Don't Throw That Out! Tips to Avoid Food Waste
Food is the largest component of everyday trash ... and most of it goes to landfills. There, it creates large amounts of greenhouse gas that affect climate change. Read on to see how you can help (and help your wallet in the process).
We all instinctively know that we shouldn't waste food. But why? Reducing food waste has multiple benefits:
- Buying less food (and only what you need) saves you money: At the consumer level in the United States, about 90 billion pounds or $107 billion worth of food goes uneaten each year, costing the average American family of four $1,500 annually.
- Preventing food from going to the landfills can help reduce methane emissions and lower your carbon footprint.
- Donating untouched food to those in need helps strengthen local communities.
Food waste is classified as spoiled food, peels, rinds, inedible animal parts, and "plate waste" (restaurant dishes that have been served but not eaten). Waste reduction programs focused on by-products of food production take place on the industrial side of the supply chain: breweries make an effort to send spent grains to be made into animal feed and fisheries may send unused fish parts to farms to be composted for soil. But at the end of the food chain, there are practices you can adopt as a home cook to help make a difference as well. Of all household food waste, 64% of it is preventable. Use these tips to start downsizing your own food waste by shopping smarter, properly storing ingredients, and preparing meals efficiently.
- Make a plan, and shop with your meals in mind. Think about how many times you’ll be eating at home versus dining out, and how much food you’ll need for each time you eat. Before you even leave the house, make a list (or use the Shopping List in the Yummly app) and have a plan for everything you buy. If a recipe calls for half an onion, plan a second dish that will use the other half another day.
- Start your grocery run in the cupboard. Take inventory and start ‘shopping’ in your refrigerator first to make sure you don’t accumulate items or accidentally double up. If you’re having trouble thinking of what to make, see what needs to be used up in your pantry first and base a meal around it. You can scan your ingredients with the Yummly app and find out all the things you can make with what you have on hand already.
- Don't buy more than you need. When you’re at the store, attempt to only buy the amount of food that you need for a particular recipe by weighing out ingredients from bulk bins. As an added bonus, buying in bulk tends to be cheaper. When you can’t exactly get the amounts you need or something only comes in a large quantity, consider splitting the purchase with a friend; That very idea is the basis of Community Sourced Agriculture (CSAs), also known as farm shares.
- Buy ugly fruit and vegetables. An alarming amount of grocery stores remove misshapen, knobby produce from displays. Don’t be turned off by imperfect shapes — the truth is that it’s still perfectly fine if the skin isn't broken.
- Avoid shopping on an empty stomach to prevent impulse purchases like snacks in the checkout aisle (if you can help it).
Store Food Well
Now that you're back from the grocery store, make sure to store food correctly so that it doesn't go bad prematurely.
Maximize freshness of fruits and vegetables by researching how to store them correctly both inside and outside of the refrigerator. You’ll be rewarded with better tasting and longer-lasting produce. For example:
- Tomatoes can be left on the counter with their stems facing downward to slow down ripening.
- Bananas don't belong in the fridge or with other kinds of fruit; they release gases that accelerate spoilage.
- Hold off on washing berries until you want to consume them: prewashing before storing promotes mold growth.
Don't overpack your refrigerator and freezer — that can block the fans that circulate air (which is necessary to keep your food fresh). As best as you can manage, each ingredient should be visible, not stacked. Use an app or list template to keep track of what's in your food inventory.
Know the difference between the printed dates on perishable products. Lots of good foods are woefully tossed away prematurely due to confusion around expiration date labels. According to the USDA, “Best If Used By” tells you when something will taste the best. “Sell-By” instructs a store on how long to keep a product on the shelf. “Use-By” date is the last day an item will be at peak quality. None of these labels indicate spoilage. You’ll have to use your senses to determine off smells, check for mold, and notice bad tastes. Even then, it may not need to go straight to the trash bin: for example, curdled milk with no visible mold is quickly transformed into buttermilk if you add a squeeze of lemon. It’s perfect for brining chicken or whipping up a batch of biscuits.
Embrace Meal Prep
After working all day, it can be daunting to think about preparing dinner when you get home. Set aside one day a week to meal prep. If your ingredients are prepped and ready to use, you'll be much more likely to do the cooking you planned. Sunday evenings are a popular time for meal prep, so you have food ready for the oncoming work week. Make sure to pre-wash, dry, chop, and par-cook fresh foods. Store them in plastic zipper bags or containers for snacking and cooking later on. Keep an eye on what needs to be consumed first throughout the week and prioritize those for your next meal.
Your freezer is also your friend. Stretch out your bread and meats to the next week by wrapping them tightly in plastic wrap and foil before storing. Flash freeze fruits by spreading them on a sheet pan in the freezer before transferring to a zipper bag for longer term storage. Cut down on cooking time by preparing whole meals and freezing them for later.
How to Handle Scraps and Leftovers
It’s inevitable that you’ll create some waste while cooking. Vegetables get peeled, proteins have bones, fruits and cheese have rinds. But peels are actually the most nutrient-rich part of fruits and vegetables, and can often be left on. Try tasting the difference when you leave the skin on root vegetables like potatoes, beets, and carrots. Wilted greens may look sad but are still perfectly edible foods that are usable in pestos, stir-fries, and soups.
Another way to use up food scraps (and remove one more item from your grocery list) is to make stock. As you cook, store animal bones, vegetable peels, herb stalks, and cheese rinds in a big zip-top bag in the freezer. When you have enough to fill a pot or slow cooker, cover with water, bring to a boil, and then simmer for 3 to 4 hours. Strain it and you’ve got flavorful stock for soup, beans, or rice.
Plan a weekly leftovers night where you tackle anything you took home from a restaurant or repurpose what needs to be used up in the refrigerator. Casseroles, frittatas, savory bread puddings, fried rice, smoothies, and egg scrambles are excellent ways to use up leftovers.
And on that note, dine out in a thoughtful way. At restaurants, order only what you can finish by asking about portion sizes and be aware of side dishes included with entrées. Take home any uneaten food and keep the leftovers for your next meal. It’s okay to share an entrée with a friend or only order small plates or sides to make a more reasonable-sized meal.
Your furry friends can also benefit from food scraps. Use leftover proteins like chicken and salmon to make your own pet treats. A jar of these special snacks also makes a great gift.
Composting and Charitable Donations
When you can’t prevent food waste — say you don’t have room to store scraps or you’ve just had a large gathering — the next thing you can do is to divert the food away from a landfill.
Consider composting, where household food waste is recycled into nutrient-rich soil for gardening. Kits are now available that fit in the backyard or under the sink of a small apartment. If you don’t have the resources or local compost pick up, ask your nearest farmer’s market or community garden if they accept compost donations.
Nutritious, safe, and untouched food can be donated to communities in need. Food pantries collect and distribute food to hungry people. Food banks collect donations on a large scale and work with nonprofit organizations to distribute food where it's needed. Food rescues pick up perishable foods and deliver them immediately to soup kitchens. Discover how you can help locally and confirm the rules for donation before arriving.
If you adopt any of these new habits, you’ll be tossing less, eating well, streamlining your life and budget, and best of all — making the world a better place.