Have you ever really thought about the afterlife of your leftovers?
A once-edible meal falls into the trash, never to be thought of again.
Those forgotten food remnants add up to some pretty alarming numbers.
In the U.S, an estimated 30% to 40% of food is thrown away.
Who’s thinking about a hunger crisis when there’s a bountiful food supply at the edge of your fingertips? Tossing a few scraps seems harmless, right?
How Bad Is the Food Waste Problem?
Food waste happens in such little bits here and there that people don’t even realize they’re doing it, according to Dana Gunders, a former senior scientist at the National Resource Defense Council and author of “Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook: A Guide to Eating Well and Saving Money By Wasting Less Food.”
“Consumers waste more food, collectively, than restaurants or grocery stores,” Gunders said. “And the average household of four spends about $1,800 on food they never eat.”
A whopping one-third of ALL food grown for human consumption on Earth is lost or wasted.
“Growing food and getting it to our tables is a huge investment in resources,” Gunders said. “When you throw out one hamburger, it’s like taking a 90-minute shower in terms of the water it took to produce that hamburger.”
Really scary questions loom about feeding future generations, filling landfills and how common — and easy — it is to squander precious resources.
Can you imagine how much money and food everyone would save if they bought only the food they’d actually eat?
Consumers waste more food, collectively, than restaurants or grocery stores.
Gunders said that once people open their eyes to the problem, they naturally waste a little less.
“I find it interesting that people can be swayed by 5 or 10 cents when in the grocery store, but that math goes out the window when it comes to wasting food once they’re home,” she said.
How to Reduce Food Waste: 16 Simple Tips
There’s a lot we can’t control, but there’s a great deal we can control about our kitchens, plates and trash cans. Consider some of these tips for how to reduce food waste at home.
1. Make a Grocery List and Stick to It
Overbuying leads to food waste. Planning your meals for the week, making a list and sticking to it can prevent impulse buys and limit the vegetable carcasses not even good intentions could revive.
Gunders suggests thinking double duty. If you need fresh cilantro for a meal, can you plan a second meal that will use it, too? This not only saves your budget, but it eliminates casual food waste.
2. Buy Frozen Instead of Fresh
Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder
The bright, beautiful colors of fresh fruits and veggies tempt me every week. Then I remember how quickly fresh produce can spoil.
Now, I’ve turned to stocking my freezer with produce. I call this the Too Many Avocados Left Behind Act. I don’t freeze my avocados, but I do buy most fruits and veggies frozen now. I can thaw them in a flash and count on having a random assortment of ingredients on a whim.
3. Plan for Surprises
It’s so easy to get tempted by the events of the week, from an unscheduled lunch to a surprise happy hour. Leftovers get abandoned as you nosh on an unplanned (and unbudgeted) meal out.
You can plan your meals for the week and allot some wiggle room for spontaneous outings. By having a backup recipe or frozen meal you will always have on hand, you can accept a last-minute invitation and not fritter away a thing.
4. Rethink Expiration Dates
Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder
Sell-by, use-by and expiration dates all mean different things. Most often, the dates serve as a freshness, quality or display indicator, not a marker for when the food will actually go bad. Many people throw out perfectly good food because of date stamps. Use common sense, and research what the date on your packaged or canned food really means before you toss it.
5. Make Your Freezer Great Again
Good intentions can’t reverse rotten tomatoes or spoiled meat. That steak you meant to eat on Sunday looks questionable by Tuesday.
You can extend the life of your meats, bread and vegetables by freezing them.
Gunders said almost anything can be frozen: Milk, shredded cheese, sliced bread and even raw eggs (out of the shell) can go in the freezer.
It’ll all be there when you’re ready, so it will save you future cooking time, money and food waste. Don’t you feel better?
6. Store Items Where You Can See Them
Some produce slips into the crisper abyss. Out of sight, out of mind. Keep items where you can see them. You’re more likely to use items that you can physically see.
Additionally, learn how to store each type of vegetable. Some ripen faster and can speed up others nearby. Consider investing in special airtight containers that keep produce firm and fresh longer.
Washing the pieces of fruit or vegetables you plan on using will keep the whole bag from going bad before you get a chance to enjoy their deliciousness.
7. Clean Your Fridge and Organize Your Pantry
Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder
Expired items hide, and mold lurks on the edges you can’t quite see. Having a tidy fridge helps you see exactly what you have and inspires you to use it.
Same goes for the pantry: Keeping it tidy allows you to see what you have at a glance and prevents items from getting lost behind the castles of steel cans.
8. Try Composting
Skip the landfill, and start composting. Everything from your coffee grounds to celery ends can find their way into your bin. In turn, you can eventually use it toward your next home gardening adventure.
9. Learn to Preserve or Can Foods
Pickle? Preserve? Can? They’re all options gaining popularity. But these practices have been around for centuries and have helped folks survive harsh winters and economic downturns.
With a little upfront investment of time and money, you can acquire the tools necessary to preserve your excess food. This can prolong their shelf life and reduce food waste and costs.
10. Donate Extra Food
If you know your family won’t eat something, donate it. Many local pantries and food banks welcome donations, but consider friends or families in your community who might appreciate a little extra food. There are restrictions and rules at some charities about what can be donated, so check before making any contributions.
11. Eat What You Have
Plan recipes around what’s been sitting around for a while or what needs to get used before it expires. Keeping your fridge and pantry clean and organized helps you see exactly what you have and what you should cook before adding more supplies to the mix.
12. Mix It Up
Leftovers you’re tired of eating can be repurposed into new recipes. Some fruits and vegetables that are a little too ripe can be baked or mashed into a casserole. Ripe bananas make great banana bread, and soft strawberries can be added to smoothies.
Other scraps can be made into stocks or added to a compost. I’ve put coffee grounds in my soil, and a friend of mine makes corn silk tea. There’s a practical use for almost any piece of food you might throw away.
13. Host a Potluck
I’m a picky eater, yet I love to cook. Sometimes I acquire ingredients for recipes that I don’t end up using again, or I try something and end up not liking it. So, I’ve hosted potlucks to use said ingredients. Invite friends over, and have leftover lunches for days. You’ll help everyone else also clean their cabinets. Win-win.
14. Get an App
Carmen Mandato/ The Penny Hoarder
There are a few apps on the market that try to put a dent in the global food waste problem. Here are a few to consider:
- The USDA FoodKeeper app teaches best practices of food and beverage storage to maximize quality and freshness.
- Too Good to Go makes surplus restaurant food available for pickup before it gets thrown out.
- Waste No Food helps food-based establishments, from farms to restaurants, to donate excess food to charities and and shelters.
15. Channel Bob Ross
Ever wish you could make art with your food outside of Instagram posts? Let the bright colors of your leftovers become the colors of your clothes or the paint on your canvas.
Yup, your peels and ends from scraps of everything from beets, spinach and lemons can be made into permanent fabric dye that could double as watercolor paint.
16. Life’s a Garden… Dig It!
Even the brownest thumbs can turn green. Try regrowing your food scraps, and see what happens. Put seeds in the backyard, or try sprouting them over a cup of water.
The Lesson: Waste Not, Want Not
It’s simple math: Buying less food means more money in your pocket.
It’s not going to happen overnight.
But with a few small adjustments and active intentions of how to better store, buy and cook food, you can start a ripple effect that will save time, money and food in the long run.
Who knows — maybe others will catch on. Look at Denmark. It reduced its food waste by 25% over a five-year period, and it didn’t happen without a real effort and cultural shift to address the problem.
Learn what works for you. Maybe you’ll grow a new habit if you just plant the seed.
Stephanie Bolling is a former staff writer at The Penny Hoarder.