Every week or two my roommate goes to the grocery store, buoyed by good intentions, and comes back with a bunch of kale, broccoli, and other “superfoods.” But then he often ends up forgetting about them. Even when he does work up the energy to cook a healthy recipe, he then ignores the leftovers and lets them grow fur in the back of the fridge. What is up with this behavior, and what is a polite way for me to stop this food waste?
—Squishy Veggies in the Crisper Drawer
Dear Squishy Veggies,
Unfortunately, the situation you describe is all too common. My informal survey asking people what food they had tossed recently generated all sorts of confessions, from “lamb chops—because they smelled funny and were turning blue” to “mango chutney that had crystallized” to “water crackers that expired in 2008.” According to Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It), we’re casual about tossing food because it’s cheap. Bloom says: “[Currently] food represents 10 percent of our household spending. No other nation spends as little on food.”
Still, the cost of all those discarded lamb chops, crackers, and jars of chutney adds up. Bloom says that every year the average four-person U.S. household wastes between $1,300 and $2,200 worth of food.
Why do we let perfectly good ingredients go bad? One problem is that many people suffer from the “recipe mentality” and think they have to get every item on an ingredient list. They then don’t know how to improvise when confronted with what’s leftover—whether that’s half an onion, some wilting cilantro, or a partially finished tub of crème fraîche. Another problem is that when we shop a week or more in advance, we’re not necessarily that good at predicting what we’ll feel like eating. Psychological studies have proved as much. In one study, students were asked to pick a snack to consume in three consecutive class sessions. The first group was asked to pick all the snacks in advance. The second group chose the snacks right before they were consumed. The first group chose a much greater variety of snacks, while students in the second group were more likely to choose their favorite snack each time. The latter group enjoyed their snacks a lot more. So when you go to the store, you shouldn’t delude yourself that you’ll be making kale and wheat-berry soup next week. You should think about what you feel like eating for dinner tonight, and then buy a lot of it.
So what to do about the sorry state of your crisper? Don’t treat your roommate to a barrage of stats on food waste. As this column has shown in the past, a boring lecture is never an effective way to change someone’s behavior. But you could bring up the snack study as an interesting conversational tidbit, and nudge your roommate to draw the obvious conclusion about grocery shopping.
You could also suggest a weekly “Crisper Challenge,” in which you make a clean sweep of the assorted produce in the fridge. For tips on using up wilted lettuce, for example, check out this video. You could even make it into a fun game: Who can make the better “refrigerator risotto” or soup or pasta? (The penalty for the loser might be taking out the garbage for a week.) This may help liberate your roommate from recipes.
Here’s how to stop the leftovers from going moldy: Label them. It’s easy for Tupperware containing something murky to be ignored at the back of the fridge. But if it’s labeled “Lentil Soup with Chard and Chorizo,” then it seems like a nice lunch. Also, transfer leftovers from large cooking pots and dishes into smaller and more attractive storage containers. However delicious that “refrigerator lasagne” was, the last portion is never very appealing when it’s left to sit in the crusty cooking dish under an ill-fitting foil lid.