The dark side of food waste

I’ve found my newest addiction: the A&E show Hoarders. You may already know that my dad is a hoarder, and that growing up around his piles of outdated magazines and electronic gadgets has given me a profoundly ambivalent relationship with stuff. Even though I’m neither extremely neat nor extremely messy, I’m terrified of becoming a hoarder. I hold Cold War type purges every so often just to ensure I’m not getting too attached to my stuff. For better or for worse, this show has been bumping up the frequency of these purges.

Some of the episodes hit pretty close to home. There was the cat hoarder, who started off feeding strays and ended up with 70 odd cats, some of them dead (and eaten by other cats). There was the magazine and equipment hoarder, whose defensive attitude and tense relationship with his daughter reminded me very much of my dad. And then there was the food hoarder, a woman who couldn’t even get rid of a rotting pumpkin in her living room without first saving some seeds. A little later on, she was struggling to get rid of several containers of free range, organic chicken stock that had expired years ago. In her words, it was good stuff, she had paid a lot for it, and it wasn’t bulging or obviously bad.

Oh boy. That sounds uncomfortably familiar.

I hate throwing food out. Not just for environmental reasons, although it’s true that food waste accounts for a major loss of energy and resources. (Americans are estimated to waste 25% of all food prepared or about 96 billion pounds of food a year, and that’s not just a matter of food — it’s also water, gas for transport, and chemical pollution.) My mother, a superb planner, is incredibly good at not wasting food, and I feel a lot of pressure to do the same. But in my usual passive-aggressive way, I don’t avoid throwing out food by managing it better, sticking it in the freezer, and eating the old stuff first. I just let it sit until it’s so bad, stale, or old that I have no choice but to throw it out.

Wow.  Even though I only do this to a small percentage of my food, it sounds really bad when I write it out.  My, er, strategy also explains why I have a few things that expired in 2009 in my cupboard. They don’t smell, they aren’t obviously stale, and are quite possibly still edible, though I am extremely unlikely to eat them.

It was time to take a stand. I approached my cupboard with new determination and got rid of:

  • An unopened package of Wasa rye crackers that I brought over when I moved to this place in 2009.
  • A mostly empty jar of Nutella that had separated.
  • The rest of a box of organic, sustainably grown pasta that turned out to be kind of gross (sorry, Earth’s Best).
  • A mostly empty jumbo box of Kix cereal (box recycled, inner bag reused).
  • An opened but almost full roll of ginger nut biscuits, purchased on a 2010 trip to the UK.
  • A package of gourmet wild walnuts that were stale.
  • A can of pinto/green beans that expired in 2009 (can recycled, contents dumped).
  • The rest of a box of ginger snaps that sat on my counter for 6 months without being eaten.
  • Half a box of chocolate covered blueberries that I didn’t enjoy and went kind of weird.
Etc. It came to about five pounds of food in all, which wasn’t terrible, but wasn’t great, either. On the whole, I’m pretty sure I waste less than the 25% American average, but I’m definitely still part of the problem. I’m accepting today’s five pounds as a loss and a reminder that I need to be doing better. I looked for patterns in what I was throwing away and thought of some possible solutions I could try to cut down on my food waste/hoarding.
  • Buy ingredients I use sparingly in small quantities or not at all. I like Nutella, but I really shouldn’t buy anything larger than the cup-sized container.
  • Buy unfamiliar ingredients sparingly. I have a big unopened jar of tahini in my cupboard which narrowly squeaked by this time (but it won’t if I do this again in a few months). I don’t have any familiar recipes that use tahini (help?), so I need to either find one I’m excited about, or give it away before it expires.
  • Bigger isn’t always better, even if it does reduce packaging. Who knew how hard it would be to eat my way through a huge box of Kix?
  • Put older supplies in front where I can see them. There was stuff I had completely forgotten I had in my cupboard. Wow, wild mushroom couscous mix? Who knew?
  • Buy less processed food in general. When’s the last time you had a storebought cookie craving?
  • Make faster decisions about nice things I will probably not eat so I can give them away before they expire.
  • Keep less stuff in my cupboards so I can see everything I have. If I’ve forgotten about its existence, it sure isn’t going to be eaten.

Do you tend to hoard food? What are your best ways to reduce food waste and cupboard clutter?

28 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by julietwilson on 05/25/2011 at 09:23

    really good advice there, but I’ve found myself put off experimenting with cooking new things because the unusual ingredients have just sat around and gone off beccause there’s a limited number of recipes i can use them in, and i sort of want to sometimes experiment with new dishes. Tahini – humous? I can’t think of anythign else to use it in!

    Juliet
    Crafty green Poet
    http://craftygreenpoet.blogspot.com

    Reply

    • Hi Juliet,
      I have the same problem with those unusual ingredients. Before I discovered bulk bin spices, I bought a bunch of spices I rarely — but sometimes — need (cardamom, anise, fennel seed, etc.) in packages so large that I will probably never finish them. I also have rose water and orange blossom water (which I use in one recipe each), but those are supposed to stay good for a long time in the fridge. Apparently they are also good to use as facial toner!

      I’m pretty good about improvising with what I have and substituting for expensive or unusual ingredients, but I think I should pick out at least two recipes before buying any perishable ingredient I am unfamiliar with. Allrecipes is my favorite place to look for recipes by ingredient.

      Reply

  2. How about buying from bulk bins? You can purchase smaller amounts and only what you need. Go through those cupboards frequently and donate to a food pantry those products that you know you won’t use (that aren’t expired). I like Juliet’s idea of trying something new if you have the ingredients. Hummus is all I can think of for tahini.

    Reply

    • Hi Lori,
      I’ve started buying spices from the bulk bins, and I love it — buying spices by the jar seems like a ridiculous way to do things when I only go through, say, three teaspoons of turmeric a year. Most of what I threw away is actually packaged food, however — a fair amount given to me by my mother or other people. I don’t know why I rarely get around to eating it; maybe I’ve just gotten in the habit of cooking from scratch. I need to find a non-offensive way to tell my mother to stop giving me food…that could be tricky. The tahini was my own fault, though. I’m hopping over to Allrecipes right now to figure out what else I can do with it.

      And you’re right, I definitely need to be cleaning out my cupboards more than once every couple years!

      Reply

  3. Fantastic post and scary reading about the hoarders. I think you did the right thing – get rid of the old, start with a clean slate and put some mew strategies in place to prevent history repeating itself.

    I would be so arrogant as to suggest buying 25% less food each week and see if that works for you!

    What I do is check my fridge, fruit bowl and veg store *before* writing my shopping list – I plan meals around what is starting to wilt or coming up to the ‘throw away’ stage. Writing a list is arduous; BUT it does help to keep you focused. I can’t personally menu plan, I find myself all tied up in a box, but just loosely planning around what is already in the house works for me.

    I know you say you’re not that sociable, but do you have someone you could share a jar of nutella with, or even bag a few scoops to satisfy your needs? Your Mum perhaps; as a compromise to her buying all that stuff for you?

    Reply

    • Hi Mrs. Green!
      Buying 25% less is not a bad idea. I think I could pretty easily go without buying anything but fresh fruit and veg (though I’m running low on flour and salt just now) for a couple weeks and just focus on using up things in my cupboard/freezer/fridge. I am terrible about planning a week’s worth of meals in advance, but I’ve gotten to the point where I can improvise decently with whatever I have.

      I hadn’t thought about sharing the things I go through slowly, but that’s a good idea, too. My friend and I have shared things like mascarpone (so perishable!) in the past. I’ll see if she’s interested in some Nutella.🙂 And I even have a couple of empty glass jars around!

      Halva sounds interesting. If my tahini is still good (I just noticed that it expired a little while ago, though it isn’t open), that could be a fun adventure.

      Reply

  4. meant to say; halva would be a lovely and healthy way to use up the tahini if you don’t like hummous

    http://homemade-recipes.blogspot.com/2010/01/sesame-or-tahini-halva-recipe-how-to.html

    Reply

  5. Posted by Amy on 05/25/2011 at 15:40

    Some good points here! I hate it when food goes bad, so I tend to go through and purge my pantry occasionally. Anything unopened gets donated, opened stuff that’s still good might get passed along to someone who will appreciate it more, and anything bad gets thrown away.

    I’ve got in the habit of freezing food that I don’t need to eat right away. If I buy/ make a loaf of bread, 6 slices or so goes in the fridge and the rest gets frozen. It’s not quite as good, but a lot better than wasting it! I also freeze extra veggies to use in stirfrys, fruit for smoothies/to eat frozen, and tomato sauce if the jar is too big. Since I live alone, this method works pretty well for me.

    People always end up leaving me stuff that I don’t want though, so I do get that problem.

    Reply

    • Hi Amy,
      I’m pretty good about freezing stuff…if it’s good to begin with. I am worst about mediocre leftovers, the ones I don’t feel like eating but know I should. Those tend to sit around in the fridge and die. Clearly, the solution is to become a better cook (or to be less picky).

      Do you have a good bread recipe? I have one that I love, but I wouldn’t mind another. I love bread ten minutes out of the oven. I eat what I want, let the rest cool, and freeze it. It actually seems to stay fresher than if I leave it out for a day or two.

      Reply

  6. This is a great topic. First, let me give you a recipe that uses tahini:
    http://reducefootprints.blogspot.com/2010/05/vegan-recipe-seitan-and-mushroom.html
    The gravy in this dish is wonderful and I’ve used it for other dishes as well as this one.

    Another great way to use Tahini is to take a big spoonful and then slowly stir in water & lemon juice (alternately) until you reach a salad dressing consistency. The color changes to a real creamy beige. Add in salt & pepper and a little garlic powder if you like it. It’s great on veggies and salads or as a dressing in veggie sandwiches.

    Okay … my strategy for not wasting food … we typically won’t buy anything that we’re not prepared to use in the near future. If it’s an unusual item, we’ll get on the Internet and find a recipe and then use it. Similar to Mrs. Green, we shop with a general menu in mind. We don’t like our cupboards and/or refrigerator/freezer to be too full so we often make a game out of making meals with only what we have around … usually we’re surprised with the great meal that develops. In addition to sharing with a friend, you might consider offering food on freecycle.

    Those are my thoughts … hope it helps! 🙂

    Reply

    • Hi Small Footprints!
      Thanks for the recipe. I actually have everything I need for it! I bought seitan (one of those gee-I’ve-never-cooked-with-that-before purchases) a little while ago, stuck it in the freezer in anticipation of finding a recipe someday, and lo and behold. My parents sometimes eat tahini mixed with soy sauce, garlic, red chili oil and toasted sesame oil over cold noodles, but my preference is for peanut butter in that recipe. I do like hummus and plan to see if my poor overworked blender can handle it.

      I think I’ll have to start improvising more often. I certainly have the basics and enough random other stuff to make creative or at least edible meals. I hadn’t thought of Freecycle for food, but it’s a good idea.

      Reply

  7. Posted by Sparrow on 05/25/2011 at 18:40

    Tahini makes hummus amazing! Do you have a food processor so you can make hummus? I only wish I could put tahini in my hummus, but I never get to because it costs so much. It really adds that special tang that makes hummus … well … hummus!

    Tahini also makes a great salad dressing. There are tons of recipes online to page through. Lemon tahini is a nice combo.

    Lucky you with a whole jar of tahini!!! Eat it up, g’fren’! It’s great stuff!

    Reply

    • Hi Sparrow,
      I don’t have a food processor, though I’m beginning to wonder if one would be a good investment. So far I’ve been able to use my blender for everything. I’ll try making hummus tomorrow, and that will be the real test. I might have to water it down to keep my blender from hating me.

      The tahini was cheap, which was why I was willing to buy it to experiment. I feel like I’ve seen it at middle eastern food stores for relatively inexpensive ($3-$4 a jar), too.

      Reply

      • Posted by Sparrow on 05/25/2011 at 20:04

        I’ll have to look around online again. The only place I’ve seen it here is the co-op where a ten ounce jar was over ten dollars.😦 I tried making it myself out of sesame seeds and got to a sort-of paste but it was a lot of work and the consistency was not great.

        I DEFINITELY recommend a food processor. In addition to making hummus and “refried” beans in mine, I make banana/fruit “ice cream”, shred cabbage to make sauerkraut, used to grind sprouted wheat for raw bread (before I gave up wheat because it wasn’t agreeing with me), chop up broccoli stems and other hard vegetables for slaw-like salads. I would be lost without my food processor!

        Reply

        • $10? Ouch. Amazon has it, but the cheaper listings are by third parties, so no free shipping. If you find someone with a teleporter, I’d be happy to give you my jar!

          I have a small kitchen, so I try to make my gadgets multi-task. So far my blender and a sharp santoku have covered most of the things I would need a food processor for. (Blender was not thrilled with the pesto, so it’s something I end up buying when I want it.) However, I got to use a friend’s food processor to make a raw nut crust, and I have to say, it really came together in a snap.

          Reply

        • Posted by Sparrow on 05/25/2011 at 20:30

          I empathize with the small kitchen! I can’t even keep my appliances on the counter; I have to keep them on the floor at the base of the counter — juicer, food processor, blender. When I put one on the counter to use it, I have to put the dish drainer on the floor — that’s all the counter space I have! The size of a dish drainer! But I wouldn’t get rid of any one of those three appliances. They have revolutionized my life, my diet, and my health. Maybe if I had one of those high-speed blenders, I’d *think* about getting rid of the food processor, but probably not because I’d hate to go back to shredding sauerkraut cabbage by hand. That takes all day! With my food processor, I can have a couple of cabbages shredded and in the press in less than half an hour.

          Reply

  8. OMG – would you please stop writing about me!🙂

    Seriously, I totally LOVED the show Hoarders, and I’ve watched every episode that I could find on Netflix. I came to the conclusion that Hoarders fall into 2 broad categories – shoppers and keepers. I can’t relate to the shoppers at all, but the keepers… that’s another story. On some level I think it’s a sane response to an insane world. I mean through most of human history having an over abundance of goods and food hasn’t really been a problem. But I digress…

    You already know that my mother was a hoarder of stuff, my father, on the other hand is a food hoarder extraordinaire. It’s sort of hard to fault him for it though, since he grew up in extreme poverty and often went hungry as a child. But his philosophy is that you never, never, never waste food… you just don’t. He does most of his shopping at a place I jokingly call the used grocery store – they sell stuff that’s beyond expiration or has damaged packaging or would otherwise go to waste.

    Anyhow, after hurricane Katrina I sort of went off the food hoarding deep end and decided that I needed to stockpile a bunch of supplies. Hurricanes are such a big problem here in Denver, don’t you know. I actually don’t think it’s such a bad idea to have at least some stockpile of food because you just never know. I’m always totally shocked when I hear things on the news how you should always have enough supplies to survive for three days on your own. Three DAYS?!? Who on earth are these people who don’t have enough supplies to make it three days? It’s incomprehensible to me.

    Unfortunately I sort of took the stockpiling of food to a bit of an extreme. Who, me? Take things to extremes? Well… when I was a kid my best friend was Mormon and their religion teaches that you should always have at least a year’s worth of food on hand. So I think that some part of me was trying to re-create the pantry that her family had… never mind that they were a family of 6 with enough food for a year…

    Anyhow, lest this ridiculously long comment get too much more ridiculously long, I’ll just say that when stocking a pantry one should be sure to buy only foods you actually like and will eat. Canned spinach may be something I’d happily eat in an emergency, but judging by the 6 year old case of it in my basement, it’s not something I get a hankering for on a regular basis!

    It’s also crucial to locate your food stores in a place that is easily accessible. Stacking up boxes of canned goods under the stairs (ahem) is probably not the greatest plan.

    Sooo… I’m slowly going through it, using up what I can, throwing some out and trying to find homes for the rest.

    Balance is such a tricky thing…

    Reply

    • Hey EcoCatLady,
      I could have told you we had a lot in common just by looking at your screen name.🙂 Kevin and I have one smallish cooler filled with canned food, plus some water and kitty chow in the closet for emergencies, but the plan is to clean it out twice a year so nothing expires in the meantime. We couldn’t live for a year on what’s in the house, but we could probably last a month or two, longer if we were willing to risk scurvy. I think that’s within the boundary of reasonable, non-hoarding behavior (or at least I hope!). Considering I just found a two liter bottle of Mountain Dew that expired in 2005 in my parents’ cupboard, I’m not as bad as I could be.

      Canned spinach — blech! Apparently I’m not even willing to eat canned green beans.

      Reply

  9. You asked for a bread recipe; here is mine: http://littlegreenblog.com/family-and-food/nutrition/i-made-bread/

    I hope you enjoy it🙂

    Reply

    • Thanks! I haven’t tried converting the measurements yet, but it looks fairly similar to my bread recipe, only with oil and not so slow. I had to look up ‘strong flour’ just now for the American equivalent — bread flour, got it!

      Reply

  10. Posted by JJ on 05/26/2011 at 10:33

    We are moving in a month or so so I am making a concerted effort to eat everything up before we move. We are getting there, I just had some ramen that had been sitting for a long time for lunch! I am sure if someone came to my house right now they’d feel sorry for us because it looks like we have no food at all, but it’s amazing the meals I can keep pulling out of our 90% empty cupboards. Tonight is chicken (that was in my freezer 6 months), broccoli and rice and tomorrow is sausage, eggs that are about to go bad and canned fruit.

    There are a few things in the cabinets I would never use and I wonder what possessed me to buy them in the first place? This is teachine me to try to avoid making experimental purchases in the future.

    Reply

    • Hi JJ,
      Moving is such a great motivation to eat up all the things you’ve had lying around for ages. I think I got quite creative with my meals every time I moved out, even though I’ve become a bit complacent now. I hope the move goes well for you!

      I have mixed feelings on the experimental purchases thing. I love to try new things and am surrounded by just about every type of ethnic grocery store you could think of — Persian, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Eastern European — and it is definitely fun to pick up something totally alien. Of course, sometimes I like it (rosewater ice cream!) and sometimes I don’t (chickpea flour cookies – meh). I think I can keep doing this on a small scale if I get much better and faster about giving away the things I didn’t enjoy. I try not to buy things that sound cool but need significant processing or complicated cooking.

      Reply

  11. I have just discovered your blog (thanks to your shout out for lip balm recipes😉 and I love it! It is extremely healthy to purge, be it food or …even relationships! Good for you! You were offerered many wonderful tips with all the comments, and I can’t think of one more to add, so I will just say that I will be back!

    Reply

    • Hi Lisa!
      I think you may have been here before, but if not, welcome!🙂 I will definitely link to your recipe when I try making lip balm — it’s the simplest one I’ve seen so far, and perfect for people who don’t have food scales.

      Reply

  12. Hi Jennifer,

    I’m lucky in one sense because I rarely eat packaged food due to my sensitivities. So that cuts down on a whole lot of potential hoarding. I do clutter easily though so this was an excellent reminder to try to nip that in the bud. I started with one surface today and it looks gorgeous. Thank you for the inspiration!

    Reply

  13. Posted by Helen on 05/31/2011 at 01:43

    This is my favourite site from back home – plug in any ingredient (case point tahini) in the search and it will come back with healthy tips and recipes: http://www.healthyfood.co.nz/articles/2007/december/what-to-do-with-tahini

    Reply

  14. I would recommend being as honest as possible about which unopened products you’ll use and which you won’t, and donate the latter to a food bank. This is especially helpful if others are giving you things you don’t want or need!

    My problem this past weekend was having too many leftovers and nobody to help me finish them. I hosted a potluck on Friday (and was forced by my friends to keep the leftovers) and a picnic on Saturday (which I prepared too much food for and subsequently had to take most of it home again), and then both lunch and dinner on Sunday were eaten out. So along comes Monday, and I can’t even see to the back of my fridge, plus my partner is out of town during the week. This was poor planning on my part, and a way too busy weekend!!!

    Reply

  15. Ha, my dirty little secret is that dirty little show “Hoarders” … Fascinating how their emotions, thoughts and mental states manifest as material objects in their homes.

    I, too, hope to be moving in the next month. I really like JJ’s idea of eating our food down before the move.

    My yuckiest hoard right now is a huge bag of veggie scraps in my freezer that I’ve been stockpiling (whoa, that word is perfect — it literally describes saving up stuff to make veggie stock with) for the future compost pile at my new home.

    Reply

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