Food Waste and Intuitive Eating
Whether you’re new to Intuitive Eating or very experienced with it, you may often wonder, “What about food waste?” After all, when you start intuitive eating, you are told to start listening to your hunger and fullness cues and to honor your own preferences. This means learning to say no to food when you’re not hungry and to be willing to throw food away rather than overeat in order to avoid “waste”. This is so hard for so many of us because we HATE the idea of wasting food!
And well we ought to hate food waste. It is estimated that about one third of all food produced in the world is wasted. Food waste is a major source of pollution and land degradation, and a gigantic drain on our economies and personal finances. A recent article from the BBC quoted an estimate that if we stopped wasting food, we could cut global emissions by as much as 8%! (And that’s to say nothing about all of the hungry people we could feed.) But avoiding food waste does not have to come at the expense of our health and happiness. When it comes to making peace with food and honoring our bodies, we have to learn to say, “no” and have it feel empowering, not depriving or destructive.
How to stop eating when you’re worried about wasting food
- Realize that eating food that you are not hungry for is still wasting it! No, it may not end up in a landfill, but it is costing you, the economy, and the environment in different ways. It costs you because you are now uncomfortably full and, over time, consistently eating past your fullness can lead to health problems and a distorted relationship with food. It costs the environment because most of the environmental impact of the food industry comes from the production of food rather than the disposal of it.
- The money spent on that food is a sunk cost. So is most of its impact on the environment; again, most of the pollution from the food industry is from food production. You don’t get your money back or lower carbon emissions much by eating more food than your body needs. In other words, you wasted it when you bought, prepared, and/or served it, not when you chose not to eat it.
- This is temporary. You will get better at judging how much you need to eat and, as a result, you will waste less. Any more, I usually eat just about everything that I serve myself. After years of Intuitive Eating, I am good at judging ahead of time how much food it will take to satisfy me. Sometimes I may under-plate myself, but that’s ok because I have full permission to go back for more. Sometimes I may over-plate, but usually it’s not by much.
- Cleaning your plate doesn’t give food to people who don’t have enough food. Let go of the guilt. If you’re truly concerned about the hungry, look for a reputable charity that helps malnourished people at home or abroad and contribute in what way you can to their work. (My family got great satisfaction by contributing to a charity that allowed us to buy farm animals for families so that they could get long-term nourishment and income from livestock.)
Effective ways to reduce your food waste without ignoring your fullness
Once you have gotten to a good place with your Intuitive Eating, there is definitely a lot more that you can do to decrease your food waste without compromising on your health or satisfaction. I wouldn’t recommend focusing on this until you have moved into the Gentle Nutrition phase of Intuitive Eating. At that point, you will be well-attuned to your hunger and fullness cues and will have made peace with food. With those skills in place, you can approach food waste from a place of values and concern and not a place of guilt and compulsion.
- Look at what food you already have before you go shopping. That way you don’t over-buy and end up having things go bad.
- Plan your meals. This way you are buying food you need and using up what you have. Things almost always go better with a plan.
- Between shopping trips, eat the most perishable items first.
- Keep track of what food you end up throwing away and adjust your shopping accordingly. Years ago, I realized that we almost NEVER used up a whole bunch of celery before it would go bad. So I stopped buying it most of the time and really didn’t miss it too much. Now that my family has grown, I find that I can finally get through a bunch of celery before it goes bad. Hooray! So it’s back on the shopping list. I know I can live without it, but I do enjoy that extra aromatic flavor that it adds to dishes.
- Buy a smaller package if you can’t go through the bigger one. Yes, I know the price per unit is lower on the big one. But when you throw half of the big package away, the effective price per unit actually ends up being higher.
- Eat your leftovers. They make for great packed lunches or a quick reheat a day or three later. Just make sure you put them away promptly to keep them safe.
- Get creative with your leftovers. For example: Beans and rice on day 1, Chili on day 2, Burritos on day 3. Leftover rice or spaghetti make for great stir-fries. Leftover rice can also be the base for a great burrito bowl. Add cooked meat and poultry to soups, salads, sandwiches, pizzas, casseroles, etc. Add cooked vegetables to frittata and soups. Puree cooked vegetables and add them to meatloaf. The possibilities are endless.
- Freeze foods if you know you can’t use them up before they go bad.
- If you’re a meat eater, adopt a snout-to-tail mentality. That is, try to make use of the whole animal. This can be really hard for those of us who didn’t grow up eating variety meats, such as tripe, chicken hearts, liver, sweetbreads, and pig’s feet. I am not a big fan of variety meats and can’t overcome my distaste for them, so I am opting to eat less meat instead. (I have tried not to pass on my bias to my children, so my daughter happily eats chicken hearts whenever she gets the chance.) However, there are many great ideas out there for using variety meats in ways that don’t affect taste and texture as much, such as grinding them up and adding them to ground beef. Not only does this reduce food waste, it can potentially save money, and these cuts are usually very nutritious and add great variety to your diet. (Also note that if you have dogs, small amounts of cooked variety meats can be a wonderful, nutritious treat. Ask your veterinarian for guidance if you’d like to give it a try.)
- Make broths and stocks from scraps. You can save vegetable scraps, chicken and turkey carcasses, beef bones, ham hocks, fish heads, shrimp shells, etc. and use them to make delicious stocks. Just make sure that you’re only using foods that are clean and safe. No moldy onions or chewed-on ribs. You can even ask a butcher or local meat processor if they have extra bones that you can have or buy for a low cost. Give them a good roast before you make the stock and it will intensify the color and flavor.
- Buy imperfect produce. About a third of fresh produce ends up being thrown away because it’s not exactly the right size or shape. What a waste! It tastes just as good and is just as good for you.
- Support organizations that reclaim agricultural food waste. My sister gets a box of produce every week or so filled with imperfect produce that isn’t considered good enough to sell in the store. It is reclaimed by a local organization and sold to conscientious and money-savvy consumers who don’t mind if their carrots appear to have 2 legs. Sadly, no such organization exists near me that I am aware of, but more are being created all the time.
- A lot of food waste occurs before food reaches the consumer. Find out more about what is going on locally. See if there is anything that can be done to reclaim wasted foods. Maybe volunteers can harvest crops when there aren’t enough laborers and then donate the food to a local food pantry. Maybe a farmer will be willing to sell their imperfect produce to a local co-op. You won’t know unless you ask.
- Ask local growers if you can glean their crops. Often they will let you do this for free, but you will need to ask. A lot of food goes to waste simply because the harvest is too abundant to pick it all or because harvesting methods are never 100% efficient.
- Similarly, if you see a fruit tree in someone’s yard that is overloaded with fruit, you can ask them if you can harvest it for yourself or others. (Just make sure that it has not been sprayed with pesticides, herbicides, etc. that are not approved for use on edible crops. If you prefer organic food, you will have to make sure it has not been sprayed at all.) I have almost never needed to ask, as I have found many people who practically beg others to come and take fruit from their trees so that it doesn’t go to waste and cover their yard.
- Compost the food you cannot save. There are many great guides out there for how to compost your kitchen scraps. Not everything should go in there. For instance, meat and dairy can make your compost very smelly and attract pests. At our house, we throw in almost everything except for dairy products because we have chickens. They eat up what they want (and turn it into eggs!) and give everything else a nice stir while they’re at it. Later, you can use this compost to enrich the soil in your garden or yard.
So can you be conscientious about food waste and an Intuitive Eater? YES! Just take your time getting there. First you need make peace with food, get to know your body’s hunger and fullness cues, and discover what foods truly satisfy you. Once you have done that, it will be much easier to tackle the food waste problem without layering it with unnecessary guilt.
What are your favorite ways to reduce food waste? Leave your ideas in the comments.