Debunking Food Waste Myths
My parents have ingrained in me from a young age to never waste my food. Even now, I have continued to carry this mentality with me, be it not putting more food on my plate than what I can eat or not overdoing it at the grocery store (though this one is still a bit difficult for me).
Though it may have been annoying to hear my parents nag me about clearing my plate when I was younger, I’ve become more conscious of food waste as I’ve grown older and how it is a much bigger problem beyond just one person. For example, the United States is the leading country in food waste and in 2017, threw away over 41 million tons of food according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Though the global food supply chain needs larger structural overhauls, we, as consumers, can still take smaller steps to help out. As a recent college grad, I am spending a lot more time in the kitchen cooking my own meals which has caused me to challenge a lot of notions I had about food and cooking. Here are some food myths, debunked, that will help reduce your food waste footprint:
Myth #1: You need to peel your vegetables.
This lesson may have stemmed initially from me realizing one evening I didn’t own a vegetable peeler after I had already bought a bunch of carrots for dinner but after a quick Google search, I came to learn that peeling vegetables is not always necessary and often, is usually just a result of habit or preference.
Though this will depend on the individual fruit or vegetable, unpeeled fruits or vegetables tend to contain more nutrients in comparison to their peeled counterparts. Not only are you getting more vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, but the peels often contain fiber that will keep you fuller for longer. Maximizing your nutritional intake while having to do less work? That’s a win in my book.
Though there are still a couple of vegetables that require peeling (think vegetables with thick or waxy outer layers like squash or turnips), if you are someone who wants to start yielding the nutritional benefits of unpeeled vegetables but are still a bit antsy, look for pesticide-free produce (which is different from organic).
Myth #2: The tops, bottoms, stems, leaves, etc. of vegetables should be tossed.
I will be the first to admit that I am guilty of tossing the tops, bottoms, stems, etc. of carrots, celery, kale, and more without a second thought when I am cooking. However, my mom, ever the thrifty cook, pointed out that not only are the tops of vegetables edible, but they can be turned into dishes that are actually appetizing to eat.
There are a ton of ways to incorporate vegetable parts including throwing them into salads, sauteéing them, turning them into soups, pickling them, and even turning them into pesto! Here are some of the best examples I have seen:
- Shaved Broccoli with Mustard-Dill Dressing
- Sweet and Spicy Sauteéd Kale Stems
- Cream of Celery Leaf and Scallion Soup
- Pickled Collard Green Stems
- Roasted Carrots with Carrot-Top Pesto
On the note of giving bits and pieces of food a second chance before deeming them as scraps, this leads us to our next myth...
Myth #3: Once you finish a food item, that’s it.
So after learning about new ways to stretch how far all the parts of a vegetable could go, I fell down a rabbit hole of researching if there are other, hidden ways to get the most out of other common food items.
While this section is not meant to be an exhaustive list by any means, I wanted to incorporate some of the more interesting suggestions I came across in my research.
- Use cheese rinds and throw them in a soup to flavor the broth
- Pickling watermelon rinds for a refreshing snack
- Using citrus peels to clean your garbage disposal
- Alternatively, turn those citrus peels into a tea
- Use expired milk to help clean silverware (or your house!)
- Use leftover pickle juice to pickle new foods (like the watermelon rinds mentioned earlier)
The possibilities are endless.
Myth #4: Sticking strictly to food safety labels.
We’ve established food waste is a big problem for households across the world. However, something causing people to pause and contemplate is this: Should you keep a food item past its expiration date or throw it away?
While food safety labels are intended to clear up confusion, the plethora of different labels in the food space is not helpful. To add to consumer confusion, it does not help that there is a lack of federal regulation of food labels, despite an advocacy push from the Natural Resource Defense Council and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC).
So when we see “Sell by”, “Best if Used By”, and “Use By”, what does it mean? Whitson Gordon (follow him on Twitter) from lifehacker.com explains that not only do these terms refer to quality as opposed to safety, but each have different applications:
Sell By: This date tells the store how long to keep the item on their shelves. If it reaches the date before it's sold, the store will pull it from the shelves. It represents the last day the food is at its peak quality of freshness, taste, and consistency. It will still be safe to eat after the Sell By date.
Best If Used By: Again, this merely refers to when the quality of the item starts to go downhill. Generally, you may notice a difference in taste or consistency after that date, but it will still be safe to eat. For example, sour cream may become a bit more sour, or peanut butter may start to experience some harmless oil separation in the bottle.
Use By: Yep, you guessed it—this is pretty much the same as "Best Used By". The Use By date is when the product loses its peak quality. It's still safe to eat for a little while.
- Courtesy of Whitson Gordon, lifehacker
However, this doesn’t take into account other labels that may be out there. In this case, take the sell-by dates with a grain of salt and bring in your best judgment via sight, smell, and touch. Still not sure? Check out Stilltasty.com for some help.
Wasting food is a problem that extends beyond just throwing away good produce; it impacts our environment in a significant and unprecedented way. While larger conversations need to be had to effect structural change, education (and practice!) can start right at home.