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How to Reduce Food Waste and Why It Matters

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According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), we waste 30% to 40% of our food supply each year. But a report by The Guardian puts this waste closer to 50%, which costs the average American family $1,600 per year.

That’s a lot of money you could otherwise spend paying down debt, padding your emergency fund, or taking a debt-free vacation next summer.

Where Does Food Waste Happen?

Cows On The Farm Field Green Pastures

When people talk about food waste, they often focus on the end of the cycle: the food we waste every day in our homes. However, humans waste massive amounts of food at every step of the farm-to-table process.

The Grace Communications Foundation’s project FoodPrint, which seeks to inform the public about food waste in the U.S., notes that food waste occurs in the following areas:

  • Farms. Often, farmers plant more than we need to protect themselves from weather or pest risk. They also frequently discard imperfect-looking produce because consumers can’t or won’t buy it. For example, The New York Times reports that during the COVID-19 pandemic, dairy farmers wasted 3.7 million gallons of fresh milk each day because of school and restaurant closures.
  • Fishing Boats. A 2015 study published in Global Environmental Change estimates that U.S. commercial fishing boats discard 16% to 32% of byproduct fish, which are often thrown back into the water dead or dying.
  • Produce Packing Warehouses. There are strict cosmetic standards for produce packed by warehouses. They discard any fruits or vegetables that don’t meet them. A 2017 report compiled by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) cited research conducted in Minnesota that estimates 20% of food is wasted because it doesn’t meet cosmetic standards.
  • Manufacturing. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that the manufacturing industry wastes 2 billion pounds of fresh food each year, mainly from trimming off edible portions from foods. Overproduction and technical problems also cause a significant amount of food waste.
  • Transportation. Foods are vulnerable to damage and spoilage during transport, especially in and out of developing countries. Food waste often occurs when transporters store food improperly, store it at the incorrect temperature, or when a buyer rejects a shipment and they can’t quickly find another buyer. For example, Fern’s AG Insider reports that the COVID-19 pandemic forced chicken farmers to slaughter chickens due to supply chain disruptions.
  • Retail. Food loss occurs in retail stores in a variety of ways. Unsold baked goods expire. They also keep making prepared foods like rotisserie chicken until the store closes. They have to throw away any unsold food. And in the produce department, they also toss bruised fruits and vegetables. A 2011 study published in The Journal of Consumer Affairs estimates that retail stores wasted 43 billion pounds of fruits and vegetables in 2010.
  • Restaurants and Institutions. The NRDC report estimates that restaurants waste 4% to 10% of the food they purchase before it ever reaches the consumer. All-you-can-eat buffets are particularly wasteful, as they must throw out uneaten food due to health codes. Other institutions, such as schools and hospitals, also create significant amounts of food waste.
  • Households. According to the nonprofit ReFed, U.S. households waste more food than anywhere else in the supply chain, an average of 27 million tons. A study conducted by the NRDC found that two-thirds of food wasted by households in three major U.S. cities is edible, which could be repurposed into 68 million more meals for those who are food insecure.

Why is so much of our food wasted? Reasons for America’s high food waste are plentiful, and include:

  • Poor Planning. Families purchase foods intending to cook and eat them, but due to busy schedules or lack of planning, the food spoils or expires before they can eat it. A family can also waste food when they decide to eat in a restaurant instead of making a planned meal at home.
  • Poor Storage. Food can spoil when you store it improperly, either in an environment that’s too cold, too hot, too moist, or too dry.
  • Overbuying. Families who buy too much food can’t cook and eat it all before it spoils.
  • Label Date Confusion. Some people throw out food prematurely because they’re confused about what the “sell by,” “best buy,” or “expires by” label really means.
  • Overpreparing. Families who cook large meals don’t always eat every bite of leftovers, which they must then throw away when it spoils.

Environmental Implications of Food Waste

Environmental Protection Agency Money Cash

Wasted food costs families a lot of money. It also puts an enormous strain on the environment. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), food waste is the single most significant component in the municipal solid waste supply, which takes up a considerable amount of landfill space.

A bigger problem is the methane gas this food produces as it decomposes. National Geographic reports that methane is 26 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, another major greenhouse gas. And the EPA says food waste in the U.S. accounts for 14% of our annual emissions.

Different types of food, when wasted, have varying degrees of impact on the environment. Dana Gunder, a senior scientist at the National Resources Defense Council, told Real Simple that wasted meat has by far the most significant impact on the environment. Throwing out a hamburger, she says, is the equivalent of taking a 90-minute shower in terms of how much water it took to get that burger to your table.

Fortunately, the USDA has teamed up with the EPA and set a goal to reduce U.S. food waste by 50% by 2030. It’s an ambitious goal, but one we can all do our parts to help with.


How to Waste Less Food

Meal Plan Schedule Water Apple

Reducing and eliminating food waste is all about changing your habits and routines so you can buy less, use more of what you have on-hand, and save money in the process. While there may be unique strategies you can adopt based on your circumstances, there are multiple strategies that work for almost everyone.

Plan Your Meals

Planning out the week’s meals means you’ll never be speechless when your family asks, “What’s for dinner?” again. And for many people, that benefit alone is worth the time spent in the planning stages.

But planning your family’s meals also helps cut down on food waste by helping you avoid purchasing duplicate ingredients or foods that sit in the pantry or fridge unused.

Tip: Before you head to the grocery store, take pictures of what’s inside your refrigerator and pantry. You can use it as a handy reference when you’re wondering if you already have an ingredient and how much of it you have.

Buy Ingredients You Can Use Up

After a week’s worth of dinners, you often have a little bit of everything in the refrigerator: a rind of Parmesan, half a cucumber, two hard-boiled eggs, some cooked rice, and a few slices of pita bread. Instead of throwing them in the garbage because you never thought of another use for them, plan to use them.

  • You can finely chop and freeze extra celery to use in soups later.
  • Extra sliced cucumber adds refreshing flavor to a glass or pitcher of water.
  • If your milk is nearing the end of its time in the fridge, use it to make a big pot of masala chai tea.
  • Stir extra canned coconut milk into tomorrow morning’s oatmeal or coffee.
  • Use zested or mostly juiced lemons to disinfect cutting boards or freshen up your garbage disposal.
  • Use extra green onions to top soups, make savory green onion pancakes, or finish off a stir-fry.
  • Turn mealy apples into applesauce, chop and add them to pancakes or muffins, or make a simple dessert of baked apples.

For more ideas, check out The Kitchn’s guide to using up every leftover ingredient you can imagine, from berries to pickle juice to pie dough trimmings.

Learn to Love Leftovers

Look at how many servings a recipe makes and plan for leftovers so they don’t go to waste.

For example, you can repurpose leftover vegetables in several different ways. Cooked vegetables work well in soups, pastas, quiches, stir-frys, or as a side for another meal. You can shred leftover roast chicken for tacos or toss it into a delicious tortilla soup.

You can also freeze some leftovers to eat again later. Waffles and pancakes, gravies and sauces, fish, casseroles, rice, pasta, and cooked vegetables all freeze well. The Kitchn explains how to freeze the 10 most common types of leftovers and how to reheat them safely.

2 Weeks of Family Favorites

One easy way to meal-plan is to rotate all your family’s favorites over a two- or four-week period and then start over again. So a two-week meal plan, including leftovers, could look like this:

Week 1

  • Monday: Lasagna with roast vegetables (freezing leftovers for Week 3)
  • Tuesday: Taco bar
  • Wednesday: Minestrone (freezing leftovers for Week 4)
  • Thursday: Grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup
  • Friday: Pizza night
  • Saturday: New recipe night
  • Sunday: Meatloaf and mashed potatoes

Week 2

  • Monday: Chicken Parmesan and salad
  • Tuesday: Roast chicken with veggies (shredding the leftover chicken for later)
  • Wednesday: Leftover shredded roast chicken tacos with guacamole (saving the leftover guacamole)
  • Thursday: Black bean burgers with leftover guacamole
  • Friday: Teriyaki chicken stir-fry and rice with broccoli (saving the leftovers)
  • Saturday: Slow cooker chili (freezing the chili for Week 3)
  • Sunday: Leftover stir-fry, rice, and broccoli

Week 3

  • Monday: Leftover lasagna from Week 1
  • Tuesday: Roast chicken with veggies (shredding the leftover chicken for later)
  • Wednesday: Leftover shredded roast chicken tacos with guacamole (saving the leftover guacamole)
  • Thursday: Black bean burgers with leftover guacamole
  • Friday: Teriyaki chicken stir-fry and rice with broccoli (freezing leftovers for Week 4)
  • Saturday: Spaghetti and Meatballs
  • Sunday: Leftover slow cooker chili from Week 2

Week 4

  • Monday: Leftover Minestrone from Week 1
  • Tuesday: Slow cooker breakfast casserole
  • Wednesday: Quesadillas
  • Thursday: Leftover stir-fry, rice, and broccoli from Week 3
  • Friday: Beef stew and salad (saving leftovers for later)
  • Saturday: Bacon and vegetable frittata
  • Sunday: Leftover Beef Stew

Many families use this constant rotation of meals to save time on planning and shopping. You can also increase the variety by sticking to the same 30-day meal plan month after month.

Use a Meal Planning App

If you’re not the best at planning, try using a meal-planning app to make things easier. A few popular apps include:

  • MealBoard. Available only on iOS devices, MealBoard allows you to store your own recipes or import them from the web. The calendar feature helps you plan meals easily, and move recipes to different days, depending on your schedule. The ingredients needed for each recipe populate a grocery list, which is organized by aisle. MealBoard is the best choice for those on a budget because it allows you to add prices to your grocery list.
  • Paprika. Available for iOS and Android, Paprika is a recipe management app that works seamlessly between all your devices: phone, tablet, and computer. The app enables you to save recipes on your computer, access your grocery list on your phone, and then read the recipe on your tablet while you’re cooking. Another useful feature is that the grocery list function combines ingredients so you don’t overbuy.
  • BigOven. Available for iOs and Android, BigOven has an organized meal planning feature and a grocery list with groceries listed by department. But its standout feature is its Use Up Leftovers tool, which provides you with recipe ideas based on the leftovers from your current meal plan.

For even more ideas, read our article on meal planning apps.

Have a Spa Day

You can also use some past-prime foods in natural skin care recipes or to make natural beauty treatments for a DIY spa day.

For example, you can blend that browned leftover wedge of avocado with honey to make a restorative face mask. That spoonful of yogurt no one wants to eat can make a soothing mask if you blend it with turmeric and honey.

People commonly use many other products — such as milk, coffee grounds, oats, strawberries, and even cabbage leaves — in natural skin care recipes because they provide so many benefits. Using wholesome, natural ingredients on your skin can provide better results than store-bought products.

Understand Expiration Dates

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration estimates that 20% of the food wasted in the U.S. is due to confusion over the sell-by date, while the USDA puts this figure at 30%.

But the USDA says a product’s sell-by or expiration date is a manufacturer’s recommendation for quality, not safety. Except for infant formula, food dating is voluntary and not required by federal law. (The USDA recommends consumers not use infant formula past the use-by date on the package for safety reasons.)

Of course, this leads to a great deal of confusion, as there are no universally accepted descriptions or phrases for food dating. The USDA website explains the most common phrasing found on food products and what they mean:

  • Best if Used By/Before: This date indicates the time frame of a product’s best flavor or quality.
  • Sell By: This date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management.
  • Use By: This date is the last date recommended for the use of the product if you want it at peak quality.
  • Freeze By: This date indicates the last date you can freeze a product to maintain peak quality.

As you can see, manufacturers use expiration dates to determine a product’s peak quality. That means that as long as you’ve handled and stored the food correctly, it’s often still perfectly safe to eat after these dates have passed.

That said, the USDA advises consumers to use their own best judgment when it comes to determining if a food is safe to eat. If a food smells bad or doesn’t look right, it’s best to throw it out to avoid food poisoning or other illness.

Don’t Always Buy in Bulk

We’ve all gone into Costco intending to pick up “just one thing,” and $300 later left with an entire shopping cart full of food. Shopping at wholesalers like Costco and Sam’s Club can provide remarkable savings, especially when it comes to groceries. However, it can also lead to a lot of waste if you’re not careful. If you buy more than your family can possibly eat, you’re going to have to throw it out. And that “great deal” just got a lot more expensive.

There are also some foods you shouldn’t buy in bulk because they have a relatively short shelf life. For example, even if you get a great deal when you buy a 20-gallon tub of olive oil, if you can’t use it within three months, which is the average shelf life of opened olive oil, it’s just going to spoil. And that’s true of many oils, so always check their shelf life and compare it to how often you use them before buying in bulk.

Some other foods you shouldn’t buy in bulk unless you’re certain you can use them before the end of their shelf life include:

  • Brown rice (six to 12 months)
  • Nuts and seeds (six months)
  • Eggs (five weeks)
  • Ground herbs (one to three years)
  • Frozen foods, which are typically lost due to freezer burn (varies)
  • Fresh-baked breads and pastries (three to seven days)

Be Realistic

Some home cooks have big dreams. They want to prepare beef bourguignon, authentic Louisiana gumbo, and a taco Tuesday worthy of Bon Appetit. They buy all the ingredients — and then reality sets in. By Tuesday, everyone’s eating frozen pizza, and by Friday, everyone’s fending for themselves.

Cooking at home isn’t always easy, and it’s essential you match your planned recipes to your schedule in a realistic way. Save time-intensive recipes for the weekend or when you have extra help to ensure the ingredients don’t go to waste.

Look for Patterns

Keep a notepad or notebook in the kitchen, and write it down every time something goes bad in your refrigerator or pantry. Also record what your plans had been for that food item. Did you intend to use it in a recipe that never happened? Did you lose interest in cooking that night because you were tired and got takeout instead?

Over time, this analysis can help you spot patterns in your behavior and routine and help you be more conscious about what you’re buying. It can also help change your habits so you waste less food.

For example, do you often buy salad ingredients like spinach and celery that go bad because you don’t have time to make salads for lunch each morning? Start making salads in Mason jars on the weekends to eat throughout the week. If you put the dressing in small portable ramekins, they keep for up to five days.

Do you buy fresh-baked gourmet bread, but your kids won’t touch it so half of it goes stale? You can either start freezing half the loaf or stop buying it entirely.

Make Smoothies

Past-their-prime fruits make excellent smoothies for a quick, healthy, and delicious breakfast. You can also make them as snacks or even for dinner when you need a change of pace. Kids especially love having a healthy, protein-packed smoothie for dinner.

There are plenty of fantastic smoothie recipes online at places like Food Network and Bon Appétit. However, it doesn’t take much to make a basic smoothie. A basic recipe has the following ingredients:

  • 2 to 3 cups of fruit or vegetables (bananas make a lovely base for smoothies)
  • 1 to 1-1/2 cups of liquid (such as milk, almond milk, or coconut milk)
  • 1/2 cup thickener (such as yogurt or silken tofu)

This basic formula allows you to customize your smoothie depending on what you have at home.

Revive Stale Foods

You can revive stale baked or crispy goods like bread, cereal, chips, and popcorn using your oven or microwave.

Cereal

Spread the stale cereal on a baking sheet (in a single layer) and put it into a 350 degree F oven for five to 10 minutes. Watch it carefully so it doesn’t burn. After a few minutes, take it out and let it cool. By the time it’s cooled completely, the cereal will be crisp, and it will stay that way for another couple of days.

Popcorn

To bring stale popcorn back to life, preheat your oven to 250 degrees F and spread the popcorn on a baking sheet in a single layer. Toast it for five minutes.

Crackers & Tortilla Chips

Preheat your oven to 225 degrees F. Spread crackers or tortilla chips on a cookie sheet in a single layer and toast them for 15 to 25 minutes, flipping them halfway through. Times vary depending on the type of food you’re crisping and its thickness, so watch carefully to ensure it doesn’t burn.

Bread

Easily turn stale bread into delicious homemade croutons for salads and soups. Simply cut the bread into 3/4-inch cubes and put them in a large bowl. Drizzle them with olive oil, salt, pepper, and any other seasoning you want to add.

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Spread the bread cubes in an even layer, and bake 15 to 20 minutes, tossing halfway through, or until the croutons are a golden brown.

Breakfast Doesn’t Have to Be Breakfast Food

Who says we can only eat “breakfast food” for breakfast? It seems like an iron-clad rule, but it’s a rule that needs to be broken. Leftovers make excellent breakfasts because they’re quick and often a lot more filling than cereal or oatmeal.

For example, this morning, I ate leftover French lentil stew with avocado on toast spiced up with a healthy dose of Tabasco. It was healthy, filling, and I didn’t have to eat until the afternoon. The day before, I had leftover black bean burgers on avocado toast. It was delicious and kept me full most of the day.

It’s an especially useful trick for busy parents who would otherwise end up scarfing down their child’s uneaten Eggo crust and calling it breakfast. We’ve all been there, but let’s not go back. Learn to love leftovers. You’ll eat better, and you’ll cut down on your food waste.

You can also use your common sense. If something doesn’t look or smell right, don’t risk food poisoning. Just toss it.

Compost Your Scraps

Whenever possible, compost food scraps for fertilizer instead of tossing them in the garbage. Composting helps the environment by keeping food out of landfills.

It’s the process of letting foods decay naturally and turn into rich, fertile soil you can use in a home garden or on a farm. Even small yards can support a compost pile. If you live in an apartment, you could try vermicomposting, which is using worms to compost food scraps in an enclosed bin.

Some farmers accept food waste to add to their own compost piles. Just ask around at your local farmers market.

There are also many cities and municipalities making urban composting easy by picking up food waste or providing drop off locations. You can find out which options are available in your area at CompostNow.org.


Products That Help Reduce Food Waste

Strawberries Vacuum Sealed Fresh Berries

There are also plenty of products that can help extend the life of the foods you buy to help you reduce food waste.

Food Saver

The Food Saver vacuum-seals foods to store in the refrigerator, pantry, or freezer.

I use our vacuum sealer to take advantage of bountiful summer produce, which I chop or blanch and then store in the freezer. Just make sure you lay it out on a tray to prefreeze so they don’t become a frozen block of fruits or veggies. I also use it to repackage meat I buy in bulk. The plastic, air-free bags avoid freezer burn and help the meat last much longer.

Produce Storage Containers

I also use Rubbermaid FreshWorks storage containers to keep berries and salad greens fresh in the refrigerator, and they work incredibly well. The containers regulate the flow of oxygen and carbon dioxide so food doesn’t spoil as quickly. A tray on the bottom also keeps the food away from the moisture of condensation.

Produce Storage Bags

Debbie Meyer Green Bags are coated with an unspecified proprietary mineral that helps extend the life of fruits, breads, vegetables, and even cut flowers. You can wash and reuse each bag up to 10 times. And they’ve gotten thousands of positive reviews on Amazon.

These bags are effective for storing larger produce like potatoes, onions, apples, and oranges that might otherwise have to sit on your counter.

Herb Storage

How often have you had to throw out fresh parsley, basil, or cilantro because it wilted to the point of no return? These herbs are expensive if you don’t grow your own, and even if you do, you still don’t want your hard work to go to waste.

That’s where a device like Progressive International’s ProKeeper herb keeper comes in. It keeps herbs hydrated in a basket while forming an air-tight seal at the top to maintain freshness.


Final Word

Changing your habits and routines to reduce the food you waste can have an immediate impact on your budget. It can help you make fewer trips to the store, buy less food when you go, and lessen your impact on the environment by keeping food out of a landfill.

Using everything you have is also an important lesson from the Great Depression. Our grandparents and great-grandparents had to make their food last as long as possible, and they came up with ingenious and resourceful ways to do so. We can learn from their experience and find new ways to avoid waste at home.

What do you do to limit or avoid food waste at home?

Heather Levin
Heather Levin is a writer with over 15 years experience covering personal finance, natural health, parenting, and green living. She lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband and two young sons, where they're often wandering on frequent picnics to find feathers and wildflowers.

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