As I endeavor to cook down all the perishables in my refrigerator before heading off on vacation, I’m reminded of all the ways I end up with wasted food on my hands. This has to be a valuable exercise, one that will guide my buying decisions when I come back rested and relaxed and wanting to make the greenest choices possible to fill my empty larder.

In her book “Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook: A guide to eating well and saving money by wasting less food,” Dana Gunders, lead scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council food waste work, includes a chapter on “waste diagnostics.” She contends that most of us waste more food than we realize and that taking a closer look at our habits serves as the base of future waste reduction plans. The best way to figure out how much you waste and where to focus your waste reduction efforts, Gunders writes, is to conduct your own personal food waste audit.

Christine Burns Rudalevige peers theatrically into the refrigerator at her Brunswick home. Just days away from a California vacation, Rudalevige used perishable food to concoct a clafoutis. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

To run an audit like this – whether you live by yourself, share living space with roommates or are a parent of three – you have to log every food item you throw out. You’ll need to note the quantity that was chucked (you can use a kitchen scale to weigh as you go or toss all in one bucket and weigh everything on a bathroom scale at the end of the week); whether it was tossed at home, school or work; the reason it was tossed; and, the approximate value of the food wasted. Ideally, you want to commit to auditing your food waste for at least two weeks so that you get a full understanding of your habits, not just a small snapshot when you may be on your best waste-not behavior. Stick to your typical shopping, cooking and eating routines while auditing so the results are honest ones.

Only record wasted food that is in fact edible, items that could have been eaten had they not rotted, molded or soured. You don’t need to record things like egg shells, chicken bones and orange peels as they aren’t technically edible. But you do get sustainable eating kudos if you take steps to redirect those from the waste stream, whether that means composting or making stock.

A slice of rye mixed berry clafoutis. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Pinpointing why you ended up throwing away edible food is the trickiest bit of the audit. Gunders illustrates how to think about this process using something we’ve probably all come in contact with: the highly unappetizing slimy bag of lettuce. You, like me, chucked it. But the trick to getting the most out of a food audit lies in figuring out why it was left to the point of sliminess.

Did you buy too much? Did you prepare less salad than you thought you would that week? Did your family balk at eating salad with dinner? Did your plans change and you went out for dinner? Did you buy the spicy greens the kids won’t eat by mistake? Is leftover salad decidedly not a favorite food? Were you forced to buy the big bag because that’s all the market had? Did you store the lettuce in the coldest part of the fridge where it froze and then thawed to its mushy state? Did you forget the first-in, first-out rule and this is actually the old bag that should have been eaten before the newer, fresher one was consumed? Did you not realize that if you picked out the slimy bits, the rest of the lettuce was still perfectly edible?

Answering each of these questions as it applies to the food you’ve already wasted will help you think differently about how to avoid wasting any amount of food in the future.

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, a recipe developer and tester and a cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a new cookbook from Islandport Press based on these columns. She can be contacted at: [email protected]

Rye mixed berry clafoutis. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

RYE MIXED BERRY CLAFOUTIS

I had to buy a whole 20-ounce bag of rye flour when I needed only one cup for a recipe. I didn’t see the carton of eggs stuffed into the vegetable crisper, so I bought a second dozen I didn’t need. The berries were so gorgeous at the farmers market I couldn’t resist buying blue-, black- and raspberries, too many to eat out of hand. My granulated white sugar got all lumpy in that humid weather we had a few weeks back. And the three quarters full gallon of whole milk won’t keep until we return from our glamping trip in Yosemite National Park. I turned to Julia Child’s basic clafoutis recipe, adapting it only to accommodate the rye flour, because I literally have all the ingredients on hand. The same volume (1 cup) of all-purpose flour will work just fine, even though it weighs 10 grams more.
Serves 6-8

Butter for the pan
1 1/4 cups whole milk
2/3 cups (135 grams) granulated sugar
3 eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
Pinch of kosher salt
1 cup (105 grams) rye flour
2 generous cups (325 grams) mixed berries
Confectioners’ sugar for garnish

Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly butter a medium-sized flameproof baking dish – a cast iron pan is good – that is at least 1½ inches deep.
Combine the milk, 1/3 cup sugar, eggs, vanilla, salt and flour in a blender. Blend at top speed until smooth and frothy, about 1 minute.
Pour 1/4-inch layer of batter into the prepared dish. Turn a stove burner to low and set the dish on top until a film of batter sets in the bottom of the dish, about 2 minutes (this extra step helps set the berries in place, producing a really pretty finished clafoutis!). Remove the dish from the heat.
Spread the berries over the batter and sprinkle the remaining 1/3 cup sugar over them. Gently pour the rest of the batter over the berries and smooth it out with the back of a spoon. Place the dish in the center of the preheated oven and bake until the top is puffed and browned and a tester plunged into its center comes out clean, 40-50 minutes.
Cool slightly (it will sink a bit at its center). Sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar just before serving warm.