Preventing food waste saves money, resources and the planet. So, why is it so hard?
In the United States, more than one-third of food goes uneaten, according to ReFED, a nonprofit group. That’s billions of meals and millions of tons of food rotting in landfills — and it’s exactly why I’m willing to be that food-saving weirdo.
More waste happens in homes and places such as restaurants, grocery stores and cafeterias than on farms or in factories, ReFED reports. While the Environmental Protection Agency has found that food fills landfills more than any other material, the individual choices leading to that waste can be quite small. The lonely egg roll no one had room for, the side of broccoli you neglected because the cornbread was more enticing, the half-dish of just-okay pasta you don’t want to bother taking home. They add up. And, to me, the egg roll can pair with a salad for lunch. And the pasta? Maybe I’ll spruce it up with that leftover broccoli.
Whenever I see good, edible food at risk of being thrown away, I see all the effort behind it. The farmers. The truckers. The cooks chopping and arranging food that will … go into the trash?! So I fish a container out of my bag and bundle the goodies. This doesn’t always jibe with social norms. But as long as food waste is a significant contributor to climate change, I will go against the grain, so to speak, to make an impact and hope my oddball ways catch on.
Here’s how you can follow my lead:
Bring your own containers to restaurants and pack up EVERYTHING
This eliminates the need for disposable to-go boxes and prevents eager servers from packaging items separately in a tower of containers. Plus, I can easily toss in the bones (which I save for stock) and whatever might be left in the bread basket. Sometimes our dining companions look askance and say, “You know they’d give you a new container …” And sometimes servers avert their eyes. But more often people say, “Oh! That’s great!” Or once, “My mom would be proud of you.”
Pack up wedding leftovers
Some may consider it tacky to take home leftover food after a reception. (To which I wonder: Is it tackier than filling landfills with food?) But I’m a sucker for hors d’oeuvres and often can’t finish my entrees, so salmon and mashed potatoes, meet to-go box. One caveat: I refrigerate as soon as possible. Baked goods should be good through an evening of dancing, but anything perishable left at room temperature for more than a couple of hours may not be safe.
Take home buffet extras
Whether it’s a happy-hour mixer or a black-tie affair, as an event with a buffet is winding down, I ask the hosts if it would help if I grabbed a few things. Usually they are thrilled. So, as people start trickling out, I shake off my shyness and collect what I can. The amazing thing? Once I or another brave soul starts packing up food, others do the same, like they’ve been given permission. Because while it’s hard to stick your neck out — or in this case, brazenly fill up a to-go container — it’s also hard to see good food go to waste. Plus, the tahini brownies really were delicious, right?
Buffets can be wasteful, but I hope they can evolve to be less so. With some planning, organizers can design them more efficiently and donate extras to nonprofit groups. And, increasingly, I’ve seen hosts proactively set out to-go containers. Shout-out to those food waste heroes!
Bring a chicken carcass home from a dinner party
Once, after a dinner of rotisserie chicken, my hosts asked if I wanted the carcass for stock. They would have prepared soup with it themselves, they explained, but already had a turkey carcass in their freezer. When values align, making the most of food is that much easier.
Fly with frozen lasagna
Out-of-town gatherings often mean big meals and more extra food than our extended family can eat. So I freeze some, pop it in an insulated lunch bag and nestle the bundle in my rollaboard. It’s usually still an icicle after a two-hour flight. But if I worry that it warmed too much, I use a food thermometer to make sure the surface is still within the refrigerator standard of 40 degrees or less. I just budget a little extra time for security, where there are usually some questions about the cold lump in my suitcase.
‘Borrow’ space in fridges and microwaves
Refrigeration keeps leftovers safe. So if I’m staying at a hotel without an in-room fridge or microwave, I’ll ask the staff if I can stash something in a breakroom fridge or if they can heat leftovers. They usually happily oblige. Once, when I went from lunch with a friend to a medical appointment, the doctor’s office kindly kept my pho cool.
Attempt to bring home half-finished beer in a jar
Okay, I’ll admit that this was a terrible idea. No matter how delicious that sour craft beer is, no matter how much you can’t bear to part with your unfinished portion as the hosts are collapsing tables and your spouse is gently nudging you toward the door, a jam jar is not the answer. It may not be watertight. First, please send tips for removing beer odors from leather. Second, if you’re ever on the cusp of leaving an event but don’t want to abandon your beverage, I recommend a leakproof Mason jar. (And of course, ask permission from the establishment and be mindful of the open container laws in your state.)
Clearly, not every rescue mission succeeds. Sometimes I’m stymied by self-consciousness, or by forgetting a container, or by food that’s sat out too long. I once took home an absurd amount of cubed cheese and then, as I struggled to finish it, discovered that some cheese I had purchased beforehand had gone moldy in the fridge. Oops. (Next time, I’ll freeze the cubes and use them in cooked dishes.)
No matter how hard we try, some food will inevitably go to waste. I accept that. And taking home buffet goodies is clearly not enough to solve the complex puzzle of food waste. But I do think that if we can value food enough that it’s more taboo to waste it than to embrace leftovers in any context — even when we’re wearing ball gowns and tuxedos, even when it’s a little inconvenient — we’ll also make more deliberate and less wasteful decisions just about every time we open our fridges or sit down to eat.
See you at the buffet? I’ll be the one with a Mason jar.
This story was updated to reflect new food-waste data published by ReFED on April 20, 2023.