Reducing Food Waste While on A Healthy Diet Starts with A Healthy Kitchen

The big numbers behind food production will convince most healthy eaters to treat kale with care. Reducing food waste starts with a healthy kitchen.

healthy diet

For most of us food quality becomes an afterthought on busy days where what we eat becomes less important than the desire to get home at a decent hour before landing on a nice, soft pillow.

Food runs to the grocery store on Sunday may be well intentioned, but often a good portion of those purchases are neglected by Wednesday. Food piles up on counter tops and in crisper drawers and lays forgotten or replaced with unhealthy fast food in the rush of the day. 

Last minute dinner invitations or late nights at work replace plans of eating healthier at home. The fresh bag of spinach in the fridge looses out to a steak and side of creamed spinach--that counts as a vegetable, right?

Soon a bunch of kale turns stale. Sitting next to it is a dried up onion. Nearby a package of strawberries has turned to mush. Further back, a half eaten jar of tomato sauce is growing a nice layer of mold. 

According to a new study, the food in our homes that we tend not to waste are the refined carbohydrates, sugars and animal products. The fresh fruit, grains and vegetables purchased are the most neglected and forgotten. 

Scientists see this as a problem. Globally, countries are keen to find ways to help people eat healthier and waste less. This research is the first on how diet quality impacts food waste and sustainability and is part of an effort to help understand consumption of what many consider healthier foods with lower environmental impact.

The numbers behind food waste create a compelling story: 

  • Annually wasted food was grown on the equivalent 30 million acres of cropland 
  • Nearly 4.2 trillion gallons of irrigation water were applied to cropland that was used to produce uneaten food
  • Nearly 780 million pounds of pesticides were applied to wasted cropland
  • Approximately 1.8 billion pounds of nitrogen fertilizer, 1.5 billion pounds of phosphorus fertilizer, and 2.3 billion pounds of potash fertilizer were applied to wasted cropland, largely attributable to cropland used to produce feed grains and oilseeds and hay.

In total, U.S. consumers wasted nearly one pound of food per person, per day from 2007–2014: Fruits and vegetables and mixed fruit and vegetable dishes accounted for 39% of food waste, followed by dairy (17%), meat and mixed meat dishes (14%), and grains and grain mixed dishes (12%). 

Source: PLOS.org

The cost of one moldy orange or forgotten piece of beef sitting in the fridge, represents an entire ecosystem of waste. These stats make a simple piece of fruit look like a bar of gold. But are they motivation enough to eat that cauliflower when ordering in feels more satisfying after a tough day. 

***Looking into the fridge to figure out what to eat can feel a lot like swiping through titles on Netflix for an hour and still finding nothing to watch. The cabbage may look boring, but it's actually worth a shot. Yet, you don't know if you want to make the effort and take the time if the cabbage is going to turn out awful. But it might be better than a box of macaroni and cheese. in the end.***

Like anything eating well, regardless of your diet, requires some investment: time and planning. More and more people are prepping meals at the beginning of the week with fresh food and pantry staples to remove the burden of cooking food on days when time is short. This trend seems to be catching on for good reason: It ensures each meal is packed with nutrients and reduces the desire to grab something off menu. But what about those who aren't as disciplined. 

A good way to prep for eating healthier is to start by making the kitchen a healthier more mindful space. It will take some investment at the outset like anything good, but will be worth it.

Tips For A Healthier Kitchen

Eating well starts with respect for food and body. Knowing how food can impact positive health and mood instills greater appreciation for what's in the fridge and on the plate. Setting up a kitchen that gives food the respect it deserves for its journey to your fridge turns eating into a ritual vs a mundane routine. When respect is established the connection with food becomes healthier and so does eating before food spoils. A mindful space is also a more peaceful space and one where it becomes enjoyable to be present.

Clean The Kitchen

1. Start by shaping your environment. Create a list of favorite foods and beside each write down a healthier swap--something lower in sodium or sugar, more naturally made or without artificial ingredients and additives. Look at what you have and don't have as you start to clean and determine a good plan to transition out the bad food. 

2. Establish a healthier space for your food to make it last longer and look more appetizing. Cleaning out the pantry, bread and pasta drawers and fridge is a great way to lay the foundation for good organization. Proper containers for food storage like jars for loose bulk items from the supermarket or shady kitchen areas for fruit and tomatoes so they don't over ripen in direct sun, helps keep food in good condition. 

3. Grab a garbage bag and get rid of everything that has turned: Dump spoiled milk down the sink, toss rotten tomatoes. Consolidate half eaten bags of dried goods like pasta, rice and chips into one master bag. Do the same with jarred food where you might have more than one jar open and at different stages of fullness. 

4. Clear shelves, drawers and countertops and lay everything out on the table. Wipe down all surfaces, dirty jars and lids, seal half opened bag and tightly close containers and bottles that might be partially open. A dirty fridge is one you'll be less likely to want to pull food from. Keeping it clean turns it into a space for things you love to cook and eat. 

Good food creates a positive feeling. A space that optimizes the opportunity for good food moments is one that establishes a healthier connection with food so it doesn't get forgotten. 

Organize Food And Storage

When the fridge is looking better, food will be easier to find and look more appetizing. More food eaten, less wasted and fewer dollars lost in the process.

Organize your kitchen storage areas by food categories such as time constraints and cravings -- become aware of your own habits and those with whom you live. If you have a snack drawer filled with highly processed snacks, replace it with healthier swaps, or place fruit nearby so that you see the fresh items before the salty chips or hydrogenated cookies.

Try thinking about your relationship with food and what you're most likely to eat and when to create a guide for what to buy that's healthier and where to put it. Examples:

  • When you're tired, what are you most likely to grab?
  • What are the quick healthier meals you love to make when you or you and your family are short on time?
  • What are the must-haves for breakfast and the must-haves for dinner?
  • Are you making a conscientious effort to eat fruit and vegetables at home or are you eating bad replacements when out? Can you take the fresh food with you and if so place it where you'll be likely to grab it on the way out the door.
  • What of your fresh items expires the quickest. Put those within eyesight so that you don't forget--both in the fridge and on the counter tops.
  • Keep mental note of the price you (and the Earth) paid for that beautiful bunch of kale so that when you're thinking of skipping it for a bag of processed whatever, you'll be more inclined to toss it in a pan for 15 minutes with olive oil, salt and pepper for a quick tasty dish. Better for you and better for the planet.

Need tips on how to store fruits and vegetables, here's a quick guide. Freeze what you know you won't get to that week. If something is about to expire, cook it and freeze it or put it on the menu for the following night if it's not something you're into that moment.

Pantry and fridge items are often forgotten because they were underwhelming from the start. Don't toss food into the shopping cart if you're not going to eat it. Bad food sits. Good food moves. Paying a bit more for quality vs quantity--3 organic oranges vs 10 standard (where only 4 get eaten) increases the chance the food will be consumed vs left behind. Start tracking the costs of spoiled food at home to establish your own number to improve upon. 

Fresh produce and packaged food that is minimally processed and locally made has a taste that is hard to resist, and the benefits on mood and physical health go much further than a moment of indecision at the fridge. A healthier diet is an investment in healthcare over the long term as long as the good food gets eaten.