Shades of Green: Toddler vs. Lettuce

Is it possible to conquer both the terrible twos and food waste?

This might just look like normal produce, but to a toddler it’s a nemesis.

I don’t think there’s anything that blows my mind more than watching my toddler grow and learn and experience the world for the first time. Much to the chagrin of adults I interact with, she’s pretty much all I talk about. But there’s one thing about her I don’t like to mention: She is a monster when it comes to wasting food. Whether it’s broccoli stems, all the leafy vegetables she calls “lettuce” and has decided are unfit for consumption, or the pasta that lands on the floor instead of in her mouth, my tiny human leaves a lot of her meals uneaten.

Sometime during my daughter’s terrible twos, I realized that food waste was a real problem for our family — one much bigger than a stubborn toddler facing down a bowl of kale. It’s a problem that results in the average family of three losing more than $1,000 a year in trashed, uneaten food.

The average family of three loses more than $1,000 a year in trashed, uneaten food.

I decided I needed to do something about our food waste and figured I had three options to deal with it: Eat it myself, feed it to the dogs or compost it.

We started with the first two solutions. I mean, I went to a lot of trouble to make beets seem cool—I wasn’t about to just throw them in the bin. My dogs, naturally, didn’t complain. They’ve learned to watch my daughter like a hawk while she eats, waiting for her to drop the next piece of food. But there are only so many half-eaten carrots a border collie can consume, and I really can’t eat all my child’s discarded apple peels.

So we moved to option three and started composting. For a while it was great to add my daughter’s sandwich crusts and half-eaten bananas to the coffee grounds and egg shells feeding my garden. But then it got to be too much for my small compost pail to handle. Thankfully the city of Austin has a pilot curbside compost program, which was a good way to deal with all the food that wasn’t preschooler approved. I told myself that our discarded food was turning into a usable resource for the city.

But when I found myself sifting through my neighbors’ garbage bins to make sure things were sorted correctly I knew my zeal had gotten out of hand. And it wasn’t even clear just how much my compost obsession was paying off. There had to be a fourth (and better) option to tackle food waste. There was: preventing food waste from the start.

Not only does stopping food waste before it happens keep me from digging in the garbage, it has a sizable environmental impact.

It turns out that the fourth solution to my dilemma is actually the best option. Not only does stopping food waste before it happens keep me from digging in the garbage, it has a sizable environmental impact.

Let’s break it down: In America, nearly half of all of the food we produce goes to waste. That means that all of the labor, resources, land and energy that went into it are also wasted. All the energy and resources used to make wasted food are significantly contributing to climate change, sucking dry clean water sources and crowding out wildlife. A whole 13 percent of carbon emissions in the United States come from the production, storage and distribution of food that’s never eaten. Growing wasted food is responsible for 21 percent of freshwater use and 80 million acres of lost habitats.

While composting helps to keep food waste out of a landfill, it doesn’t eliminate the waste of all of the resources it took to grow it in the first place.

Don’t let that adorable mug fool you, this is the face of a food waste monster.

I may never solve the ever-changing puzzle that is what my daughter will and won’t eat, but I can help our family waste less food. I can prepare healthy meals I know she likes (even if it means it sometimes comes from a box or is shaped like a dinosaur). I can add over-ripe fruits and veggies to smoothies, which, for the record, is a great way to hide “lettuce” from unsuspecting toddlers. I can plan out meals for the two adults in the house and make a shopping list before I head to the grocery store so I don’t buy food that will never get eaten. I can do some research learn the best ways to store different kinds of food and convince my husband to take expiration-date labels less seriously.

And I can bring the food waste fight beyond my kitchen. Because all the food that’s wasted in the United States isn’t just coming from picky toddlers. Grocery stores are fussier than two-year-olds when it comes to how their produce looks — leaving tons of fresh fruits and vegetables in the field for being the wrong size or shape. Misleading expiration-date labels and packaging encourage people to buy more than they need and toss it when it’s still perfectly good. By urging my representatives and local grocery stores to take a stand against food waste, I can push for the larger changes that need to happen to stop food waste before it reaches my fridge.

Along with my personal efforts, I’m going to keep working on my own food-waste monster so that she makes the connection between her actions and the wildlife she loves and joins the food-waste fight when she’s ready. And, maybe, someday she’ll eat a beet or two as a result.

Jessica Herrera is a media specialist for the Center for Biological Diversity.