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The Bittersweet Reason For America's Food Waste: It's How We Show Our Love

Like when your parents' fridge is stocked with all your favorite foods—from when you were 10.

The Bittersweet Reason For America's Food Waste: It's How We Show Our Love

[Photo: nito via Shutterstock]

Do you love your family? Do you prepare them delicious, plentiful meals? Do you keep the refrigerator stuffed full so that everybody can have as much as they want? Then you may be destroying the planet. Or at least, you are contributing to the 40% of food tossed away by U.S. consumers and are personally wasting $371 per year, for each person in your home.

A new study from the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab looks at the role of affection in food waste. It finds that the affection of "nutritional gatekeepers" has a high environmental impact. For instance, say the authors, "stockpiling comfort foods in abundance—a form of both boosting positive self-emotions and showing affection for kids–-can promote greater food waste."

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the average American family of four is throwing away $1,500 worth of food every year. Forty percent of all the food we buy goes in the trash, and a good proportion of that is down to affectionate over-providing.

Michal Palka via Shutterstock

Researchers Gustavo Porpino, Brian Wansink, and Juracy Parente conducted two studies, one with 20 U.S. families and one with 20 lower-middle class families in Brazil. These consisted of in-depth interviews, along with photos, and examinations of the participants’ homes and routines.

In much of the world, food scarcity has become food abundance, and the motivation to save food is now a moral and environmental one, instead of a matter of survival. Likewise, preparing too much food out of affection, and then wasting it, can be described as a moral issue.

The study lists several factors that cause people to prepare too much food, or just to buy too much, only to throw it away uneaten. At family meals, abundance on the table may be important, and this can lead to waste. In Brazil, showing hospitality can also be wasteful. Despite the notion of equality, in our family homes, the mother is usually still the cook and nutritional gatekeeper.

"The mother’s role in caring for children is linked to food provisioning routines. The notion of ‘good mother’ is intrinsically related to this act of showing love to the family via preparation and serving food," says the study. For instance, a mother might serve up a table full of junky comfort food, but cook extra "healthy" food like plain vegetables to balance it out. This leads to even more waste.

"It’s kind of ironic," says lead author Gustavo Porpino in Cornell’s Food Psychology blog. "Caregivers do everything they can to fit the traditional role of a ‘good mother.’ They keep the house fully stocked with all kinds of food, provide snacks and treats in between meals, and make sure everyone has more than enough on their plates at the table, but it’s these same behaviors that lead to wasted food, wasted money, and even to obesity."

Another reason for over-stocking food at home is previous experience of scarcity. Here’s Mother 17, a participant in the study, on the subject: "Because I grow up almost without having food some days. It was empty, so if I don’t have food, I have a nervous breakdown. I like to know that we have food in our cabinets, if we don’t have food in our cabinets I worry about not eating, because we were poor, I grew up that way."

In contrast, another family, of European origin, avoided waste for the same reasons. Because they had known scarcity in the past, they were careful not to waste anything, even though, says the study, their home "had the highest amount of food stocked" of all participants.

nito via Shutterstock

Other reasons given for buying or preparing too much include "cooking in abundance to save time;" "the habit of stocking a lot of food due to the severe winter" and filling the pantry with favorite comfort foods so that the person that likes them will never go without.

All this might be okay, if not for one thing: Almost nobody was good at using leftovers. In fact, "the non-use of leftovers was the most frequent type of food waste identified," says the study.

The answer, then, as with everything, is education. Nutritional gatekeepers could be shown that their affections are leading to financial loss, and encouraged to show their affection in other ways. That seems impossible, though, given how tied up food is in our various cultures.

More practical is to deal with leftovers. If people can be taught to better use their leftovers, then a large proportion of waste could be avoided. And cooking with an eye to leftovers, a trick known by anyone who has ever cooked in an environment of scarcity, also makes better use of your time, which takes care of at least one of the cited excuses for cooking too much. And after all, what could be more satisfying, and more demonstrative of your affections, that throwing together a delicious dish made up of family leftovers?

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