Living Green Values Ep. 5 – Don’t waste food

There are entire internet tomes available for you to read (in addition to actual made-of-paper tomes) about the importance of eating organic food that hasn’t been sprayed with chemicals that are harmful to both your body and the environment.

I won’t bore you with what you already know—eating well became one of the first things I ever did to improve my greenness and it was instantly rewarding. But, it gets expensive if you don’t do it right.

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It also gets super, super wasteful. Buying a bunch of organic produce (or any food, for that matter) that you don’t need just means it ends up in landfills, where rotting food makes up a gross amount of trash and releases methane into the atmosphere.

As the EPA says, feed people, not landfills.

On a family level, watching your fridge fill with food you don’t end up eating makes shopping seem pointless. “I end up just throwing most of it away and it feels like I’m wasting money, so I might as well eat out,” is something I hear a lot. Bad news, but restaurants are wasteful too, and they’re way more likely to have stuff in your food you don’t want to be putting into your body. Plus, if you believe you’re saving money by eating out all the time, I would like to have a look at your bank statements.

In sum, the most sustainable (and delicious) ways to eat are:

  • Grow as much of your own food as you can
  • Go organic, particularly from local farms (the farmers market is your friend)
  • Cook all the time

I can’t help you with the first—I’m just figuring out gardening myself—but over the years I’ve perfected the art of planning my meals to a minimally wasteful, seasonally appropriate, money-saving and skill-building art. Also, I get to listen to audiobooks while I’m cooking, so I’m not sweating it either.

Susan’s Tried and True Meal-Planning Approach

Step 1: Subscribe to food magazines for seasonal ideas, and never say “I don’t know what to make for dinner” again.

You could also find some good blogs you like, but it’s important not to just search for recipes. Sure, I’ll search for a special request for a baked good, but the world of internet recipes is too vast and too untried. Finding your favorite food magazines gives you a trusted source that gets delivered to your door, and features recipes that have seasonal produce in them.

This way, you get a sense of what’s in season when, and don’t head to the grocery store for strawberries in February. (Strawberries in February are not only subpar, they have to be shipped in from far away, and will usually be expensive.)

My favorite food magazines are Milk Street, Cook’s Illustrated (both of these are a little more advanced), and Martha Stewart Living—also handy if you need to make a superfluous thing from a rope, some paint, and 14 other special craft tools you do not own. I go off and on with Vegetarian Times, too. I’m not a vegetarian, but their focus on produce is more in line with my style.

Step 2: Once a month, or as they arrive, look through your magazines and any cookbooks you feel like using and dog-ear (or write down with page number) any recipes that catch your eye.

Step 3: Each weekend (or whatever day works for you), go through your calendar and figure out which days you are eating at home. Go through your list (or dog-ears) and try to pick recipes that feature a lot of the same ingredients, particularly those that come in bunches.

Does one recipe require two scallions? Well, guess what, cooks. Scallions come in bunches of six or more. Try to find two recipes that require scallions and you’re good to go.

Does one require a tiny amount of a weird thing you don’t have and you don’t feel like buying a ton of? Skip it, unless you think it’ll be vital to the recipe. Then, find some other recipes to make that month that use the ingredient.

Then, look at serving size to see if you can stretch one meal into leftovers for the following night. Make a meal plan on your calendar so you can keep track of what you’re planning to make when. This will help you remember to defrost a thing, and it will provide a very big incentive to not go out.

Step 4: Make a shopping list and do not veer from it. I use the app Shopper, which sorts it into nice aisles for you.

Step 5: Shop at a place that carries good food. I try to start with the farmers market on my weekly trip there, then hit up a store that specializes in natural foods, then will go to Kroger if I need to. I don’t always do this three-stop process but sometimes, it cannot be helped.

Stock up on stuff like coconut milk, ginger, and rice at Asian markets, and treat yourself to good spices at Penzey’s. Once you get your pantry stocked, your grocery list will get pretty minimal.

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Step 6: Look up the ways to store your food properly, and keep your fridge pretty clean. This last part is for psychological reasons. If you know you’re going to open up your fridge to 25 pounds of rotting food, you are less likely to open up your fridge at all and will just throw your magazines away and order pizza. The number of times I have done this is…embarrassing.

And of course, compost everything you don’t eat (unless it’s an animal product).

Bonus step: Get a binder or folder, tear out the page with a recipe you loved, and don’t bother with ones you merely liked. Who has time for recipes that are just OK? Might as well just keep the gold-medal winners. Then, when you can’t find any inspiration, you can just go to your binder and find your faves. I have some sorted into “quick and easy” and “impressive dinner” sections.

Bonus bonus step: Invite me over for dinner. I will bring dessert.