Frontline tips from the auntie-food-waste patrol 

Putting your food dumpage on a diet

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At first it doesn't seem like much... a few mouldy bits you've sliced off the block of old cheddar; the heel of the bread somebody didn't wrap properly so it's all dried out. But how quickly it escalates.

How the heck did that half a green pepper worm its way into the back of the produce drawer and melt down into green slime?

Then there's the disgusting reveal as you screw up your nose while popping off the plastic lid from a container of god-knows-what saved from god-knows-when, unidentifiable as it is in a cloud of grey-green mould.

The amount of food we North Americans waste has been tracked for years. Common stats from the U.S. have indicated that, from field to dinner plate, roughly 40 per cent of all food produced is wasted. About half of that, or roughly 20 per cent of the total, gets dumped at home: Mouldy leftovers, shrivelled veggies, rancid cooking oil — all get dumped down the garburator or end up in the landfill.

Now the picture has a Canadian angle thanks to a study done by the George Morris Centre, an independent, not-for-profit economic think tank connected to the University of Guelph and focused on Canada's food and agriculture industries.

We don't come out smelling any prettier than our American cousins. According to the centre's report, Canucks waste $27 billion worth of food each year. The biggest portion is wasted at home.

At the retail and consumer levels, combined, 122 kg of fruits and vegetables per Canadian are wasted each year. That's like two of me (when I'm trim)! For oils, fats and sugars, it's 18 kg each year; dairy, 6 kg; boneless chicken, 10 kg; boneless red meat, 16 kg. That adds up to 172 kg of food wasted annually and we haven't even started on the baked goods.

This is crazy! So what with the Christmas season bearing down with all its over-plenty, I called on the "auntie" brigade — "aunties" in the traditional sense, when it was the old women who called a spade a spade and set things straight. In this case they included my mom, my Auntie Helen and my Auntie Dorothy.

Now, if you want to go "auntie"-food-waste, here's how, straight from the aunties' mouths:

1. Stop over-buying! See that exclamation mark? It means do it! The aunties and I guesstimate that 90 per cent of home food waste starts with buying too much at once. As my mom says, two people won't eat a fresh cauliflower, carrots and broccoli all in one week. Over-buying also pertains to dry goods. So a giant bottle of cooking oil has a cheaper per-unit price, but you won't be able to use it all it before it's rancid? Go for the smaller size.

2. Plan your meals. See No. 1. Meal planning starts with a grocery list. Yes, the aunties know it's a different, faster world especially with both partners working, but dashing out to the grocery store and impulsively buying everything you "feel like" leads to the landfill. Buy what you need to use up what you have. Once home, heat up those leftovers first even if means, again, delaying what you "feel like."

3. Use clear glass containers for leftovers. Most plastic containers are ixnay-ed because you can't reheat stuff in them what with the carcinogenic BPA in the plastic, so use glass ones, ideally with glass lids so you can see what's inside. When you see it you use it, as in tip No. 4.

4. Keep small stuff in front, big stuff behind. This rule mostly applies to the fridge, but it counts in cupboards, too. How many bits of baked goods have you dumped when they got obscured by bigger boys in front or on top?

5. Keep a soup catcher. This tip comes from my dearly departed Auntie Grace, who taught my mom to keep a "soup catcher" in the freezer. You know all those bits of corn, peas or even mashed potatoes left over that you don't know what to do with? Put them all in one container in the freezer. When you need a quick meal, open a tin of tomato soup or, better, get your jar of chicken broth (see below) and add in stuff from your soup catcher. Commercial soups will taste better and their high sodium levels will be diluted, too. If you're using your own broth for soup, you have a head start. Mashed potatoes make a great instant thickener.

6. Label and date frozen food. You won't remember what that brown stuff is two months from now and when you don't know what it is, you won't use it. At risk of encouraging bad freezer habits, like using your freezer as a midden, my Auntie Dee suggests only using square containers — you can fit more in.

7. Go for the bones. When it comes to working your way down through to the bones Auntie Helen says there's a big rural/urban divide. "Farm people know how to use a carcass." When you roast any meat, of course you'll use the best cuts first. The trick is to work your way through everything. Use the smaller and smaller bits of meat for soups, as above, or stew. Boil up the carcass, if there is one, and save the broth for later multi-uses, from steaming veggies to sauces.

9. Embrace blemishes. Mike Berners-Lee said it in How Bad are Bananas: The Carbon Footprint of Everything and the aunties say it, too: Buy and use that misshapen apple, that orange with a dark thingie on the skin. The "ugly" orphans of the food world are what get tossed. And, for heaven's sake, once you bring them home and find a spot on them, don't chuck them. Take a nano-second and cut out the blemish with a knife.

10. Go for over-ripe. In the spirit of No. 9, don't be afraid to buy those over-ripe tomatoes or bananas. Ripe produce that would otherwise get dumped can make the tastiest sauces and desserts. Bananas for banana bread; tomatoes for a fresh marguerite sauce; pears poached in wine.

11. Get a spatula. Use it. Unless you have a dog that licks up every molecule from your dirty dishes, you'd be amazed at how much of that delicious stuff you just made gets rinsed down the drain. Especially recommended for capturing renegade chocolate sauce.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who respects her food.


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