So this morning I woke to a post on thekitchn.com titled “This is how much you should really be spending on food and groceries”. Then in my Facebook feed there was “4 reasons why Martha & Marley Spoon is America’s best meal kit”. These both play into a growing trend I am seeing on social media and across the web. That trend is about food waste, how to try and eliminate it, and how to be a better shopper. Now, on the surface this is a noble issue to try an adjust but if you spend any time digging into it the issue becomes complicated and frustrating.
What I see as a trend are a few things. First off how American’s eat can be appalling. They want convince, they want instant gratification, and they want endless options. They typically don’t want to be bothered with planning and this is where it all goes down hill quickly. Without a good plan your inevitably going to have things that don’t get used and eventually go bad. Hence food waste.
The next issue is that some how we have villainized leftovers. The number of times I hear people say they can’t imagine eating the same thing over and over shocks me. Why not? Did you not like it the first time? Do you know have a good way to reheat it? These are just some of the things I wonder. What’s so wrong with leftovers. More to the point is what is leftovers and what is preparing ahead of time. If I make a lasagna tonight to be this weekends dinner does that make it “leftover”? If I plan on eating half Saturday and half Sunday does that make it leftover? Even if it does, why is that so bad? It means I didn’t have to cook this weekend yet I got to eat a home made meal.
Now, I will admit, I am not perfect and I too have things that go bad before I can use it all. I do sill generate some food waste but it’s shrinking little by little. It all is about having a good plan. Now for that to happen I have to acknowledge there are obstacles for the home cook. Not all recipes tell you how many servings it makes but whats worse is regardless if they do or don’t give you “number of servings” they don’t give you any indication on what they used to determine that. If a roast chicken is 4 servings is that with one side? Maybe 2 sides? What about the age of the person? What about the gender of a person? What about the physical activity of the person? You see you can’t just say a recipe makes so many servings and have it mean much of anything.
To overcome this obstacle there’s a great tool. It’s the kitchen scale. I would highly recommend a scale that has at least a 20 pound maximum and can weigh down to a single gram. Knowing how much food you are serving will revolutionize how you eat. Before using a kitchen scale I might have cooked dinner, put it all on the table with serving spoons and tongs and let everyone help themselves. This is fine but there’s little control on understanding how much is being eaten and of what. The goal should never to be full but to not feel hungry. If you ever feel full you most likely have eaten too much.
What I learned from using the kitchen scale is that for breakfast I eat about 6 ounces of food. For lunch I eat about the same and for dinner I tend to eat about 10 ounces. To figure this out it meant that for a while I had to put my plate on a scale, zero it out and then add my food to see what everything weighed. I know if I get close to 12 ounces or go over for my dinner I often feel full. So I backed it off till I landed on 10-11 ounces is perfect. This won’t be necessarily true for you. I am nearly 40. I am male. I got to the gym 4 times a week and other than that I don’t get much activity. Believe it or not all this matters.
Armed with this information my husband and I got talking about portions. How much of a meat does he like to be meat (protein) and how much does he want it to be veggies and grains. We came to the conclusion based on weighing what we eat that for dinners we like to have about 4 ounces of protein and 6-7 ounces of veggies and grains. This is hugely helpful in my meal planning and is yet another reason why taking notes when you cook and after are so important.
When I cook a recipe for the first time after it’s cooked I weigh it (I might pour it into a bowl or place on a platter that is on a scale.) Then on the recipe I make my notes. This tells me everything I need to know when making the dish going forward. To real befit to weighing the recipe after I make it is to eliminate waste. When I make a recipe and have a weight I then determine how many servings I am wanting to get from it. So, lets say I made Braised Lamb with Jujubes. I know I want this to be dinner and then lunch the next day for both my husband and myself. I take the weight and divide by 4. I then write the serving weight on a piece of masking tape and stick it to the lid of the container it will be stored in. I then scoop out the two servings for dinner and put the rest in the container. Doing all this only takes a minute or two but it ensures that it will all get eaten and that their are equal servings sizes. When we’re eating we often will discuss if there’s too much or not enough and I add these notes to the recipe as well. What I end up with is a recipe that will have exactly the serving sizes that I use. It also means I won’t have any getting lost in the back of the refrigerator.
One reason I know people end up with leftovers in their fridge that never get eaten is that whatever was made is not incomplete. Maybe you have the main of the dinner but the sides were so good you ate them all. By making sure you have all the components decided up into equal meals means this issue should be illuminated.
Now for the advanced part of cutting back on food waste. Veggies that sit in your fridge and go bad. Often what happens is that you buy ha head of Napa cabbage for Stir-Fried Greens with Dried Shrimp but the recipe only calls for a ¼ of the head of cabbage. This is where planning comes into play. When you are looking at a recipe to make look at the perishables. What in the recipe won’t keep? Maybe it’s the cabbage, maybe it’s the dried shrimp. Then either look for other recipes you can use that base ingredient in or can you double or tripe a recipe to ensure that the perishable items will be entirely used up. Going back to that Stir-fry recipe, I end up making the entire head of cabbage and using the entire tray of dried shrimp. One it will keep longer once it’s cooked and two it’s more likely to get eaten if it’s been cook than if it was just a half a head of cabbage.
Menu planning was never meant to be quick and easy. Those who excel at it take time and put a lot of thought to it and can make their food budgets stretch further. If you are the one who picks the recipes that will be made then you should be the one putting together the grocery list. Take some quiet time and really think through this task. It can be weekly but heck it can even be monthly but whenever you’re going to do it make sure you have time to really think about what you’re planning and look to what could go bad and try to find ways to use it. By doing this before you even shop means you’re more set for success to cut down on your food waste.
One last thought. If you have seen all of these “meals in a box” services popping up thinking this is the answer I challenge you to think carefully before choosing it. What I would ask you to think about is that there is packaging, shipping, processing, and often a lot of trash created. You may not have food waste but you may be generating a lot more trash as well as it requiring a lot more fossil fuels to be consumed in processing and shipping. That being said if it’s what works best for you great but it’s not like they don’t come without their issues as well.
We each need to find what will work for us but I think we can all agree that the number one thing we all need to do is cut down on creating food waste in our own homes in which ever way we can.