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A Handy Guide to Fighting Food Waste This Holiday

As we enter the season of feasting galore, consider this not-so-festive fact: Nearly half of the food in this country ends up in landfills. Here's how you can help fight food waste—and get more on the plates of those who need it.

When Dana Gunders, a scientist formerly with the Natural Resources Defense Council, was working on a sustainable-agriculture project in 2012, she made a mind-blowing discovery: 40 percent of the food in the U.S. went uneaten, and waste from food made up 21 percent of all landfill trash. “Our whole culture had become very numb to how much food was being thrown out,” she says. Five years later she released another report, which found that food remnants emit methane as they decompose, generating the same amount of greenhouse gases as 37 million cars annually.


Fortunately, innovative retailers, chefs, and community organizers have found creative ways to waste less food—not to mention the water, energy, hard work, and passion that go into producing it—and to divert those nutritious ingredients to the people who need them. (The U.S. Department of Agriculture says 12.3 percent of American households struggled to put enough food on the table at some point in 2016.) You can help, too, by shopping and cooking mindfully, sharing the bounty, and heeding the advice of Gunders and other leading advocates.

At Home

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    You probably don’t need to make a big meal every evening. Have some “lazy nights,” says Gunders, who also wrote Waste Free Kitchen Handbook and is now a food waste reduction advisor at her San Francisco company, Next Course. “I never plan more than three meals a week, because I know that between kids, work, and everything else, there will be some nights where it’s just not happening.” For those dinners, she’ll rely on leftovers or takeout. She recommends choosing recipes with overlapping ingredients, so you’re not stuck with, say, a bunch of partially used herbs. And before you even start your list, look in the fridge, freezer, and pantry to design a meal around what you already have. Got eggs, cheese, and assorted greens in the crisper? Make a frittata. An onion, a few carrots, rice, and frozen peas? Add protein for fried rice.


    [SEE: How We Like to Cook with Leftovers!]

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    “Food affects all five senses when we consume it, but we often purchase it based on one criterion: sight,” says Thomas McQuillan, vice president of strategy, culture,and sustainability at Baldor Specialty Foods, in New York City, who successfully turned the distributor zero–organic-waste in 2016. Instead of searching for the straightest carrot, pick a slightly imperfect looking—but perfectly tasty—one that might wind up in the dumpster. “Ask yourself, ‘When I cut it up and taste it, does that scar affect the flavor?’” McQuillan says. Better yet, look into signing up for an Imperfect Produce subscription box. The San Francisco–based company buys fruits and vegetables that don’t meet grocery beauty standards directly from growers in many U.S. regions who would otherwise toss them, and passes on the big savings: You pay up to 50 percent less than you would at the store.


    [TRY: These 6 Sustainable and Budget-Friendly Shopping Tips]

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    Pop hard cheese, bread, and eggs into the freezer when you go on vacation. It’s a magic time-stopper for ingredients that might go bad while you’re away for a week or two, says Gunders. Scramble the raw eggs, and shred the cheese; both can be stored in freezer bags and later defrosted in the fridge. And slice the bread so it can go straight in the toaster.


    [THESE: Are the Freezer Secrets Our Food Editors Swear By]

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    In 2015, chef Dan Barber reinvented his award-winning farm-to-table restaurant Blue Hill, in New York City, as a pop-up called WastED, which turned overlooked by-products of our food system into delectable and artful dishes. “Doing WastED definitely forced us to think more creatively, both in the field and in the kitchen,” he says.


    Consider broccoli stalks: “They really are the most delicious part, and usually just get tossed in the trash.” He likes to blanch them, then top them with herbs and breadcrumbs. Also great, he says, are broccoli leaves, which are large, like collards: “If you shop at a farmers’ market, ask one of the growers to harvest them. That’s the type of conversation that’s going to activate real change.” McQuillan, who supplied carrot peels and celery tops to WastED, makes gratins from yam peels and mixes lemony kiwi skins and peppery radish tops into salads. For more ideas, check out the James Beard Foundation’s new cookbook, Waste Not.


    [HOW: This Documentary is Changing the Way We See Food Waste]

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    “I revive greens that are starting to get tired in a bath of ice water,” McQuillan says. Remove their roots and submerge them for about 15 minutes. Then drain, pat with a towel, and eat immediately. (If they’re still too limp, he says, sauté them in hot oil with garlic.) The cold plunge works for root vegetables, too. “Cut a small part off the bottoms and stick them in an ice bath, halfway up. The roots absorb the water very quickly, and you’ll see them come right back to life!”

In Your Community

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    “Across America, home and community gardeners produce enough excess food to feed 28 million people,” says Gary Oppenheimer, executive director and founder of The site lists more than 8,300 pantries—spanning all 50 states—to help get fresh, nutritious produce to those who can really use it. The organization connects backyard gardeners to nearby food pantries that will gladly take unwanted crops and distribute them to families in need.


    [WHY: We Love What This Program Does to Help Local Gardens]

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    Instead of buying out the canned-soup aisle, try writing a check. “Money goes 10 times further than donating food,” says Oppenheimer. He explains that local food pantries stock up on nonperishable items from large regional warehouses for 10 cents on the dollar. So why give $10 worth of packaged items at retail cost, when you can give the pantry $10 to purchase the equivalent of $100 from a food bank? Even better, the pantry can select items its community needs most.

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    Leah Lizarondo, CEO and cofounder of 412 Food Rescue, built an entire digital network that allows volunteers in Pittsburgh (and, if all goes according to plan, 20 other cities by 2020) to shuttle surplus food from retailers to nonprofits in need. Since launching in 2015, the organization has redirected 4 million pounds of food from landfills. You can do this in your area on a smaller scale: Offer to pick up unwanted items from your grocer or baker once a week, then deliver them to your local church or nonprofit.


    [HOW: These Students Created a Way to Help Feed Hungry Communitiesand Fight Food Waste]

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    Composting at home is easy to do; learn how here! But if you’re not ready to start, see if a community garden, park, or farmers’ market takes food scraps. You can stockpile them in the freezer, which eliminates odors, then drop them off once a week. If no such opportunity yet exists in your town, organize neighbors to make it happen. Ask nearby farmers if they’ll partner up, or push your department of public works or waste management to set up a curbside collection program. “We can come up with all the excuses as to why we can’t compost,” McQuillan says. “We need to come up with reasons why we can.


    [WHAT: This Boston Company is Doing to Help Local Businesses Compost More]

Holiday Help

About 200 million pounds of turkey alone are tossed over Thanksgiving alone. But we can be grateful without being wasteful. Here’s how.

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    For a huge meal with sides, you don’t need to make enough servings of mashed potatoes or stuffing to match the number of people eating, says food-waste expert Dana Gunders. She recommends the Guest-imator calculator at, which lets you input the number of diners (sorted into little, big, and average eaters), the number of days of leftovers you want, and the types of dishes you’re making, then churns out the right quantities.

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    412 Food Rescue’s Leah Lizarondo suggests asking caterers before you hire them if they can donate surplus food: “Especially during the holidays, there are a lot of caterers who will make sure anything that isn’t eaten goes to someone who can use it.” If everyone says no, Gunders recommends finding a local food-collection organization: “Most cities have one that will take prepared food,” she says. Or list a smaller number of partygoers than you really have. “Caterers always overestimate, so cut it by 5 to 10 percent—you might not have those extras to give.”


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