Let me guess: You're concerned about the environment. You recycle, buy the right light bulbs, drink from a reusable water bottle (preferably one made of metal) and wish you could afford a hybrid. You try to remember your reusable shopping bags when you go to the market and feel guilty when you don't.
But there's something you could be doing that would make a much bigger difference, and it's not one of those really hard things like carpooling to work or installing solar panels on your roof.
All you need to do is minimize your food waste. If you buy it and bring it home, eat it. That alone is one of the easiest ways to aid the environment.
About 40 percent of the food produced in the United States isn't consumed. Every day Americans waste enough food to fill the Rose Bowl. And our national food waste habit is on the upswing: We waste 50 percent more food today than we did in 1974.
Squandering so much of what we grow doesn't just waste food; it also wastes the fossil fuel that went into growing, processing, transporting and refrigerating it. A recent study estimated conservatively that 2 percent of all U.S. energy consumption went to producing food that was never eaten. To give you a sense of perspective, every year, through uneaten food, we waste 70 times the amount of oil that gushed into the Gulf of Mexico during the three months of the Deepwater Horizon spill.
That waste of resources continues after we throw away food. There is the energy required to haul the discarded food to the landfill. And once there, food decomposes and creates methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times more potent a heat trapper than carbon dioxide. Landfills are the second largest human-related source of methane emissions, and rotting food causes the majority of methane there. It's climate change coming directly from your kitchen.
Not only will cutting your food waste help the planet, but it also will make you a slightly more ethical person. The number of hungry people is steadily increasing. At supermarkets, restaurants and, of course, our homes, we're discarding a potential solution for our neighbors' needs.
Avoiding waste will also save you money. The average family of four, conservatively, throws out an estimated $1,350 annually. Cutting that food waste in half and giving the money to a soup kitchen would provide 700 meals. Though many of us feel unable to donate much money these days, we could keep the pantries of relief organizations better stocked by keeping ours less full.
Food waste crosses racial, class and gender lines. It's a systemic problem rooted in our culture of abundance and busy lifestyle. But it's also one we can change. And, happily, that change starts with simple actions:
• Buy smarter. Plan the week's dinners and make a detailed shopping list. Stick to the list; don't buy more food than you can possibly eat before it goes bad. When planning meals, consider your reality. If you often don't have time to cook dinner after work, don't shop as if you do. And scheduling a leftover night is always wise.
• Rethink portion size. We have a warped idea of what's a sensible amount to eat, in part because of what counts as a "serving" at restaurants these days. As a result, we often take or receive too much, prompting us to either overeat or scrape the food we don't eat into the trash.
• Love your leftovers. If you've invested the money, time and energy in cooking, why not save the remaining portion? And remember, saving food only to throw it out a week later defeats the purpose. If you're not a leftover lover, try halving recipes to prevent excess or repurposing your accumulated extras into another dish.
• Compost! Those of us without dogs (or pigs or goats) will always have some food waste. But we don't have to send it all to the landfill. Composting creates a usable soil amendment rather than methane. That way, you return your food's nutrients to the soil instead of just throwing them away.
Chances are you're already conscientious about food in several ways. You probably know what a "locavore" is, and you shop at a farmers market once in a while. You buy organic — at least a few items — and perhaps observe Meatless Monday. But a few easy strategic changes in your kitchen will yield a real effect on our world. All that's required is doing the seemingly self-evident: Keep your food out of the trash.
Jonathan Bloom is the author of "American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It)." He lives in North Carolina, where he writes the blog WastedFood.com.
© 2010, Los Angeles Times