Welcome to Table Scraps, an intermittent series on the growing problem of food waste and what some eateries, officials, farms, institutes, and everyday people are doing right. This isn’t a guilt trip, just a way to unpack initiatives attempting to reduce kitchen waste and food loss, as more than 40 percent of all food is wasted in the U.S. We’ll explore backyard composting to city programs, restaurant tips to technology, and anything related to this global issue. Heat up those leftovers and settle in.
Cold fried chicken? My favorite. That curry jammed in the back of the refrigerator’s top shelf? Better than the first time. And the vat of shredded chicken made Sunday in the Crock-Pot? What a lunch-packing lifesaver.
Yes, I love leftovers. The arguments that they’ll give you a stomach virus, are gross, are unposh, or are for quitters (meaning for those who can’t finish their food) infuriate me. Leftovers save money, save you from overeating, and save the freaking planet. Well, they can at least help.
But it took a long time for society to view them as the saviors they are.
A General History of Leftovers
World War I, the Great Depression, the Twilight Zone-era ‘60s, the Reagan ‘80s, ‘90s Frasier types, and now, waste-conscious adults all have a lot to do with the legacy of leftovers. And there are some fascinating articles about this.
For the longest time, leftovers weren’t considered good or bad: They were just a thing.
According to a Time piece, “A Brief History of Leftovers,” uneaten food has "been a part of human eating culture since ancient man realized the fruits of a hunt would stay edible for a while if they were stored in the back of a cold, dark cave.” Other ancient people brought in snow to slow spoilage, and later, in the 19th century, there were the days of ice delivery, when men would haul in chunks of the stuff for the icebox.
Of course the invention of Freon, better refrigeration, the household microwave, and food storage lines like Tupperware, Saran Wrap, and Ziploc all played major roles. It was common practice to store away food, especially during wartime and the Great Depression.
Then, leftovers fell out of favor.
According to the History website, specifically the article “The Curious History of Leftovers,” people became embarrassed about their excess food. “Eating leftovers, or worse, serving them to a guest, thus made one an object of disdain or ridicule rather than paragon of civic virtue as in earlier eras,” it says.
“Etiquette columns throughout the 1960s and early 1970s regularly fielded questions about whether it was even acceptable to ask for a ‘doggie bag’ at restaurants, the uncertainty of letter writers revealing this ambivalence about how to act appropriately around leftovers.”
Another article, this one “An Economic History of Leftovers" from The Atlantic, confirms this blasé ‘tude toward leftovers.
It states how by the time the 1960s rolled around, leftovers were becoming a joke, “with a grumbling husband and a mystery casserole playing stock roles.” This was because of postwar plenty.
“A historically anomalous food economy was coming to define American culture, as the cost of food relative to income plummeted and even the poorest Americans were less desperate for calories than they had ever been,” it reads. “Leftovers were coming to seem less like a signal of household abundance and more like a drag.”
That outlook continued for decades. And now, it's commonly reported that Americans spend about 10 percent of their income on food.
However, food waste has recently become a much more apparent issue.
Leftovers as a Combatant of Food Waste
The Natural Resources Defense Council, or NRDC, put out an issue paper in August 2012 titled “Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food From Farm to Fork to Landfill.” It’s a source we continue to reference, and there is a lot in there about leftovers.
To reiterate the intro, about “40 percent of food in the United States today goes uneaten.” That's according to this paper, which goes on to read, “This not only means that Americans are throwing out the equivalent of $165 billion each year, but also that the uneaten food ends up rotting in landfills as the single largest component of U.S. municipal solid waste where it accounts for a large portion of U.S. methane emissions.”
The NRDC says increasing the efficiency of our food system requires collaborative efforts by businesses, governments, and consumers. Consumers? You mean working stiffs like us? What are we supposed to do at a household level? Well, aside from composting, the NRDC has some suggestions. “Consumers can waste less food by shopping wisely, knowing when food goes bad, buying produce that is perfectly edible even if it’s less cosmetically attractive, cooking only the amount of food they need, and eating their leftovers.”
Bam! Leftovers are right there. It’s not just a next-day lunch hack, but also an actual, suggested strategy. Leftovers primarily come from two places: home cooking and restaurants. Uneaten food from your own kitchen has an easy end. Stick your leftover rice or whatever in a Tupperware, or freeze it for later in the week.
But taking home food from restaurants, that’s a different story, and a different history.
Pets, Food, and the Doggie Bag
The doggie bag deserves a quick recap here as well. Let’s get the dark part over with first.
Commercial cat and dog food didn’t always exist, and pets usually ate scraps from human meals. During wartime, some Americans actually killed their pets versus feeding them leftovers. This was in an effort to send as much food as possible to hungry Europe. It was considered unpatriotic to feed pets food that could otherwise be sent to, say, Belgium.
However, restaurants were still a thing, and according to a Smithsonian Magazine post, “Unwrapping the History of the Doggie Bag,” the modern doggie bag originated in the 1940s. It was called as such because it encouraged diners to carry home scraps or bones to pets, especially as the intense, wartime attitude toward this started to fade.
But then, the doggie bag became more of a Bobby bag — meaning humans were planning on eating more of that same meal later.
Of course, the voices of etiquette pounced. According to the same article, a 1968 Emily Post newspaper column stated, “I do not approve of taking leftover food such as pieces of meat home from restaurants. Restaurants provide 'doggy bags' for bones to be taken to pets, and generally the bags should be restricted to that use."
But as we all know, etiquette lost that battle, and the doggie bag just became the to-go box.
In any case, portion sizes started to skyrocket (growing by 50 percent from 1977 to 1996 according to that History article), and the to-go box became much more widely accepted.
And hopefully by now, it's encouraged, because chefs also love leftovers.
A Phoenix Chef’s Thoughts
Want some insider insight? At Geordie’s Restaurant inside Wrigley Mansion in Phoenix’s Biltmore area, you’ll find 32-year-old chef de cuisine Ashley Goddard. She has a special relationship with uneaten food.
First, she did appear on the Chopped episode “Leftover Takeover” — along with two other Phoenix chefs, Michael Compean of Scapegoat Beer and Wine and Rich Hinojosa of CRUjiente Tacos. Competitors were challenged with rescuing foods that would have otherwise been tossed or left to rot in the fridge.
But what's more, Goddard had a unique perception for that episode: She was raised in an agricultural setting in Michigan till she was 14.
“I grew up on a farm with a big family, so leftovers were a really big staple for us,” she says. She was also close to her grandmother. She says she feels lucky, being raised by a member of the Depression-era generation.
“Everything was important, nothing gets thrown away, everything gets used,” she says of those days. “Being raised on a farm like that, it just gives you a new perspective on food.” That outlook revolves around utilizing everything she can, because, “Somebody has to put in all of this work to put these things on the table for us.”
Now, Goddard is helping to raise two boys, and leftovers are a big help. “It’s good to have something in the fridge,” she says. She also makes a habit of bringing home any leftovers for her dog.
Similarly, Goddard supports Geordie’s guests taking uneaten food — even though her dishes do taste best on that first go-round, she admits. Something like pasta, reheated, just wouldn’t be the same quality, not to say it wouldn’t be good. But above all, she encourages diners to bring home leftovers.
“If somebody sends back their plate and there’s stuff on that plate, and they didn’t want to take it home,” she says, “I’m like, ‘Okay, what was wrong with it?’”
Walking out of a restaurant with your uneaten food in hand is also, you better believe, supported by the NRDC.
Leftovers at the Restaurant Level
Surprise, the NRDC has something to say about restaurant waste.
“Plate waste is a significant contributor to losses in food service, resulting primarily from large portions and undesired accompaniments,” our aforementioned issue paper reads. “On average, diners leave 17 percent of meals uneaten, and 55 percent of these potential leftovers are not taken home.”
Therefore, the NRDC says, yes, “Restaurants should urge diners to take leftovers with them — using as little packaging as possible, and preferably a reusable or compostable type.”
There, then, is your caveat: container waste. And where the hell are busy restaurateurs supposed to find low-impact containers? Good things there are events like the Food Packaging Expo, which highlights many a company creating eco-friendly packaging perfect for leftovers.
So, there are solutions, which are getting better all the time.
In the meantime, at least you have lunch for tomorrow.