Do You Waste Food At Your House? A 1920 Perspective

sliced turkey, mashed potatoes and other leftoversAccording to the United States Department of Agriculture, in 2010 there was 218.9 pounds of food waste per person in the United States. Food waste has been an issue for at least a hundred years. This is what it said in the introduction of a 1920 cookbook which contained recipes that used left-overs:

Can you truthfully say that there is no waste in food in your home? 

It has been reiterated many times that a French family could live on what an American family throws away. Is that true in your case?

True thrift and economy in cooking means planning so that nothing is wasted and all foods whether freshly cooked or reserved at another meal are tasty and appetizing. 

The whims of fancy and capricious appetite require forethought and careful  planning in order to keep a varied and tempting menu and at the same time utilize all left-over food. 

Source: The Cook Book of Left-Overs (1920) by The More Nurses in Training Movement – Illinois Ladies

58 thoughts on “Do You Waste Food At Your House? A 1920 Perspective

  1. As the kids have grown and left home it has been a challenge to go from cooking for 5 to cooking for two. We do eat lots of leftovers. I try to freeze excess for later use and our chickens get a lot of the scraps.

    1. We now bizarrely have the opposite problem (which I guess is good in that our waste percentage must now be low). Our two college age kids are back home due to the pandemic, and my wife, who became acclimated to cooking for two, and who like my daughter is a tiny person anyhow, can’t seem to adjust proportions back for four.

      Indeed, I long ago gave up eating lunch and sometimes breakfast, but I have had to resume on the assumption that there’s probably not going to be enough food at dinner.

      1. When I’m unsure how much will be eaten, I generally try to err on the side of too much food – figuring that we can always eat left-overs.

  2. I think it is easier for me to say that very little food is wasted around here ,because of the farm animals and the compost bin. I’m sure it would be a challenge if I had to make enough food for us without waste if there was no farm!

  3. Fortunately we both like eating leftovers so we don’t waste food that way. But sometimes we don’t get around to using some canned or packaged foods before they expire, which makes me cringe when I have to throw them out. It doesn’t always pay to stock up on sale items!

    1. Maybe I shouldn’t do this, but when I have a canned good or other food that has expired, I tend to try to figure out if it is “just a little” expired or “whether it has expired by “a lot.” If it is just a little past the expiration date, I generally use it.

  4. I’ve lived in logging camps, small towns, suburbia and big cities. In Chicago now, where it hurts the heart to waste food to garbage, otherwise, to defy rat signage. But, even in my suburban home, 28 miles north of Manhattan, I was able to carve out a little sanctuary on my half-acre, high over the Hudson River It supported raptors and song birds, a feral cat colony, families of raccoon, skunk and opossum, and Bambi’s people. Yes, I let lovely tall weeds flourish as perimeter, in their honey suckle scent, chicory blue, goldenrod and white lace umbels and no one complained since the grass it contained, was perfectly mowed. No “garbage” was left over for rats. It can be managed. I do wish we could bring some farm to city centers, to put unused food out for wee creatures, for it is the circle of life that has meaning.

    1. Beautifully expressed – How food that isn’t eaten is handled varies so much based on locale. I also miss the connections that exist in rural areas.

  5. I have to say that I live for leftovers. I try to get 2 dinners and 1 lunch from anything I cook. But I have to say as another reader posted, I sometimes find something expired in the pantry. And to add on to the farm use of leftovers, the school where I taught had a farmer come and pick up the cafeteria food scraps. A great way to recycle and reuse.
    To keep adding on…I know many of us have stocked up during this COVID-19 and when it is all over, it would be great to donate our extras to a food pantry. I stock up for hurricane season and donate unused items at the end of the season.

    1. I like how the school had a farmer come in to pick up the scraps. I’ve also thought about what will happen to all the foods that people have stocked during this crisis. I hope that items not eaten are donated to food pantries.

  6. Not directly related, I suppose, but I heard yesterday on a NPR broadcast that 50% of the American food distribution system is actually restaurant oriented. That stunned me, but apparently it’s true. The story went on to state that the country is now having food distribution disruptions as the system is basically two systems and there’s been a boost in consumption at home and a collapse of consumption from restaurants, while at the same time there’s almost no way to move food that was dedicated right from the onset to restaurants to anything else. In some places they’re actually working with restaurants to repackage food so it can be sold in stores.

    Again, I don’t know that this is really related, but it’s interesting to note in the context of time. I have no idea at all what percentage of food was restaurant based in 1920, but it had to be well below 50%, and I’ll bet he food distribution system at the time was one single system.

    1. I’m the same as you. I never had many left-overs and took pride that I generally could plan meals so that I used most produce with little of it spoiling – but now I have almost no left-overs.

  7. Right now nothing is being wasted and we are often eating the same thing more than once. The only thing I poured down the drain was fudge sauce. I think the chocolate had gone bad which I didn’t know could happen.

  8. A miser pinches food like pennies. Rarely do we throw food away. We’re back to three people in the house, and I don’t cook anything that one of us won’t finish.

    1. I love your wonderful descriptive language – “A miser pinches food like pennies.” description. We also rarely through food away.

  9. I don’t think a modern French family can survive on 218.9 pounds of food, so maybe things have improved since 1920. Or maybe the French have become less thrifty. 218.9 pounds is about what I bring home during 3 weeks. Maybe 4. My only family is my cat, though.

  10. We have gotten better at this in stages. First by meal planning when my husband went back to school and (*gasp*) I was going to be cooking dinner twice a week for the first time in 13+ years… then again recently when I quit the corporate game and only wanted to grocery shop twice a week (instead of most days, as he did.)
    Now we’ve gone to another stage as we try and shop every two weeks and sometimes the produce is long-lasting and sometimes not. Sometimes the oranges the kids beg for go uneaten and end up canned in light sugar water. There’s been banana bread more weeks than not from the bananas we thought to save in the freezer ages ago but didn’t get around to baking.
    We’ve always been lighter on trash that it seems our neighbors are, as a family of four our trash and recycle can go out to the curb every other week, or at a push to the third week sometimes. “Waste not, want not” has definitely increased in prevalence in our house lately.

    1. I like how you figured out ways to utilize produce that is on the verge of being over-ripe. It’s interesting how you’ve gone through various phases when it comes to shopping. Now that I think about it, I’ve also gone through different phases in regards to how frequently I shop.

  11. Oh…no waste here, although I do need to check sell by dates on cans and frozen items. I always cook enough on one day to last for

    1. People a hundred years ago didn’t like to waste food – though I must admit that I sometimes like to make too much of something, so that I can use it as the starting point for another recipe. For example, I might make a beef roast one day, and then cut the left-overs into small cubes and make Beef Stroganoff the next.

  12. I feel guilty whenever I waste food, but sometimes it can’t be avoided. It’s hard to shop for the exact amount of food we will consume in a week, especially now. We eat leftovers all the time, and I try to plan meals around what I have in the fridge….but sometimes things still go bad before I can get to them.

    1. Sometimes it is just about impossible not to have something that ends up needing to be tossed. I often seem unable to use an entire green pepper before it spoils.

  13. I’ve never wasted anything! I seem to have Depression-era mentality, which might be true, inherited from my grandparents. More likely I just need to create tight order out of chaos😬 I seem to be navigating the pandemic pantry with more creativity that I ever could have imagined, finding (and using) things I forgot I had. Whole spelt?? Open to suggestions!

    1. I think that I also inherited a depression-era mentality. As for whole spelt – I have have no clue, but look forward to hearing how you use it. 🙂

  14. After reading this article written 100 years ago, I’m glad that some things never change. I hate to see food being wasted, but I sometimes have to throw out some food that is just beyond its time. One of my resolutions for 2020 is to waste less food – shopping carefully and not cooking more than I can eat are two things I’m trying to concentrate on. I cringe in restaurants when I see people order large plates of food and then walk out with it half eaten.

    1. When I eat out with friends, and we get huge plates of food, I’ve noticed that some are pleased because they like to take the extra food home to eat for another meal, and others just leave it.

  15. I admit more food is wasted than I’d prefer. I don’t mean for it to happen. Though now that we’re on stay home orders the food is going fast and not being wasted.

  16. It seems that trying not to waste food takes some planning. So, in this household we call excess food from a meal “planned-over” and not “left-over”. This way it is a planned meal for the next day. It seems to help us get us in the right mind set.

    1. I like calling them “planned-overs. You’re absolutely right that trying not wasting food takes some planning. I know that I’m always trying to think about which foods in my refrigerator need to be used first to avoid spoilage. For example, if I buy two fruits – strawberries and oranges, I know that I need to use the strawberries first.

  17. We have been eating very well during the quarantine. And we love leftovers! So easy to put back on the table and don’t have to figure out what to have.

    1. So have we. We are both very fortunate. At some level, I’ve actually have been enjoying looking for recipes that use foods I stocked up on.

  18. My father always told me that each morsel, each grain has the capacity to become a plant. And you should not be the reason it ends up in the trash. Great post. 🙂

  19. We are much better now about using leftovers, or if I purchased something and only used a little of it, I’ll try to use it in something else; and we compost. We still waste food though. 😦

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