How to Reduce Food Waste

Annette McDermott
No food waste

Despite the fact that people in the United States love to eat, millions of tons of food are wasted each year. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans wasted 35 million tons of food in 2013 alone, most of it ending up in landfills or combustion facilities. This is concerning because food breaks down to produce dangerous greenhouse gases. To reduce your food carbon footprint, take steps to minimize food waste.

Ways to Reduce Food Waste

You may think there is little you can do prevent food waste in your corner of the world. But there are many smart ways to approach how you consume, store, and dispose of food in your home.

Have A Weekly "Must-Go" Meal

A "must-go" meal is prepared with food that "must go" or it will spoil. At least once a week, gather the leftovers in your fridge and eat them for dinner or throughout the day. It doesn't matter if you're eating more than one type of entree; the important thing is the food is eaten before it goes bad.

Plan Meals

Planning meals for the week is a great way to cut food waste. It takes the guesswork out of mealtime and helps prevent you from buying foods you won't prepare. There are several meal-planning apps to help such as Meal Planner Pro and Food Planner. If you prefer to go old school and write out menus, Money Saving Mom offers several free templates to download.

Make a List and Stick to It

Once you've planned your meals, make a shopping list. It's a good idea to post the list on the fridge or pantry so you can add to it as food runs out. Only add items you know you'll eat. Don't overbuy, especially if you shop at a big box store. Buying in bulk may save money in the short-term, but if you buy too much food, you may end up throwing the food and your money in the trash.

You've heard it before, but don't shop hungry! Shopping hungry tempts you to impulse-buy foods you don't need and may not eat.

Take Inventory

If you're like many people, you forget what canned goods are lurking in the back of your pantry or what dairy products are hiding in that dark corner of your fridge. Before you go grocery shopping, take inventory of what you already have. You might not need another two cans of cream soup or a new container of sour cream. When you find food you forgot, head to My Fridge Food to search for recipes that use ingredients you have on hand.

Expired Doesn't Always Mean Unsafe

Woman looking at expiration date

It's not unusual for expired food to remain on store shelves. Check "use-by" dates on everything you buy. Don't cut the date too close. If the expiration date is a couple days away, make sure you'll eat the food before it expires.

Foods aren't necessarily bad after they expire. According to the USDA, not all expiration dates apply to food safety:

  • The "sell-by" date is how long the store should offer a product for sale.
  • A "best if used by" date tells you when to use a product by for the best quality or flavor.
  • A "use-by" date if the last date recommended for peak quality. The product should be used by that date.

Foods past their "sell-by," or "best if used by," dates are usually not unsafe to eat if stored and handled properly, especially canned goods and some dairy products. If there is no foul odor or discoloration, it's probably okay to eat. However, if in doubt, toss it. Meat should be eaten or frozen once it reaches the "sell-by" date.

Brown Bag It

Instead of hitting a restaurant for lunch each day, brown-bag it. Search your fridge and pantry for lunch items. Think out of the box and go beyond the typical sandwich and chips. Not only will you save money, but you'll use up extra food.

Try these brown bag ideas:

  • Dinner leftovers
  • Cheese and crackers
  • Peanut butter and crackers
  • Yogurt
  • Leftover pizza
  • Canned soup
  • Canned tuna, chicken, salmon, or ham
  • Canned fruit
  • Cut-up fresh fruit and veggies with salad dressing dip
  • Leftover pasta with chopped veggies tossed in Italian or ranch dressing

Store Food Properly

Improperly stored food spoils and must be thrown out to avoid food-borne illness. According to the Food and Drug Administration, perishables should be frozen or refrigerated immediately and never left out over two hours. Keep your fridge at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit and your freezer at 0 degrees Fahrenheit. Eat lunchmeats and fresh meats, poultry, and fish as soon as possible.

If you enjoy a meal outdoors, never leave food out more than two hours if the temperature outside is under 90 degrees. If it's over 90 degrees, food should be stored properly within an hour.

Don't Toss Fruits and Veggies

Overripe celery isn't ideal for a party veggie tray, but it's perfect for tossing into your morning green juice. You can juice almost any fruit or vegetable and it doesn't matter if it's wilted. Got a bunch of overripe bananas? Freeze them to add to smoothies. Extra zucchini or berries taste great in quick breads and muffins.

Make Canned Goods

A great way to use up a bumper crop of fruit or take advantage of a seasonal produce sale at your grocery store is to make canned goods. When made using a hot water canning process, foods last a year or more unrefrigerated. Canning takes time, but it's worth it when the result is a long-lasting food stash.

Almost all produce and most meats can be canned. Consider making fruit jams, jellies, and preserves, chutney, canned tomato sauce, pickled cucumbers, and vegetable soup. Fruit is the most common ingredient in jams and jellies, but tomatoes make a tasty jam too.

Compost

Composting food leftovers

Why toss food scraps down the garbage disposal when you can make them work for you? If you think composting is cringe-worthy, think again. There are many advantages to composting which extend beyond reducing the number of trash bags you send to the landfill each week. Composting makes great fertilizer for your garden, helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and improves soil quality. And today's compost bins are low-maintenance, enclosed to keep animals out and bad odors in, look nice, and don't take up a lot of space.

Most food scraps including coffee grounds and eggshells can be composted, but the EPA indicates you should not compost:

  • Dairy products
  • Fats, grease, lards, or oils
  • Meat or fish bones or scraps

Reduce Portions

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, portion sizes in U.S. restaurants have doubled or tripled over the last 20 years. Portion sizes at home are growing too. Not only does this play a role in the obesity epidemic in America, but it also leads to food waste. Portion sizes are often so big, you can't finish what's on your plate. Any food left behind in restaurants is dumped in the trash. You probably scrape most leftovers at home into the trash too.

At home, only put what you can eat on your plate; if you're still hungry, you can have seconds. In restaurants, consider sharing an entree or request a lunch size version. If you have leftovers, take them home in a "doggie bag," and eat them the next day.

Freeze Foods

Freezing foods is a great way to prevent food waste. Most foods can be frozen--from fresh or blanched produce and herbs, to meat, poultry, butter, milk, cheese, and even baked goods. Keep a stash of freezer bags and freezer storage containers handy so you can pop extra food into your freezer as needed. Be sure to remove excess air from the bag and write the date on the container. When stored properly, frozen foods last several months.

Donate Food

Donating food is one of the best ways to avoid food waste because you're helping members of your community in need. Most food banks and homeless shelters are desperate for food donations and accept perishable and non-perishable foods. Many schools and churches hold food collection drives several times a year. This is a great time to inventory your pantry and donate what you can't use. To help you find places to donate food in your community, Feeding America has a website which allows you to search for food banks by zip code or state.

Ask the management of your local restaurants, bakeries, and grocery stores about how they dispose of unused food. If it gets dumped each day, tell them about Food Donation Connection, an organization which connects restaurants to needy food banks.

Make Baby and Toddler Food

Woman filling tray with baby food

Buying jar after jar of baby and toddler food not only gets expensive, but jars often goes to waste. Making homemade baby and toddler food is not only healthier for your kids, especially if you use organic produce, but a great way to use up extra food.

All you need to get started are a few common kitchen tools and whatever foods you choose such as fruits, vegetables, and meats. You can make pureed food for babies and chunkier foods for toddlers. Freezing homemade baby food is another option to reduce food waste.

Throw A Party

If you're stuck with a lot of food that will go to waste, throw a dinner- or game-day party. It's a great excuse to have a fun evening with friends and family. Casseroles, chilis, and soups are good options to use up a lot of food at once.

Feed Your Dogs

Dogs love leftovers. While you don't want to overdo, if you combine a bit of diced meat, fish, or produce with dry food, your dogs will thank you. Not all foods should be given to pets though. According to Cesar's Way, it's safe for dogs to eat some foods like cooked chicken, yogurt, eggs, apples, and even oatmeal. Add to your dog's dry food or make your own home cooked dog food.

Do not give dogs foods that contain sugar alcohols or artificial ingredients such as xylitol; processed foods; grapes or raisins; onions; chocolate, or foods that are greasy, contain bones, or are overly rich.

Cats also enjoy leftover cooked meat or fish. Never feed cats raw meat, fish, or eggs. If you have questions about which foods are safe for your pets, consult your veterinarian.

Save Money and the Environment

If everyone took steps to reduce food waste, they'd have more change in their pockets and help save the environment. It's easy to cut back. It just takes a little planning and a few minutes of time. Reducing waste in your home and donating food to those in need helps your family and your community become healthier and stronger.

How to Reduce Food Waste