In the US, we waste roughly 40 percent of all the food we produce. This is totally insane - and it's an environmental disaster. Food production is a resource-intensive process, 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; in the US, food waste consumes 21 percent of our fresh water, 19 percent of our fertilizer, 18 percent of our cropland and 21 percent of our landfill volume.
And we pay dearly for this waste! According to ReFED's comprehensive Roadmap report, every year, the US spends roughly $218 billion growing, processing, transporting and disposing food that never gets eaten. Most of this food waste ends up in landfills, where it decomposes anaerobically, creating 23 percent of all US emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that exacerbates climate change. 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 every sector of the food system, from farm to retailer to restaurant to municipality, as individual food consumers, there are plenty of ways we can all 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 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 very simple; all you need to do is buy what you need and eat what you buy. Here are some easy tips to make it happen:
1. Buy Only What You Need
If you 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 cooks may enjoy the many useful meal planning websites and apps.
- Make a shopping list. Use an app like Grocery IQ, or go retro and make a list with old-school pen and paper. Pro Tip: keep a shopping list near your fridge so you can add items as 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 up for the apocolypse.)
- Be smart about sales. It's not a bargain if you won't be able eat it. Don't let promotional sales entice you to buy more than you need (will you actually eat all five watermelons on sale for the price of one?)
2. Eat What You Buy
Make a conscious effort to keep track of the food you have - and then remember to eat it. Here are some tips:
- 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. Our check out our Taste It, Don't Waste It series for recipes and more.
- Organize your kitchen. We're all familiar with the moldy mystery food lurking in the back of the refrigerator. Keep your fridge and pantry tidy so you know what you have and remember what has to be used. Try moving older foods toward the front so you'll eat them first.
- 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 dad 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. Eating leftovers can save time, effort and serious cash if you eat them for lunch instead of ordering out. Visit Leftover Queen or allrecipes for tips on repurposing leftovers into new dishes.
- Ask for a doggie bag. If you went to a store and bought two shirts, would you throw one in the garbage before leaving? No? Well then why would you toss perfectly good food at a restaurant?! If you don't finish your meal, bring it home.
3. Keep Food Fresh
Food storage highlights:
Storing Fruit :
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- Store in the carton on a shelf in the fridge (not on the door).
Storing Meat and Fish:
- Store on the bottom shelf of the fridge; cook within a day or two.
4. 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 due to confusion about expiration dates and/or unjustified fear of spoilage. Here's what you can do:
- 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.
- 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, herbs and lots more. Find more freezer tips at Love Food Hate Waste, read about freezing vegetables here at Ecocentric or consult the National Center for Home Food Preservation's detailed guide.
- Use other preservation techniques. Try making stock, canning, pickling, dehydrating or preserving with fermentation.
5. Avoid the Trash
Sending food to landfills wastes valuable resources and exacerbates climate change. Do all you can to keep it out. Here's how:
- Feed edible food to people. If you end up with food you can't eat, share it with family, friends or coworkers, or 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 Sustainable Table's composting resources or see Cornell's guide to small-scale and backyard composting for technical information. And check out our video on how to compost!
Visit GRACE's Food Waste page to learn more about the issue.