5 Ways To Reduce Food Waste : The Salt : Life Kit Tossing out overripe avocados, wilted greens and sour milk isn't just costing you money — it's also contributing to climate change. In this episode, learn how to reduce your food waste with composting strategies and creative recipes that will help you turn food waste into dinner.

How to reduce food waste

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/786867315/787035817" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Is this Molly Wernick (ph)?

MOLLY WERNICK: This is, in fact, Molly Wernick.

ARNOLD: Molly Wernick is a LIFE KIT listener.

WERNICK: I thought, wow, this is very practical knowledge.

ARNOLD: I wanted to talk to her because she listened to an episode, and something really cool happened. Molly had some loans from school and credit card debt and wasn't really making a ton of progress paying those off, but then she heard about two debt repayment strategies on LIFE KIT.

WERNICK: I think it was the avalanche strategy and the snowball strategy. And so the snowball strategy really appealed to me because it said take the loan with the lowest balance and pay it off as quickly as possible.

ARNOLD: She thought, hey, I could try that, this snowball strategy - sounded doable.

WERNICK: I made, I think, the biggest payment I have ever made of anything in my life from my bank account, I think. Then in a matter of minutes, my loan was totally paid off.

ARNOLD: And what did that feel like?

WERNICK: Good. It's exciting. It's like, OK, well, I can do this. Like, what's next? It's actually making a difference in the way that I can spend an extra $250 a month. Now I'm one step closer to being debt-free.

ARNOLD: That is super cool, and we want to make more LIFE KIT episode so you can feel the way that Molly feels. And to do that, we need your support. Make a donation to your NPR station today. Just go to donate.npr.org/lifekit to give.



This is NPR's LIFE KIT. I'm Allison Aubrey. Say you want to do your bit to save the planet. What comes to mind? Buy an electric car, install solar panels, conserve water. But there's one thing you may not have thought of that can make a surprising difference, something you can start doing today - stop wasting food.

CATHERINE MILLER: When I first heard that we could help fight climate change by reducing food waste, I was shocked.

AUBREY: That's Catherine Miller of the James Beard Foundation. She's the vice president of impact.

MILLER: Right now, we waste 40% of the food that's produced in the United States, and a lot of that food actually goes into landfills.

AUBREY: And a lot of this food is in big plastic bags, where it's tossed into a landfill, and as it decomposes, it releases methane gas into the atmosphere - a greenhouse gas that's more potent than carbon dioxide.

MILLER: Ten percent of all greenhouse gas emissions are linked to food waste.

AUBREY: And that must be surprising to people, right?

MILLER: It's absolutely surprising to people. I think people have a face-palm sort of moment. When the U.N. reports come out and show that 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions, all that are contributing to climate change, come from food that is wasted - this is a very easy thing that we, as consumers and eaters, can do to help change that.

AUBREY: Up to 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions - that is huge. Now, food is lost at many points along the supply chain - from the farm, during shipping, to the grocery store. But it turns out that we are a big part of the problem, and by we, I mean consumers. Forty percent of food waste happens in our own kitchens. All told, the U.S. wastes enough food to fill the tallest skyscraper in Chicago 44 times a year.

MILLER: We don't necessarily think of food waste as something that we can do to help mitigate climate change and protect the planet. This is something that we can very easily curb. It's very easy for us to stop wasting the food that we produce.


AUBREY: In this episode of LIFE KIT, five steps to fight food waste in your own home. We're going to talk kitchen hacks and how to compost so all of us can help save the environment and also save a bunch of money.


AUBREY: So you're ready to set some new habits? Catherine Miller says here's the first thing to think about.

MILLER: At Step No. 1 to reduce food waste in our own homes is to plan, to make shopping lists, to plan out the meals for the week.

AUBREY: It sounds so simple but few of us do it. Lots of us are what I call aspirational shoppers. You know, we toss things into the cart that look appealing or novel with no real plan to use them. So as part of getting started, begin to take stock. Answer this question - what am I currently buying too much of? That's what Catherine Miller did in her own kitchen.

MILLER: There were a couple of things that shocked us when we started to look at food waste in our own home. One was the amount of fruits and vegetables that we were just tossing because we had been really ambitious and hadn't planned accordingly.

AUBREY: If your refrigerator looks anything like mine, there's a lot of produce going to waste - wilted greens, soggy carrots, overripe avocados. But don't beat yourself up over it because you can turn this into a moment of discovery. Every time you toss stuff out, keep a tally. Write down what you're wasting. Even this can start to change your habits. And look - it happens to everyone, right?

TIFFANY DERRY: Life happens, and sometimes you don't make it around to cooking. Sometimes those vegetables start to wilt. Sometimes things just sit a little longer than you anticipated. And next thing you know, you're putting it in the trash.

AUBREY: Meet Tiffany Derry. She's a chef and owns some restaurants in Texas, and she's become a food waste warrior.

DERRY: But we have to think of it in a very proactive way. We have to figure out, what do we do with this, now that - you know, now that the greens are wilted?

AUBREY: Which leads us to strategy No. 2 - get creative. Learn to repurpose food. Before you throw something out, think how can I transform this? How can I saute or roast or blend this into something new? We're going to run through some of Tiffany's favorite hacks. And by the way, you don't need a detailed recipe for any of this.

DERRY: I always say, the recipes are just guidelines. Go get a little bit creative, have a little fun, and just make it work. You taste it; you adjust as you go.

AUBREY: Here's one trick from Tiffany to use produce past its prime - get out the saute pan. Just because your greens are wilted doesn't mean they're bad.

DERRY: You know, a little bit of onion and garlic or whatever flavor you want to use, and go ahead and saute those greens. Or, you know, doing greens that are inside of soups or finish it off in sauces.

AUBREY: Or you can put them in top taco filling or fried rice because there's still a lot of flavor to salvage here. Plus, wilted greens are really forgiving.

DERRY: If they're just a little bit wilted, you can take and put in a little bit of ice water, and that will help kind of perk it up.

AUBREY: You can also saute those tomatoes that you have sitting around that are now soft.

DERRY: It may be past its prime for fresh tomatoes chopped up on a salad or on a sandwich, but it is just getting into the soup season or that stew season for tomato.

AUBREY: So no reason to throw any of this out.

DERRY: No, there's absolutely no reason to, and that's the point.

AUBREY: And once you start noticing what you're tossing out, you may notice something else - lots of leaves and stems, which believe it or not have a lot of flavor and nutrients, too. Take broccoli - most of us throw away the stalks and just eat the florets, the tops. But Tiffany says, why? You can use everything from the root to the stem.

DERRY: I say cook them the same exact way that you were gonna cook your florets. If you were going to boil it, boil it. If you were going to roast it, roast it. A little bit of salt and pepper and olive oil goes a long way in roasted vegetables. I mean, honestly, it's one of the most flavorful ways to bring out kind of the sugar and the flavor in any kind of vegetable - high heat, 425 degrees, olive oil, salt and pepper, little bit of fresh herb, roast it for a few minutes, take it out while it's still got a little crunch.

AUBREY: You're giving us all of your chef-y (ph) tips.


AUBREY: You're not going to have any secrets left.

DERRY: Oh, I don't need it. I want to give it away. I want us to eat all our food, and I don't want anybody else to throw their money away (laughter).


AUBREY: The fun of all of this is that there are just so many ways to repurpose food. You can also quick-pickle carrots, cucumbers or onions that you're just not going to get to fast enough. Or here's a good idea - it's for that bag of avocados you bought last week. It has ripened now, while you weren't paying attention, and now those avocados have little brown speckles, right?

DERRY: Having some brown specks and having just a little bit of softness will not change the flavor.

AUBREY: They won't look beautiful, but the taste is still there. So here's an idea.

DERRY: So one of the recipes we do is a chocolate mousse done with the avocado, and having the avocado that's nice and soft and ripe is the perfect avocado for that.

AUBREY: Tiffany says chocolate avocado mousse is super simple to make.

DERRY: So it is melted chocolate, a little bit of avocado that is blended. And we'll eventually blend everything together, and then we'll whip in a little bit of heavy whipping cream as well, or I have a recipe that uses tofu. I know I'm getting crazy here (laughter), but it acts in the same way. It is diabetes-friendly. And then I add in a little bit of orange zest and cinnamon and a touch of sugar.

AUBREY: I guess it's a way to salvage the avocado and get in a little bit of that good fat, yeah?



AUBREY: Now we should say, before you use wilted greens or other things that are way past their prime, the general rule of food safety is that heat kills pathogens. But if something doesn't pass the smell test or makes your stomach turn just looking at it, don't risk it - compost it. We'll go more into depth on how to compost in a second. But now it's time for takeaway No. 3, and this is so unbelievably useful - when it comes to fighting food waste, your freezer is your friend.

DERRY: I freeze anything that I'm not going to use quickly.

AUBREY: By anything, she means almost everything - your bread, your veggies, your fruits, even your milk.

DERRY: If I'm getting ready to go out of town, I look in my fridge, and I freeze anything that I'm not going to use quickly. So berries, pineapple - I mean, all of those fruits are things that people buy already. Why not get it while it's in the peak of season? And then pop it in a bag and just have it in your freezer ready to go. You know it's delicious. You know what time of the year it was brought in. I freeze vegetables if I'm not going to get to them.

AUBREY: When you freeze things, you're actually locking in flavor and nutrients. So in some ways, it's better than letting produce languish in the fridge. So here's another tip - this one from Catherine Miller - freeze bread. The best bakery bread will taste like a fresh-baked loaf if you freeze it.

MILLER: Put sliced bread in the freezer and take the sliced bread out of the freezer during the week and put it into the toaster, and you have fresh bread every day without risking wasting the bread.

AUBREY: Ah, so never even - like, never leave the bread sitting on the counter or even the refrigerator; just put it right into the freezer.

MILLER: Just slice it and put it right into the freezer, and you can take it out and you can throw it on a pan in the oven. You can put it in your toaster.

AUBREY: And you can't even tell it was frozen.

MILLER: No, not once you put some butter and some jam on it or some cheese or toasty.

AUBREY: Yum. I love toasties. And here is another idea - scraps of veggies, if you freeze them, are the perfect base for a broth.

MILLER: It's super simple to make broth, right? You just need some - you know, you can take the leftover onions, the celery, the carrots, the leftover chicken. Take it out of the freezer, throw it in some water with some herbs and some garlic and, you know, let it simmer for about an hour, and you've got great broth.

AUBREY: So looking in your freezer now, you've got your broth, your bread, your berries. And if you want to cook a big pot of greens on the weekend - say, quinoa or rice - Tiffany Derry says make it last all week or all month.

DERRY: I always have frozen rice in my fridge because I'll make more than I need because I love rice (laughter). And then I'll take it and I'll put it into smaller containers so that if the next day or whatever day that I need the rice, I just take it out and go ahead and let it sit out, or I will pop it in the microwave at defrost.

AUBREY: So the freezer really cannot be underestimated, it sounds like.

DERRY: Make the freezer your best friend (laughter).


AUBREY: And while we're at it, let's talk dollars and cents. There really is an economic case to be made here about how much money freezing can actually save you. The typical household in the U.S. is wasting somewhere between $150 to $200 a month on wasted food. Catherine Miller says it's shocking.

MILLER: No one would throw away anything that had a $200 value to it. It is not something - I mean, think about all the things - all the time that we spend trying to find lost things because they have value to us (laughter).

AUBREY: Right. I lost my hat; it cost $20.

MILLER: Right. Where is my water bottle that cost $20? Like, we - when we lose something that has value, that we've paid money for, we work to find it. And that's been one of the biggest things about food waste, is that we are throwing away hundreds of dollars every month in America into the trash.


AUBREY: Another factor that really contributes to food waste is the misinterpretation of sell-by dates. For the most part, all a sell-by date really is, is a manufacturer's best guess about when the food is the freshest. It doesn't mean that the food is bad or expired. You don't have to toss it out. And this is true even with milk.

DERRY: My son used to ask me all the time, is this still good (laughter)? Because it says on this date. And I would smell it...

AUBREY: Everybody knows that conversation, right? Everybody.


DERRY: Exactly. It happens in every household.

AUBREY: One of Tiffany's tricks - she takes milk that's about to turn sour and turns it into a sweet treat.

DERRY: I've made a lot of pancakes out of it (laughter).

AUBREY: We've all heard of buttermilk - right? - which is just milk with some lemon juice or other acid mixed in. Think of sour milk as nature's way of making buttermilk.

So you basically take this milk that's about to sour and then just blend it in with a bunch of flour and whatever other pancake mix you have, right?

DERRY: Yes. And sometimes I want it to go a little bit further so I'll add in - first, I'll take that milk. Let's say I had a cup of milk. I may add in a tablespoon of vinegar. It will thicken just like my buttermilk. And then from there, I would add in that milk into my dry ingredients and make pancakes or biscuits.

AUBREY: Now, you're talking. Biscuits - your family must love that.

DERRY: Oh, yes, they love it.


AUBREY: And another way to use up that milk comes from Catherine Miller. She says she likes having it in the house for coffee or the occasional recipe, but a lot of it goes to waste. So here is her tip to use up the rest of the gallon.

MILLER: So we make a lot of ricotta cheese in our house, which is super easy. Just milk, cream and acid, which I - we typically use lemons, to use those lemons we always have in our house. But you can use a vinegar. And then a pinch of salt. And all you need to do is heat it to pretty much almost boil - don't scald it. And then add the acid and the salt, and the ways (ph) will separate, and you'll have delicious ricotta.

AUBREY: I had no idea it was so easy to make ricotta.

MILLER: It's so easy (laughter).


AUBREY: Your final tip, tip No. 5, should take away some guilt given how much heat-trapping methane comes from our food waste.

DERRY: Well, I thought that it was going to really stink.

AUBREY: Think of composting as a way to recycle your food scraps. When food scraps are composted, they break down in a way that reduces or prevents the release of methane. Basically, the scraps get plenty of oxygen, and this aerobic breakdown allows food to decompose in the soil, enriching and improving it.

DERRY: Composting is really no different than throwing out your trash. You're just thinking about - you know, you have two different trash cans now. You have actual waste, which are things, obviously, we can't really do anything about. And you're taking your food pieces and putting it in another trash, basically - right? - another bag, and it's super easy to do.

AUBREY: The easiest way to compost is - yep, we're coming back to it - the freezer. As you have scraps, whether it's carrot peel or apple core or rinds, put them in a container and stick it in the freezer.

DERRY: And if there is any odor and if you are using the freezer method, it helps a whole lot because the bags are easy. All you do is take it out and pop it in your freezer, and then you can take everything out at the end of the week.

AUBREY: Then you can take it to a drop-off spot. Some cities have compost collection sites. A handful of cities will actually pick up your compost at the curb. Some farmers markets collect, too. And why is this so helpful? Back to climate change.

MILLER: And it's completely worth the time because otherwise it's just going to go in the garbage, where it's going to be part of that great pile of food that we waste, that produces methane gas and contributes to climate change. If you can collect your scraps and get them composted, then you're putting the compost back in the soil.

AUBREY: And if you are a gardener, you know just how fabulous that soil is once you've added in your composted material. It works as a fertilizer. It helps to prevent moisture from leaking out. It just makes the soil so much healthier and prevents the release of greenhouse gases.

Now, as I said at the beginning of the episode, food gets wasted at every point in the supply chain, from the farm to the grocery store, and changing this is outside of our control. But we can all do our bit, and hopefully, you'll feel better about making a difference.


AUBREY: So let's recap. Takeaway No. 1 - plan before you buy groceries.

DERRY: When you're shopping your main meal, you always want to make sure that you take that and repurpose that into a second or third meal. There is many ways to do that. Get into it.

AUBREY: Tip No. 2 - to reduce food waste, you got to get creative in the kitchen.

DERRY: The best way to use your leftovers, vegetables that are starting to wilt, is to repurpose them, toss them in soups, salads or anything that you can create.

AUBREY: Takeaway No. 3 - my personal favorite...

DERRY: Make the freezer your best friend (laughter).

AUBREY: And takeaway No. 4 - don't be fooled by that sell-by date.

DERRY: The sell-by date is truly just a guideline; it is not an expiration date.

AUBREY: And your final takeaway - don't throw that food into the trash - compost, compost, compost.

DERRY: Composting is an amazing, feel-good way for you to have a direct impact on the environment and know that you're making a change.


AUBREY: For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes on healthy eating and how to get a good night's sleep. You can find those at npr.org/lifekit. And while you're there, subscribe to our newsletter so you don't miss an episode. And here, as always, a completely random tip, this time from NPR's Chad Lampe.

CHAD LAMPE, BYLINE: My wife put old shoeboxes in our dresser and then fold our shirts, you know, in standard square sizes, but then place the shirts almost like you're looking into a filing cabinet, so you can flip through your shirts and see which ones you want to wear, rather than stacking them on top of each other, where you have to dig for them, essentially, to see the shirt that you want to wear. It's been a huge life-changer for us.

AUBREY: We want to hear from you. Have you reduced your food waste? Share your tips with us. Email us at lifekit.npr.org or tweet us at @nprlifekit.

This episode was produced by Meghan Keane, who is also our managing producer. Beth Donovan is the senior editor. Our digital editor is Beck Harlan. And our project coordinator is Clare Schneider. I'm Allison Aubrey. Thanks for listening.

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.