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The Clean Plate Club

Stop overeating and wasting food with 7 simple steps

I grew up as a member in good standing of the clean plate club. I heard all about the starving kids in every foreign country you can name, and some you probably can’t even pronounce. I learned from my Depression-era Jewish grandmother that wasting food was a heinous sin, punishable by no dessert.

There’s a Japanese restaurant in Sydney, Australia that must have learned this lesson too. Yukako Ichikawa’s restaurant, Wafu, serving organic, dairy-free, refined-sugar-free, gluten-free and wheat-free food, goes by the simple rule, “order just the right amount of food.” If you clean your plate, they give you a 30 percent discount on your bill. If you don’t follow the Buddhist philosophy of “mottainai,” meaning you are wasteful and don’t finish your food, you are banned from the restaurant.

A bit harsh, perhaps. But with 40 percent of all food produced in the U.S. being thrown out, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimating that Americans waste about 27 percent of their food, we need to take a good look at what this says to the 49 million people in our country who go hungry.

We are notorious food wasters. Jonathan Bloom of CNN and author of The American Wasteland, says that we waste enough food every day to fill up the Rose Bowl.

Food waste is defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as: “Uneaten food and food preparation wastes from residences and commercial establishments such as grocery stores, restaurants, and produce stands, institutional cafeterias and kitchens, and industrial sources like employee lunchrooms.”

I just had a turkey burger that came with fries and pickles. The fries and pickles were wasted. My colleague, Dr. Judith Beck, a well-known cognitive therapist diet specialist, notes, “The only way leftover food won’t go to waste is if you wrap it up and give it to someone who truly needs it.” As I said, the fries and pickles were wasted. I wasn’t about to send them to another table.

Want to stop wasting food without overeating (which is also wasting food but only inside of you)? Here are several tips to help you:

1. Eat at home more often. You have more control over the portions you prepare and serve and being able to freeze before you toss. Never leave the restaurant without a “doggy bag” of edible leftovers.

2. Check your refrigerator and pantry before you go shopping. Planning ahead, with a detailed shopping list, helps avoid over-buying. Shopping more often and buying less each time helps, and one food expert, anthropologist Timothy Jones, suggests shopping only on Thursday and Friday.

3. Only buy what you eat and use up what you buy. Find ways to recycle. One of my favorite tips is to freeze fruit that’s already ripe, but not going to be eaten, for protein shakes. That way, you cut down on fruit waste. Don’t forget to cut away blemishes on vegetables instead of throwing away the whole item, thus helping you use up your vegetables.

4. Donate your excess, non-perishable food to your closest food pantry. The San Diego Food Bank maintains a food drive that distributes 15 million pounds of food each year to those in need.

5. Learn about expiration dates. Generally, “use by” is worth taking seriously. The “sell by” or “best before” notations are for stock-control, and are best estimates of when the taste is less than desirable. If you know it will take a while for you to eat something, watch the “use by” date closely and find the best one available when you shop.

6. Teach your children the value of food budgets. Let them shop with you when they are old enough, and encourage them to make purchase decisions based on price, actual need, nutrition, portion size and recipe needs.

7. Learn the value of composting banana peels, eggshells, fruits and vegetables and other similar items. It can make a great, free, rich fertilizer for your lawn.

It won’t take much, perhaps just an awareness, to stop wasting food. With the holidays coming up and their large dinners, parties and snacking, it’s a great time to start saving money and avoid wasting food.

For more than 30 years, Dr. Mantell has successfully been bringing upbeat, friendly and helpful psychological insights to individuals, families and businesses in San Diego as a clinical and corporate psychologist in private practice. He's been a regular on Good Morning America, KFMB-TV News 8, has appeared on Oprah, Larry King Live, the Today show, authored two best-selling books and speaks regularly for audiences throughout the country. Dr. Mantell is a member of the Sports Medicine team at The Sporting Club at the Aventine in La Jolla, where he writes and educates others in the psychology of fitness. He can be found on Facebook and Twitter.