Waste Free Kitchen Handbook by Dana Gunders

Food waste may be the most critical issue in the area of food sustainability today. Dana Gunders provides us with a not-so-gentle nudge to help us improve our behavior in the Waste Free Kitchen Handbook: A Guide to Eating Well and Saving Money by Wasting Less Food. This book focuses our attention on ways to prevent food waste by strategic shopping, sensible storage techniques and innovative use of leftovers. When coming to realize that as much as 40% of the food in the US is not eaten, this NRDC scientist became a food-waste warrior. I confess that I am not a fan of the National Resources Defense Council as I feel that it tends to unfairly stigmatize many processed foods and useful additives in them. Nonetheless, I am pleased to recommend this book to anyone concerned about the food too many of us waste in our kitchens every day.

When we waste a piece of food, the resources needed to produce or transport that item at each step from seed to market are wasted in addition to the actual food itself. No matter how much attention is paid to improving sustainability on the farm or during the journey from the farm to the point of sale, these efforts count for nothing when a food is trashed. The situation becomes worse if the wasted food finds its way into the landfill where it continues to pollute the air as it decays. Media attention emphasizes the environmental damage wrought by packaging waste, so eloquently described by Edward Humes in Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash. Packaging trash tends to be more visible than food garbage, but a more damaging threat to our environment is probably uneaten food. Tristram Stuart dramatized this threat in Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal. In less affluent countries food is wasted due to a lack of technology and infrastructure such that too much food rots between the farm and market. In more affluent Western nations, food tends to be wasted after it reaches the market by over-stocking by commercial interests that sell and/or prepare food and picky consumers who select more food than they eat. I’ll talk more about that in next week’s post.

Gunders has written a how-to manual to help us be more responsible citizens when it comes to shrinking our food-waste footprint. She provides us with a practical guide that starts as we enter the market to purchase our food, continues through transportation home, and proceeds to a well-organized refrigerator and pantry. Our responsibility does not end there, however. We must monitor the shelf life of foods we manage so they do not go bad on our watch. The discussion on how we decide when a food is edible and safe to eat is a strength of the book. Too much food is discarded because of a fear that it is unsafe. She does an excellent job of describing the difference between food decomposition and food contamination—a concept that is frequently missed by writers without a background in food microbiology. This discussion also includes a frank approach to expiration dates and their role in excess food waste. She presents us with 20 recipes useful for incorporating leftovers and other unlikely ingredients into subsequent meals to keep them from being tossed. Also located in the pages is an extensive guide for the proper storage conditions of both perishable and not-so-perishable ones.

Despite the gems that spur thoughts on how we can better minimize the effects of food waste, many hints are obvious when we give it conscious thought. Other suggestions may not be as easy to execute as they seem. For example, the book did inspire me to use my in-sink garbage disposal more. Unfortunately I tried to dispose of the thick, inedible ends of asparagus spears, which turned out not so good an idea. My disposal clogged and resulted in a bill for $123 from my local plumber for my efforts. As a food scientist who specialized in handling and storage of fresh fruits and vegetables as commercial food products, I found most of her recommendations to be reasonable. Others, such as storing ripe bananas in the refrigerator, I question. I also felt she was too eager to throw some items away such as green potatoes. Yes, a green potato is an indication of the presence of a natural toxin, solanine, but they can be eaten and enjoyed after fully cooking them.

Asparagus spears

Not recommended for the garbage disposal.

Decreasing food waste in an affluent country is more difficult and time-consuming than one might think. Much of the book comes down to plain common sense, but it requires our undivided attention in thinking ahead and being intentional in how we buy, store, and prepare the food we buy to minimize waste. We also can repurpose ingredients that otherwise would never reach our tables and stomachs. Most of us find it annoying to devote the time it takes to think about and implement such seemingly simple ideas. To be effective, however, we must be willing to both plan ahead (something I am when motivated) and be compulsive (something that I am not, ever). Being a food-waste warrior is not for everyone, but if most of us fail to take up the challenge, who is going to monitor all the food that we waste in our kitchens?

We live in a time where so much emphasis on food sustainability is aimed at practices that happen to the food over which we have limited or no control. It is thus refreshing to have a guidebook on what we can do to minimize the impact of the wasted food over which we can exercise control. Food waste is such a critical problem that does not get the attention it deserves and is one that each one of us can feel good about doing something to be good stewards of the earth. If we truly wish to do something to protect the environment, starting in the kitchen is a good first step. The theme for my postings this month will be on food sustainability with a particular emphasis on food waste.

Next week: Food waste from two different perspectives

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