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When Good Turkey Goes Bad: 10 Tips for Carving Out Food Waste

image of Justine Hausheer
Those leftovers you’ll throw away after the big holiday meal have hidden environmental costs. Before you even stick the bird in the oven, here’s how to cut back. No need to thank us

We may lovingly handpick our cranberries at the local farmers’ market and buy only organic-raised heirloom turkeys. Even so, according to a recent report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (which publishes OnEarth), Ameri­cans waste a prodigious amount of food. Indeed, an astounding 40 percent of food produced in the United States goes uneaten.

Food is lost at every stage of the farm-to-table journey. Take pro­duce: the report estimates that 7 percent of planted fields in the United States go unharvested each year. Some fruits and vegetables are never harvested because of damage from pests, disease, or bad weather. (Consider this summer’s record-setting drought.) Produce also goes unpicked when farmers can’t find buyers, or when prices are so low they don’t even cover the cost of harvest and transport.

Even produce that’s harvested may still be thrown out simply because of its appearance: it isn’t the right color, size, or shape, or it has other im­perfections. If a peach isn’t pretty enough, it doesn’t make it to the store.

Grocery stores are another source of food waste. Heaping displays of fruits and veggies that are designed to entice consumers crush produce at the bottom. Milk and dairy products with sell-by dates -- which are not the same as expiration dates -- are often pulled from the shelves well before they would spoil. Prepared foods are also an increasing source of food waste, as groceries keep their buffets fully stocked until closing time, resulting in many trays of discarded edibles.

A staggering amount of food waste, however, occurs in restaurants and in our own homes. American families throw out a significant portion of the food they buy, according to the report. “Imagine walk­ing out of the grocery store with three bags of groceries, then just leaving one in the parking lot,” says Dana Gunders, a food and agriculture expert at NRDC and author of the report. “A lot of people are trying to be conscious eaters, but this issue just isn’t on their radar,” she says. Even when consumers buy organic and limit meat consumption, they often buy and cook more than they can eat.

Holidays such as Thanksgiving only add to the overconsumption. That 20-pound turkey makes a stunning centerpiece on the table, but how much of it actually gets eaten? Americans took home an estimated 46 million turkeys last Thanksgiving, or 736,000 million pounds of poultry. But almost a third of that meat was thrown away. In the United States, 35 percent of turkey meat is wasted after purchase (not including the bones), according to the USDA. That’s a lot of waste for a holiday that began with giving thanks for food we were lucky to have. (Lest you think we’re only pointing fingers, OnEarth’s own Laura Wright Treadway examined her own food waste problem in the wake of throwing out the Thanksgiving leftovers three years ago. See “How to Wage War on Food Waste,” Spring 2010.)

Dining out might be even worse when it comes to waste. Restaurants often contribute to the problem by featuring extensive menu choices and oversize portions. Diners leave 17 percent of their meals uneaten, and 55 percent of those leftovers aren’t even taken home, accord­ing to the NRDC report.

Discarded food wastes not only money but other resources. Agriculture occupies vast tracts of land, and 80 percent of all fresh-water used in the United States goes to food production. Fertil­izers and pesticides degrade the land and water, creating environ­mental nightmares like the Gulf of Mexico’s massive dead zone.

“If that food is not even getting eaten in the end, it’s a terrible use of our resources,” says Gunders. “And that is a particular concern when you look forward to our future food demand.”

The environmental conse­quences also extend to landfills, where food waste from all steps in the farm-to-table journey accounts for 20 percent of the total volume. As it rots, the waste generates an astonishing 23 percent of the country’s emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Gunders’s report offers numer­ous suggestions for reducing food waste. Relaxing appearance crite­ria, distributing unsold produce to food banks, and reducing portion sizes in restaurants and at home could all help. Another idea: edu­cate consumers about expiration and sell-by dates, which are not regulated by law and often imply that food has spoiled prematurely. “Even a little bit of awareness could go a long way,” Gunders says.

With that in mind, here are 10 easy steps for reducing your food waste during the holidays and all year round, drawn from NRDC experts:

  1. Shop wisely: Plan meals, use shopping lists, buy from bulk bins, and avoid impulse buys. Don’t succumb to marketing tricks that lead you to buy more food than you need, particularly for perishable items. Though these may be less expensive per ounce, they can be more expensive overall if much of that food is discarded.
  2. Buy funny fruit: Many fruits and vegetables are thrown out because their size, shape, or color are not “right.” Buying these perfectly good funny fruit, at the farmer’s market or elsewhere, utilizes food that might otherwise go to waste.
  3. Learn when food goes bad: “Sell-by” and “use-by” dates are not federally regulated and do not indicate safety, except on certain baby foods. Rather, they are manufacturer suggestions for peak quality. Most foods can be safely consumed well after their use-by dates.
  4. Scale down: Thirty-five percent of perfectly good turkey meat gets thrown out instead of eaten. Yeah, no one wants to run short at their Thanksgiving feast, but maybe your family doesn’t need that 22-pound bird after all.
  5. Mine your fridge: Websites such as lovefoodhatewaste.com can help you get creative with recipes to use up anything that might go bad soon.
  6. Use your freezer: Frozen foods remain safe indefinitely. Freeze fresh produce and leftovers if you won’t have the chance to eat them before they go bad.
  7. Request smaller portions: Restaurants will often provide half-portions upon request at reduced prices.
  8. Take a doggie bag: When eating out, ask the restaurant to pack up your extras so you can eat them later. Freeze them if you don't want to eat immediately. Only about half of U.S. residents take leftovers home from restaurants.
  9. Compost: Composting food scraps can reduce their climate impact while also recycling their nutrients. Food makes up almost 13 percent of the U.S. waste stream, but a much higher percent of landfill-caused methane.
  10. Donate: Non-perishable and unspoiled perishable food can be donated to local food banks, soup kitchens, pantries, and shelters. Local and national programs frequently offer free pick-up and provide reusable containers to donors.
image of Justine Hausheer
Justine E. Hausheer is a science and environmental journalist with a penchant for paleontology, wildlife, and far-flung ecosystems. She has a degree from Princeton and a master's in science journalism from NYU.