How to stop wasting food

While everyone loves SMART goals, it occurred to me a couple of months ago that vague goals can also work — if they’re tied to values. It also occurred to me I really wanted to stop wasting food. When 49 million Americans are struggling to put food on the table, I really don’t want to throw food away because I never got around to eating it.

I’m fortunate to be able to eat a mostly whole-food, plant-based diet, which means that much of what I buy at the grocery store is perishable. And I live in New York, which means that at any point in time, my plan to head home after work, make dinner, watch The Good Place, and go to bed early (the dream) can be upended by a dinner invite, leaving the food I would have eaten that night sitting in the fridge or cupboard.

I noticed that pop-up social events, along with other barriers like exhaustion, working long hours, and general laziness, were resulting in a buildup of old produce at the bottom of my crisper drawer, and I was really, really not OK with it. Here are a few of the things I’ve done to stop wasting food.

1. Using a recipe? Swap in ingredients you already have.

One of my favorite make-ahead weekday lunches is a quinoa salad from Mark Bittman’s VB6 Cookbook, which he borrowed from Sweetgreen. The best part of this recipe is that you can basically swap in anything you have lying around the house for the listed ingredients. This works for many recipes, and is a great way to get rid of leftovers before you need to grocery shop again.

Don’t have a particular grain or vegetable on hand? Sub in rice for quinoa, or spinach for kale. Don’t have (or don’t eat) meat? Throw in some beans, tofu, or seitan. This is also a great way to make recipes cheaper.

2. Find ways to make food prep easier.

I don’t know about you, but for me, one serious barrier to cooking at home is the perceived difficulty/time consumption of making a meal from scratch.

Instead of buying dry beans or lentils, buy canned (just rinse and drain them ahead of time). If you have an aversion to chopping onions that verges on a medical issue (that’s me!), buy them pre-chopped when possible. Use recipes that will let you simply smash garlic instead of mincing it.

It’s true that making recipes easier can often make them more expensive — but on balance, cooking and preparing easier food more often will save you more because you’ll actually eat what’s in your house instead of ordering delivery or stopping for a deli sandwich on your way home.
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3. Double-check your cupboards before shopping.

I recently reorganized my pantry and discovered that I had two containers of ground coriander, a spice I use maybe twice a year. I also found out that I had a bunch of small-batch berry preserves I’d received in gift baskets and totally forgotten about. Just add toast and there’s a couple of weeks’ worth of breakfasts that require basically no time or thought.

The other day, I was about to hit Submit on an Amazon Fresh order when I decided to take one more look in my kitchen. What I found were several items on my list that I didn’t know I already had, saving me $15.

4. Plan your meals ahead of time — and think about perishability.

I tend to do my grocery shopping in batches, ideally two weeks at a time. This can be challenging if you try to eat fresh produce every day. When pulling together a grocery list, I think in terms of what I’ll eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the next couple of weeks, taking into account dinner plans on my calendar or free lunches at work. And once the groceries arrive, I cook the most perishable items first. If the tomatoes for my pasta sauce have a shorter shelf life than the snow peas and red pepper for my Singapore Noodles, I’m eating rigatoni for dinner this week.

5. Batch meals.

This only works if you’re willing to eat the same thing for several days, but for a person who does a new thing every day, I really like routine. I’ll happily cook one night and then eat leftovers for the rest of the week. As an added bonus, meals that can be cooked in big batches and reheated tend to be cheaper.

Batching is great because a) you only have to cook once, b) it reduces the cognitive load of daily meal planning, and c) it mitigates the tendency to order Seamless when you’re too tired to cook, because you already have a fully prepared meal in the fridge.

6. Get creative.

Delay your trip to the supermarket and figure out what you can make using just the ingredients in your kitchen. If you need some help, try Googling a combination of what you have on hand. Recently, I looked in my pantry and had peanut butter, rice noodles, and not much else. Twenty minutes later, I had these easy peanut noodles.

7. Use wilted greens in sauces or smoothies.

I recently discovered that my favorite vegan pesto is actually better when the basil is a bit past its prime. And spinach that’s gone slightly slimy is totally fine when your blender or food processor hides it among the ingredients of your favorite smoothie.

And in case it’s not too obvious, old bananas (is it me, or are bananas aging faster these days?) are a great excuse to make some delicious banana muffins. Tip: Freeze batter in foil muffin cups and you can have freshly baked muffins each morning.

8. Figure out what you actually like to eat.

Not to be Captain Obvious, but it’s a lot easier to eat what you have in the house when you actually like it. Occasionally I’ll cook something — let’s say a bland grain salad with dinosaur kale and pepitos — because I want to be the type of person who eats 85 superfoods at once and has the glowing skin to prove it. But the reality is that I’ll force myself to eat that salad for lunch for three days before I can no longer take it and spend $11 at the Kati Roll Company for lunch on Day 4.

Make sure you actually like and will enjoy eating something before you bring it into your kitchen. In no universe will I ever “forget” to eat the remainder of my ribollita or vegan mac and cheese.

9. Convert dinner plans into something else when you’ve already cooked.

Finally, avoid wasting food by sticking to your original plan. A friend wants to meet for a last-minute dinner? Suggest a post dinner drink instead. Or go get ice cream and then walk somewhere you can watch the sunset. (I don’t know about you, but want to do this every night.)