Waste Not, Want Not

Our monthly blog, edited by Dayenu (climate action and environmental justice) Circle members Chris Wynn and Sharon Smaller,  will give you ideas, information, resources, and things you can do to make this world a better place environmentally, tikkun olam. As a community, we can learn from each other, so we welcome your ideas and questions. Please share with us your successes in your endeavors to “go green.”

Last month, we offered different ways to get started composting and in this blog, we are addressing how to even avoid the need to toss items in the compost bin. Did you know that Americans throw out 30 to 40% of their groceries? It’s astonishing on many levels and contributes significantly to greenhouse gasses. Fortunately, there are simple steps we can all take to cut back on our food and meal-related waste.

I will begin with an example from my own family’s journey to becoming a more zero-waste household. When my younger daughter, Audrey, was about 10, she and her sister set the table each night for dinner. One day, she suggested that we switch from paper napkins to cloth ones. It seemed like a simple enough idea to incorporate into our daily routine. I purchased a dozen each of four different colors of basic cotton cloth napkins. I color-coded each family member in an array of dark earth tones – olive for Julia, burgundy for Audrey, tangerine for me, and brown for Joel. I was slightly skeptical that we would keep it up over the long run. But a dozen years later, both daughters now young adults on their own, we are still using our cloth napkins. True, they are a bit faded and worn from years of washing, but nevertheless, they still serve their purpose. It’s a green win all around, as we’re not tossing all those paper napkins into the compost or landfill, while saving a bit of money along the way.

Read on for more tips:

  1. One thing all zero-waste experts agree on is menu planning. So get into your list-making zone and think about the meals that your family enjoys and from there compile your list. Are you overwhelmed at the thought of planning out an entire week? Jane Weintraub says that she shops frequently to just get what she needs for the next several days. Barbara Schoenfield advises not to get too enticed by the sales to avoid buying more than you need.
  2. As you compile your list, it’s also a good idea to take a few minutes to do an inventory, especially of your fridge items, so that you are not duplicating what you already have. One great tip is to assess what you currently have in the fridge and base at least one meal around those items, such as that eggplant and zucchini you bought last week and just haven’t managed to use up yet. Another suggestion as you plan your meals is to consider making recipes that stem from the same or related flavor profile, such as chicken tacos one night and then a salad that incorporates some of the same ingredients the next night.
  3. When you get home from grocery shopping or when your groceries get delivered, spend a few minutes prepping your food, particularly the vegetables. If you want healthy snacks around, cut up carrots and celery and keep them in a glass jar in water. Lettuce is especially prone to spoilage. Chris Wynn offered her routine of rinsing a head of lettuce right away in a salad spinner and then leaving it in the spinner for the week, keeping it fresh for much longer.
  4. Fresh herbs are often a challenge as they tend to go bad before you turn around. Again think about doubling up recipes that require the same ingredients like using dill in a soup and then in a potato salad, or cilantro in those tacos and in salsa. I try to make a batch of pesto with my basil and cilantro when I see that they are getting droopy. Here’s a link to the Pioneer Women which has a good rundown on how to store a variety of herbs.
  5. What about leftovers? Again, you can get creative and throw leftover rice into your scrambled eggs the next morning, or fruit salad into your granola. Jessie Macdonald enjoys her leftovers for breakfast, which is both a timesaver and a healthy way to start the day.
  6. All the zero-waste experts agree too that the freezer is your friend whether it’s for freezing bananas turning brown for smoothies or baked goods or for saving leftovers like soups or casseroles.
  7. Another simple tip is just to put on your plate what you actually think you’ll enjoy, knowing that you can go back for more!
  8. The last tip, offered by Jessie Macdonald, is to use cloth instead of paper towels. She has been using “unpaper towels” which are flannel cloths resembling a standard paper towel and are rolled up like paper towels as well. Locally, you can purchase a similar product at Stumble & Relish in Evanston.

Share with us your ideas for not throwing food out! Send your tips to Sharon Smaller or Chris Wynn and you might see it in a future blogpost.