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What To Do With Leftovers

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Reducing food waste after gatherings

After your warm and cozy gathering, there’s the reality of clean up.  It’s inevitable and necessary.  And one of the not-so-fun steps is getting rid of that leftover food.  The question is: how?  Where do you start?  And how can you do it responsibly?

The United States is the global leader in food waste. While waste happens at every step in the food supply chain (the process of getting food from the field to your fridge), consumers are the worst offenders. Over 45% of the 277 billion pounds of food wasted in the United States is attributed to consumers. Most of this food ends up in landfills; food makes up 22% of all municipal solid waste. Food that goes into the landfill produces methane gas, a leading contributor to climate change. Food waste also has a staggering price tag, using limited resources like water and farmland and costing the United States approximately $218 billion per year.

“Reducing food waste is the single greatest solution to climate change,”

According to Project Drawdown

Food waste includes everything from the half-eaten slice of pizza left on a plate at a restaurant to carrot peels from preparing a meal at home to the sour milk a family pours down the drain. In the US, an average person wastes 238 pounds of food costing them $1,800 per year. Fresh fruits and vegetables account for the largest losses at the consumer level.

There are two main causes for food wastes: 1) Food spoilage. About two thirds of food waste at home is due to food not being used before it goes bad.  2) Over-preparing. The remaining third of household waste is the result of people cooking or serving too much food.

So what can you do to reduce food waste? First, keep in mind the food waste hierarchy.

The first step is waste reduction. Before you head to the store, plan your meals, make your shopping list and stick to it. Try to cook just enough food for each meal or remember to incorporate your leftovers into your next day’s menu. Some people don’t care to eat the same meal they just had, but we’ve got you covered: there are thousands of recipes that use leftovers to make a whole new meal.

Learn what the different date labels mean. Except for infant formulas, product dates are not expiration dates. They indicate when a product should be used for best quality.

  • Stores use “Sell By” dates to determine when to sell an item by. This is not a safety deadline but may indicate products that have been sitting on the shelf longer.
  • Even if a “Best By” date has passed on a food you have at home, it should be safe to consume if stored and handled properly. This is the recommended date for best flavor or quality.
  • When a product reaches its “Use By” date, it means it’s no longer at peak quality according to the manufacturer.

The next step in the pyramid is food donation. Food banks and soup kitchens can’t take post-consumer foods or foods past the expiration date, but if you are hosting a big event consider coordinating with your caterer to assure that any extra food is safely kept and can be donated after the fact. Contact the local food bank or soup kitchen and find out their policy for accepting food donations. This takes a little planning but is well worth the effort.

For food waste that cannot be eaten or any remaining meal scraps, you can compost.

A 2019 study found that Routt County residents toss about 50,000 pounds of food into the garbage each week (1).

Luckily, there are a few different options for composting in the Yampa Valley. One of the easiest options to recycle your food waste is to collect it and pay for a composting program to process it. Innovative Regeneration Colorado has a newly launched subscription program called Feed for Seed. For $25 a month or $275 a year, participants are given a container to collect their household food waste. Each week they drop off the container at the Rodeo Grounds, and the food waste is composted off site. In the first two months of operation, the program has diverted over a ton of food waste from the landfill.

If you are interested in processing your own food waste, you can build a worm bin or bokashi system (see below), which are both great for our area because they can be done inside and therefore avoid any issues with cold temperatures, bears and other wildlife.

In Bokashi composting, kitchen scraps of all kinds — including meat and dairy products — are mixed with inoculated bran, pressed into the Bokashi bucket, covered with another handful of bran and tightly covered. When the bucket is full, it is sealed shut and set aside for ten to twelve days. Every other day during that time, the leachate, a byproduct of anaerobic composting, needs to be drawn off.

If you have the space and are interested in diving into a larger scale and more involved method of composting, you can set up a backyard compost system. Because we live in bear country, if you choose this option you will need to take a few precautions like setting up an electric fence and avoid putting in food waste like fruit and vegetables that attract bears. An added benefit of composting is that the product at the end of the process can be applied to your garden to enhance the soil. When compost is applied to soil it has many benefits including enhanced water retention, increased microorganism activity and increased carbon sequestration.

And there you have it: minimal food waste, saving money and helping reduce your overall climate footprint. For more information on other tips, check Zero by Fifty to learn how to reduce, reuse, repair or recycle almost anything.


Building a Worm Bin:

  • Buy one pound (this is enough to compost the kitchen scraps of a family of four) of red wiggler worms, not the earthworms you find outdoors.
  • Find a plastic container with a loose fitting lid that will allow air in the bin.
  • Fill the bin with a bedding material of shredded newspapers.
  • Add a pint of peat moss or garden soil.
  • Moisten the bedding with water until damp but not wet. Worms need air, moisture, warmth, food and darkness.
  • Add the red wiggler worms.

Caring for Your Worms:

  • To feed your worms, add only raw fruit and vegetable scraps. Stay away from meats, oils and dairy products. The more vegetable matter the better. Avoid orange rinds and other acidic citrus fruits.
  • Drain accumulated water from the bin, if necessary, to keep worms from drowning.
  • Use water to fertilize plants.
  • Remove castings and change the bedding monthly by moving bedding to one side of the bin and putting new material in the other side of the bin. The worms will migrate to the new half leaving the remaining area clear for cleanup.


Libby Christensen is an Extension Agent with the CSU Routt County Extension Office. She is passionate about all things related to food and has written extensively about the greenhouse gas impact of different agricultural production systems.

Madison Muxworthy is the Waste Diversion Director for the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council. Her work involves creating, fostering and promoting waste reduction and increasing recycling, composting and reuse successes in the Yampa Valley.


Libby Christensenhttps://routt.extension.colostate.edu/
Libby Christensen is the Family & Consumer Science and 4-H Extension Agent for Colorado State University in Routt County. She feels incredibly lucky to call Steamboat Springs home, where she lives with her husband and two children. When not working, you can find Libby hiking, skiing, or biking.

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