A few weeks ago, Jenni Field of Pastry Chef Online learned via National Geographic that the average American purchases 28 pounds of cheese every year but wastes four of them. Inspired to raise awareness of food waste and to work towards change, she started The Four Pounds of Cheese Project where folks were challenged to photograph a week’s worth of food waste and blog about it.
Not only did I participate in the challenge, but I went beyond. The guidelines were to only record waste that should have been edible such as a piece of fruit that went mouldy or unfinished food tossed out, but not the inedible waste surrounding food preparation such as fruit peels, egg shells, or packaging. While I recorded the edible waste, I also recorded the other items, and over the course of this week will make more posts highlighting how much waste even an eco-conscious household creates merely by eating.
But this post focuses just on that should-have-been-eaten waste.
Aside from the obvious downsides of wasting food that we all had drummed into us as kids – it costs money, other people are starving, it’s rude to not eat what’s served, etc. – there are significant ecological concerns to wasting food. It’s not just the food itself that was wasted; it’s the energy and resources that went into growing/producing it, preparing it, shipping it, storing it (especially if it required refrigeration), and then preparing it yourself. Almost everything the modern, suburban, North American family eats has a significant carbon footprint, and while there’s only so much we as individuals can realistically do about that, wasting food exacerbates the problem.
Worse, a huge part of the current food economy is predicated on expected waste. If we want food companies to wake up to our demands for healthy, whole ingredients and good practices, we can’t keep confirming their data that we’re a bunch of ignorant munchers shovelling this stuff mindlessly into our faces and conveniently chucking the remainders.
However, there is an important caveat to remember when considering food waste: the waste truly occurs at the point where you purchase or take the food, not at the point where you put it in the trash. Forcing yourself or your kids to clean their plate is not a reduction of waste. If you take too much and then force yourself to eat it lest it “go to waste”, you’re simply replacing the garbage can with your own body. You are consuming more than you need, which is unhealthy and still ultimately a poor use of the overall resources. Requiring that children clean their plates has been shown to teach negative eating habits, particularly encouraging them to adopt overeating as a standard. Besides, most of us as kids heard that old, “Eat your dinner, kids are starving in the third world!” edict and wanted to retort, “Then send these yucky green beans to them!”
In our household, our daughter is never forced to clean her plate. We always give her small portions to start and she’s welcome to have seconds, thirds, or whatever is required. To curb the eyes-bigger-than-the-belly syndrome, we make each successive helping smaller. She’s got a pretty good attitude toward trying new foods because we’ve always given her just a small bit to try and never forced her or guilted her to finish it if she doesn’t like it. But the key is this: if she doesn’t finish what’s been served, she cannot have dessert, nor a snack before the next meal. That way we allow her to respond to her body’s natural signals of being full, but disallow waste in favour of treats. Even from toddlerhood, she’s thus been quite good at knowing when she’s had enough and will frequently eschew even a particularly delicious dessert if she doesn’t want to finish what’s on her plate.
Furthermore, if any of us have left more than a bite or two, we wrap it up as leftovers unless there is a compelling health reason against doing so or we know the leftovers will never get eaten (as in the case of her unwanted food).
This way we minimize waste without resorting to poor eating habits!
That being said, we’re still guilty of waste. For this project, I recorded everything I could, and we didn’t make any specific efforts for or against waste. I wanted to document a normal week, which in our household is always highly variable since we’re busy people who like to cook from scratch, don’t eat out often, but do sometimes have to resort to processed foods or takeout. The week happened to coincide with Peo’s art camp which was hosted at a local restaurant, so she was given dinner there as part of that; it is extremely unusual in our household to eat out so often, but I went with it because it highlighted how we deal with that sort of thing (in fact I was quite proud to learn that by the third night she was choosing the mac and cheese with a fruit side dish and eating the fruit first while other kids always chose burgers and tater tots!).
Enough preamble: let’s get to the photos of edible waste!
Monday, August 1
Nothing all day until Peo brought home the remnants of her first dinner out at camp, a cheeseburger and fries. She ate the meat and cheese, some of the fries, drank all of the chocolate milk (although if it has HFCS and she’d known it, she wouldn’t have touched it). Part of the bun and many of the fries were left and while she may have eaten the fries reheated, she’d never get to the bun and we decided the small amount of fries weren’t worth saving as a leftover:
Tuesday, August 2
Nothing all day. Peo said she didn’t finish her burger and fries at the camp, but it was gone before I arrived to pick her up so I didn’t get a photograph. Also, she was eating ice cream for dessert anyway, so I told her that wasn’t good eating. She agreed but complained that she didn’t really like cheeseburgers, which I knew from previous experience. I suggested she see if there was another choice the next night.
So here’s the same photo as above in reverse to represent the likely waste that day:
Wednesday, August 3
Only these dropped-off sprinkles from the plate that held the cake balls I made during my recent Week of Baking. I don’t feel too bad since they’re leftovers from the cake show last February anyway.
This was the first night Peo chose the mac and cheese and fruit at camp, so while she didn’t finish the mac and cheese, it came home and was eaten the next day as a leftover lunch (I’ll document the disposable container in the packaging waste post).
Thursday, August 4
Nothing! Again, Peo chose the mac and cheese and had the remnants as leftovers. The only other kitchen trash were non-edibles and packaging, to be shown in later posts.
Friday, August 5
Again from the Week of Baking, the remnants of the cut-off cake from shaping it into the Python Logo Cake. We ate most of the cutoffs during the week but by the time they were over a week old we decided that probably wasn’t such a good idea anymore. I probably could have frozen all the cutoffs to be turned into cake balls later but we don’t have enough freezer space and have been balking at the cost, space, and energy needed to get a chest freezer (although we’re starting to cave on the notion of being able to bulk-buy pastured local meats).
It’s hard to tell from being in the tub (which itself is many-years-reused packaging), but this is about a handful and a half of cake:
Saturday, August 6
On this day there were more sprinkles, but this time they’d been baked as part of a cookie-making event for Peo’s school. I took photos but will include them as part of the non-edible food waste instead since one really should not eat piles of melted sprinkles that fell off of cookies decorated by a five-year-old. Even the tray I did had some amount of fallen-off sprinkles, albeit far less, so I consider that part of food-prep waste like egg shells more than edible waste.
There was also this bit of a tomato-zucchini stick left on Peo’s plate. She tried it, didn’t like it, and chose not to eat the much-coveted decorated cookie she’d been saving for dessert rather than finish the zucchini stick. We deemed it unsuitable for leftovers since she’d bitten it and wouldn’t eat it herself later anyway:
Sunday, August 7
Silly me! I left the tartar sauce out at dinner from the night before! Thankfully it was just a tiny bit left, to the point that it was hardly coming out of the bottle anyway, but it could have been much worse! Then again, had it been more full, someone might have noticed and put it back in the fridge. Still, a waste nonetheless.
When I made my breakfast, I discarded these two bread ends (we call them “bread bums”) from the previous week’s loaf. I did eat the last piece out of that loaf even though it was technically expired, because there was nothing wrong it other than being a bit dry, but I didn’t want the bums for a sandwich and didn’t have another immediate use for them. Our freezer used to be filled with bread bums with the intention of turning them into casserole toppings or other crumbs, but they always ended up wasting space and getting freezer burned, so now unless I’m imminently making French toast, we toss them.
Sunday night is garbage night since ours is picked up on Monday mornings. We went around the kitchen and the only other uneaten thing was this stale end of a baguette (again, we could have saved it for some other use but realistically it wouldn’t happen any time soon):
There you have it! That’s probably a good random week’s sample. Sometimes we clean out the freezer and find freezer-burned forgotten things in the back, but we’ve cut that down significantly in recent years by simply not buying excess in need of freezing very often. We also sometimes forget about leftovers and need to chuck those when they sprout their own lifeforms, but we try to keep track and consume all that we cook. We’ve gotten pretty good at managing recipes and output so we’re not stuck with unwanted leftovers.
We’re pretty sure we do much better than the average US household because we are routinely mindful of waste and ecological issues, but even we waste more than we wish. The posts later this week on the non-edible bits and the packaging will further discuss our continued efforts to reduce our overall waste with strategies like sensible bulk-buying, composting, reusing, etc.
If you’re concerned that your family is wasting too much, do your own photo project! Involve the family members who seem to be the least aware of how much waste they’re generating to help them learn. Even as green-minded as I am, this project still forced me to recognize how much waste there is in our lives. You might surprise yourself if you give it a go, and become inspired to waste less of your money and the world’s resources.