Dana Gunders has been talking about food waste since before it was hot. After helping elevate the issue with a groundbreaking report in 2012, this staff scientist for the Food & Agriculture Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), recognized the lack of cohesive information for consumers about the topic. So she got to work crafting a practical, user-friendly guide to help people identify their own habits and use more of the food they buy.
Filled with illuminating facts about both the causes and repercussions of food waste, Gunders’ Waste Free Kitchen Handbook gives readers helpful graphics, charts, and other tools to become “food waste warriors,” by reducing the environmental impacts of food waste and leaving more money in their pockets.
As food is grown, processed, and transported, it requires a great deal of both natural and economic resources, yet, over 100 billion pounds of food each year never makes it to our plates. Instead, it ends up in landfills, where it emits large quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas that is much more potent than carbon dioxide.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced an unprecedented joint effort to reduce food waste by 50 percent by 2030. In addition to the challenge and goals set for institutions and businesses, the USDA also launched a consumer education campaign to help people think smart about the food they waste at home.
We talked with Dana about the new book, America’s food waste dilemma, and how she thinks we should begin to address it.
What inspired you to write the Waste Free Kitchen Handbook? Why is this book relevant right now?
I have been looking at why this country is wasting so much food for three to four years, but it has been through a policy and supply chain lens. While food waste is an industry and policy issue, it’s also a day-to-day household issue. No one wants to waste food, but it’s happening in people’s everyday lives because they may not be paying attention to it, and even if they are paying attention, they don’t necessarily know what to do about it. There is a gap between being aware and having the right information at your fingertips at the time you need it. I wrote this book to fill that gap.
No matter how organically or sustainable we’re growing our food, if we’re not eating it, it is a terrible use of resources and a moral tragedy alongside the food insecurity that exists.
From where do you think the lack of consumer awareness about food waste in the U.S. stems?
For a lot of Americans, food is a very small portion of their budget, smaller than any other country. There is a sense of abundance, and therefore not a real need to worry about not wasting food. The low cost of throwing food out at any one given point in time doesn’t necessarily out weigh the inconvenience of trying to save it.
Avocados are a great example. Say you go to the store and buy an expensive avocado, but after waiting several days for it to ripen, it over-ripens and you have to throw it out. This is exactly why I included several recipes for using up food, and in fact one of my favorite recipes is for Avocado Chocolate Mousse. (Recipe below.)
Many people don’t have the skills or time to cook and prepare food at home either. How can they use the Waste Free Kitchen Handbook?
I try to give a smattering of tips that people can pull from and apply to their own needs. There are a bunch of tips that can lead to saving time, eating healthier, and eating fresher, resulting in some nice co-benefits that come from getting to know how to manage your food. I really try to encourage people to be creative in their kitchen and get more comfortable with food so that they know how to handle it and are willing to break from a recipe as a way to use up what’s in their fridge. I try to encourage people to just go ahead and cook and be a little bold with the way they’re operating their kitchen.
The book includes many charts and templates to help consumers plan their grocery trips and meals. Where is the best place to start?
In one of the charts I try to illustrate the importance of shopping. That’s when you’re committing to food, so think about your shopping first. Everything else, like how to use things up, is secondary. First you should work on planning your meals and not buying too much.
Also, one of the easiest things to do is to plan lazy nights. Acknowledge that, for instance, three nights a week you just won’t be cooking. By recognizing your habits and scheduling in lazy nights, you’ll be more realistic about the food you’ll actually eat, and thus reduce the amount you waste.
Another thing is to freeze more food. We can use the freezer to extend the life of food for even just a few days; it doesn’t have to be going in there for months. When you’re going away for a week and you still have milk left, put it in the freezer and you’ll have it there waiting for you to put in your coffee when you get back.
You talk about helping people become “Food Waste Warriors.” How do you envision this collective impact?
I envision a big change in the paradigm around food and how we value it. What that might look like, for example, is going to a party and having an unspoken agreement that people are going to take food home rather than wasting it. It’s not socially acceptable to do that now and the food more less goes to waste. This plays out in a number of different scenarios in our everyday lives.
Thirty years ago, if someone threw an empty potato chip bag on the ground, people didn’t really think much of it. But now as a culture, we don’t litter, and that culture is very strong. In my vision, we would have something similar applied to wasting food—we just wouldn’t do it.
What have you found to be the easiest change for you to make in your own home? The most difficult?
I buy less now and, since I’m lucky to have grocery stores near me, I shop more frequently with a meal in mind. The hardest things for me are coconut milk and cilantro. I open a can of coconut milk to make a curry and only use half of it and can’t find another use for it before it goes bad. It’s the same with cilantro. I haven’t done this yet, but next time I open a can of coconut milk and don’t use it all, I’m going to try to freeze it.
Buried Avocado Chocolate Mousse
Makes 4 servings
- Overripe avocados
This brilliant dessert substitutes all the smooth creaminess of an avocado for the less healthful ingredients that are typically in chocolate mousse. And you won’t even notice. It’s delightfully smooth, and the chocolate easily covers up the flavor of a slightly overripe avocado. Go wild with the toppings and you’ll have a sundae even your gym trainer would be proud of. If you don’t have any milk on hand, don’t worry; the mousse will be just fine without it. But if you do you have some available, add it for a looser, smoother mousse.
2 large ripe or slightly overripe avocados*
¼ cup/60 ml milk, milk substitute, or yogurt (optional)
½ cup/60 ml agave nectar, maple syrup, honey, or superfine sugar, plus more if desired
5 Tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder, plus more if desired
1½ tsp vanilla extract
⅛ tsp salt
Raspberries, blueberries, sliced strawberries
Shredded coconut, toasted
Candied citrus peel
Whipped cream (the mousse is so healthful, you can splurge here if you want)
Scoop the avocado flesh into a food processor. Add the milk (if using), agave nectar, cocoa powder, vanilla, and salt and process until free of lumps and velvety in texture. Taste and add more sweetener if it’s not sweet enough for you; or add more cocoa powder (just 1 tsp at a time) if you want a darker chocolate flavor. (Alternatively, if making by hand, mash the avocados with a fork first, then mash in the remaining ingredients.)
Serve plain or with one of the toppings. The mousse will keep for at least 1 week in an airtight container in the refrigerator, but honestly it’s so delicious that the chances of it lasting that long are slim.
* If you have small avocados, blend them with 5 Tbsp sweetener, 3 Tbsp cocoa, 1 tsp vanilla, and a small pinch of salt. Taste, then add small amounts of cocoa and/or sweetener until you hit a balance of sweet to chocolate that you like.
Photo of Dana Gunders by Aaron Draper.