What do you want for dinner three days from now
Household food waste is a massive contributor to climate change. It stems from our inability to effectively plan what we want to eat. The solution is to get rid of planning entirely.
Project Drawdown has reducing food waste as its 3rd most effective means for mitigating climate change. In the United States close to half of this waste happens at the consumer level. The average American wastes 21% of the food they purchase per year. When I first read about this problem I was stunned by that number. How can there be that much waste, what is happening? Nobody actively walks into a grocery store with the goal of trashing 1 out of every 5 things they buy. And there’s also no culture war on the issue, everyone agrees food waste is a bad thing. This FoodPrint article goes into the causes for this waste and they include: food spoilage, making too much, confusion on expiration labels, over-purchasing, and poor planning. After spending some time thinking about my own food habits, I realized that while the breakdown FoodPrint provides on causes is good detail, it’s ultimately just poor planning that creates household food waste. The first four causes are simply different expressions of an underlying inability to accurately forecast what, when, and where we’re going to eat in a given week or month. If we always knew what our stomachs would want in advance, we’d all be perfect shoppers and eaters. Planning is the root of the problem and the existing food system makes the problem worse. The system incentivizes “more” at every step and no one upstream cares whether the food goes down our throats or down the trash chute. The money comes in regardless. To solve the problem of household food waste there are some short-term steps that can mitigate the issue, but in the long-term the solution to eliminating household food waste is to eliminate the need for planning altogether.
To better illustrate the complexity of planning and why food waste happens, consider the challenge facing a family with two kids. Starting with goals, the parents’ primary objective is most likely making sure their children are healthy. On a week-to-week basis however they’re probably optimizing around convenience and getting the kids to eat anything at all at the expense of health. On top of that, each parent and each child have their own preferences on cuisine in general and on a given night. So if they’re committed to eating a meal together everyday, they need to routinely find the perfect alignment between health, convenience, and preference. And this doesn’t even include the choice between cooking at home or ordering food from a restaurant. With all of this in mind, the parents must find the time in their schedule to make a trip to the grocery store and purchase food that might work for everyone. To keep piling on, the United States also doesn’t have a strong cultural tradition around food. There’s no set standards for what makes up a breakfast, lunch, or dinner that can serve as a guide for what to make regularly. All of this leads to the titular question, who other than the most ardent meal preppers can accurately say what they want to eat for dinner three days from now. What parent can correctly predict what the whole family will agree to even one day from now. Very few. Imagine running a factory where you have no idea what your customers want next but you're still required to have the right parts to make the requested widget at a moment’s notice. Do we really expect that you’ll be able to order exactly the right parts such that there’s nothing left when you’re done. There’s no chance given the context of modern life.
Lack of planning is the root cause of food waste, but there’s a few factors that amplify the problem. The first and hardest to shake is our own biology. Our prehistoric counterparts never knew when they’d get their next meal so a tendency to over-eat is wired into our brains. When we enter the grocery store that’s designed to profit on this evolutionary vestige the result is invariably over-purchasing. The second factor is that grocery stores in modern America are unbelievably cheap compared to the past and the rest of the world. Over the last sixty years household spending on food has fallen almost in half from 17% of our budget to a little less than 10%. All the more reason to load up the shopping cart. What’s an extra $1.29 for an avocado in case the 10 at home aren’t already enough. And that leads to the third factor, there’s no penalty for wasting food. The trash service will collect our garbage regardless of how many avocados we throw out. Other than the guilt we have when tossing out something that we didn’t eat in time, there’s no cost to dumping whatever we want in the trash. Which brings up the last factor, there’s also no good way to measure how much food we toss out. It’s trite but true that there’s no way to manage something you can't measure. To add insult to injury, one study revealed that when we scrupulously keep track of our food waste we underestimate the actual amount by about 50%! So planning is hard, but it’s made so much harder because our 40,000 year old brains have to contend with cheap food, no consequences to waste, and no reliable method to know how much we’re wasting.
In the short-term there are a few methods for reducing household food waste to some extent. The most relevant steps with regards to planning are checking the fridge before going to the store, making a shopping list, and meal prepping. There’s also the Waste Free Kitchen Handbook by Dana Gunders which covers many more methods beyond planning. The emphasis is on better planning because it helps prevent food waste at the source. Donating excess edible food is equally good but composting is further behind in the hierarchy of efficacy. Across the existing online suggestions and Gunder’s book, what sticks out is that all the proposed solutions require so much effort on the individual level. Not that we shouldn’t expect more of ourselves in the climate fight, but assuming that everyone will implement all the recommendations is folly. And even if we all start religiously checking the fridge before going to the store that doesn’t magically improve our ability to actually predict our food desires. It’s not completely hopeless though, there’s a case to be made for technology to help remove friction and increase our ability to be better meal planners. Fridge cameras, computer vision based waste tracking, AI-assisted shopping lists, and food donation marketplaces will find their respective places in our lives over time. Outside of technology, emphasis on eating healthier should also lead to less waste. Eating healthier requires the same planning and prepping that serves to reduce waste. Between more public awareness for individual action and friction reducing technology, there’s a pathway for making incremental improvements to the waste problem. But to completely solve the problem, we have to go beyond just incremental.
In the long-term the solution isn’t for each of us to become savant-like meal planners. It’s to make planning entirely unnecessary. We should also solve the larger problems of our food system that contribute to waste, but assuming those are even harder to change, it’s the planning piece that’s easiest to address. Making food last longer before it goes bad is the first step to eliminating planning and it’s already in the works. Whether it’s natural coatings for produce, ethylene absorbing balls, or alternative dairy and meat products, making food last longer means less of a need to plan when it has to be eaten. If we have 8 months to use our oat milk at home, we’re almost certainly not going to accidentally forget to drink it before it goes bad. We already know that shelf-stable food such as pasta is the least wasted category of food today. Longer lasting food takes one big swipe at eliminating planning but doesn’t remove it entirely. It’s also likely to face backlash as "unnatural" given what we’ve seen with genetically modified foods despite their safety.
We might not end up with food that never spoils but we’re certainly on a path to have electric vehicles and self-driving cars within the next decade. Those two technologies will eliminate food planning by allowing for guaranteed 10 minute grocery delivery. If we can even just have produce, dairy, and meat products at our doorsteps that fast, the need for planning out when to consume what’s in the fridge is reduced significantly. Just-In-Time cooking! EVs are needed to cut out the emissions for all the transport required in the US. And self-driving technology reduces the price of delivery to a point where mass adoption is more likely. There’s no need to keep avocados at home when they can be at our doorstep within 10 minutes of a craving. Our pantries can keep just the essentials and the rest can be put into a "fridge" in the cloud. This system moves demand planning from the household level to providers who can build models that understand the eating behaviors of entire neighborhoods and adjust supply accordingly. There’s no denying it’s a cringeworthy techno-futurist vision, but most of what’s described is already happening independently today. GoPuff and Gorillas are offering delivery of certain goods within minutes, Amazon is putting electric delivery vans on the road this year, Waymo’s self-driving taxis no longer have human drivers, and ShelfEngine and Afresh Technologies are working on ML-based grocery store demand forecasting. Projected out another 10 years and it’s reasonable to assume that all of this gets rolled into one service that eliminates food planning in the name of convenience thereby solving our household food waste problem. It’s a realist vision for how the problem is solved, as opposed to hoping that the entire food system and our behaviors are upended all at once. Just-In-Time processes helped Toyota become the world’s largest automaker because along the way it helped them reduce waste in the manufacturing system. The same can be done in the home.
At first I was surprised that food waste was so high on Project Drawdown’s list of climate solutions. It seems so removed from the classic image of smoke stacks belching greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. But food is core to human survival. The development of agriculture is what kicked off the long road to those very smoke stacks. Growing and finding food is probably the problem humanity has collectively spent the most time on in our history. So now I see why problems around food production and waste rank so high, they’re a reflection of our constant struggle to shape the Earth to ensure our survival. It’s hard because our systems around food production and consumption are some of the most entrenched ones we have as a society. Given that context, solving the problem of food waste means we must leverage solutions that can take on such incumbency effectively. Incremental approaches are necessary but not sufficient. Despite centuries of practice, we’re not getting better at planning our food consumption and reducing waste. So the solution has to rethink the problem. Poor planning creates waste. Better planning reduces waste. Eliminating the need to plan gets rid of the waste entirely.