How to Reduce Holiday Food Waste
by Yvette C. Hammett
The heaping platters that cheerfully mark the holidays have an unfortunate downside: Americans increase their waste by 25 percent between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The discarded food and packaging burden landfills with an additional 1 million tons of waste each week.
That’s in addition to the 40 percent of food Americans typically waste each year—nearly half of all the food prepared at home or in restaurants. Monica McBride, senior manager of food loss and waste for the World Wildlife Fund, notes that squandered bounty is grown in areas that were converted from natural habitat into farm fields, so it’s also a waste of natural resources.
“Once you start cooking, you realize the impact on the planet,” says chef and caterer Steven Laurence, owner of Vegan Commissary, in Philadelphia. “My grandmother was the kind of person who, if there was one pea left over, she put it in a container and someone ate it the next day. That kind of informs my cooking. The way I was trained, you didn’t waste anything. You used everything.”
In individual households, small changes can have a big impact, especially during the holidays; all it takes is awareness and a plan. Frugal cooks can make room for a holiday waste reduction strategy by taking inventory of the pantry and boxing up a load for the local soup kitchen or food bank.
Then, design a menu with the environment in mind, using portion control to avoid food waste and whipping up dishes that can easily be upcycled into new creations that can be used as appetizers in the coming days or tucked in the freezer for future enjoyment.
Start with the Guest-imator at SaveTheFood.com, a great way to determine portions for a holiday party, says Cheryl Coleman, director of the EPA Resource Conservation and Sustainability Division in the Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery.
The Guest-imator and Save the Food, a program of the Natural Resources Defense Council in conjunction with the Ad Council, tells cooks how much to make to keep guests happy and includes recipes for leftovers, such as Crispy Sheet Pan Hash, made with leftover roasted vegetables, and Ugly Vegetable Pasta, made with zucchini, tomatoes and eggplant.
Spoilage is another way food finds its way into the garbage can, and that too, can be avoided, Laurence says, pointing out that most food goes bad because it’s not cooked properly or is mishandled in storage. “Mix animal protein with starches and grains in a container and it goes bad because of two different sorts of enzymes. It is a fuel for bacteria.” He also recommends using as many organic ingredients as possible for longer-lasting leftovers. “We guarantee all of our dishes for two weeks,” he says.
Encouraging visitors to take home leftovers is another effective food-saving strategy, says McBride. “Have Tupperware or to-go boxes you could provide to your guests.”
Reilly Brock, content manager at Imperfect Produce, in New York City, agrees. “Just like repurposing excess product requires creative thinking, food waste around the holidays requires out-of-the-box ideas to keep impact low,” says Brock, whose company delivers imperfect produce to customers’ doors for a cost savings. “Why end the fun when the meal ends? The best part about leftovers—and the holidays—is keeping the celebration going.”
“Also, make sure you keep food safe,” McBride says. “The CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] has a really great overview of how to do that for parties. Standard guidance is not to leave food out for more than two hours. So, as a party planner, make sure you mentally note when you put food out.”
Coleman recommends taking it a step beyond the holidays by joining a movement to cut food waste year-round. She suggests visiting FurtherWithFood.org to learn more. “Through that and additional outreach, we might be able to start to change,” says McBride.
Yvette C. Hammett is an environmental writer based in Valrico, Florida. Connect at YvetteHammett28@hotmail.com.