About thirteen ounces of tahini, some possibly expired cottage cheese, a year-old (?) bag of frozen plantains, a jar of what I now believe is blackstrap molasses, some fruity bars my children refuse to eat, half a bagful of giant marshmallows, and, I imagine, a few boxes and cans that I can’t see or have stashed somewhere out of the ordinary (example, the tonic water that I am now remembering in the basement). Food that has languished, uneaten, in our kitchen.
When I was studying in India (over 20 short years ago), one morning our class was visited by an orange-robed sadhu (a Hindu monk). In early childhood, he told us, he was taught that each grain of rice is sacred. In his home, they would make sure to pick up spare grains that had strayed because to waste them would be to dishonor god (the Hindu religion is rather complex, but I thought it correct to use the lowercase ‘g’ in this case, but will stand corrected).
I remember writing a letter home from India — a letter my mom saved that is doubtlessly cuddled in my basement with hundreds of its friends, awaiting rediscovery. Suggesting to my family that when they give thanks for dinner each night that they consider thanking not just God, but the members of his orchestra: the soil, the plants, the animals, the farmers, the bakers, the Earth, the sun, the rain, the universe. I think it was a lovely blessing. I know I said it for a while and I believe my family, without me, did for a time as well. Then life moved on. I got busy and food lost some of its sanctity.
I guess I’ve been busy for 20 years now. Too busy to be as thankful as I want to be. Too busy to be as mindful, or live as simply, as that, too easily ignored, still and quiet voice guides me to. Too busy to breathe before meals, to taste a large portion of my food, to say thanks, each time, for the bounty of life-giving, healthy food available to me and to my family.
And our approach to eating, while it has shifted significantly along the spectrum of healthiness over the past few years (towards the good end), has not made significant strides towards the mindfulness end. We don’t eat in the car (my old boss was French and alerted me to the savagery of such a practice) as a general rule, and we sit down to dinner as a family every night. At a table, without a screen in sight. Which seems normal to me as this is how I grew up but I understand this is no longer standard practice. We say a blessing when we remember. We talk about where food comes from, what each type of food is good for. Our categories are muscles (protein), energy (good carbs), tummy (veggies), vitamins/eyes/skin (fruit), brain (nuts, fats).
What hasn’t shifted much at all is how we purchase food. How we make decisions about what to cook, how much effort we put in to using the food we’ve bought, how much food we buy on impulse. Uneaten food is just another kind of garbage, something to be taken “away” – no biggie.
I remember the waffle fries my daughter was not hungry for on Saturday that are on their way to the landfill. The leftover chicken that we forgot to finish before it went bad. The moldy (not in the good way) cheese I found in the drawer.
According to ReFed.com “Every year, American consumers, businesses, and farms spends $218 billion a year, or 1.3% of GDP, growing, processing, transporting, and disposing food that is never eaten. That’s 52 million tons of food sent to landfill annually, plus another 10 million tons that is discarded or left unharvested on farms. Meanwhile, one in seven Americans is food insecure.”
If you took a look at the Happy Atmosphere Challenge, you’ll remember that food waste is also a not-insignificant contributor to climate change. Uneaten food contributes about 8 percent of global GHG emissions each year.
There are several drivers in our household food wastage. I’d like to say the children are the #1 (and 2) suspects, lunch boxes where half-finished juice pouches have soaked a bagel remnant and half of an uneaten apple, dinners where there is no room left in their “soup tummies” (etc).
Another of the biggest factors in our family, and I would guess in others in my demographic, is what I (from now on will) call over-diverse chefery. This is where you try some tasty ethic food somewhere and decide that, this Thursday, you’re going to try to make some yourself. So you buy all of the various ingredients, make the dish once, and are left with the various spices, sauces, etc until you go through your annual fridge check for expired food and, what do you know, that tahini is still there, all 13 ounces of it. A month from Thursday, when you have the time and are again feeling adventurous you will try a completely different cuisine with a whole new group of requisite spices and sauces, and so on and so forth.
Or you go to the grocery store and your kids sample some of the rice from the very nice lady and you feel like you need to buy a box, even though you never actually cook boxed rice and your kids not-secretly did not eat the rice and said it smelled funny.
Or something just looks tasty and you are tired, hungry, restless, upset, distracted and for whatever reason you think buying another box of tea or a different kind of cheese, even though you have three kinds already and you’ve been avoiding dairy for the past month, is going to make life feel somehow more complete.
I’ve been thinking about food waste for about a year (having read ReFed’s excellent report last summer, as well as Zero Waste Home around the same time) and have made shifts in our purchasing. I try to buy fewer impulse purchases. I’ve paid a lot more attention to portion sizes in lunch boxes and overall. I’ve gotten better about lovingly, yet firmly, reminding myself to eat the leftover Independence Day hamburger (I have been especially mindful of wasted meat which we treat as something of a sacrilege). But I still have more than a few stubborn holdovers. Old quinoa, and spelt purchased accidentally because I didn’t know it from sorghum.
So I thought it would be an interesting and informative (and, for me, fun) challenge to empty the refrigerator, freezer, and all cabinets and try not to discard anything in the process. I am packing up the whole kitchen in preparation for some work to be done on it in August and am hoping that a challenge like this will help me to pay attention to what we are buying and to be more mindful of using what we have.
Update (I started this post several days ago and progress has been made): I tried to use up the second-half of the bag of giant marshmallows by making microwave smores for the kids last night after dinner. One giant marshmallow each. My son was literally crazed. He did not know what to do with his body – I’ve never experienced speed, but I think I now know what it looks like. My kids eat some sugar, but mostly not so concentrated. The marshmallows had to go. I also had to throw away an entire shrink-wrapped baguette that we bought months ago to make garlic bread (why would bread be shrink wrapped for long shelf-life, but it was) and I stored it where I couldn’t see it and now it is trash. I am slowly trickling the remaining ‘junk food’ (animal crackers, cheese curls (Alabama cheetos)) into my kids in their lunch boxes and have mixed feelings about this.
I did, however, salvage some shrunken blueberries and mildly moldy nectarines/peaches/pineapple into my morning smoothie. I composted all traces of mold, in case you were wondering. Dinner last night was lima beans (previously frozen), almost over-ripe corn, an old box of black beans and brown rice (too spicy for the kids but i will finish today for lunch), and two hot dogs (also from the freezer).
It takes more work to not waste food. This morning I took the remnants of a roast chicken and am simmering in a gallon of water with that half-onion I mentioned last week, some just-past-the-date carrots, a wilting celery stalk, some garlic, salt, pepper, thyme and parsley (under 15 minutes prep, 4 hours on the stove). It will be delicious and bone broth is the new kale, apparently.
I want to make sure that the challenge doesn’t turn into another stress point, another to do, and a one-time flash in the pan (get it? flash in the…?). I would very much like to change my relationship with food, to eat once again with more reverence, more calm, more joy, more celebration, more presence, more breathing, more tasting, more laughing, more community, fewer threats, less negotiation, possibly less diversity, but more seasonality.
So that’s what I’m working on.
I also want to provide a quick update on past posts. The Happy Atmosphere Challenge is sort of on hold. I am planning to send a note to friends/readers who have expressed any interest and willingness and see about doing it together, but the timing for doing that is not great for me right now (husband gone for three weeks, amongst other semi-relevant excuses) so I’m in a holding pattern. I have been running the dishwasher at night without the heat dry cycle, I’ve been paying attention to eco-driving, and I signed up for some of our home’s energy to be renewable (I’ll share more about this but it is more than a quick update). I am hoping to maybe start that challenge in September – there never really seems to be a good time though because I have other things I’d like to start in September! Just wanted you to know I haven’t forgotten the challenge, I also haven’t started it, but I’ve made some small changes.
I guess there is just that one update for now. So many other things that I want to write about, in particular my recent thoughts on restlessness, recognizing the things I do to try to avoid restlessness and the things I might do instead. So that might be the next post. Meantime, I have to figure out what to do with all of this tahini.