Each year, Americans throw away 63 million tons of food. American households account for 27 million tons of it, or about 43% of the total. We eat more, and waste more, at Christmas and other holidays than at other times of the year.
I can remember when children were told to eat everything on their plates—think of the starving children in China! People have started to make fun of statements like that. But think of the starving children in your own community.
Do your TV stations conduct holiday food drives? Then you have a food insecurity problem near you. Food waste is a major scandal worldwide. At a time when we focus so much attention on giving, it’s a shame to waste food while our neighbors have trouble getting enough.
The general problem of food waste
The total financial cost of all this food waste amounts to $218 billion. Restaurants and other consumer-oriented businesses waste nearly as much as individual households. But since only consumers pay the retail price for the food, the household share of this cost comes to $144 billion.
Much of that waste goes to landfills, but not all of it. A recent report by the Natural Resources Defense Council tracked not only the amount of food waste, but what kinds and what happened to it. Besides trash cans, consumers use garbage disposals and toilets to get rid of food waste. They also compost it or feed it to pets, which is at least more eco-friendly.
Some food waste, of course, comprises bones, peelings, and other inedible parts of food, but an average of about 68% of discarded food could have been eaten by humans.
Among the reasons given for discarding the food? Some people just don’t like eating leftovers. Leftovers actually constitute the largest single portion of edible food thrown out at home, or 23%. That includes leftovers from home-cooked meals and leftovers brought home from restaurants.
In the not too distant past, people routinely took leftovers for their weekday lunch boxes, and/or ate leftovers for an evening meal. After all, the cook of the household had already gone to the work of preparing it. The maxim “waste not, want not” still meant something, both for wasted work and wasted money.
Sometimes people put leftovers in the refrigerator and forget about them till they spoil. But more and more, people just don’t want to eat them. Over the past fifty years or so, food has come to represent a much smaller percentage of disposable income. It has become comparatively cheap, and people don’t respect what seems cheap.
The special problem of Christmas food waste
Holiday meals like Christmas only make the food waste problem worse. People expect to eat a lot. And no host wants to run out of anything. So cooks make more food. People pile more of it on their plates. And when their eyes are bigger than their stomachs, they leave more of it there. Also, some people love to give food as gifts.
Here are some ideas to reduce Christmas food waste:
- Do you plan to give food as a gift? Make sure it’s something the recipient likes. Be especially careful about perishable foods like fresh fruit. It’s not generous to give someone more pears or whatever than they can eat before it goes bad.
- Plan how much food you’ll need. The more dishes you serve, the less of each one you’ll need. A recipe intended to feed six people by itself probably makes enough for ten people coupled with all the other food you’ll serve. The Tasting Table has a handy guide for planning the right amount of food.
- Take a list to the grocery with precise amounts. You won’t have to wonder if you need a particular item you see if you have already decided what you need and how much of it.
- Serve on smaller plates. It’s better for people to take seconds and eat it all than to fill a plate with more than they can eat.
- Let people serve themselves. That way they won’t take anything they don’t like.
- Refrigerate whatever is left over promptly. Then be sure to send some home with guests.
- If you don’t want to eat the same food over and over, freeze individual portions. Enjoy it a couple of months later.
- If there seems not to be enough of something to keep, look for leftover food recipes and use it as an ingredient for something else.
- Or consider giving leftovers to someone you know who’s alone for the holidays.
Other posts about food waste on Sustaining Our World
Cities and food waste: what works and what seems not to
Food waste: a preventable shame
Food waste collection for community composting
How innovative food packaging combats food waste
Keeping food waste out of landfills
Organics recycling: what it is and how to do it right
Take a bite out of food waste
What happens to food waste in America?
Estimating quantities and types of food waste at the city level [PDF] / Darby Hoover, Natural Resources Defense Council. October 2017
How to avoid food waste this holiday season / Brian Walsh, Time. November 24, 2011
Why Americans have stopped eating leftovers / Caitlin Dewey, The Washington Post. October 31, 2017