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Waste Not Want Not: Baking Catastrophes and Food Waste in Our Household

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Wondering how to reduce food waste? I was shocked at how much food we waste in our home, and that pales in comparison to what's wasted nationwide. 

The other day I set my eyes on a recipe I had torn out of a Martha Stewart Magazine: Tiramisu Cookies. We had purchased all of the ingredients weeks ahead of time — amaretto liqueur, mascarpone cheese, eggs, coffee — and it was just calling my name.

After thirty minutes or so, the aroma of the Viennese-coffee colored cookie batter wafted in the air.

I scooped out a large portion of it into my Tupperware pastry ball and squeezed out 70 fat, peanut-looking squirts of batter onto parchment paper before lovingly easing the little nuggets of heaven into the oven. While they baked, I whipped together the filling to keep my nervous self occupied.

Why was I nervous?

Well, to be honest, I have had only catastrophic baking incidents since moving into our home: liquid mousses, burnt-bottom cookies, and dry muffins. Martha may not have known it when she penned such a complicated and enticing recipe, but my baking confidence was actually riding on these cookies.

Halfway into the suggested baking time I turned on the oven light to a harsh reality: the cookies were dark brown on the bottoms…but the gooey parts had failed to rise. I couldn’t bear to have them burnt so I took all 70 of them out of the oven where they systematically sunk into small pock marks. To make matters worse, I could not scrape a single one of them off of the parchment paper.

I looked indignantly back at the recipe and confirmed that it had not, in fact, called for greasing the parchment paper.

What on earth did I do wrong this time?

Then I looked at the bowl of whipped frosting, lamenting the wasted ingredients.

Wasted Time and Energy

My time is precious.

If I am going to spend my time, energy, and care on something, I want it to turn out great. It kills me every time I get my hopes up about a great recipe to bake, and I somehow turn it into a flop. I get excited about a recipe, go to the store, purchase my ingredients, turn on some noise in the background and set to work, only to have it turn out mildly edible in the end.

This has happened so much in our new home that I am actually wondering if it is the 1970s oven and not my own baking habits (okay…perhaps I am hoping that is the case, though my cooking is quite good).

In any case, I have decided to pursue a baking class (does anyone know a good one here in Houston?) because as a lover of sweets, I am going to want to continue baking for the rest of my life and I know that if I have to suffer through another batch of flattened, burnt cookies, things will get ugly.

Wasted Food as a Moral Issue

What bothers me even more than the wasted time and energy is the wasted food. Have you ever taken inventory of the food that you throw away from recipes gone bad, from meals you had planned but did not get around to making, or from leftovers that were never eaten?

Every other week when we come home with our new groceries we clean out the fridge of leftovers and rotten food. The results are not always pretty.

After reading a blog about food waste in this country and contacting Jonathan Bloom (author of American Wasteland), I decided to start inventorying the amount of food we threw away.

The results were discouraging, even though they were far less than the average American.  It turns out that over 100 billion pounds of food is wasted per year; in comparison, a U.S. Department of Agriculture study found that in 2008, 49.1 million Americans lacked dependable access to adequate food in 2008).  In other words, Americans—our household included—are dumping food while others are starving.

Wasted Food is Wasted Money

Not only are there moral issues involved with throwing away good food while others go hungry, but throwing away food is literally throwing away cash: I imagine a cash register scanner at the top of my trashcan blipping every time we let our potatoes grow branches and we have to throw them out.

Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland writes that the average family of four will throw away $2,200 in wasted food each year. To find out the approximate waste of your own household, it is estimated to be 25% of your total food purchases.

Our household typically spends $280 per month on food or $3,360 per year, making our estimated food waste a total cost of $840 per year ($70 per month). Ouch.

Fortunately I surveyed the amount of food wasted in our household for one month, and the estimated cost was “only” $13.00 (I put quotation marks around the word “only” because $13.00 is still a lot of food waste!).

How to Reduce Food Waste in Our Own Home – Examples

The fact that we are “only” wasting $13.00 in food each month compared with the national average of between $91.00-$183.00 is very exciting to me.

Yet it’s still too much waste! In a perfect world, we would waste nothing.

Some of our own strategies for decreasing the amount of food waste in our home includes freezing items that are about to expire if we know we will not use them in time, grocery shopping every other week (by stretching ourselves to make it to the two week mark we really become creative and efficient in using our food supply), and religiously eating leftovers as either dinner or lunch the next day.

We also purchase marked-down meats that are about to expire, which not only helps our bottom line, but also helps to keep good meat out of the landfill.

You can find these in most grocery store meat departments in a small section to the side. I always check the date and make sure that I can cook the meat or freeze it before the expiration date, and I also check the color of the meat (food poisoning? No thank you.).

Paul and I have scored some great salmon and steaks this way and will continue to do so.

How to Reduce Food Waste

Are you concerned about the food waste in your own household? I’ve gathered some suggestions from reading Jonathan Bloom’s book as well as perusing the web that I’d like to highlight here in order to cut down waste in people’s homes.

  • Do not cram your refrigerator with food: you will not be able to see everything, and food will rot because you have forgotten about it
  • Serve sensible portions: Give children a small portion to begin with, and allow them to come back for seconds if they are still hungry. This will preserve your leftovers for another night instead of having them scraped into the trashcan.
  • Plan a leftover smorgasbord once a week.
  • When you go grocery shopping and come home to unload, put the unused portions of food on top of the newly bought containers so that you use the old first.

In the meantime, I will continue our own efforts to waste less food, as well as take a baking class so that I can answer the question once and for all: is it me, or is it the oven?

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Amanda L. Grossman is a Certified Financial Education Instructor, Plutus Foundation Grant Recipient, and founder of Frugal Confessions. Over the last 10 years, her money work helping people with how to save money and how to manage money has been featured in Kiplinger, Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, Business Insider, LifeHacker, Woman's World, Woman's Day, ABC 13 Houston, Keybank, and more. Read more here.

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