The Environmental Action Everyone Overlooks: Five Easy Ways to Reduce Food Waste

If you’re reading this, chances are you care about the earth and try to make decisions that minimize your environmental footprint. You probably turn off the lights when you leave the house; you probably recycle; perhaps you’ve installed a low-flow showerhead, use public transportation, ride a bicycle for local errands, carry a reusable water bottle and frequent the farmers’ market to buy local, organic foods… but have you thought about how much of your food you end up tossing in the trash?

In the US, we waste roughly 40 percent of all the food we produce. This is totally insane – and it’s an environmental nightmare. Food production is resource intensive, requiring water, energy, land, soil, human labor and an elaborate web of production, processing and distribution infrastructure. When we throw away food, all these resources are squandered. And we pay for it! Every year, we trash about $165 billion worth of food, then shell out an additional $750 million to dispose of it, mostly in landfills, where it decomposes anaerobically, releasing methane, a potent greenhouse gas that exacerbates climate change. (You might be surprised to note that food waste is responsible for approximately 23 percent of total US methane emissions.) The extraordinary waste of food is even more lamentable given the shameful reality that 50 million Americans struggle with hunger every day.

Fortunately, the food waste dilemma is solvable. And while the problem must be addressed at all sectors of the food system, from farms to retailers to restaurants to municipalities, as food consumers, there are plenty of ways we can help reduce waste – especially since there’s so much room for improvement; US consumers now throw away roughly 25 percent of the food they buy, which costs the average household of four an estimated $1,350 to $2,275 per year! If you’re anything like me, you’d probably rather put a couple thousand dollars in your wallet than in the garbage. And if you’re interested in embracing a more sustainable lifestyle, eliminating food waste is a tremendously important (and remarkably easy) way to start.


Five Incredibly Easy Ways to Reduce Food Waste

Reducing your food waste is actually really simple: all you need to do is buy what you need and eat what you buy. Or if you want to be a little more specific (and make the list fit conveniently in blog-friendly “Top-Five” format), you can expand this to: Buy what you need, Eat what you buy, Keep food fresh, Don’t toss before it spoils and Avoid the trash. Here are the details:


Buy only what you need

If you continually buy more food than you can eat, you’ll eventually have to throw some away.  Avoid waste by shopping smarter.

  • Plan ahead. Before grocery shopping, think about the meals you plan to make, the ingredients you’ll need to buy and what you already have in your kitchen. Tech-savvy chefs may enjoy the many useful meal planning websites and apps.
  • Make a shopping list. If you have a smartphone, you can use a slick app like Grocery IQ or ZipList. Or go retro and make a list with old-school pen and paper. Pro Tip: keep a pen and paper near the fridge so you can add items to your shopping list when you run out.
  • Be realistic. Don’t buy more than you can eat. (This one’s for my father, who routinely shops as if he’s stocking the local school cafeteria. Drives my mother crazy.)
  • Be smart about sales. It’s not a bargain if you won’t eat it. Don’t get roped into buying more than you need by promotional sales (will you really be able to eat the five watermelons on sale for the price of two?) 


Eat what you buy

Sounds simple, yet few people manage to do this effectively. Make a conscious effort to keep track of the food you have – and then remember to eat it.

  • Prioritize. If an ingredient spoils quickly, use it first (think raw meat, fish, leafy greens, etc.).  Visit Love Food Hate Waste to find a recipe that incorporates whatever soon-to-spoil ingredient you have on hand (just convert measurements from metric first).
  • Organize your kitchen. We’re all familiar with the mold-covered mystery food lurking in the back of the refrigerator. Keep your fridge and pantry tidy so you know what’s there and remember what has to be used. Try moving older foods toward the front so you’ll eat them first. You can also use the Green Egg Shopper app, which keeps track of the foods you buy, and lets you know when you need to use them.
  • Stock the essentials. Keep your kitchen stocked with staple ingredients so you’ll always be able to make use of fresh foods you have on hand.
  • Don’t over prepare. My father once made two and a half gallons of coleslaw to serve with dinner for four. Leftovers are great, but only if you’re willing and able to eat them. Avoid making too much food by adjusting recipes to match the number of servings you need. Use LFHW’s guide to serving sizes. Pro Tip: always resist the urge to prepare multiple gallons of coleslaw in non-institutional settings.
  • Eat leftovers. As an incredibly lazy cook, I love leftovers since they save time and effort.  They can also save you serious cash if you eat them for lunch instead of ordering out. If you’re bored with your leftovers, visit Leftover Queen or Allrecipes.com for tips on repurposing them into new dishes.
  • Ask for a doggie bag.  If you went to a store and bought two shirts, would you put one on and then throw the other in the garbage? No?  Well then why would you toss perfectly good food at a restaurant?! If you don’t finish your meal, bring the rest home.


Keep food fresh

Learn to store foods properly to keep them fresh as long as possible. Eureka! Recycling created a dazzlingly comprehensive storage guide along with a one-page quick reference sheet to stick on your fridge. Or check out Frugal Foodie's food storage overview.

Here are some food storage highlights:

  • Fruits: Store apples, berries, citrus fruits and grapes in the fridge. Store apricots, avocados, melons, nectarines, peaches, plums, pears and tomatoes outside the fridge until ripe, then refrigerate. Keep bananas, mangos, papayas and pineapples in a cool place outside the fridge. Store apples, bananas, citrus and tomatoes by themselves; they emit ethylene gas, which makes other foods spoil faster.
  • Vegetables: Don't wash before storing. Keep broccoli, carrots, cauliflower and green beans in plastic bags in the crisper (or try these non-plastic options). Refrigerate herbs and stalk vegetables (e.g., asparagus and celery) standing upright in a jar of water. Store greens airtight with a damp towel in the fridge. Cut off the tops of carrots and beets to extend shelf life. Store mushrooms in a paper bag in the fridge. Store basil and winter squash at room temperature. Keep onions, garlic and potatoes in a cool, dark place outside the fridge.
  • Dairy: Store in a cool part of the fridge like the bottom shelf or the back of the top shelf (not on the door, where the temperature fluctuates).
  • Eggs: Store in the carton on a shelf in the fridge (not on the door).
  • Meat and fish: Store on the bottom shelf of the fridge; cook within a day or two.


Don’t toss food before it spoils

Sometimes – as in the case of the fuzzy mystery food decomposing in the back of the fridge – it’s clear that food needs to be discarded. But often, perfectly edible food is thrown away as a result of confusion about expiration dates and/or unjustified fear of spoilage. 

  • Understand food dates. Hugely Important Fact: labels such as Best By, Use By, Sell By and Expiration (EXP) are not food safety dates – they’re established by food manufacturers to provide an indication of “peak quality.”  And they’re not regulated or required by the federal government (with the exception of Use By dates on infant formula, which are regulated by the FDA, and “pack dates,” which are required on USDA-graded eggs. Note that some states require dating of additional foods, while other states require no dating at all). Bottom line: the dates on food packaging are very confusing and aren’t the best way to determine if a food is still ok to eat. When in doubt, use your eyes and your nose; if a food looks spoiled or smells off, breathe a sigh of sadness and add it to your compost pile.
  • Know the limits. Find shelf life estimates for just about any food at Eat By Date, Still Tasty or Shelf Life Advice. And of course, there’s also an app.
  • Freeze it. If your food is nearing the end of its edible existence, save it in your freezer – it’s probably the easiest preservation method, and works with most foods. Store in airtight containers with as much air removed as possible, and be sure to label before you freeze to avoid the guessing game when you thaw. Freezer cheat sheet: you can freeze bananas (remove peel first), hard cheese (grate first), vegetables (blanch first), bread (best if pre-sliced), yogurt (give it a good stir after thawing), milk (low fat or skim freezes better; give a hearty shake after thawing), grapes, ginger, chilies and herbs. Find more freezer tips at Love Food Hate Waste, read about freezing vegetables here at Ecocentric or visit the National Center for Home Food Preservation’s detailed guide.
  • Other preservation techniques. Try making stock, canning, pickling, dehydrating or preserving with fermentation.


Avoid the trash

Sending food to landfills wastes valuable resources and ultimately exacerbates climate change.  Do all you can to keep it out.

  • Feed edible food to people. If you follow the steps above, you shouldn’t end up with any unneeded food. But if you do, give it to your family, friends or coworkers. Donate it to a food bank, food pantry or shelter. If your garden yields surplus produce, use AmpleHarvest.org to find a local food pantry that can give the food to those who need it most.
  • Compost inedible food. Composting enables you to transform food waste into a valuable soil amendment. Check out Cornell’s guide to small scale and backyard composting.


Did we miss anything? Share your favorite ways to reduce food waste in the comments below.

Visit GRACE’s new Food Waste section to learn more about the issue, what you can do and to find information about other organizations, institutions and agencies working to develop solutions.

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