How a Trip to Italy Inspired My Family to Tackle Food Waste at Home

published Feb 25, 2018
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(Image credit: Ayumi Takahashi)

Several years ago, we spent time with friends in their Italian country house. (Yes, this was easily the best summer ever.) My friends are generous and lovely people, so there was always a full house, and we did a lot of cooking, which required a lot of food. The house was isolated, and my family learned to be even more mindful of food waste and extra trash. The grocery store was quite a drive and excess trash resulted in fines for our gracious hosts. We cooked everything we had on hand, eliminated as much packaging as possible, recycled everything we could, and sent the kids out to the compost pile after almost every meal.

While I’ve never been one to waste, that summer we took it to a whole new level, and I was happy to raise the bar on how we handled food waste. Here’s how we brought those practices home with us.

We compost at home.

When we came back to South Carolina, I knew I had to strike while the iron was hot. As enthusiastic as the kids were about composting in Italy, I knew they’d soon they forget without reinforcement! (And same for us adults.) We didn’t have a compost system in place, so I asked a knowledgeable friend how we could get started right away, as easily as possible. She taught me to dig holes in different areas every day, filling them with our day’s unusable scraps, and we’ve never looked back.

We keep an organized fridge.

Although we try to use up as much food as possible before buying more, there are always a few stragglers. When we get back from the store, it’s easy to throw all the new groceries on top of the others. Taking an extra few minutes to put the new produce and other food in the bottom of the drawer or at the back of the shelf and moving the old stuff to the front makes all the difference. When we open the fridge, the food we need to use is the first thing we see.

We cook with scraps.

Nothing is more wasteful than letting food rot, so I try to use everything in the fridge before buying more. At least one day a week, usually Saturday or Sunday, we clean out the fridge by making an effort to eat all the food. Carrots and celery get cut into strips and refreshed in a bowl of water before we snack on them with ranch dip made from the smidge of leftover sour cream from Tuesday’s stroganoff. The mushrooms I meant to use as a pizza topping are hastily sautéed with half a chopped onion, some thyme, and a little seasoning, before I make them into a phyllo pie with an almost forgotten bit of feta, using the last of the phyllo I opened for party appetizers last weekend. The slightly stale bread that was neglected during weekday lunches gets toasted and made into breadcrumbs. Scrap cooking is creative and fun, often with delicious results.

We stock the essentials thoughtfully.

Scrap cooking is easier with a ready supply of basics, like pasta or rice that help to pull a meal together. Although I don’t like to buy things we won’t use almost immediately, we usually have back-up bottles of olive oil, tamari, balsamic vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, mayonnaise, Dijon mustard, and anything else I use in multiple dishes. Because I make stock from scraps and leftovers, we always have several containers of chicken, vegetable, or fish stock in the freezer — perfect to start a soup or risotto. I rarely run out of onions, garlic, and my favorite spices for seasonings.

We call each other out for wasting food.

Kidding! I mean, okay, I’m not proud of this, but I’ve definitely expressed vehement frustration when I catch someone throwing away an apple because it’s bruised (when it could be juiced or made into a tiny apple tart), or opening a new jar of jam because getting the last little bit from the old jar is too much of a hassle. You know what works far better than scolding? Actually telling my children why I arrange the fridge a certain way, while we put away the groceries together. And showing them how to char over-ripe tomatoes to make a quick pasta meal. Make a child breakfast, and they eat for a few minutes as they run out the door. Teach them to cook eggs, and they make omelets filled with yesterday’s leftovers for life.

When I look into our garbage can before rolling it out to the street for weekly pickup and it’s only a fifth full, I smile. (It’s entirely possible I need to get a life, but isn’t it nice to find happiness so easily?) I feel like we’re doing something right. About the only time our family of five comes close to filling the trash bin is after a holiday or a huge party. It takes a little planning and creativity, but buying less and using what we have makes me feel good, gosh darn it.

What are your favorite ways to reduce food waste at home?