Let’s learn to love leftovers and fight food waste

We toss as much as 400 pounds of food per person per year. (Dreamstime)

Credit: Dreamstime

Credit: Dreamstime

We toss as much as 400 pounds of food per person per year. (Dreamstime)

There’s nothing like Thanksgiving leftovers.

And I mean there’s nothing like ‘em.

While we Americans are rock stars with post-Thanksgiving turkey melts, Day Three turkey quiche and maybe even Day Four turkey salad, we simply refuse to tap our culinary creativity any other time of the year.

Instead, we toss — as much as 400 pounds of food per person per year.

This leeriness toward leftovers is costing us, and costing our planet in overburdened water and energy supplies, and greenhouse gas emissions. Consider: 

— Up to 40 percent of food in the United States never gets eaten. For eye-opening proof, visit your kid’s school cafeteria or your grocery store’s expansive salad bar just before closing time.

How much waste? 

Americans throw out nearly 400 pounds of food annually per person, even though much of it is still fine to eat.

52 percent of vegetables and fruits

50 percent of fish and seafood

38 percent of grain products

22 percent of meat

20 percent of milk

Want to stop the waste?

For simple tips to help our planet, go to savethefood.com

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

— Ninety percent of us throw away food too soon. That's partly because "best by" dates are confusing, subjective and not federally regulated.

— A four-person family loses $1,500 a year on wasted food. 

“What family can’t come up with a better way to spend $1,500?” asked JoAnne Berkenkamp, a Minneapolis-based senior policy advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a food and agriculture program whose mission is to reduce food waste in homes, restaurants and grocery stores.

“Saving that food would be like giving yourself a raise,” she said.

The NRDC is reaching out at this food-centric time of year to encourage us to make simple changes to turn the tide. Among them:

Keep leftovers at the front of the fridge in clear containers.

Resist BOGOs (buy-one-get-ones) if you really don't need the second package.


Plan ahead.

Because, while we point fingers at restaurants and grocery stores, hospitals and schools, the biggest food wasters are us on the homefront. Most commonly, we toss out fruits and vegetables, particularly if they’re not perfect, or when they become soft or discolored, instead of freezing them for future smoothies or a decadent pie.

Leftovers from a previous meal or restaurant are our second most discarded group.

“We need a cultural shift,” Berkenkamp said. “We need to make leftovers hip again.”

For the record, some of us love eating leftovers, perhaps too much. I’ve been asked more than once in my kitchen, “You’re still eating that? From last week?”

Hey, all I have to do is heat it up and, besides, it’s free.

We leftover lovers welcome your membership. To join our club, please consider backing off a bit from a perceived need for culinary variety every day. Yes, eating out options are ubiquitous and relatively cheap.

But you have tuna/roast beef/cheese/bread/apples in your pantry. And that pizza from last night. And half of your kid’s PB&J from yesterday’s lunchbox.

Why not eat that? 

Berkenkamp takes her own advice. Before she throws anything out, she takes a brief moment to ponder her decision.

“I ask myself, ‘What am I throwing away? Why am I throwing it out?’ And, ‘What did I pay for this?’ It’s a good way to become a little more conscious.”

To be fair, Americans know we need to be better. Studies show that we’re aware we’re wasting money. We know there are people in our community who don’t have enough. (Read NRDC’s “Wasted” report, released in August at tinyurl.com/zggcnwe.)

And we’re hardly unique.

The United Kingdom is addressing food waste with a government-funded charity called Wrap UK. Its goal is to cut waste and greenhouse gas emissions associated with food by at least 20 percent per person by 2025.

The French have passed laws around food waste in homes, as well as in grocery stores and restaurants.

Australia has a Facebook page called Leftover Lovers, which began in 2016 as a project between friends. It’s grown to become a host for public discussions around food waste.

(One note: Be careful when searching for Leftover Lovers on other sites. On Pinterest, for example, you’ll end up with someone else’s rejected boyfriend. But he might, in fact, enjoy a tasty day-old turkey sandwich.)

Another important shift is unifying and simplifying food expiration labels. Consumers need to understand that those dates suggest peak freshness — not when a food item becomes unsafe.

“People are throwing food out that is perfectly good,” Berkenkamp said.

Her advice: "Take a look, smell it."

And think about how much food you really need. Marketers want us to overbuy, but we can reject their tactics. We can, instead, ask ourselves, “How much food do I really need?”

Berkenkamp’s organization is eager to help, with a nifty calculator, called the Guest-imator (savethefood.com). Plug in how many guests are coming, and whether they’re small or big eaters, and you’ll have the perfect amount of food.

And, when I say “perfect” amount, I mean enough for everyone to feel pleasantly stuffed.

And me to have leftovers for a day. Or three.