Take the climate fight to your kitchen. Cut food waste, save money and maybe the planet
Most climate change solutions are out of reach for the average person: You, yourself, cannot install an offshore wind turbine on a weekend to cut the carbon emissions of your local power grid. Even the solutions you might have control over — like buying an electric car or installing a solar panel on your house — are still expensive investments (even with recently passed tax incentives).
But there’s one way that anyone can join the fight against climate change: Waste less of your food.
Food waste is responsible for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). U.S. households threw out more than 21 million tons of food in 2019, according to the nonprofit ReFed.
Bringing that number down will help reduce the amount of planet-warming carbon dioxide and methane that wasted food releases into the atmosphere — and also save you money on your weekly grocery bill.
“It’s one of the few things that everybody could do,” said Ellen Bowen, who founded the South Florida chapter of Food Rescue US, a national nonprofit that collects food that would be thrown out at grocery stores and restaurants and donates it to charity. “You can do it in your own home, just by shopping smartly and using your leftovers and being creative about what you’re preparing.”
READ MORE: Feed the hungry, fight climate change: The campaign to curb food waste in South Florida
The best thing to do is to eat your food rather than compost it. Composting is certainly better than throwing food in the trash: It creates great fertilizer for your garden and doesn’t produce methane emissions like food that rots in landfills. But composting can’t prevent the waste of land, labor, energy and water that went into producing perfectly good food that someone could have eaten.
Here are a few tips, rounded up from the EPA, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Mayo Clinic, for preventing food waste in your own kitchen.
Before you shop
- Check your fridge before you go to the grocery store. It’ll help you avoid accidentally buying things you already have. It’ll also give you a chance to take stock of the odds and ends you need to use up before they go bad. Plan meals around them before you go to the store.
At the grocery store
- Don’t make aspirational purchases. Buy the foods you know you’ll eat; don’t stock up on things you think you should eat but, in reality, will just sit unused in your fridge or pantry until they go bad.
- Remember that buying in bulk, or taking advantage of BOGO deals, will only save you money if you actually eat everything before it spoils.
- Buy “ugly” foods. Many fruits and vegetables have physical imperfections that won’t make them any less tasty when you cook them and eat them.
In the fridge
- Know your refrigerator’s warm and cool zones. The lower shelves of your fridge are the coolest part. Keep meat and dairy here. The door is the warmest place in your fridge. Try to avoid putting milk here because it can spoil faster.
- Keep fruits that release ethylene gas (like bananas, apples and avocados) away from your other produce. Ethylene makes the rest of your produce ripen — and rot — faster.
- Store fresh herbs with their stems in a glass of water. Like flowers in a vase, they’ll stay fresher for longer.
- Don’t wash berries, cherries and grapes until you’re ready to eat them. It’ll keep them from getting moldy.
- Know the difference between “best by,” “sell by” and “use by” dates. With the exception of infant formula, you don’t have to throw out food that is approaching or even past these dates, so long as they show no signs of spoilage. (Use your own eyes, nose and judgment!) According to the USDA:
- A “Best if Used By/Before” date indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
- A “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It is not a safety date.
- A “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It is not a safety date except for when used on infant formula.
- Create a “use me” zone somewhere prominent in your fridge. Put all the food you think you need to use soon in one spot, so that you’ll see it and remember its existence every time you look inside the fridge.
- Learn some recipes you can use to clear out your fridge. You can always throw your odds and ends into a soup, casserole, stir fry or frittata. Old bananas are perfect for banana bread. Stale bread makes for great croutons and French toast.
- If you really don’t know what to do with borderline fruits or vegetables, freeze them. One day, those frozen berries will be a delicious ingredient in a smoothie and you can revive your frozen veggies when you decide to make broth.
If you want to make a fridge-clearing soup, try this open-ended recipe suggested by the Mayo Clinic.
Got some spotty old bananas? Try this banana bread recipe, dubbed “Nana’s bananas,” that 92-year-old Cutler Bay resident Bonnie Massey shared with the Miami Herald in 2016.
If your bread is getting stale, rejoice! Now’s your chance to try the Herald’s French toast recipe.
Finally, if you want to turn any leftover produce, veggie stem, or leafy green into a delicious pasta, try New York restaurateur Frank Prisinzano’s “garlic and oil method.” “You can put any veg in there,” said Prisinzano in a TikTok video. “You will never waste another piece of vegetable again.”
Or, if you’d rather not cook at all, you can buy a “surprise bag” from a local restaurant or bakery through Too Good to Go, an app that lets people buy surplus food at a discount from places like El Bagel, Misha’s Cupcakes or Pizza Rustica.
This climate report is funded by Florida International University, the Knight Foundation and the David and Christina Martin Family Foundation in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners. The Miami Herald retains editorial control of all content.