Here’s how food waste relates to the climate crisis:

  • It takes a ton of resources to make that food: consider the water use, the soil degradation, the rainforest clearcutting, the emissions from transport, the packaging materials, etc.

  • Most of that wasted food goes to landfill, where it becomes methane, which is a greenhouse gas 25x nastier than CO2.

In North America, 60% food waste happens in individual homes — the supply chain is wasteful enough for a whole other newsletter. So let’s focus today on reducing food waste chez vous.

Start with a weekly meal plan.

It sounds annoying, but this is dark-arts level powerful, so do NOT skip this step. Besides the financial and environmental incentives, it has amazing side benefits:

  • Your brain only has to go into food-decision mode once a week. That means that when you’re zombified at the end of the day, you don’t have to make any decisions, take a last-minute trip to the store, or rely on expensive, less healthy, and heavily packaged takeout.

  • If you have other food goals, say, to eat less meat, it’s easy to keep track and be thoughtful.

  • If you’re aiming to share cooking responsibilities at home, one thing that helps is dividing that labour ON PAPER, baby.

Are you on board? Good. Here’s how to set yourself up for successful meal planning: 

  • Start by looking in the fridge/pantry. What do you have? What needs to be used up?

  • Consider what days it might be useful to make a meal that has leftovers. Sunday to Thursday we prepare something we can also take for lunch the next day.

  • Can you find carryover ingredients? (For example, scheduling back-to-back meals that involve the same fresh herb reduces the likelihood of it turning into pricey green slime.)

  • Keep a cheat sheet of all the meals you like and make regularly. Then if you’re feeling braindead, it’s easier to pick. It’s also one central index of recipes that tend to be stored all over the place (internet, emails, cookbooks, etc.)

  • Make sure you have your meal plan on your phone — whether you write it in there or take a pic of a hard copy — so you can consult it at the store.

  • Post your plan on the fridge. If you live with others, you can stop fielding questions about what’s for dinner by referring people to the list. (We’re also cutting back on wasted emotional labour, which heats up homes like CO2 heats up the atmosphere.)

When you shop, buy for that meal plan.

Bringing a list to the store can also cut back on impulse purchases, aka junk food you don’t need or extra fruit likely to go chia pet. (More $$ saved!)

Don’t fear the best before date.

VERY few foods have an actual expiry date — usually it’s a sell-by or best before. (More info on best before vs. expiry here.) In fact, best-before dates were introduced not to protect consumers, but to help massive supermarkets stay on top of their stock rotation.

If the product is unopened, it’s less likely to have degraded. Once you’ve cracked it, use your senses. If it smells fine and hasn’t changed in colour or texture, it’s probably fine. Nothing goes bad at the stroke of midnight.

Shop the markdowns.

To save food and money, try a free app like my fave, Flashfood (if you sign up, get $5 of free food with this referral link) that marks down stuff the store needs to unload. Another great option: shop the in-store “buy tonight” markdowns. In fact, my #1 grocery hack is buying bakery items and meat marked down to clear and then freezing them. It’s saved me thousands of dollars, no joke. Yes, it always comes in packaging, but it saves a lot of cash, and this stuff was likely headed for the trash anyway. (Quick tip: wasted food is way worse for the environment than any container it’s in.)

Loosen your grip on recipes.

If you’re not a confident cook, this can be tricky at first, but luckily you have Google on your side. Sometimes it’s as simple as thinking, “If I have kale, do I really need broccoli?” (Probably not.) Or “Can cottage cheese be ricotta here?” (Sometimes.) A few good fridge clearing meals, like frittatas, curries, soups, and stir fries can help you use up miscellaneous veg, but with your meal planning prowess, you shouldn’t have too many odds and ends.

Store your food properly.

For example, nuts shouldn’t be stored for too long at room temperature, and most herbs will last longer standing up in a glass of water. (I leave my herb glass on the counter, where I’m also reminded to use them.) Also: the freezer is a pause button for your food. So many things can have a second life thanks to this modern marvel. Anne Marie Bonneau, the Zero Waste Chef, has excellent (and plastic-free) food storage tips.

That may seem like more steps than assembling a Hemnes dresser, but you’ll find they all flow into one another if you start with that meal plan. My partner was skeptical, but now he’ll lead the meal planning charge if I falter.

More tips for food waste warriors:

  • Whenever possible, use the whole food. Broccoli stalks? Kale stems? Mushroom stems? All edible, but sometimes you just need to know how to cook them. For example, kale stems are better after a quick blanching. (One of my fave lazy ways to use them is to chop them and pop them in pasta water when there’s a minute or two left. You’ve just added greens, reduced carbs, and cut your waste. Just don’t tell any Italians.)

  • Save your meat bones and veg scraps for stock. I keep a container in the freezer for celery, onion, and garlic ends, carrot and ginger peels, herb stalks and other veg bits (though brassicas — like broccoli and cauliflower — can make things a bit bitter, so you might leave those out). When the container is full and/or I have some chicken bones, I put it all on the stove with some water, and 30-60 minutes later, broth! This might not be first-class bone broth, but it’ll do as an ingredient. (This can also be done without meat, if you’re a herbivore, and mushrooms can be a great addition for that missing umami.) I freeze mine in 2 to 4 cup servings.

  • Look for sources of food waste outside your home. Take home those leftovers from staff lunches or meetings, for example. Free food!

  • If you’re going away and know your food won’t outlast your vacation, bring it in to work or offer it up on a community FB group.

  • If you’re having a big holiday meal or dinner party, ask people to bring containers if they might like some leftovers.

For the busiest people, TL;DR:

  • Plan your meals. Try it for two weeks even. You won’t want to go back.

  • Start planning with (and eating) what you already have.

  • Shop the last minute markdowns and don’t fear the best before.

  • Packaging waste matters less than wasting the food it contains.

Learn more to level up:

  • Read:

    • The Zero Waste Chef takes her title seriously and is an amazing resource for finding ways to use up odds and ends and embrace confident cooking. She also has some great weeklong, low-labour meal plans.

    • Salt Fat Acid Heat taught me a lot about cooking principles so that I could do more substituting. (It’s also gorgeously illustrated and full of recipes.)

  • Watch:

    • Wasted! (In Canada you can watch it free on CBC Gem.) Executive produced by Anthony Bourdain (RIP), this documentary makes food waste look good. But seriously. If you like food porn like Salt Fat Acid Heat and Chef’s Table, this is a documentary for you. It’s also solutions oriented and uplifting and features some world-class chefs.

    • Theater of Life (available on Netflix, at least in Canada) follows chef Massimo Bottura on his mission to create a restaurant serving those in need. But there’s a twist: the ingredients come from food that would’ve gone to waste after the 2015 Milan Expo. It’s not only a creative exploration of food waste, but a beautiful argument for access to food served with dignity.

Now tell me:

What amazing kitchen and grocery ninja moves help you keep food out of landfill? Also hit me with your magical scrap-rescuing recipes and fridge clean-out dishes.

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