Student Intern Column: How to Tackle Food Waste While Social Distancing

"Vintage kitchen at home," PickPik royalty-free photo.
“Vintage kitchen at home,” PickPik royalty-free photo.

Hannah Kasun is a senior studying Music Performance and Environmental Studies with a certificate in Food Systems. Her work with the Office of Sustainability is focused primarily on the Green Events and Communications teams, and she enjoys working with others who are passionate about environmental and social sustainability. Hannah is using her spare time during this social distancing period for cooking, listening to podcasts, and going on long walks to observe the architecture of Madison neighborhoods.

One of the consequences of social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic is that many people are dramatically changing their relationship with food. Whether it’s the stress of negotiating grocery shopping, the challenge of cooking every meal, or the puzzle of working with bulk quantities of ingredients, many of us are experiencing uncharted waters in our personal culinary experience. While resources on safe shopping are readily available, however, there is less guidance available about what foods to buy right now, or how to make sure that the groceries you purchase don’t become wasted food. The following guide suggests ways to fight food waste during social distancing, while making your kitchen more sustainable and cooking more enjoyable as well.

Make a Plan
  1. Meal plan so you know that you’ll have the ingredients on hand for a particular dish when you want it! Adding in a few exciting meals or making an old family recipe can help break up the monotony of social distancing.
  2. Make shopping lists: plan out what and how much to purchase ahead of time. Paper lists help to prevent you from handling your phone while you’re at the store.
  3. Purchase items that last, such as potatoes, onions, apples, and canned, frozen, or dried goods.
Meals prepared in mason jars
Mason jars work well for preparing and storing different meals. “Breakfast & lunch meal prep” by Flickr user Ella Olsson, CC BY 2.0.
Store Smart
  1. Practice FIFO, or First In First Out: move old food to the front of your pantry or fridge when you buy new food. That way it won’t get buried in the back and go bad before you can use it.
  2. Know where to store items: some should be refrigerated, some should not. Also, use your freezer to your advantage! Freeze meat or fish, bread, and pre-cooked meals. Learn how to freeze fruits/veggies.
  3. Invest in some good containers for storage, freezing, and meal prep. Try those that are see-through such as clear plastic, glass, or silicone bags so you can keep better track of what food you have on hand.
  4. Keep a list of the food you have on hand so that you remember to use it all; consider keeping this list next to your shopping list.
Trust your senses
  1. Know the difference between “best by,” “sell by,” and “use by” and let your nose or taste determine if a food is “bad.” Spoiler alert: often, food is not spoiled just because the package date says it might be!
  2. Be creative with things like leftovers and overripe fruit–they have plenty of uses! Options include french toast or bread crumbs with old bread, soup with wrinkly veggies, banana bread with overripe bananas, and more.
Dispose Correctly
"Garden compost bin, composting household vegetable waste,", CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 UK.
“Garden compost bin, composting household vegetable waste,”, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 UK.
  1. Share food with family and friends if you have extra! (Remember to drop it off on their stoop to maintain physical distancing.)
  2. Learn about donating food.
  3. Compost at home, and learn more about composting at UW-Madison for when you return to campus.
  4. Last resort: landfill.
Additional Resources:
  1. Food Waste and Recovery Guide for Madison and Dane County
  2. COVID-19 Food Access Resources from Public Health Madison & Dane County
  3. Madison Metropolitan School District and Community Center Meals
  4. Other free meals in Madison, WI area
  5. ‘Keep Calm and Carry Out: Restaurants offering carry out during COVID. Support local businesses by trying carry-out once a week, or as you can afford. 
  6. An entertaining podcast with a guide to home cooking

Best of luck shopping, cooking, and composting! I hope you can use the power of food to connect to loved ones and find some comfort during these crazy times.