The Great Underappreciated Driver of Climate Change

If you have children, you probably already understand them to be very adorable food-waste machines. If you do not have children, I have five, so let me paint you a picture. On a recent Tuesday night, the post-dinner wreckage in my house was devastating. Peas were welded to the floor; my 5-year-old had decided that he was allergic to chicken and left a pile of it untouched on his plate. After working all day, making the meal in the first place, and then spending dinnertime convincing five irrational, tiny people to try their vegetables, I didn’t even have the energy to convince them to take their plates into the kitchen, let alone box up their leftovers for tomorrow. So I did exactly what I’m not supposed to do, according to the planet’s future: I threw it all out, washed the dishes, and flopped into bed, exhausted.

Tens of millions of tons of food that leaves farms in the United States is wasted. Much of that waste happens at the industrial level, during harvesting, handling, storage, and processing, but a staggering amount of food gets wasted at home, scraped into the garbage can at the end of a meal or tossed after too long in the crisper drawer. According to a 2020 Penn State University study, almost a third of the food that American households buy is wasted.

On the individual level, all of this waste is expensive, annoying, and gross. In the aggregate, it’s unfortunate, given that about a fifth of American families reported not having enough to eat last year. But it’s also bad for the planet. Every step of the modern food-production process generates greenhouse gases. Before they ended up in the trash, all of those slimy vegetables and uneaten hunks of chicken were grown using water and farmland and pesticides and fertilizer. They were most likely packed in plastic and paper, and then stored and transported using fossil fuels and electricity. Throwing away food means throwing away all of the resources it requires, but the problems don’t end there: As food rots in landfills and open dumps, it emits methane, a greenhouse gas much more potent than carbon dioxide. According to the United Nations, food loss and waste accounts for about 8 to 10 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions.

Some amount of food waste is probably inevitable, especially with young kids. “The very youngest children … are still kind of understanding what they like, with novel foods and healthy foods. We want to give them that opportunity,” Brian Roe, a farm-management professor and the director of the Food Waste Collaborative at Ohio State University, told me. “You need to waste a little bit of food while they develop palates.”

More saliently, Roe’s research indicates that food waste is often inversely proportional to spare time: We get busy, we eat out, and our well-intended groceries head to the trash. His data show a 280 percent increase in food waste from February 2021 to February 2022, right as pandemic restrictions were loosening and people with the income to do so started eating out more. In other words, as soon as people had the option to eat without cooking, they did. “When you’ve got more kids and more craziness and a time crunch, all of a sudden, what you thought was going to be 40 minutes to prep dinners is out the window,” he told me. Thus, “those ingredients are more likely to go to waste.”

Wasting less food starts at the grocery store: Most financially secure families simply need less food than they buy. The sustainability consultant Ashlee Piper told me that she likes to take a picture of her fridge and pantry before heading to the store, in order to avoid buying duplicates. She also recommends shopping not for your “aspirational life” but for the one you are actually living: If, realistically, you’re never going to make your own pasta or pack gourmet lunches for your kids, don’t shop for those meals. “There’s no lunchbox sheriff,” she told me. (Comforting!)

Once you unpack the groceries, experts say to be strategic about making perishable foods highly visible, accessible, and appetizing. Julia Rockwell, a San Francisco mom and sustainability expert, recommends an “Eat Me” station, whether it’s a basket, a bowl, a tray, or a section of the refrigerator, which she says is especially helpful for teenagers, inclined as they are to “go full claws into the fridge.” A designated place for high-urgency snacks reminds them, “Here’s a yogurt that you missed, or here’s a half of a banana, or here’s the things let’s go to first,” she told me. Leftovers and soon-to-spoil foods also make great dinners or lunches for younger kids, who will be happy to snack on items that don’t necessarily go together in a traditional meal.

If you’re cleaning out your fridge and pantry strictly according to expiration dates, stop: If a food is past its expiration date but looks and smells fine, it probably is; most of the time, expiration dates are an indicator of quality, not safety. (Deli meats and unpasteurized cheeses are notable exceptions.) Brush up on the language of food packaging—“best by” is just a suggestion, while “expiration” is the date the manufacturer has decided when quality will begin to decline. Frozen food is pretty much always safe, and packaged foods and canned goods without swelling, dents, or rust can last for years, though they may not taste as good. (You can conceal your less-than-fresh nonperishables in another meal, such as adding older ground beef from the freezer to a chili. When in doubt about, say, an older vegetable, Roe says, “coat it in panko and fry it up.”)

And whatever you’re feeding your kids, experts repeatedly told me, you should probably be feeding them less. How many blueberries does your pickiest kid really eat at the breakfast table? And how many do you put on their plate that you wish they’d eat? The difference in this pint-size math equation is an essential factor in food-waste management for families. Jennifer Anderson, a mom and registered dietician, discourages “wishful portions.” “You know the amount you want your child to eat, so you put that much on their plate … Take that amount, cut it in half, then cut it in half again,” she told me. “A practical portion is a quarter of what you wish they would eat.”

Since talking to Anderson, I’ve kept her advice in mind. I still spend more time than I’d like trying to convince my kids to eat yellow peppers when they’ve decided the red ones are the only acceptable type. But the math is simple: Smaller portions on their plate means fewer leftovers in the trash later, and I’ve noticed a real difference.

And I still find myself dumping plates of picked-over food into the trash or compost. But I move on to the next meal with more grace and less guilt for having helped my kids become little stewards of a healthier planet. I want them to understand that our food comes from somewhere, and that not eating it has consequences. That doesn’t mean guilting them for not liking dragon fruit, or demanding that they clean their plate at every meal, or scaring them about climate change. It’s more like bringing them along, helping them participate in a family project with planetary implications. Wish me luck with the peppers.

This story is part of the Atlantic Planet series supported by HHMI’s Science and Educational Media Group.



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