The Case for Just Enough
Every year, we have a street party. We close down our block for games, music, and a big communal meal. The kids run wild with water guns all day. The adults sit contented with beers all day. It’s one of my favourite events of the year. I always put out a ton of food. And the food gets sad and sweaty in the heat. Just like me. But this year, I was determined to curb the food waste.
I’m a maximalist when it comes to hosting. One year I misgauged our New Year’s party numbers so profoundly that I had to invite everyone back the following day to finish up the food. No doubt I still threw away enough miniburgers to equal a Guinness Book megaburger. Since then, I’ve been hacking away at our waste, making a point of salvaging everything salvageable and putting it away right after the party. Because no one wants to eat anything that’s sat out all night like a bad still life.
My friend Dylan chafes at the gratuitousness of party food as well, the gross overstuffed condition that has come to pass for hospitality. “What if there was just enough food,” he asks. “Or what if, heaven forbid, people even left a bit hungry...it wouldn’t be the end of the world.” (Plus, who doesn’t like a late night snack?)
I agree. And I marvel at my friends who are able to serve just the right amount of food. It’s never been one of my superpowers. At the street party, with numbers always in flux, I’ve tended to order piles of pizza that either get eaten up in one go, or languish untouched. The latter results in me freezing forty slices of pizza. And in our house the freezer is pizza purgatory, where all slices are eventually deemed evil.
This year I tried to think of on-demand foods that would feed as many as needed, but not go to waste. We landed on a grilled cheese station. My husband could serve up plates of grilled cheese to rounds of peckish persons on an as-needed basis. And instead of putting out all the food at once, I replaced items as people finished them. This had the added bonus of keeping kids from consuming exclusively chips all day. (Who am I kidding? Kids mostly consumed chips all day.) It wasn’t perfect, but at the end of the day, there were only a few sorry chopped peppers that didn’t find an audience (except in my stomach). And yet, no one was hungry.
The Survivorship Bias of Food Waste
For the longest time, my calculations about food waste have been guided by nonsensical biases. If I could put the food in our compost, then I didn’t feel so horrible. I was seeing only the end of the food chain.
Survivorship bias is our tendency to concentrate on things or people that survive, while overlooking the things that didn’t because of their lack of visibility. This bias is at the heart of food waste. We see only the less-than-fresh avocado sitting on our counter, not the strain and energy and packaging and work that took to get it to said counter. As a result, our food waste calculations are hopelessly off. For example, before I began carrying a trusty tupperware EVERYWHERE, if I found myself at a restaurant with leftover food on my plate, I would often forego taking it home because I didn’t want to waste the packaging. This horrid math forgets to carry over the weight of all the energy that it took to bring that food to table — the shipping, the cooling, the packaging, the human labour. A bit of packaging at the end of the chain is worth it if it completes the chain! If I’m going to eat the food for lunch the next day, it was in some way worth it. If I’m not, well, hello sunk cost fallacy. It’s even worse to throw bad styrofoam after bad food.
I’m Stalking You
I’ve learned a ton from Lindsay Miles at Treading Your Own Path, with the biggest takeaway being that you can pretty much eat every part of every fruit and veg. This means you, broccoli stalks. Just about everything leftover can make its way to a broth or a pesto, and since I manage to destroy all soup, I opt for the latter. Not sure my husband is as into sautéed kale stalks as I am, but I’m willing to take one for the team.
The Eat Me First Bowl
Put everything that needs to get eaten towards the front of the fridge. Eat it first.
And finally, a Russian proverb updated for modern living: Don’t throw old peppers into a new smoothie. (Learned this one the hard way).
(Another benefit of my Substack is you can now leave comments right on blog posts. It’s like 2008 all up in here!)
Have a great week!