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The statistics are sobering: In the United States, we generate about 35 million tons of food waste each year, and as individual families we waste about 30 percent of the food we buy. For an average four-person household with a $1,000 monthly grocery budget, that’s like throwing $300 straight in the trash every month.
Food waste not only puts a strain on our personal budget, but also contributes to the ongoing climate crisis. The annual amount of water and energy wasted by uneaten food in America each year would be enough to power 50 million homes, and the amount of greenhouse gases produced by food waste would be equivalent to the carbon dioxide emissions of 42 coal-fired power plants to a 2021 US Environmental Protection Agency report.
At home, the core problem is that we buy too much food and then throw away so much because it spoils, supposedly spoils, the ingredients “don’t match the food’s preferences,” or we can’t prepare it, according to a 2020 report by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.
It’s true that there are far more factors that contribute to waste in the food system than just our consumption patterns. “It’s so much bigger than a consumer problem,” said Pamela Koch, associate professor of nutrition education at Columbia University’s Teachers College.
But that doesn’t mean that our personal commitment can’t still have an impact. “There’s so much that consumers can do,” said Roni Neff, associate professor of environmental health and engineering at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health and one of the co-authors of the National Academies report.
The process begins with “recognizing what we’re throwing away and what led to it,” Neff said. “Once we understand our own patterns and understand what’s going on in our homes,” she continued, the next step is “figuring out how we set ourselves up [our] environment to make it as easy as possible to avoid food waste.”
Here are expert strategies to reduce food waste and save a few bucks in the process.
The first step begins with brutal honesty at the grocery store.
“I’m a public health person, so I’m saying that one of the challenges is that we want to be healthier, and we’re at our most visionary when we’re in the grocery store and we see all these products,” Neff said. However, it’s important to “be realistic about what we’re actually going to eat,” and to recognize that wasted produce isn’t helping anyone’s health.
Also, 2-for-1 offers on perishables and other bulk purchases are only good for our budget if we consume all the groceries we buy. “Sales convince us to buy more than we need,” Neff said. “It’s not saving if we throw it away.”
Before you put that big bag of chicken breasts or that oversized bag of blueberries in your shopping cart, ask yourself if you know what you’re going to do with it. This is where a meal plan comes into play.
Meal planning can be a difficult hurdle for many families, but like most habits, you can start with a few meals a week and build from there. “After all, a bit of planning saves time and money,” says Koch. “It’s a small investment for a big return.”
Koch suggests that the chief cook/meal prep in each household begins by “thinking about the week ahead and what’s going on for your family.” She plans by noting how many dinners are eaten at home and how many commitments, such as exercise and music practice and business trips, affect meals.
There are a few factors that can help make meal planning easier.
Stock your home with “go-to ingredients,” as Chefs call them, that can be used in multiple dishes, rather than buying an ingredient “just for a recipe that will sit around because you don’t know what else to do with it.” let’s start.” If your family loves Tex-Mex food, ingredients like tortillas, onions, salsa, beans, and basic seasonings like cumin, oregano, garlic, and chili powder can always be on hand to prepare a meal.
The “cook once, eat twice” mentality also helps ease the burden of meal planning. “I’m the queen of leftovers because that directly helps reduce food waste and is a huge time saver,” Koch said. “I sometimes cook two days in a row and I know I’ll have leftovers.”
Next, keep an inventory of what you already have on hand. A running list of all meal building blocks in the pantry, like canned beans, pasta, and grains, and foods in the freezer, like veggies, proteins, and frozen portioned leftovers, will remind you of what’s available and ready to eat. If you’re running out of meal ideas, check out the list.
Finally, if your family has “fridge blindness” when it comes to leftovers and available groceries, try these strategies to see what works best for you.
- Keep a roll of painter’s tape and a sharpie in the kitchen to label each container with the dates they were cooked and placed in the fridge. Use the “first in, first out” rule to keep the older groceries closer to the front of the fridge, or designate a specific shelf where groceries are eaten first.
- Stick a magnetic whiteboard prominently on the fridge to list available leftovers and/or ingredients, such as E.g. fresh produce, which should be used up by a certain date.
- Tech enthusiasts can use apps like Fridge Tracker, Fridge Hero, and CozZo to remind them what’s in your fridge and when to eat the leftovers.
It’s a common misconception that the date on food packaging is a fixed, government-mandated sell-by date. Neff explained that dates like “best before” and “best before” don’t mean that the food in question will suddenly go bad or make us sick when that date passes.
With the exception of infant formula, dating of food products is not required by federal law, and these voluntary dates are intended as benchmarks of food quality, not safety, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
“Because the standard is voluntary, it’s not consistent,” Neff said, and so terms like “sell from,” “use from,” and “best if used by” can be confusing to consumers.
“Best if used by” means that after this point the quality can decrease,” she explained. As long as the food in question is properly stored (i.e. according to proper refrigeration recommendations) or sealed and unused, there is no need to throw it away once the date on the package has been crossed off the calendar.
Composting isn’t a free card to get out of jail
Composting is no excuse for throwing away excess food, experts warn. Compost is still a form of food waste as it wastes already invested resources such as labor, water and fuel used to grow, process and transport the food.
But it’s not a waste of time either. “When you cook at home, there’s still a lot of unused leftover food,” Koch said. “Composting is worthwhile – it works on many levels.”
In 2018, 2.6 million tons of food waste was composted instead of going to landfill, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Many cities in the US now have composting collection or delivery programs for households who do not wish to maintain their own compost bins.
“If you have good food, the first thing you should do is find a way to eat it,” Neff said.
While most pantries won’t accept donations of ready meals from non-commercial kitchens, home gardeners may be able to donate fresh produce. Neff recommends Ample Harvest, a registry resource for finding local pantries that will accept surplus produce.