Holiday Food Waste

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The large amount of unprepared food left when our house guests said goodbye made me take a closer look at how much food waste our family produces and challenged me to prepare and purchase food differently. 

This year we celebrated New Years in our new home for the first time, breaking a three year strong tradition of being in Toronto for the countdown.  This wasn’t the only exciting thing, friends agreed to fly into Portland and celebrate with us.

We had a grand total of five house guests over 9 days.  Between Christmas and New Years Eve we feasted.  Rib-eye, tamales, Porchetta, Ribs, pounds of bacon and cartons of eggs for breakfasts, pasta, salsas, donuts, pork rillete, Cheeses, fresh bread and fancy crackers, cheesecake, Banoffee pie – all swimming in sparkling wine, Scotch, IPA’s and Canadian whiskey (gifts from our Canuck guests).  It was great.  Really, really, great and really, really disorganized.  Random food items showed up from grocery store runs, and no real communication was happening while the guys slugged back beers in the kitchen.  The same person who was making fresh pico (and way too much of it) also made fresh pesto? Why? Nobody knows.

The night our house was finally back to normal, James texted me asking if I needed anything from the store…I laughed out loud (seriously, I LOL’d) when I glanced in our fridge, it was FILLED with groceries, too many, I immediately started moving items to the freezer because I was so freaked out that so many things would spoil.

Did you know that the average American family of four discards over $1,600 in produce annually, and about 20 pounds of food per person per month is wasted?
Over 1/3 of all food produced globally is lost/wasted.

I know from personal experience the insane amount of food waste occurring every single day.  For almost fifteen years I worked in the food service industry, mostly as a server and bartender in places ranging from high dives to fine dining, cafe’s and bakeries.  You see a lot of ‘bread’ thrown away in that kind of work.  Trash bag after trash bag of beautiful pastry and prepared foods, mostly gourmet tossed into dumpsters.  Even when donations were made to local Pantries and Shelters – there was still TOO much food and it would find its way to the garbage.

In my late teen years I lived in Kansas City, Missouri ,in a punk house called “Sissy Bar House” (we briefly had a bike gang) and we hosted traveling kids on our couch pretty regularly, they usually would dumpster dive food with my roommate from a local Aldi’s and score really nice produce and dry goods for us,  this was my first glance into the large scale food waste that was occurring in my community.  I was a broke 18/19 year old kid and the price was right, ‘expired’ off brand cheez-its are the first food I ever had that was “out of a dumpster”, followed by bruised fresh fruits and vegetables and sometimes even Nutella would show up in the kitchen, it was incredible.  Sometimes they would dumpster more food than we could even consume and so they would bring it every Sunday to Food Not Bombs for people to take.

Those experiences have totally impacted me and still I found my self slipping into wasteful shopping and habits. I am a total nut for food writing, I collect cook books,  I try new recipes all of the time, Williams Sonoma is one of my favorite places, I subscribe to food magazines, watch the shows, I live in fucking Portland – a foodie heaven.  This is one of my passions.

So, I’m staring at this fridge full of food purchased and then left behind by visitors and think about all of the farmers market hauls I’ve let go to waste and then I think about all of the times we tossed leftovers prematurely or let things spoil.  Being self critical at the beginning of a new year is not unusual and reflecting on the waste we were putting out and the money we were wasting  inspired some change with in our home.

I took the time to write down almost everything that was in the fridge at that moment, it was totally insane.

2 x White Mushroom (8oz container), crimini mushroom (8oz), 2 different kinds of salsa, 1 lb of blue cheese, Spinach, Mixed Greens (16oz), Tomato Juice, Fresh Taragon,1 lb of Manchego, Random cheese, 1/2 bag of Arugula, Fresh Mint (5oz), Fresh Basil (4 oz), Lamb shoulder, ground pork, ground buffalo, ground beef, mystery sausages from Zupans (8), 2 containers marscapone, 2 containers of crumbled goat cheese, 1/2 log of goat cheese, head of romaine, 5 cups of fresh pico de gallo, tortillas, Sour cream, beef stew meat, eggs, 2 x leeks, Prosciutto, 3 Limes, Bag of Fingerling potatoes, 1 x Bannana, Butternut Squash, 1 x Sweet Potato, Croutons, Pecan praline Candies.

For the next week I felt as if I were on the reality show Chopped, attempting to incorporate unusual combinations of ingredients into dishes.  I had wanted to chill out on dairy in the New Year, but there were POUNDS of cheese to go through. Roquefort Blue Cheese  and mushrooms were the clear candidates for the first meal.  This is a classic combination and so I sautéd some leeks and sliced mushrooms until tender in butter, wilted a bag of spinach with the veggies. Next, I threw in some heavy cream, crumbled blue cheese, salt, pepper and allowed it to simmer, awesome sauce.   This combined with some soba noodles from the pantry and a few mystery sausages (sounds so wrong) from our local grocers completed our first dinner improvised from the orphaned groceries.

There was a lamb and mint night, then a root vegetable casserole with goat cheese and prosciutto, I cooked the pico down with spices into an enchilada sauce, a dry baguette became seasoned bread crumbs.  I want to say that we got through ALL of the groceries but sadly we did not.  There are still some pureed concoctions in the freezer and a lot of the produce was lost just because it wasn’t stored properly.  I learned a lot about using what I have and improvising from recipes but I think the real lesson this year is to communicate with guests AND my husband the items that are already on hand to prevent over buying.  Repurposing left overs, cooking large quantities and freezing them and purees is the only way I could have ever gotten through everything in retrospect.  I felt sad throwing wilted romaine out, bloated from all the dairy I HAD to eat and annoyed that there were so many unopened bags of croutons in my kitchen. I know there is such thing as a bread salad but not in this house at that time.  So many things were wasted.

I’m going to spend the year being very extra careful about my food waste and will blog about it again after next holiday season.

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