Many people think there is nothing wrong with snubbing leftovers or tossing food that’s slightly past its “sell by” date. It’s time for everyone to think again. The statistics about food waste in the U.S. can be startling: 31 to 40 percent of the American food supply goes to waste, primarily in homes, stores and restaurants. Plus, food waste costs Americans $161.6 billion annually.
Why Should You Care About Food Waste?
When you waste food, it’s not just a waste of money—it also causes long-term ecological impact. The resources that go into creating tossed food generate greenhouse gas emissions equal to 42 coal-fired power plants, according to the Environmental Protection Industry.
Plus, when you waste food, it can even cause food prices to rise.
“If everybody bought only the amount of food that they actually ate, need would go down by a fair chunk, which would then push prices downward,” says Brian Roe, PhD, a professor of agricultural marketing and policy at The Ohio State University. “Prices are higher than they otherwise would be because of the higher volume of demand.”
Most Americans would say they’re concerned about food waste, but nearly three-quarters believe that they waste less food than the national average, according to a survey from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, according to The National Resources Defense Council. One-third think that they don’t create any food waste at all, reports a Michigan State University poll.
Of course, the goal isn’t perfection—it would be unrealistic to vow you’ll never let another piece of produce go bad.
“We’re going to make a few mistakes, and it’d be crazy expensive to try to get it to zero,” Roe says. “There always be a little bit of food waste, but a lot more than is probably logical right now.”
How to Reduce Your Food Waste
Feeling motivated to do your part in reducing food waste? Here are some steps you can take in your own home.
- Don’t be rigid about “best if used by,” “sell by,” and “use by” dates. A lot of people think that by consuming a product a day after the labeled date, they may get sick. That is not typically the case. These dates are the manufacturers’ estimations for how long the food will taste the freshest. “There are a few food items, such as deli meats and soft cheeses, where the dates might have safety implications,” Roe says. “But anything that’s shelf stable, even milk, which is pasteurized, the dates on there really have no bearing upon the safety level.” The USDA notes that except for infant formula, food is generally safe unless it shows obvious signs of spoilage such as mold or an unusual smell, taste or texture.
- Act like The Iron Chef. Shop your fridge first before you develop your shopping list. Check for items you need to use and build meals around those. There are lots of recipe creator apps and websites where you can enter three strange ingredients to come up with a creative recipe. Escoffier Online is one option.
- Shop small. Will you really be able to eat that giant bag of apples before they rot? Determine your household’s actual needs before buying in bulk. Remember: It’s not a good deal if half of it goes to waste.
- Prepare and cook fresh ingredients after shopping. That way, fresh produce won’t spoil in the refrigerator. Cook smart and double recipes so you can freeze the extra for later.
- Freeze items you know you won’t be able to eat right away. Some items—like overripe bananas—freeze especially well for baking and smoothies. Remember to defrost food in the morning if you know you would like to use it later.
- Restaurant leftovers are there for the asking. Apps like Too Good to Go let you buy meal ingredients at steeply discounted prices directly from stores and restaurants. The food is fresh; it just didn’t sell in time. You can potentially score a great deal and prevent food from filling the landfill. Too Good to Go is available in 13 major cities including New York City, Boston, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Chicago, Austin and Baltimore.
- Consider composting. Home composting can potentially divert up to 150 kg of food waste per household per year, although it won’t help you save money or prevent wasting food that could have gone to other consumers.
Food Conservation Is a Win-Win for You and the Environment.
Avoiding food waste is good for the environment and natural resources. It’s good for your own personal finances. And it’s good business if you run a restaurant or work in food retail.
Plus, when we all work together to reduce food waste, our efforts can help push down prices and make food more widely available.
“This in turn helps those who are impoverished or hungry and rely upon good deals of the supermarket to be able to feed themselves,” Roe says.
Do you have any favorite ways to avoid wasting food? Share your own suggestions for preventing food waste in the comments.
I have a worm bin. All my fruit and vegetable scraps go in it, and it makes wonderful compost!
I am recently widowed and have lots of canned goods that are “expired” but aren’t acceptable to food banks. Where can I donate them?
Also, shopping for 1 makes wasting food impossible! Too many produce items are packaged for families of 4 and the same items are not sold individually.
I have feral cats and they get a lot of my older leftovers-/which always get eaten.
When canned goods say “best used by February 10, 2021” is it safe to use can for several days afterwards? I was saving many cans of vegetables and soups in case of earthquake or other emergencies. Now I have to destroy them because “use by date is up.” and I had to trash all.
A lot of fresh vegetables can be seal packed and frozen for later use in stews and soups. Examples are zucchini, corn, carrots, bell peppers and cabbage. I clean, dry and slice to have ready to use.
Composting is a good way to reuse coffee grounds, egg shells and produce scraps instead of throwing them into the garbage. In time you will have rich compost to use around the yard.
I’m single and like to cook so I freeze single portions for later. Also I have backyard chickens that love kitchen scraps and besides eggs, they produce droppings that I put in the veggie garden along with kitchen compost. I realize not everyone can do this, so just putting kitchen scraps in the green waste bin is a big help along with not buying more than you can eat before it goes bad. Helps your budget too.
I always make sure to eat fruits 🫐🍌🍒 & veggies 🥬that will go bad soon! I save the less perishable ones like potatoes 🥔 or 🌶️🫑 peppers towards the end of the week!
This article is very timely….and a good reminder on how to shop and take care of food we buy.
I don’t think you can compost meat products….
You can compost meat products but it’s not recommended, they’ll take longer to turn into compost. Best to use coffee grounds, tea bags, fruit and veggie scraps. Crushing the egg shells is good too. You’ll need to turn over the mixture, the more often the better.
Smart food consupmtion mostly comes down to PLANNING. “Use what you have” …… and don’t buy more than you know you can use up while it is still edible. We often share leftovers with neighbors who are single or disabled and that is a win / win !! The majority of our scraps go to our CHICKENS ! -Have you seen the price of eggs lately ??
By buying accordion to the amount of people in the family. Cook your meals by each individual food needs. Example, 1 or 2 potatoes per person , beef 4-78 ounces, veggies 1 cup per person. By cooking by the number of people.
Homeless people are everywhere. Before food goes bad, make a sandwich or a snack for someone and deliver it. It’s where I live I know where my local Homeless Coalition is and many transients camp nearby.
I have been experimenting with things we normally discard or put in compost such as banana peels,. I make vegetarian ‘bacon’ for my blt sandwiches, I have also made banana peel pang yan curry. I use orange rind and cloves to make ‘constant comet’. It has been fun coming up with new uses for usually discarded food parts.
I think laws should be passed to require single unwrapped pieces of produce to be sold. Many environmental organizations are working toward this. All single people who live alone know that we are often coerced into buying more than we need because of this problem.
That’s a great idea. I used to live in Bloomington, Illinois and I grocery shopped in Normal at Meijer. That place was amazing! You could buy single items of produce like radishes and mushrooms, and other kinds of produce that would normally be sold in a bag (which for a lot of people ends up being a waste because they don’t NEED a an entire bagful). Also, the meat department sold their own brand of thick-sliced bacon by either the pound or the slice. I was always taking advantage of that. It’s what big stores need to start doing.
One of the best devices to own to prevent food waste is a kitchen scale.
Four ounces of any food is a serving. For example if you are serving a dinner to four people only cook one pound of potatoes, beans, corn, whatever. That way there are no left overs to end up in the back of your fridge & spoil or cook a one pound roast. For big eaters include a roll basket for the table center. Saran wrap remaining rolls to save & put back out again for the next meal.