The Elusive Waste-Free Kitchen
In my early twenties, I lived in a Northwest Arkansas city that charged for recycling services. Why would I pay to do extra work? I thought. So, I did not.
Into the trash it all went.
Little by little, I began to understand the gravity of our situation concerning waste treatment and greenhouse gases. I decided small actions can and do make a difference on the community-wide scale.
As I educated myself on what can and cannot be recycled, something shifted in my head and I became that person. I’m the one who grabs an empty toilet paper roll from the public bathroom stall and shoves it into my purse, so it can find its way into a recycle bin rather than being tossed into the trash.
The retraining of my brain in the kitchen has been a much more challenging experience, however. I grew up with a family that bought in bulk. Four children at home meant my father purchased cereal and canned goods by the case and milk six gallons at a time. I do not have specific memories of food ever going bad, but when I got my own home, I still shopped much like I had been raised even though there were only two of us in the house.
As a finance officer’s daughter, I had been raised to purchase the best value for the price, which does not always equal the least waste. To get that “cheap” price, I often had to purchase more than I could consume, which resulted in my throwing out portions of my purchase. Paying for what I did not use resulted in my spending more (rather than less) in the long run.
The truth is, no one has it all figured out, but sometimes what one of us says can really help to encourage others. In that spirit, I share what has worked for my team and me, to reduce waste in our own kitchens.
Buying from bulk versus buying in bulk
With emphasis on trying to eat as much fresh, locally produced food as possible, it can be challenging to buy the right amount of every product. The same is true for buying smaller portions of products without excess packaging waste. Buying from scoop-your-own bulk sections at a grocery store can be a great help.
For example, I was recently given a soup recipe that called for caraway seed, but I had none in the house. In previous times, I would have added it to my list for a big-box store grocery trip and found the package of caraway seed that was sold cheapest by the ounce. Without question, I would have bought more than I would use in a year. It would have taken up space in my spice rack, all the while losing potency, until I needed it again. Then, it would become subject to the “sniff test” or get tossed because moths had gotten to it.
With the convenience of local stores such as Ozark Natural Foods, Harps, Whole Foods, and other stores that sell spices from bulk, you and I can buy precisely the amount we need. I needed one teaspoon of caraway seed. I ended up buying about two tablespoons worth, and was thrilled when I paid 13 cents for that serving. Did I pay more per ounce than I would have had I purchased a pre-packaged container? Perhaps. Was it a better value for me? Absolutely.
Best yet, I liked the split pea soup’s flavor and added caraway seed to another soup I made the next week. So now, I’m down to one tablespoon of caraway seed. When it runs low, I’ll just go buy a few more tablespoons to get me through the winter soup season.
In addition to cost savings, buying from bulk is a great choice to reduce the amount of packaging coming into your home. If you’ve come to the store empty handed (except for your shopping bags, of course), most bulk sections have a selection of plastic bags and tubs, paper bags, and other containers you may choose from to fulfill your needs.
The first experience in a bulk shopping section can be intimidating, but once you are acquainted with the process, you may find yourself wondering why we don’t all shop this way all the time.
In contrast to my caraway usage, the opposite is true when it comes to buying rolled oats. I want more, not less. During the winter especially, my husband, Russell, and I go through a lot of oats.
One winter, I was recycling a large tub of cardboard oat packaging each week, and it just seemed excessive. I vowed to look into the bulk section, and was pleased to find that I could purchase bulk oatmeal cheaper, plus it was organic. I can take my own Mason jars or use a large paper bag and get 12 cups or more of oats in one trip with little to no packaging to send to the landfill. The bulk price is incredibly competitive.
Bulk sections are great for all your dry food needs: flours, sweeteners, rice, beans, soup mixes, pasta, cereals, oats – and even some snacks like trail mix and candies. Most also offer nut butters – pre-stirred in case you buy natural peanut butter but hate to have to mix the oil and peanut butter before you dig in. Spices are usually alphabetized and include a great variety. Bulk sections often also sell teas and coffees.
Menu planning and leftovers
I am not a great menu planner. I have lofty goals of becoming one, but often I get cravings to eat certain dishes and change course midweek.
This is, of course, a luxury of being in a place financially to have that option, and I remind myself often of the 22-year-old version of myself, just out of school with so much student loan debt I could not think straight. I still do my best to eat whatever I have committed to, even if not in the order I had originally intended.
It helps that my husband and I both take our lunches from home most days. We go through a lot of leftovers that way, and often I find myself needing to cook more so we will have enough for lunch. The trick with leftovers is to keep them visible. Do not let them slip into the back of the fridge or anywhere out of sight.
Some people have good luck posting a dry erase board on the front of the fridge to list what needs to be eaten. For us, sometimes Russell doesn’t know if he would “get in trouble” for eating an item (for instance, if I had plans for the contents later in the week). Clearly labeling food containers helps everyone in the household – even if that is just you. The simple act of writing “eat me” on a note and attaching it to a jar of pasta will increase the likelihood that you actually will remember.
Keeping a running inventory can be helpful for pantry and freezer items, too.
Look for what needs to be used up and get the most bang for your buck
The thing about leftover ingredients is that, unless they fall into the category of dishes that taste better the next day, they are not going to call out to you. It is necessary that you go through the fridge regularly – at least weekly – to make a list of what needs to be used immediately.
Did you save peppers for an omelet, but then plans changed for brunch last weekend? It happens to all of us. Whip up pasta with sautéed peppers, or go for fajitas. Getting them eaten while they are most nutritious is the primary goal.
The moment fruits or vegetables are picked they begin to decompose. It is estimated that the average American meal travels about 1,500 miles to get from farm to plate. The quicker you can get those foods into your diet, the more nutrition you will gain.
Especially if you are investing in food that has been grown locally, take full advantage of how far ahead of the nutritional curve that item is (versus food that has been traveling week or more to get to you), and eat it. I own a farmers market field guide, and it is quite useful because it explains how to properly store fresh produce and gives each item’s expected shelf life.
Reduce the waste coming into your home
Have you ever paid attention to just how much packaging material comes into your home (and then, of course, goes back out of it and into a landfill or to recycling)? Living in a time of high convenience has enabled us to purchase most anything individually packaged. You can buy single-brew coffee containers (collected and placed inside of a larger package), portioned-out snack food (in bags inside of a box inside of a bag), single-serving drinks (in cans, plastic bottles, or paper packaging), and even individually packaged sandwiches and salads.
One way to get a feel for how much packaging your family is using is to save a token of every item. For example, just save the lid to each milk jug or water bottle or the top to a can, and allow these to collect somewhere for a week or even a month. My guess is that you will be surprised at just how much waste you are producing.
We are all committed to reducing this waste on our own scale.
My friend Amber buys raw milk in glass Mason jars, then skims cream from the drinking milk. With those, she makes yogurt, sour cream, and buttermilk. Through this process, she has no throw-away packaging. This may be a step beyond what you are ready to tackle, but what could you commit to change?
Could you go for a week eating only foods brought into your home with packaging that could be reused, rather than discarded or recycled?
What would that look like for you?
Give food away
Many of us remember a parental figure advising us to clean our plate because there are starving children in Africa. That is true, but locally there are people who will take your food and be thankful. This may or may not be because they are in need.
It seems we have developed a stigma that if you don’t want to eat something, or are not going to have a chance to, it is taboo to pass the food along. Not so. In my experience, individuals are grateful when presented with an excess of your home-grown food, items from your Community Supported Agriculture box that you are not going to be able to get to before they spoil, or even leftovers that are still good but will not be in a few more days. Maybe you have made a pot of soup that yielded four quarts.
In my house, a quart feeds us twice. If I know I want one dinner and two lunches each, this brings my need to three quarts of soup. If you prepare a quart for a friend and share it, not only will they be delighted by the gesture, they may reciprocate. I have been treated to spare soup, bread, eggs, and even sweets.
I find folks, especially in Ozarkansas, to be much more “Mayberry-ish” than you might think. Neighbors still exist – even if those you consider your neighbors live in a different city. Share your food (and see the opportunity to share your garden produce on page 16).
Best of luck as you navigate waste reduction in your own home.
HOW TO BUY FROM BULK
1. container + 2. tare weight + 3. PLU (“price look-up”)
If you brought your own container:
Know the “tare weight.” The cashier will subtract this amount from your total so you only pay for the product and not the additional weight of the container. If you don’t know the tare weight, stop at customer service to have them weigh and mark the empty container for you. If it is a container you intend to use often, write the tare weight on a lid or label for future ease.
If you did not bring a container:
Most bulk sections provide a selection of plastic bags and tubs, paper bags, and other containers.
• Choose a product from the bulk bins. Labels on the bins give the price per pound or ounce of the product. They may also show if the product is organic and list ingredients when applicable.
• Select the storage container that best fits that product.
• Fill the container with your desired amount. Remember that you can buy as much or as little as you need.
• Make note of the PLU number. This number is printed on the label of the bin near the price.
Write this number directly on to the storage container (for a paper bag or plastic tub), or use provided twist ties to affix the number to a bag.
Alternatively, you could write the PLU on your shopping list or take a photo of the label in order to tell the cashier the number when you check out.
Remember: they need that number to know how much to charge, by weight.
• Some stores have scales available in the bulk department to help you gauge quantities.
• Continue your shopping. You pay for these items at checkout.
CUT BACK ON THROWAWAYS
Find a shopping bag you really like.
Reusable shopping bags are commonplace now. Choose ones you like so you will take them with you. Fabric bags that bundle into their own pocket are easiest to stash in a purse or car door pocket. Each fabric bag can hold two to three plastic grocery bags worth of food.
Don’t bag your produce.
Go beyond reusable shopping bags to reusable produce bags. Muslin or mesh bags can hold your produce just as well as plastic bags. Choose ones with the tare weight printed on them so the cashier can subtract the weight of your bag. At home, dampen the muslin bag to keep lettuce crisp.
Shop the perimeter.
That’s where you’ll find fresh foods that are not packaged in a bag, a box, or both.
Choose glass over plastic when you can.
It is recyclable indefinitely and can be turned back into new glass. Most plastics are not recyclable and even when they are, they usually can’t be made into bottles or jars for food again.
How I trained my brain:
When I was trying to teach myself to shop with reusable bags, I made a sign like the one below and taped it inside the driver’s door, just above the handle. I was impressed how effective it was. Making the commitment to waste reduction may mean learning the hard way, though. More than once, I got to the checkout counter, realized I had forgotten my bags, and asked the cashier to leave every item loose, putting them back in the cart after scanning. Then, when I got to my car I bagged the items as I loaded them. It is these sorts of “pains” that train your brain to do better next time!
Shopping? Take your bags!
NATIONAL FOOD WASTE & HUNGER SUMMIT COMING TO OZARKANSAS
Host: University of Arkansas
Date: April 16-17 Fee: $35
More Information/Registration: CampusKitchens.org/Summit
• Tom Vilsack, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture
• Rebecca Vallas, policy director for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress
• Robert Egger, president and founder of L.A. Kitchen
Leading experts on the fight against hunger will be in Ozarkansas this spring, thanks to the efforts of a University of Arkansas student volunteer group. Local and national partner organizations including the Alliance to End Hunger, D.C. Central Kitchen, No Kid Hungry, and Universities Fighting World Hunger will join the discussion along with as many as 250 student leaders from around the nation who are leading the fight to reduce food waste and hunger on their campuses and in their communities.
FOOD RECOVERY HIERARCHY
Create Less Surplus
Reduce volume of food grown and purchased.
Get food to hungry people.
Divert food scraps to feed animals.
Waste renderings convert to fuel.
Add nutrients to soil.
Incineration or Landfill
As much as 4 0% of the food in the United States doesn’t get eaten.
That food ends up in landfills, where it produces methane gas with 21 times the global-warming potential of carbon dioxide, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The Food Recovery Hierarchy pyramid on the left outlines a suggested approach to reduce food waste according to the EPA. From growing less (worldwide, we grow more than enough food for every individual on Earth, including all those who are food insecure) to sharing food with other people and with animals, there are many steps to use food as a valued resource before we reach composting or, worse, throwing food away.
Some are concerned about the liability involved in giving away food, but according to a 2013 University of Arkansas study, there has been a federal law on the books since 1996 that protects food donors from potential liability.