I am frankly embarrassed about the amount of food I throw in the trash.
As a busy working mom of two, I don’t always have time to plan ahead so that every last scrap of food is used before it spoils. My kids complicate this situation by being finicky eaters, and they will sometimes request foods they end up not wanting to touch.
I’m not the only one who tosses a good deal of food in the trash. The statistics on American food waste are pretty alarming. A 2018 study published by the journal PLOS ONE found that Americans waste an average of one pound of food per day. This amount comes out to about 25% of all food — or 30% of all our available calories.
These statistics only take into account consumer waste, both at home and from restaurants. If you factor in waste from supermarkets and other food distribution businesses — along with food production waste — that number is even higher.
“What we’re reporting is about 25 percent of the food that’s available for consumption gets wasted,” Zach Conrad, the study’s lead author told The Washington Post. “And there are some other data sets that are showing that across the entire food system it’s about 30 to 40 percent.”
As Timothy Searchinger, senior fellow at the World Resources Institute and a Princeton University researcher told the Post, this problem has major ramifications on the environment.
“Food waste is a big deal,” Searchinger said. “It results in large increases in land use demands, other inputs, and greenhouse gas emissions.”
With 11.1% of American households experiencing food insecurity in any given year — including one in seven families with children — it seems morally and ethically irresponsible to throw this much food away.
So what can we do? Well, some of the burden shouldn’t fall on our shoulders alone. Waste from businesses and supermarkets need to be better regulated. Restaurants should cut their portion sizes to minimize waste.
Clearly, cultural and structural change are part of this too. We are a culture of abundance, and we could all adjust our expectations about things like serving sizes and how much available fresh, perfect-looking produce we expect at grocery stores.
At the same time, there are things we can all do to be more cognizant about food waste in our homes. Here are some simple, easy-to-implement ideas:
1. Meal Plan
When you think of “meal planning,” you might picture a Pinterest-ready white board filled with detailed plans for each meal of the week. But it doesn’t have to be complicated. As you shop for groceries, consider carefully how you will use the ingredients you buy. Cut back on impulse purchases.
2. Don’t Be Spooked By Expiration Dates
Expiration dates are only guidelines. Before the 1970s, foods didn’t have expiration dates at all.
Think like your grandmother did. Use your five senses to decide if a food is spoiled. You can also use this guide from Consumer Reports to help you make sense of expiration dates and learn to ascertain when you can eat or toss your food.
3. When In Doubt, Buy Frozen
The PLOS report found that fruits and vegetables were the foods most frequently wasted. This trend makes sense, as they are apt to spoil fastest. That limitation doesn’t mean we should stop buying them, though.
Frozen fruits and vegetables are just as nutritious as fresh produce is. You don’t have to buy everything frozen, but if you aren’t sure you will have time to eat a fruit or veggie, frozen might be a better choice.
4. Bruised Bananas Are Fine!
We tend to shy away from produce with even one or two bumps or bruises. The truth is, most produce is absolutely fine to eat, even if it’s mushy in places or browned in others. You can cut off the discolored and withered portions of your fruits and veggies and eat the rest. Bruised and browned foods are usually fine to eat, too, and don’t taste much different.
5. Have Leftover Day At Least Once A Week
Many of us shy away from leftovers because they don’t seem as appetizing as freshly cooked foods. But leftovers can be really yummy.
Reheating your leftovers in a pot or pan rather than the microwave help makes them feel new again. Sprucing them up with a little melted cheese or a drizzle of olive oil can help, too.
I actually love the variety of leftover night. It means I get to try a little bit of all the delicious foods I’ve made that week.
6. Freeze Your Food
Almost every meal can be frozen to be eaten at a later date. Same goes for uneaten fruits and veggies that are about to spoil. You’ve just got to get to these foods before they start to look less than appetizing to you.
7. Always Take A Doggie Bag
We all know restaurants tend to serve way too much food. The first thing you can do is be conscientious about what you order.
We all tend to over-order at restaurants. To combat this habit, you can try ordering one thing, eating it, and seeing if you have room for something else.
If you do end up with leftovers, always take home a doggie bag. If you don’t think you’ll eat it, share it with a friend, or consider donating it to a local homeless shelter.
Fruits and vegetables may be the biggest offenders (followed by dairy products and meat) when it comes to food waste, but these are also the easiest foods to compost. Once you’re set up to compost your food, it becomes second-nature. This article from Public Goods offers tips for how to get started — and even how to pull composting off in an apartment.
9. Stick To Your Grocery List
Making a grocery list — and sticking to it religiously — is a great way to reduce waste. I find that online shopping helps. If I don’t see it in a store, I won’t be tempted to buy it.
Making several small trips to the grocery store rather than one big trip may help too. This way, you can access throughout the week what you really need rather than splurging all at once.
Sometimes we buy food we end up not wanting or using. That’s OK — but you really shouldn’t throw away perfectly edible foods (I will admit I am guilty of this!). There are so many places that take food donations, including churches, homeless shelters, women’s shelters, food pantries, and food banks. Goodwill and The Salvation Army take donations too. Many food pantries and banks will even come to pick up the food from your home.
The Other Kind of Green
Of course, besides the environmental and human interest piece here is the fact that wasting less food will save you money. According to the Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council, not only does 40% of our food go uneaten, but we trash $165 billion dollars worth of food each year.
Wow, that’s a whole lot. I spend at least $250 dollars a week to feed my family, and I shudder to think of how much of that is wasted. I’m definitely going to be more mindful going forward, and I urge you to do the same.
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