Is your refrigerator crisper a graveyard of spoiled produce and expired goods? Those squandered products add up — and fast. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the average American family throws out up to $43 worth of food each month. That’s approximately 20 pounds of food per family, which results in roughly $2,000 worth of wasted food per year for a family of four.
If you’re more concerned with whether your apples are organic than using your kale before it wilts, you’re certainly not alone. The issue of food waste has historically gotten less attention than other aspects of the food systems, says JoAnne Berkenkamp, senior advocate for the Food and Agriculture Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Fortunately, as eaters have become more concerned about where their food comes from and how it is produced, I see them becoming more open to questions about what happens when we throw food out.”
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Food waste has become a hot topic on social media and many food industry and government leaders are taking it upon themselves to address the issue, Berkenkamp says. Of note: MSNBC has a documentary airing on April 22 called “Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story.” And prominent chef Dan Barber recently transformed his award-winning NYC restaurant Blue Hill into “WastEd,” a one-month pop-up shop serving dishes made from typically discarded foods, like cucumber butts and vegetable pulp left after juicing. Currently, a whopping 40 percent of the food that’s produced is wasted in the U.S., says Berkenkamp.
Food Waste: A Costly Problem
What happens when we toss that uneaten grub to the curb, anyway? First of all, lots of resources — such as the water, energy, chemicals and resulting pollution that go into food production and transportation — are going into food that never gets eaten. “The wasted food is a major source of carbon emissions,” says Dawn Undurraga, M.S., R.D., nutritionist at the Environmental Working Group. The discarded edibles decompose in landfills and emit methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. Undurraga estimates that reducing food waste could save 25 percent of all freshwater used in the U.S.
“Up to 20 percent of produce is wasted because of cosmetic reasons.”
Plus, Berkenkamp points out that using food more efficiently will be crucial for feeding the world as the global population increases in the coming decades. Projections suggest the Earth will have nine billion inhabitants by 2050. (The current global population is roughly 7.2 billion.) “Here in the U.S., reducing food losses by just 15 percent would be enough food to feed more than 25 million Americans every year,” she says. “We need to find innovative ways to feed people without putting too much strain on our land, water and soil.”
With 40 percent of food waste occurring in American homes, consumers are a big part of the problem. But luckily, they’re also a big part of the solution, Berkenkamp and Undurraga say. With savvy shopping skills and strategies for using up scraps, you can minimize your own food waste and save a few bucks in the process.
Use It, Don’t Lose It
Luckily, cutting down on food waste doesn’t mean you’ll have to scarf down a salad every time you see some vegetables on the verge of spoiling. “Simple steps can make a big difference,” says Berkenkamp. Where to start? These seven tips will help put you in charge of your waste (and wallet!).
1. Make your shopping basket realistic. “The easiest way to cut down is to only buy as much as you can eat,” says Undurraga. A good strategy is to take 10 minutes to make a list of the meals you’ll eat before you head to the store. If you know you have events or social activities after work, resist the urge to buy perishable items in bulk if you won’t be able to use them up before they go bad.
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2. Learn label lingo. You might be surprised to learn that “use by” and “sell by” dates are not federally regulated, meaning they don’t necessarily indicate safety or freshness. Undurraga recommends smelling products before tossing them, especially if only the “sell by” date has passed; that date is meant for the retailer, not the consumer. Plus, studies show that lots of foods can be consumed past their expiration date. For specific product information on shelf life and “when-to-toss” tips, head to StillTasty.com.
3. Write an inventory. Push aside the wedding invitations or school report cards decorating your fridge to make room for a whiteboard that keeps track of what’s inside. This will help you remember those farmers’ market strawberries before they stink up your top shelf. Undurraga says she ranks her produce to keep track of what needs to be eaten first.
4. Reuse those leftovers. Constantly tossing last week’s linguini? According to the NRDC, one-third of all household waste is caused by Americans cooking or serving too much food. By putting any uneaten meals front and center in your fridge, you’ll be more likely to see and remember to use them, says Undurraga. So stop hiding those takeout boxes in the back! They could be tomorrow’s lunch.
5. Freeze, please. When using all your produce before it goes bad just isn’t possible, Undurraga suggests preserving fruits and vegetables in the freezer as a last resort. Putting leftover soups and stews in the freezer is also a great way to keep them for later if you cooked in bulk and your taste buds are getting bored.
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6. Give ugly produce some love. Picture-perfect fruits and vegetables may look good on Instagram, but their not-so-shapely peers will taste just as good. (And will be just as nutritious!) EndFoodWaste.org estimates that up to 20 percent of produce is wasted because of cosmetic reasons. Lots of disfigured produce gets tossed before it even makes it to most supermarkets and grocery stores, so show your support for the uglies by shopping at local farmers markets. Even better: Be an ugly activist by tagging your quirky food photos #loveuglyfood.
7. Embrace the empty fridge. If you’re depressed every time you’ve got barren fridge shelves staring back at you, don’t be. In fact, it’s a sign that you’re being efficient and eating everything you buy. “A well-managed fridge is an empty fridge,” says Undurraga. “Meal planning will definitely help you stop collecting too much.” Plus, it adds up to money in the bank, too.
How do you prevent food waste? Share your tips in the comments below.
Originally posted April 2015. Updated August 2015.