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Eco Etiquette: Is Wasting Food A Sin?

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Send all your eco-inquiries to Jennifer Grayson at eco.etiquette@gmail.com. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

I'm trying to cook at home more often, and it seems like no matter what I do, I'm always left with rotten vegetables and sour milk at the end of the week. How bad is it for the environment to throw away uneaten food? And what can I do about it?

-Barry

Anytime I see the host of a dinner party toss leftovers in the trash or a picky eater sending back a perfectly delicious plate of food at a restaurant, the reproving voice of my Jewish Depression-era grandmother echoes in my head. Wasting food is a sin, she says, and I really can't argue with her. Forty percent of all food produced in the United States is thrown out; this, ironically, in a country where 49 million people now go hungry. All this squandered sustenance is a sin where the environment is concerned as well, since it's estimated that food waste accounts for one-quarter of all freshwater consumption, more than 300 million barrels of oil a year, and untold amounts of pesticides and fertilizer. And once that uneaten food winds up in a landfill, it decays and emits methane, a greenhouse gas that's 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

Yikes! The good news is that by cooking at home (yay, HuffPost's Week of Eating In), you're already helping to reduce the problem of food waste, since larger chain restaurants and fast food joints are often the worst offenders. Still, the average American family throws away almost 14 percent of its groceries -- that's well over $1,000 a year for a family of four, according to recent USDA estimates for at-home food spending. That kind of defeats one of the main reasons for cooking at home, which is to save money. Find a way to reduce that waste, and you could probably even afford to treat yourself to the occasional night out to dinner (at a sustainable, local-food restaurant, of course).

Stick to these tips, though, and you'll be a lean, green, at-home eating machine in no time:

Never shop hungry. This is time-honored advice for dieters (people tend to head straight for the high-calorie goodies when they're famished), but it also helps cut down on waste, since you won't be tempted to buy food you don't really need. If you have to, buy a snack at the supermarket to eat before you start shopping.

Buy produce more frequently. Sometimes even I purchase a bit too over-zealously at my Sunday farmers market, leaving me with a vegetable bin filled with shriveled zucchini and sprouted onions by week's end. Since produce is the type of food that's most likely to be wasted, try to shop for your fruits and veggies more frequently than once a week to cut down on spoilage.

Don't go overboard with variety. Just because you should eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day doesn't mean you have to eat five different types of fruits and vegetables every day. A rainbow of produce will look pretty in your fridge, but few cooks are creative enough to put all of it to good use before it spoils. Buy the apples and spinach you know you'll eat, not the chayote and tatsoi you'll experiment with when you have the time. (And if you do want to try an unfamiliar veggie, start by buying a small amount.)

Try green bags. My mother-in-law swears she no longer has to throw out bad produce since she started using Debbie Meyer Green Bags. (I tasted the evidence myself the last time I was at her home: Celery was crisp and crunchy after two weeks in the fridge.) I've been holding off on trying them myself, since they are plastic, but one more incidence of rubbery carrots in my "crisper" drawer and I may be persuaded. Bonus: Each bag is recyclable, and can be reused up to 10 times.

Shop your pantry and freezer. Before I run out to buy more food, I pretend I'm on Top Chef and that my challenge is to make a gourmet dinner out of what's left in my freezer and pantry. Some recent winners: spring pea risotto (Arborio rice, chicken stock, and frozen peas); pasta con le sarde (linguine, sardines, and bread crumbs); and cranberry wild rice pilaf (wild rice, frozen cranberries, and toasted pecans).

Store food properly. Americans are paranoid about food poisoning and rightfully so, with all the headlines about E. coli in everything from bagged salads to Nestle cookie dough. That's why the StillTasty website is a godsend in the fight against spoiled food. Thanks to an easy-to-search database that includes thousands of items, you find out exactly how long that wedge of brie will last in your fridge, whether or not you can store it in the freezer, and the best way to wrap it so it doesn't lose its flavor.

Turn waste into garden food. If, after all these tips, you're still left with a few rotten rutabagas from time to time, at least make good on all that spoilage -- learn how to compost so that you can turn those scraps into rich fertilizer for growing your own fruits and vegetables (yet another great way to cut down on grocery waste!).

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