Most of us don’t realize how much food we throw away every day. Leftovers, spoiled food, or food that gets forgotten in the back of the refrigerator or cupboard all contribute to food waste.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that one third of all food in the U.S. goes uneaten, and in 2018, about 81% of household’s wasted food ended up in landfills or combustion facilities. Feeding America states that “Americans throw away billions of pounds of food each year either at home or when eating out.” That’s not even including crops in fields or uneaten food at the grocery store.
Problems with food waste
Most of us would agree that wasting food isn’t good, but not everyone thinks about the impact. Food waste leads to a waste of resources, as well, including land, water, and energy that are used in producing, processing, transporting, storing, and disposing of the food, according to the EPA.
Increased greenhouse gas emissions
Food waste also increases greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This results from production, processing, and transport of food, but in addition, when food decomposes in a landfill, methane gas is emitted. Methane is the main contributor to the formation of ground-ozone. This is a hazardous pollutant and powerful greenhouse gas.
Higher food costs
With the continued increase in food prices (not to mention the rising cost of gas and other goods), wasting food at home isn’t an option. Reducing food waste can reduce costs and control supply chain risks, according to ReFED, a national nonprofit dedicated to ending food waste in the U.S. food system by advancing data-driven solutions.
What you can do to reduce food waste
A good place to start reducing food waste is right at home. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics shares some tips to get you going — and that are pretty easy to do!
Plan your meals for the week
Not only does that save time, it can save you money, as well. Start by making a list of meals that you and your family enjoy; then make a list of ingredients that you need. You might even plan to have certain meals on certain days of the week.
Buy what you need
When it comes to perishable foods, such as fresh fruits, vegetables, dairy products, poultry, meat, and seafood, unless you plan to freeze these, if you buy more than what you can eat within a few days, you could end up with food waste. Planning out your meals and snacks will help you know how much you need to buy.
Use the FIFO system
“FIFO” (first in, first out) is an inventory management method which aims to sell older products first. You can use FIFO at home by storing newly purchased foods in the back of your refrigerator, pantry, and cupboards. This way, you use older items first (before they spoil). FIFO is an effective way to help reduce waste.
Store foods properly
This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s worth revisiting. Keep your fridge temperature no higher than 40°F. Avoid storing milk and eggs inside the refrigerator door, since that’s the warmest part of the fridge. Vegetables that tend to wilt (leafy greens, cukes, carrots, etc.) should be stored in the high-humidity fridge drawer, while produce that is prone to rotting (berries, mushrooms, peppers) should go in the low-humidity drawer. Don’t wash berries, cherries, or grapes until you’re ready to eat them. Fruit that releases ethylene gas as they ripen (bananas, apples, pears, stone fruits, avocados) should be kept apart from other produce. Grains should be stored in airtight containers that are labeled with the contents and the date. Leftovers can often be frozen, but store these in airtight containers labeled with the date, as well.
Be savvy about dates on foods and beverages
“Use by,” “Best by,” and “Best Before” dates on foods such as mustard, ketchup, and salad dressing are indications of quality. In many cases, these foods are safe to eat beyond the date as long as they have been stored properly. “Sell by” dates are often used on perishable foods, such as meat and dairy products. As long as you’ve stored them properly, you can likely eat them a few days after the “Sell by” date (but be sure to toss anything that doesn’t look or smell right).
Use as much of a food as you can
When it comes to vegetables and fruit, you can often leave on the skin. Potatoes, carrots, apples, and cucumbers all have skins that are edible and where many of the nutrients are found. The greens on top of carrots, beets, radishes, celery, and fennel are edible and tasty. Give them a quick sauté, or throw them, uncooked, in a salad or a blender for a smoothy. Chicken or turkey carcasses are perfect for making your own stock or broth.
Think before throwing away
We often mindlessly toss out vegetables that are slightly wilted or stale bread. But these foods can still be used creatively in soups, stews, or baked dishes. As long as a food doesn’t smell bad or is growing mold, you may be able to salvage it and use it in a different way.
Pack your lunch or dinner
If you’re headed off to work or school, consider bringing your lunch or dinner rather than heading to the cafeteria or a fast-food joint. Bringing your meal is a great way to use up leftovers — plus, you might find that you’re eating healthier by doing so.
Cut down on the amount of food you’re cooking or preparing
Unless you’re planning to have leftovers the next day, making too much of a dish can lead to food waste. Consider how much food you prepare relative to how much you and your family is eating. If you’re always throwing out food after a meal, rethink how much you’re making.
Besides the steps listed above, you can continue to lessen the amount of food that you waste by doing other things:
- Donate unopened food that is safe to eat to your local food pantry.
- Try your hand at composting. Here’s how.
- Order smaller sizes of foods and drinks when you’re eating out.
- Learn how to properly can or dehydrate food at home.
For more tools and ideas, visit the EPA’s website.
Want to learn more about eating well? Read “Strategies for Healthy Eating,” “Improving Your Recipes: One Step at a Time,” and “What Is the Best Diet for Diabetes?”