The Netherlands, which I left 27 years ago (I don’t know the current culture), trained children from a young age not to waste food. You have a fridge, save it. When your plate was too full, next time take less. You can always go for a second helping. It spoils in your fridge? Remember to eat what you made, or to buy less perishable foods next shopping tour. First, eat a decent meal, only when you stilled your hunger, add snacks, so that the food you bought or cooked doesn’t spoil and you don’t waste money on fast ‘food.’ This was more than Calvinism teachings about frugalness.
How come the Dutch were (are?) so careful with food? The answer is simple. The Northern Netherlands is the only part of the rich West that recently experienced a true famine. In the winter of 1944/1945, the Nazi occupier transported anything edible (and all else) to Germany. In the cities in Holland was nothing left to eat, not even for the exorbitantly rich. Suddenly, the Nazi propaganda that the Dutch are Aryans too turned out hollow. Suddenly, they were treated like the Gentile Poles, as dispensable.
City dwellers went on with their lives until they literally dropped dead in the streets. There was not enough wood to produce caskets. With their last savings or positions, the strongest went on hunger treks to farms on their bikes driven by their emaciated bodies. The bikes had wooden ‘tires’ since the real tires were also all stolen. Tulip bulbs that cost a fortune were eaten. Accidental consumption of hyacinth bulbs turned out deadly. People addicted to smoking burned fake tobacco in their pipes although it had no nicotine. Coffee addicts could not function without their fake coffee that lacked any caffeine. My parents survived the Hunger Winter in the main Dutch concentration camp, Westerbork. Ironically, there, there was plenty to eat because almost all Jews were already transported away.
So, after the war, the Dutch had learned the value of food. Not the monetary value but its real value. You don’t throw out food. You don’t even play with food. But all babies play with everything. You can just wait until they take a spoon of their food and aim at the ground, the wall, or your face. This would just shock any Dutch grownup. Even I, who learned the roots of the Dutch fear for wasting food, could not help being totally shocked when a spoon of food left my child’s hand, not for his mouth. But I tried not to show how upsetting it was to me. This, because I knew how a baby sees such distress. If such a small gesture can flatten such enormous, all-powerful, all-knowing creatures (like grownups seem in their eyes), that’s so interesting and needs to be researched further. Smash!
My mother was a revolutionary cook. She experimented with food preparations, which at the time was unheard of. But not every experiment ended in success. But if we wouldn’t eat it, we would get nothing else and the same plate of food the next morning cold. (It was also infuriating that she stood all day in the kitchen and we didn’t like it!) When we had eaten chicken, she would say, Are you finished with the chicken? Then she would eat all the meat left on the bones. She would end by saying: That’s how you do it. The Dutch even have a special verb for picking bones (afkluiven).
One day, we must have been all of 14, one of my classmates didn’t like the sandwich he got to school. He threw it in the corner of the class. Someone pick it up and threw it into another corner. The dust and dirt collecting sandwich flew through the air at least a dozen times until it was mid-air when our math teacher Mr. Hoogerboord entered. His eyes and then his legs followed the projectile. The tall man he was, he bent deeply to pick it up and started eating it. He ate it thoughtfully and slowly as if savoring every taste of it. He took five minutes to eat it all. He took out his handkerchief, cleaned his lips, and started the lesson. He didn’t say a word about it. An eternal lesson.
In a commemorational issue of the reputable Dutch Medical weekly about the war, a professor of virology shared some memories of the time he spent hidden at a farm so he wouldn’t be brought to Germany for slave labor in the factories. He remembers accompanying the farmer collecting the potato harvest. The tractor towed a huge trailer stuffed to the rim with the produce. They hit a ditch in the road and the farmer stopped, got off, and picked up a potato that had fallen off. The city boy in hiding wanted to know why he cared about that one potato. You certainly are not lacking potatoes. The farmer replied: Can you make a potato? Such respect! The article had a microscopic picture of the inner fine structure of a potato.
So, the Dutch don’t waste food. My mother put all leftovers in the fridge. She combined them into a delicious last meal of the week. My mother was great at soups. But, we had to eat our food. In other parts of the world (Biafra), there was hunger and people would give anything to have what we didn’t like. (‘Go ahead and send it to them’ didn’t help.) I never learned to use my taste buds to check if I wanted something. So I modified it for my kids. You don’t have to finish what you dislike. But next time, don’t take a large portion before you’re sure you’d like it. You can’t reject food you think or remember to dislike. Taste a little and then notice afresh (pardon the pun) what you want. Yet, meat or fish you finish because an animal died giving it to you. If you’re not sure you like it, start with a sliver.
The bottom line is that wasting food means that you don’t appreciate food. And that you add to the world’s problems. You might even not care about world hunger because you don’t recognize how important food is.
Understanding and Unlearning Food Wasting
You can’t just expect food wasters to stop from reading the above moral stories. There are structural reasons that need sensitive addressing.
Whoever went hungry as a child (baby) will have a hard time saying stop to food. Food in their mouth, plate, pot, and shopping cart. It might take deep therapy and the support of others to become a better food judge.
People who were pushed into poverty (many Jews from Arab countries that came to Israel), once they get the means, will express their pride and hospitality in the best of the best food in abundance. But, overeating is food-wasting too. And most of such copious meals end up in the waste. Perfectly health-supporting foods. You need to learn that there is no danger of starving in Israel anymore. And a little food served with a big smile expresses hospitality and love perfectly. (And a plate-full is not an itty-bitty (teeponnet). And when your kids are too spoiled to eat ‘old food,’ you spoiled them, and you must correct them. Just as when you discover that hitting children is illegal and bad, and you stop doing so, even if it’s a family tradition, you need to stop being overly permissive to spoiled brats.
When the children have left the house and live on their own, you must learn to buy, kook, and serve less food. It’s not easy but you must. Not because you won’t have the money but because it’s a waste.
We have fridges and freezers now. We can cook large meals and then preserve what’s excessive. When you throw a party, make a plan where a surplus of the food afterward goes. (Give it to some of your guests to take home, to neighbors, street workers for their break (not during Ramadan!).
Some people don’t throw out meat because it’s expensive but they chuck veggies and fruits as if it’s worthless. Some don’t throw out stale bread (or place it next to the bin as if anyone would eat from it), because some say that throwing away bread leads to poverty. I tell you, throwing away bread is poverty. Buy real, tasty whole-wheat bread. That doesn’t go stale.
Do you know that many fruits can be eaten with their skin and pits? The red membrane of the peanut contains something that protects your heart. The green leaves of the cauliflower taste the same as the white part.
Refuse to buy food in bulk you can’t finish. Yes, it’s really cheap for a one-and-a-half kilo. But who’s going to eat it? You can’t freeze tomatoes. When customers want smaller portions to buy, sellers will learn to provide them.
Talking of wasting, not every type of fruit or vegetable you buy must have its own new plastic bag. (And then a large bag to hold all the little ones.)
But the first step in all of this is to learn it is painful when food is thrown out. It should really hurt you. When you get there, the rest will follow. And when you become appreciative of food, people around you will too.