Who is responsible for 43% of the nation’s growing food waste problem? It’s not restaurants, supermarkets, or food-producing factories. It’s us as individuals! According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average household loses $1,500 a year on the food it throws in the trash, which, multiplied by thousands of households across the nation, results in the staggering fact that 40% of food produced in the U.S. goes in the garbage. Think about that – nearly half of the food we produce rots in our landfills at the same time we continue to have about 48 million Americans living in food insecure households. It’s an equation that doesn’t add up. Moreover, it’s important to note that when you waste food, you are not only wasting the actual item, but the energy, water, and labor that went into producing it, making it a global environmental concern.
The problem has become so serious that the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency announced the country’s first waste-reduction goal, which aims to lower the nation’s food waste by 50% by the year 2030. More than anything else – whether it be my love of cooking, smart shopping, or being frugal – preventing food waste is simply paramount for me. It’s the chief principal that dictates and motivates every other food decision in my household. Whether it’s thinking about all the children in this country that do not know where their next meal is coming from, the people across the globe that don’t even have access to clean water, or my innate penny-pinching tendencies, not wasting the precious food I purchase is something I’m super passionate about. If these statistics don’t scare you enough to start cutting the food waste in your own household, think about the economical importance to your own finances. Imagine what you could do with an extra $1,500 a year? When you toss that container of leftovers you never got around to eating, or the rotten bananas you had planned to use but never did, you are literally throwing your money in the trash. Here are some simple and crucial ways to lessen your contribution to the food waste epidemic and get serious about not wasting your hard-earned money at the same time.
Meal Plan: I cannot stress enough that planning your meals is the most important strategy to saving grocery money – it trumps any other “tips” out there for spending less at the store. It also eliminates most of your food waste issues because you are shifting your mindset about the items you shop for. Everything that’s put into your grocery cart should have a specific intent. You’re no longer buying those beautiful peaches just in case you feel like making a cobbler, but rather, you’ve planned to make one and are shopping for the rest of the recipe ingredients, as well. When you know steak is on sale, you’ll plan to grill it up next Tuesday. The peaches and the steak will no longer sit in your fridge endlessly until they eventually go bad. Planning your meals is not overwhelming or rigid; it just keeps you organized and ensures that things do not go to waste. For everything you need to get starting meal-planning, see my blog post on it all here.
Shop Less and Inventory More: Make less frequent trips to the store and you’ll slash your grocery costs and your food waste, because you are giving yourself less opportunities to buy things you won’t use. You’ll need to rely on what’s in the house to get you through to the next shopping trip, whether you’re out of bread or not. Challenge yourself to go without running to the store when you think you are low on staples. The more you meal plan, the more you will notice trends in how, what, and when your family eats, and you can shop more accordingly. For more tips on how to successfully shop less frequently, see my post on it here. Focus less time on stopping at the store to pick up a few things and more time taking inventory of what’s already in the house that can be used. You should be doing a quick scan of items, particularly perishable foods, every single day and trying to use them up.
Front Load: Fresh fruits and vegetables are the most likely victims of food waste. Consumers throw out over half of the produce they purchase! Over time, I’ve learned that the trick to preventing produce rot is not in the storage, but in the scheduling of using them. When you meal plan, “front load” your produce in order to maximize freshness and avoid rot. This means that you’ll try to eat/cook/use up the highly perishable items at the “front” of your meal cycle, and taper off towards the end of the cycle with less perishable produce. For example, plan to eat/use your bags of fresh baby spinach, raspberries, and bananas within the first few days of purchase. Other produce, like a head of cauliflower or beets can wait a bit longer. If you prefer to supplement your produce mid-meal-cycle, that’s fine, but be mindful of it. So for instance, if your kids gobble strawberries every day but you have another eight days before your major shopping trip, by all means, stop and get another pint. But limit your shop to just that item, and continue to offer less perishable alternatives like apples and citrus fruits.
Commit to Leftovers: Did you know that 96% of leftovers would be eaten more if you knew what was actually in your containers? Invest in some nice plastic storage containers and commit to actually eating what you pack away! Don’t be a food snob about eating leftovers – they are delicious and certain meals (eggplant parmesan and stuffed pasta come to mind) actually seem to get better as time goes on! Eliminating food waste can only happen if you make a point of eating leftover odds and ends of food. Is there a clump of wild rice, a few pieces of broccoli, and ½ a chicken cutlet still in the pots and pans after dinnertime? If you put these things together in a container, it makes for a hot lunch for someone the next day that’s probably much larger and more satisfying than what’s in a Lean Cuisine box. Using up perishable food should be something that’s always a conscious priority.
Relax about Expiration Dates: Don’t fret too much about “sell by” and “best used by” dates. A lot of food waste occurs when consumers get too nervous that something, particularly dairy and meat items, are going bad when they aren’t. Food safety is something to take very seriously, but first educate yourself on what each type of label actually means. Here is a great resource to help clear up the confusion.
Finally, for these goals to work, everyone in the household has to commit. If you have a spouse or a family member that isn’t really a fan of leftovers or doesn’t seem to mind when produce or dairy items have to be chucked when they go bad, talk to them about your goals and why it is so important for both an individual family and the environment. Encourage each other to eat up what’s in the house, and perhaps even some “tough love” is necessary to get everyone on board. Model gratitude for the food you have. Beyond helping to save the environment and what’s in your wallet, you’ll also be nurturing creativity as you look for ways to use up food items hanging out in the fridge. Resourcefulness is a wonderful trait that, once honed, can inspire you in so many ways. Join me in preventing food waste ASAP!