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Single Servings: How to Prevent Food Waste at Home

​On my refrigerator is a note to myself that reads "last day of noodles!" The exclamation is merited, marking day eight of leftovers, a tedious situation that prevents many of us - particularly single and two-person households - from fully embracing cooking. I won't expound here about the relative luxury of having leftovers - we take for granted having enough to eat and enjoying a variety of food - but leftovers do present an unappetizing challenge. You can: a) celebrate the regularly occurring holiday of "last day of [fill in the blank]," b) eat out all of the time, or c) throw food away.

The United Nations recently launched a campaign to counter the 1.3 billion tons of food wasted annually. While serious infrastructure challenges such as inadequate storage and transportation cause waste in the developing world, in the developed world we have a more direct role in food waste - we just throw food out

Through my work with The Chicago Council on Global Affair's Global Agriculture and Food Policy Initiative, I have become increasingly aware of the impact of my personal food habits on global food security. Global statistics about hunger, food waste, and obesity (combined admittedly, with a healthy dose of thrift) propelled me to rethink how I approach shopping for, preparing, and storing food. It does take some thought and discipline, but fortunately there are many resources out there to help a home cook out.

So going back to the multiple choice above - how do you avoid all of the above or at least "c"? I challenged myself to reduce waste in the 12 days of Christmas and into 2013. I was determined to enjoy a large holiday meal (for one!), not waste the leftovers, and keep January grocery purchases to a minimum of perishable items. I started out with holiday baking, a seven-course Christmas Eve meal, and a pretty well stocked pantry and freezer. Here are some tricks and tips I learned:

  1. Adjust recipes: This may require elementary division and creativity (you can't really divide one egg) in adjusting portions and cooking times, and finding different sized cooking dishes. In my case, I invented mini sweet potato casseroles! Move over cupcake trucks, I may be onto the next food trend.
  2. Learn how to freeze and shop your own freezer for ingredients: As they say, cook for a day, and eat for a week. And with some experimentation, you won't necessarily have to eat the same thing all week. Dig into thorough cookbooks and the Internet for tips on how to freeze everything from leftover turkey to heavy cream.
  3. Change the way you eat: Dessert for breakfast? There are lots of ways to shake up your meals and use things you may not have thought of for a meal. Frittata sandwich anyone?
  4. Be scrappy and salvage: You could throw out that expensive sprig of rosemary left over from that fancy recipe, but it might come in handy in a few weeks - as a sprig in that whiskey, apple cider, and rosewater cocktail, for example.
  5. Read and research: The Internet. Cliff Notes for the home cook. Dinner is just a Google search away.
  6. Plan: I suggest you use a pencil or dry erase marker. If you've planned a meal and suddenly get sought-after dinner reservations, save that home cooked meal for later. But by keeping tabs of social activities and obligations while you make your grocery list, you can avoid overbuying and throwing things out.
So how did I fare with my challenge since the holidays?
  • My January grocery bills totaled US$99.59 versus US$243.88 in December and US$277.96 in January last year. I also spent about US$100.00 less on dining out.
  • I "re-purposed" leftover ingredients in about a dozen new meals.
  • I can see the back of my freezer for the first time since November.
  • The only edible thing I threw away was half a piece of marzipan. In the spirit of avoiding waste, I committed to consume all the holiday baking. I'm still working on the candy.
Using a cookbook I received as a gift for Christmas, I made a cake that used up ingredients I had on hand in my pantry (cornmeal, flour, sugar) and freezer (half a tub of mascarpone, some cream, rosemary). The only purchase necessary was lemons. I cut it up into quarters and gave part away to friends and the remainder was shared over the premier of Season 3 of Downtown Abbey. Let a new chapter in responsible and enjoyable cooking begin!

Elizabeth Rambourger is an expert on food and agriculture, independent consultant, and broadcast DJ.

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