At breakfast with a friend and her daughter in Germany a few years ago, I quietly held my breath wondering how the little girl would eat her yogurt. And she did it! Without interrupting her happy chatter, she peeled back the foil, then scraped off the tiny bit of yogurt before eating the whole thing.
I leaned back, relieved and touched. My friend had passed on to her daughter what we were taught as kids.
Although I was born 20 years after the end of World War II and never suffered shortages of any kind, the commandment, “Do not waste food” of my grandmother’s generation was instilled in me. That mentality is, of course, not a peculiar German one. Americans who lived through the Great Depression were equally mindful of food waste.
My grandmother’s eagerness to save any scraps took on some rather bizarre forms. She kept an entire battery of empty red jam jars in the back of her refrigerator. When she cooked Rote Grütze, the classic German dessert made with berries and cherries, she rinsed the jars with water, which she added to the Rote Grütze instead of plain water or fruit juice.
Another habit of hers was keeping a stack of butter wrappers in the refrigerator door to grease cake pans. My mother did that too, just like she took on many of my grandmother’s habits without questioning whether they were still appropriate in our times. That was, until not too long ago, my mother confessed to me that she angrily threw out all those butter wrappers in her fridge realizing that they had turned rancid and were going to spoil her cakes.
Food waste, and I mean real waste, is a big issue in Germany today, like in all other “rich” countries of the world – rich in parentheses because in Germany too, some people go hungry. An estimated 500,000 children do not get enough to eat on a regular basis, not only because the social welfare known as Hartz IV is not sufficient but often because parents do not know how to budget and buy soda and other junk food so there is not enough money left for food at the end of the month.
On average, 82 kg (180 pounds) of food per person are thrown out every year in Germany, which amounts to two large shopping cards full. To counter food waste and raise awareness the German Federal Ministry for Food and Agriculture has started the campaign Zu gut für die Tonne (Too good for the garbage bin). In addition to tips for smart shopping and saving foods, it provides recipes for cooking with leftovers, following in the footsteps of German cookbook classics like Dr. Oetker’s, which had a whole chapter devoted to leftovers (Resteverwertung). Interestingly, the campaign uses the informal “you” thus indicating that it mainly targets younger people.
I am two generations removed from the microgram saving mentality of my grandmother yet I cringe when I see food waste, or whenever food spoils under my nose. In my family I am notorious for signs like “Use this first!” on the milk bottle with the closest expiration date.
German language has a rather endearing term for people like me: Sparbrötchen (penny pincher), literally a “saving bun”. And that pinching goes beyond food.
To my husband’s dismay I cut open apparently empty hand cream tubes with good scissors. After the end of the school year I used to salvage notebooks from our children’s wastebaskets to rip out the empty pages for notepaper. When I was still working in a company office I drove my coworkers crazy by printing drafts on the back of used copy paper, and earned their full-blown scorn whenever a staple I had overlooked caused a paper jam in the printer.
Living in the US, idling vehicle engines is a big red flag for me. In Germany, beside the fact that the gas price is more than twice as high as in the US, idling your car will cost you. It falls under air and noise pollution as public disturbances and is fined with 10 euros.
As much as I would like to speak up when I see someone idle their engine I keep my mouth shut because America is a free country, and I have no business walking around playing environmental and resource police. So I only give them an angry stare hoping they’ll get it.
Sometimes, however, the unexpected happens.
Once a friend from Germany and her husband visited us over a hot September weekend. I took them on a bike ride to a local farm stand. While my friend and I checked out the produce her husband waited by the bikes in the parking lot.
When my friend and I returned, we found her husband with a look of bemused incredulity on his face. “You are not going to believe this!,” he said. A woman had driven up in her SUV. Leaving the engine running, she walked into the farm stand. A few seconds later she came back, looked at my friend’s husband and our bikes, and turned the engine off. Then she went back inside to do her shopping.
January 20, 2014 at 4:36 pm
Great post! Very interesting comparing cultures. My parents grew up during the depression and WW II in the US. My dad’s favorite phrase was “Waste not, want not”. He save used foil and we had a drawer full of old, crinkled foil. He also picked up every screw, or bit of hardware he ever saw on the ground and saved it. We always had a soup container in the refrigerator that the leftover vegetables went into.
When my family visited a friend in Germany, the very first day we were there, we were gently admonished for our children taking too much cereal and not finishing it. Children here generally lick the top of the yogurt lid because it is fun I think, not because they don’t want to waste food. And true, it is terrible how much food we waste in the US.
February 4, 2014 at 11:19 am
Thanks, Jennifer. As you describe from your parents, “Waste not, want not” transcends borders, it is a generational thing.
January 21, 2014 at 1:30 am
Such excellent points you make here! Germany is so different from the states and honestly, I think the US could learn a lot from Germany. While some things may seem like more work here, they are so much better for the environment! Many Americans just don’t think or are too lazy to recycle and pay attention to all of the little things they do everyday that helps to destroy the world they love. I’m an American, but I enjoy living in Germany. I know some hate the many “rules” but the way of life here is so simple, efficient and conservative. I always lick the yogurt lid. 🙂
February 4, 2014 at 11:27 am
Glad to hear there are fellow yogurt lid lickers out there! True, recycling is more work and I doubt everyone in Germany does it with the same fervor. On my last visits to Germany I have seen household waste being dumped all in the same bin, not neatly separated but generally you are right, the US could still learn a lot from Germany in that respect.
January 27, 2014 at 10:54 am
Funny—last night I read a PBS interview on food waste then your email of your writing of food waste. Years ago I read a book called Garbage (landfill problems), then a few years later one about food waste. I grew up the first nine years of my life with my grandma who taught me quite a bit about food and gardening. I compost, recycle all plastic (can 1-7 in my area), tin and glass, cardboard. So what paper does not go in compost goes to transfer station. I help at a Senior Sack program twice a month. Food that is donated from markets (mostly bread and desserts), and large companies around Bakersfield. So we do get healthy food from the San Joquin valley. Not perfect, who cares. Just cut off anything bruised (like grandma did) and use. Hoping to see all food places learn to use what is needed, donate what is not and compost the rest. People can start anywhere—their schools, hospitals and work places. Spreads from there. Yes.
February 4, 2014 at 11:34 am
Donna, lucky you, having 1-7 recycling! We only have 1 & 2 in our township, and we have to bring it to a collection point ourselves. Still we do what we can and hope it will spread.
September 11, 2017 at 3:42 am
I find the yoghurt stuck to the lid is the best in the pot!! 🙂 I agree with you totally – food waste is bad under any circumstances! I remember the butter wrappers from my grandmother, but back then they were made from paper, now all of them seem to be made from plastic. I use a silicone scraper or the back of a knife to scrape them clean – waste not want not! France is getting better on recycling, but currently we only recycle plastic bottles in our village, all the other plastic still goes in the trash.
September 12, 2017 at 7:35 pm
That all sounds very familiar… And same thing here in rural Pennsylvania about recycling of plastic bottles, unfortunately. As least we have our own compost barrel.
January 24, 2018 at 6:48 pm
In our household the butter wrapper was fought over for the licking, 😀 yogurt lids get licked, as do cottage cheese and sour cream. 🙂 Our young granddaughters love to lick the butter wrappers and daddy has to fight to get one. 🙂