13 Ways to Save What’s Edible and Reduce Food Waste
adjective fit to be eaten
If we gathered global food waste into one pile, we’d have a sad and savage mountain weighing over 1.3 billion tons a year. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that if this pile of rubbish were a country, it would be third behind China and the US in greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). All that isn’t even accounting for the other avenues of waste like packaging and additional GHGs coming out of production and distribution from commercial, industrial, and institutional sectors of our densely complex global food system—or the 25% of the world’s freshwater supply that is spent growing wasted food.
According to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), in America, the cost of consumer food waste is estimated at $218 billion annually, and an average of 68% of all food discarded as tracked in kitchen diaries was potentially edible. The NRDC divides the term edible into two categories: typically edible and questionably edible. Their examples identify “pizza, liquid coffee, and bananas without the peel” as typically edible. I think I’ve found my new eating identity under the questionably edible items because I’m a “potato peels, beet greens, and carrot peel and tops” kind of gal.
Moving on to considering how such global and national numbers relate to us on a county level, let’s try to comprehend how much of this wasted food is grown in our soils. The county’s size is nothing to scoff at: We’re second in the state in terms of population, and fifth in the country. According to the San Diego Farm Bureau, with only 5,000 farmers, we are the 19th-largest farm economy among over 3,000 counties and worth $2.88 billion annually to the region; the largest producer of avocados in the nation; fifth in lemons; ninth in strawberries; and 10th in egg-laying hens. As the San Diego Food System Alliance’s (SDFSA) Save the Food public educational campaign reveals, trashing one egg wastes 55 gallons of water.
With a regional population of nearly 3.1 million and the county Tourism Authority reporting a record 35 million visitors to the region in 2017, there are many mouths to feed. San Diego’s culinary scene and unique regional proximity to Tijuana is attracting a bigger spotlight from national media that will no doubt attract a bevy of tourists in the years to come. And where there are a lot of people eating, there will be a lot of food wasting.
Most of us are more or less limited in our ability to address the systemic food waste crisis in every way but two—managing your personal waste footprint and being a part of the collective action. Just taking steps to curb your food waste makes you part of the collective action, but if you seek to play a bigger role in the community, look to organizations. SDFSA, Feeding San Diego, and the San Diego Food Bank, as well as San Diego County and local government agencies are working to vastly improve public outreach and food recovery efforts, narrow the gaps on food insecurity, and update policy on waste management practices.
So tell your friends, roll your sleeves up, and get ready to jump into this fight against waste with us. We’re here to eat it all. You’ll enjoy saving money and feeling healthier—because when you do what’s better for the planet, you’re doing what’s best for yourself and everyone you care about.
13 Ways to Save What's Edible
1. Plan your meals
Consider meal planning an act of caring for your future self. I’m not sure what your future self wants, but mine wants to be well fed. One of the best ways to start is to create a list of all the foods by ingredient and dishes that you and frequent dining companions enjoy and need most. It doesn’t hurt to also note any food aversions or allergies. Add on favorite restaurants or spots you want to try and you’ll have a quick guide to plot dinner at home or out that you know everyone will like. Coordinate recipes by similar themes to minimize excessive buying and build leftovers into the meal plan.
For example, in my house this week we’re planning to have chicken tacos for dinner on Tuesday and chicken taco-joes (leftover shredded taco chicken in a bun) for dinner on Thursday. It’s not fancy, but it’s family-friendly and delicious. We also like to dedicate one meal a week to eating leftovers or pantry meal challenges.
2. Plan your beverages
I’m not trying to turn you into a type-A robot, but beverage planning is something to try. The importance for hydration drives a biological need worth over $250 billion a year to soft drink manufacturers that is expected to grow to nearly $390 billion by 2025. Soft drinks are consumed at an average rate of one can a day per American in our country.
At home, rely heavily on water, coffee, tea, and kombucha by the growler in order to reduce beverage packaging consumption. A small box in your car trunk is a good place to store travel coffee mugs and canteens for when you forget them at home. I also try my best to bring my own filtered tap water in a reusable canteen so I’m not paying for filtered tap water in a plastic bottle. Encounters with disposable beverage containers are bound to happen on social occasions, but do your best to be conscious of it.
Locals have the good fortune of the world’s best selection of craft breweries (over 150 operational brewhouses!) that are happy to top off refillable growlers for a reasonable fee. An added pro tip for bakers is to ask your favorite brewer for spent grains to bring home for baking richly flavored breads. We like West Coaster’s online and frequently updated brewery list that ranks them all alphabetically.
To that effect, plan all your household purchases if you can. Let’s consider it good home economics. We return home from shopping with bags (reusable totes of course) of everything we purchase—groceries, beverages, household goods, cosmetics, and clothing—that often ends up going through the kitchen like a port of entry and exit from the home. Typically, no other room in a home compares to the kitchen in terms of waste generation. You can further reduce waste by using more hand towels and sponges instead of paper towels, and by purchasing cleaning and grooming products from a local refillery like the Sonora Refillery in Oceanside and Earthwell Refill in Kensington.
3. Eat more whole foods
Keep things simple with single ingredients, like a snack of carrot sticks—and not the baby carrots that are washed in chlorinated water and come in a plastic bag. Buy as much loose produce as possible and avoid packaging.
Meals can be as straightforward as a nice piece of yellowtail with rice and steamed broccoli, which might sound boring to some, but a little of the right seasonings and a few fresh herbs means a delicious healthy meal is on the table in under five ingredients.
4. Enjoy more vegetables
In 2018, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) released a first-of-its-kind report accounting for the biomass distribution on Earth, revealing that human and livestock biomasses far surpass that of all wild animals combined, and domesticated poultry biomass was three times higher than that of wild birds.
Start thinking of how veggies can play center stage in more of your meals and give animal proteins a smaller sideshow portion—or skip altogether.
5. Plate smaller portions
Too much food on a plate often ends up in the trash. If you do end up with more than you can chew through, see numbers six and seven.
6. Store foods properly
This applies to both whole foods fresh from the grocery store and leftovers. Repurpose glass food jars for affordable containers or invest in pieces with minimal plastic. ReVessel is a local company that hopes to revolutionize your food storage solutions with stainless steel bases and bamboo leakproof lids. (Sign up at revessel.com for product launch notifications later this year.) Use labeling practices to identify and date leftovers and find comprehensive seasonal guides on how to best store items at savethefood.com.
7. Eat your leftovers
I’m a big fan of the leftover challenge. Chop things up, scramble them with eggs or fry them with rice, smother them in a tortilla with cheese and call it a quesadilla. Kitchen sink dishes like casseroles, the infamous hot dish from the Midwest, or shepherd’s and pot pies are all great for using up larger quantities of odds and ends.
8. Eat your scraps
Fruit and vegetable skins tend to have the highest concentration of nutrient benefits, and most of the time we peel them off and throw them away. Scraps aren’t often preferred socially, but they are well worth eating in items like salads, pestos, soups, omelets, and fritters. I like to make mashed sweet potatoes by boiling them whole with the skins on just to save the skins, which peel off easily and fry up crispy with a few dashes of soy sauce in a pan with butter.
9. Understand that expiration dates are suggestions
“Best by” and “sell by” dates are not regulated and are better recognized as general indicators for freshness or quality. Avoid eating older foods that have visual signs of mold; meats, oils, and nuts are fairly easy to identify as rancid with a sniff test.
10. Preserve it if you can’t eat it fast enough
Different ways to preserve foods include freezing, canning, pickling, fermenting, and dehydrating. Deborah Scott, chef-partner of the Cohn Restaurant group, shared a suggestion to freeze extra fresh herbs with olive oil in ice cube trays that can be tossed into a pan when you are getting ready to sauté.
11. Skip the straw
Pesky plastic straws were last year’s hot-trending trashy icon, swiftly inspiring a whirlwind of media and a statewide ban. If you recall, Proposition 67 from 2016, better known as the single-use plastic bag ban, required food retailers to make and charge customers for—get this—sturdier plastic bags. The legislation falls short in the need to drive consumer products away from the use of petroleum-based plastics altogether.
It also needs to be said that a paper straw after it’s been wet for more than three to five minutes is not worth the tree that died for it. In terms of reusable straw options, stainless is definitely a sustainable choice but both it and the plastic straw are likely to be here long after we’ve left this planet. If I were a titan of industry, I’d be making straws out of other materials like natural fibers that perform better.
12. Avoid buying in bulk
Research suggests that though it’s often said that buying in bulk can save money, it actually leads to more food waste.
Composting isn’t for everyone, and I’d be willing to bet there are more people in the In-N-Out drive-thru on Sports Arena than there are tending to worm bins right now, but it’s worth giving it a try if you can. Yes, some say composting is easy, but anything that takes extra effort presents challenges, and this is one of those things that does require a bit of attention.
Composting may not be practical for people living in multifamily housing, an unfortunate coincidence since these are the communities where food waste percentages tend to be highest. If composting isn’t your thing, look for a community Food2Soil compost hub to donate your compostable waste. If you are up for becoming a soil grower, check out their Smart Stack compost bin and more resources at inikasmallearth.org.