You know that feeling when you open your refrigerator to discover that your bright green kale has turned straw yellow? You're not alone. In 2017, Americans generated more than 41 million tons of food waste! In fact, 30 to 40 percent of all food created isn’t used.[2, 3] This phenomenon of food waste is not just in private pantries and fridges, but also in restaurants, grocery stores, and farms. But there’s good news: many individuals, charitable organizations, and governments are working to turn the tide.
In 2015, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set a goal to reduce food waste by 50 percent by the year 2030. The goal is to have every person "only" throw away 109.4 pounds per year. Households contribute to 43 percent of the food waste in our country. You have the power to make a difference!
Companies are getting in the mix, as well. New food upcycling companies are doing everything from selling funny-looking "ugly" fruits and vegetables that would be tossed by grocers to turning pressed juice pulp into popsicles.
Reducing food waste is a great way to go green in your home. Try these steps to reduce your food waste footprint!
The Environmental Impact of Food Waste
When you waste less food, you save money and time while helping the long-term health of the planet. You also keep food out of landfills, or "dumps," which are the third-largest source of human-generated methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.
Food waste not only uses some of our water supply, it also consumes land, labor, tons of energy, and toxic chemicals (try to choose organic when possible!).
Moreover, all the extra we don't eat could have helped people who are food-insecure. Many organizations are rescuing food that would become waste from grocery stores and restaurants to feed the homeless and individuals who do not have enough to eat. That’s pretty inspiring!
7 Ways You Can Reduce Food Waste
One woman, Loren T., an end-of-life doula from Glen Ridge, New Jersey, has learned how to maximize her food, letting little go to waste. She saves veggie food scraps in the fridge and then, at the end of the week, turns them into stock. She also thinks expansively about each item she cooks.
"I always plan multiple meals with one item," says Loren. For example, she’ll make black beans on Sunday and plan for tacos that night, a Mexican tofu scramble for Monday’s breakfast, and then pop a black bean dip with carrots in her son’s lunch the next day.
With these tips, you too can be creative, learning everything from the secrets of food storage to the wonders of composting can make the process simple, and even fun.
1) Plan Ahead
Try to make a plan. What's for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks every day? What will you require for each meal, per person in your household?
Write an old-school shopping list — or choose one of many apps that can help — and take it with you every time you shop. Going to the store with a list can help you limit impulse buying and may decrease the amount of food you waste by 20 percent!
Also, check the fridge before you go to the market. It’s a good way to avoid having triples of your favorite condiments. And unless you really want to stock up for you or your family, don't let extra-large packages of food tempt you — bulk buys are a major source of waste. If you do buy in bulk and find you’re not going to use the items, check their expiration dates; when they near, donate to a food bank.
2) Eat Your Leftovers & Get Creative
Eating leftovers doesn't just mean reheating and serving as-is. Get creative! For example, you can:
- Turn last night's quinoa or rice into a vegan breakfast porridge.
- Sautée wilted greens for a baked sweet potato topping.
- Stuff a pepper with cauliflower rice.
- Make brown bananas into a creamy smoothie or banana bread.
- Turn stale bread into breadcrumbs.
- Blend beans into veggie burgers.
- Chop flaccid carrots into a stir fry or carrot soup.
- Hold a leftover night on Fridays, a creative meal of the week's scraps.
Also, label all food containers with the date you filled them. This can help you decide what to eat first.
Remember, when you see a post-peak vegetable, ask yourself: Is it bad, or is it just ugly? Funny-looking, bruised, and day-old produce can still be delicious.
3) Store Your Food Properly
Proper food preservation makes food stay fresh longer. Some fruits, like apples, avocados, melons, bananas, and mangoes, release ethylene gas, which causes other fruits and vegetables to ripen faster. Store each of these types of fruits alone, whether on a counter or in the fridge. Wrap the ends of bananas with plant-based wrap instead of plastic to lessen their ethylene release.
Certain vegetables are especially ethylene-sensitive; keep them away from ethylene-producers. For example, cucumbers, peppers, sweet potatoes, eggplant, grapes, leafy greens, and zucchini will ripen too fast when around ethylene-producing fruits.
- Don't wash berries, cherries, or grapes until you're about to eat them. Water makes them rot faster.
- Try gadgets like an avocado keeper; a berry box; and crisper drawer liners that absorb moisture.
- Make sure your fridge is always set at or below 40 degrees F (colder is better).
- Store the most perishable items away from the refrigerator doors; it’s coldest at the back.
- If something is going to go bad before you can eat it, freeze the food! You can freeze everything from baked sweet potatoes to watermelon! Frozen food is safe to eat for up to a year, depending on the item.
- Declutter your fridge often to unearth hidden items before they go bad. Organize your fridge so you can clearly see items that are perishable.
- Wipe down drawers to get rid of bacteria and moisture that can make food go bad faster.
4) Understand Expiration Dates
You may have noticed that some foods say "use by," while others say "sell by" or "best by." It's no wonder if you find them confusing.
It turns out these labels are more art than science. While nutrition facts labels are pretty clear, there are no federal guidelines on expiration dates — other than infant formula — leading to a whole lot of premature tossing. People throw away about 398,000 tons of food annually because of misleading expiration labels. Labels are most accurate and important on produce and other foods that go bad — usually within a few days or a week.
The shelf life on canned goods or refrigerated items is more flexible than you realize. The FDA is currently encouraging consistent labeling of shelf-stable food. The agency prefers, "Best if Used By." This means, "This Tastes Best By" — and is a comment on food freshness and not safety.
The USDA has excellent guidelines for food’s general shelf-safety. If any packaged food looks, smells, or tastes off, also toss. But if a bag of, say, rice, has passed its "best by" date by a few months yet seems alright, it's very likely fine in flavor and safety. If you prefer never to eat any food beyond the date, try to donate unopened items before they reach the expiry date.
5) Donate Your Food
If you have non-perishables that you're not going to eat, donate it! Locate a local food bank, food pantry, or food rescue program and see how they accept donations.
Most food banks request things like canned goods, rice, pasta, sauce, peanut butter, jelly, and other shelf-stable foods. Whether they will take expired foods or not varies by state. Stay on top of your food expiry dates — if something you’re not going to eat is creeping toward its expiration date, donate it.
There are also food rescue programs, like soup kitchens, which have different rules than food banks. They may accept perishables like refrigerated food, cooked meals, or baked goods. Ask.
If they don't, your neighbors might! Start a group text with local friends who might want your avocados that will be ripe exactly in the middle of your vacation. (Why does that always happen?)
6) Start Composting
About 94 percent of wasted food ends up in landfills, where it emits planet-warming methane. One way to divert it from the dump is to compost. This creates a simple way to extend your sustainable lifestyle to the outdoors.
You can easily try composting at home. It doesn’t require a big yard or extensive outdoor space to do it. Just collect food scraps in a non-stinky compost bin on your counter. It creates nutritious food for your plants or local gardens.
You can find many resources online, such as step-by-step guides to create a compost pile, but it’s mainly a matter of dumping food scraps and other compostable items, covering them with leaves or grass clippings or dirt, and then layering more food. Always top it with plant matter so you don’t attract animals. After some time, the pile should be tossed and stirred. Eventually, it will decompose into rich fertilizer. Even if you don’t use it for a garden, it has reduced your food waste!
Every year, more cities and towns add public composting options. If you can join one of those, then it's as simple as setting out a bucket with your recycling or dropping it at a designated spot.
7) Speak Up to Reduce Food Waste
Though households contribute to 43 percent of the food waste in our country, grocery stores and restaurants contribute 31 percent. One way to help is to let local businesses know they can participate in the USDA/EPA's 2030 goal of reducing food loss.
Share the Food Recovery Challenge info with local grocers, faith organizations, and restaurants. You can also write letters expressing the importance of reducing food waste to your local, state, and national elected officials. Connect with politicians who are working on laws to allow restaurants to donate unused food to hunger organizations. Or start a letter-writing campaign to help gain momentum for food waste reduction legislation.
Points to Remember
Wasting food is an issue that affects not only your finances, but also the planet, as it’s a significant source of greenhouse gases. Living healthy involves not only involves embracing a natural health lifestyle, but also seeking sustainable solutions to everyday issues.
To reduce food waste, use a shopping list every time you go to the market, store produce properly, and understand expiration dates. Many expiration dates are really "best if used by" dates. And if you won’t use it, donate it.
Get creative about how you reuse your leftovers. Any waste you do create, consider composting or donating to a food bank. This keeps it out of landfills. Finally, you can help meet national food waste goals by advocating for change locally and nationally. Make it Earth Day every day!
Learning to waste less food reduces your carbon footprint, ensures that your food stays fresh longer, and curbs impulse buying. What’s not to love?
What have you tried to reduce food waste? Share stories from your community or your personal experiences below!
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†Results may vary. Information and statements made are for education purposes and are not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. If you have a severe medical condition or health concern, see your physician.