Eat Up! Save Money & the Environment by Reducing Food Waste
Americans throw away about 40% of the food that we produce in this country. Don’t believe it? Start paying attention in your own home. Track your food waste for a week and you’ll be surprised—the cottage cheese that turned moldy, the half-bunch wilted cilantro that you didn’t need for a recipe, the leftovers that you never felt like eating again, and the kale you bought because you want to start eating healthier but never cooked. And it’s not just in our homes, but in restaurants, groceries, on farms, and in institutions, like hospitals and schools. It’s a big problem, not only because food is being wasted but for other environmental, social, and economic reasons as well.
Why should you care about wasted food? For starters, it means you’re throwing money away. The average American family loses about $1,500 a year by wasting food. That’s money that could have been spent on utilities, rent, or even a vacation. Estimates show that wasted food costs the United States economy up to $218 billion—that’s a huge financial burden that has gone unnoticed until recently. In 2015, the U.S. announced its first national goal to reduce food waste by 50% by 2030. This builds on international efforts to reduce wasted food through the Sustainable Development Goals, which were adopted by the United Nations in 2015.
On the environmental side, you throw away much more than food when it goes in the trash. At every step of the food supply chain, different resources are used to get food from farms to your plate and these are embedded in your food—land for growing or grazing, seeds, water, fertilizers, farm labor, and the tremendous energy used to harvest, transport, process, package, and store food until it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant. When you throw meat away, you are trashing not only the steak but all the grain and water the animal ate and drank.
To make matters worse, greenhouse gases are emitted at every stage of the food cycle. When your food ends up in a landfill, where it very slowly decomposes, it gives off methane, a greenhouse gas about 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Just by reducing your food waste, you can help reduce the negative effects of climate change. According to Project Drawdown, a research organization that identifies global climate solutions, reducing food waste is the third most powerful existing solution to reduce greenhouse gas levels and reverse global warming.
Food waste is even more disheartening in the context of food insecurity. One in six Americans is food insecure. In Vermont, it’s worse where one in four of our neighbors struggles to put food on the table. Solving the food waste problem will not solve the hunger problem but, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), reducing food losses by 15% would preserve enough food to feed more than 25 million Americans each year.
Why are we being so wasteful? There are lots of reasons we throw away food—lack of meal planning, over-purchasing, picky children, and misunderstanding expiration or date labels, to name a few. We have good intentions of cooking every night and buy lots of ingredients for different meals and then the reality of our busy lives means our plans change, and we get takeout or reach for quick and easy meals. Many of us didn’t grow up learning how to cook and so we no longer have the skills to throw together good-tasting meals from what’s in the fridge and pantry or we want to be good hosts so we cook and serve portions that are too large and then don’t use, or want, the leftovers. When multiple people are shopping, we can end up with three loaves of bread or heads of lettuce that won’t get eaten before going bad. And that’s just in our homes. Lots of waste happens at the retail level as well, like when groceries throw out perfectly edible food because it was the wrong shape or color or size and didn’t match shoppers expectations for beauty or perfection.
According to NRDC’s report Wasted, “cheap, convenient food has promoted behaviors that undervalue fully utilizing purchases. As a result, the issue of wasted food is simply not on the radar of many Americans, even those who consider themselves economically or environmentally conscious.” It’s relatively easy to change our food wasting habits, and it starts with paying attention.
The good news is there are lots of simple things that you can do to prevent food waste.
One of the most important ways to reduce food waste is to plan your meals in advance. This doesn’t mean specific recipes but a general list of meals so you don’t overbuy. Think about what you’re doing the following week and then plan meals around the time or energy you will have to cook. Do you eat out often? If so, don’t buy as many groceries. And don’t go to the grocery store hungry! It’s true, you’ll buy more food than you need.
Make a list and stick to it. If you’re someone who pays attention to sales that encourage bulk purchasing, that’s a great way to save money but only if you’re going to actually eat everything you buy before it goes bad.
Be purposeful and aware of what you are putting in your cart rather than shopping on autopilot. By buying no more than what you expect to cook, you’re more likely to eat it all while it’s still fresh.
When you get home from shopping, store foods for maximum freshness. Learn which fruits and vegetables last longer inside or outside the fridge. For example, avocados and tomatoes are best stored outside the fridge but once they’re ripe, put them in the fridge to prolong their lives. Most nuts and grains last longer stored in the fridge, not the pantry. Did you know your refrigerator should be set at 40 degrees or below? This will also help food last longer.
Heard of Marie Kondo and the latest rage to declutter homes? It’s true for your fridge and pantry as well. Leave more space and don’t overstuff them. You’ll see what foods you have, which will make meal planning easier and help prevent overbuying.
Don’t forget about your freezer! It will buy you extra time if you’re already sick of leftovers or have vegetables or fruits that are ripe and you don’t have time to cook them. When freezing foods in plastic bags, try to remove as much air as possible from the package, which reduces freezer burn, but if you’re freezing liquids (think soups or smoothies), leave some room in the container for the liquids to expand.
Confused about expiration dates? Apart from infant formula, expiration dates on foods are not federally regulated; most are manufacture recommendations for when a product is freshest. Not sure if something is still good to eat? Trust your senses. If it looks OK and smells good, taste a little bit before just blindly throwing food out because it’s past the date. Limp vegetables can often be revived with a soak in ice water for 15-20 minutes or sautéed into a side dish.
This strategy revolves around creativity in the kitchen. Instead of starting with recipes and heading to the store for what you need, cook with the ingredients you have on hand or use recipes just as a starting point. It’s helpful to have a few “hero” or “kitchen sink” recipes or sauces that taste good with lots of different ingredients. Some common favorites are fried rice, chili, omelets, soups, stir fries, and stews.
Ditch the peeler and invest in a good scrub brush. For many vegetables the nutrients are in the skin and a scrubbing is all that’s needed to get them clean.
Try to reduce waste first by buying, cooking, and serving the right amounts, whether it’s for your family or a party. Giving guests smaller plates helps to reduce waste as people can always go back for seconds. And again, if you find yourself with leftovers, don’t forget about your freezer.
For more tips and inspiration, go to Savethefood.com.
Whatever your skill level in the kitchen, some amount of food waste is inevitable. Make sure you have a plan to keep food scraps out of the trash—either feeding to backyard chickens, composting at home, leaving for your trash hauler (available in some Vermont communities), or bringing to your local transfer station or drop-off.
Feel like you’re wasting a lot? You’re not alone. NRDC reports that food waste is an embarrassing unifier and no matter the age, gender, economic status or education level, we all waste food. But it’s a problem that you can start working on today, and every day, as you take the time to enjoy and value your food. You’ll save money and reduce global warming with every bite!
About Anne Bijur
Anne Bijur joined the Waste Management and Prevention Division of Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources in 2017 and works with a team to implement Vermont’s recycling, composting, and waste reduction initiatives. She is a sustainability professional with more than 15 years’ experience designing and delivering education and communication programs for both the non-profit and private sector, including Shelburne Farms and AllEarth Renewables.