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The economics of wasted leftovers

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What better place to talk to folks about food than a grocery store? I run into Elizabeth Willson, coming out of a bustling supermarket in downtown Washington. Her arms are full of groceries. Wilson planned to spend the holiday at her parents’ house with their groaning Thanksgiving table… and lots of leftovers.

She says, “I often find that leftovers are a little bit of an issue for us because there’s only about five of us usually at the dinner and my mom usually makes about 13 dishes and six desserts.”

Willson says she hates to waste. But with that much food, it’s inevitable. She estimates that 5-10 percent of the family feast goes in the garbage. But compared to the rest of us, they’re doing pretty well. The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that Americans trash 40 percent of our entire food supply. For a family of four, that works out to more than $2,000 a year. Dana Gunders is a food project scientist at NRDC. She puts the numbers in perspective.

“Imagine going to the grocery store, buying three bags of groceries, dropping one in the parking lot, and not bothering to pick it up,” she says. “That’s essentially what we’re doing in our food system today.”

Gunders is talking about all the food we waste. From veggies left to rot in the fields because they’re not exactly the right shapet to uneaten food on restaurant plates. And, of course, forgotten leftovers that morph into something monstrous in the refrigerator. Gunders says we waste even more food than usual during Thanksgiving — trashing more than $280 million worth of turkey. She says the pilgrims would be appalled.

“It’s a time we’re celebrating what a struggle it was for those pilgrims to have enough food to survive,” she says. “And yet the way that we celebrate is by having so much food we’re not able to finish it.”

So, what are your options if you don’t want to waste all that food? Our downtown D.C. grocery shopper, Elizabeth Willson, says her family has a pretty straightforward strategy for avoiding waste.

She says, “We just try and eat as much as we possibly, humanly can.”

But Willson says her mother does give away a lot of food. She loads everybody up with leftovers before they leave. That’s a good way to avoid waste. Talking turkey — you can freeze the parts of your bird you don’t eat. Your favorite chicken recipe can be made with turkey. But you have to get creative with the other leftovers jockeying for space in your fridge. Jonathan Bloom is an author and blogger on food waste. 

“A great way to eliminate fridge food waste is to keep a picture in the back of the fridge,” he says. “And if you can’t see that picture, that means, chances are you have too much food in your fridge.”

Bloom says you can be a bit less vigilant when evaluating the contents of your kitchen cabinets. If you didn’t use all the boxes of stuffing mix crowding your shelf, think twice about throwing them out. Even if they’re past their use-by dates. Bloom says those dates just tell you when the product is at its freshest. It’s not spoiled after that.

“And I think there is this misconception that if we eat a food one minute past the stroke of midnight on the date that’s stamped on the package we’re really taking a chance,” he says. “And that’s just not the case.”

But Bloom says the best food saving strategy starts in the grocery store. During holidays — and the rest of the year — plan what you’re going to get ahead of time. And don’t overbuy. Because even if you’re getting a great deal by buying in bulk, you’ll lose money if you end up throwing out mountains of food.

What do you do with your Thanksgiving leftovers? Post your photos to our map.

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