27 Ways to Reduce Food Waste at Home and Why it Matters

Eating

Did you know an estimated 30-40% of the food supply in the U.S. becomes food waste according to the USDA? Although food waste is a worldwide issue, the U.S. discards more food than any other country in the world, 40 million tons (80 billion pounds) to be exact. Wasted food is the largest category of material in municipal landfills and represents a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, thus having a substantial impact on global climate change. The World Wildlife Foundation found that without food waste about 11% of all greenhouse gas emissions from the global food system would be eliminated.

While global food waste can seem like a distant problem, individual homes represent the largest source of that waste in terms of dollars, resulting in major economic consequences for individuals and families. According to Forbes, American households spend roughly $1,800+ a year on food that ends up being wasted.

If you’re filling your garbage bin with containers of expired food or fresh vegetables that went limp before you used them, you’re wasting valuable resources. No matter how you slice it, groceries are a financial investment. From leafy greens to freshly baked bread to meat and fish, it pays to make the most of your purchases. Knowing how to reduce food waste is not only more sustainable for the environment, but it will also help you be more efficient with your time in the kitchen, too. With ideas for menu planning, food prep and better food storage, these food waste solutions will make your paydays and produce stretch further.

Be Aware of Food Waste in Your Home

Ask yourself, what are the most commonly tossed foods in my house? Think about things like the nubby end of a loaf of bread, sauce left in the bottom of a jar, expired yogurt, luncheon meat, forgotten leftovers, wilted greens, etc. If you’re not sure what you waste, keep a journal for a week and honestly record what gets tossed out that could have been eaten if it were stored or prepared differently.

Becoming aware of our habits and considering alternatives is a good first step.

Take Inventory and Plan Ahead

Before heading to the grocery store, take inventory of what items you already have in your pantry, fridge, and freezer. It’s best to rotate through all your freezer foods and pantry items every three to six months for best quality and nutrition. If you’ve had a food item for more than a year, plan a way to use it tonight. It’s ok to stock up, but remember to use those items in your meal planning.

Plan a Menu

Before you go to the grocery store, plan your menus for the week. Planning ahead helps you have everything you need on hand (also preventing extra trips to the store), allows you to prepare some foods in advance for faster meal prep later, and can also fit leftovers into your menu plans.

Try to stop food waste by incorporating perishable goods already at home in your food selections. And don’t forget to consult your calendar (to make sure you’ll be home or don’t have dinner plans) so that you’re planning to cook the right number of meals and portions.

Once you’ve got a plan, create a grocery list to support the menus. This way, the food you buy is already designated for a specific meal. This can also help eliminate impulse purchases at the store.

Stick to the List

By creating a grocery list you’ll be less likely to stray from the necessities or buy more than you need. Buying more food than you can eat is one of the biggest contributions to food waste at home.

Buy for Your Family Size

If you are a family of four, buy for your family. If you live alone, be realistic and don’t go for the “two for one” deal when you know you won’t eat it all on your own. It isn’t worth it if you’re going to throw out half of your purchases because you can’t eat everything.

Think Before You Bulk Buy

We love a good deal as much as the next person, but when it comes to food shopping don’t overload your cart with random items you don’t need. Remember, the five dollar bag of avocados is only a steal if you use them all up before they go bad. If you must buy ingredients in bulk, make sure it’s something you’re going to use up or something that can last a long time. The same principle applies for “on sale” items; if you are likely not going to use it, even the sale price can be a waste of money.

Understand Food Labels and Dates

“Best by,” “use by,” “sell by,”….what does it all mean? The confusion around expiration dates is why more than 80% of Americans discard perfectly good, consumable food with the fear that the food may cause potential foodborne illness.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) breaks down food product dating phrases as follows:

  • A “Best If Used By/Before” date indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • A “Sell By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. If it is not a safety date.
  • A “Use By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It is not a safety date, except for when used on infant formula.
  • A “Freeze By” date indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.

FSIS says that a food product (with the exception of infant formula) should still be safe, if handled properly, until the time spoilage is evident. Signs of spoilage to look for include an off odor, flavor, or texture in which case the food should not be eaten.

Organize Storage with FIFO

Another efficient way of reducing food waste follows the first in, first out (FIFO) rule. When you store leftovers in your refrigerator, you can label them with dates and place them in front of new items.

Additionally, when you purchase duplicate items at the grocery store, you may stack them behind the food with the earlier use by date.

Keep It All in Sight

Keep foods that go bad quickly in sight. If they’re hidden in the back of your fridge you’re more likely to forget about them and let them rot. You’ll be less likely to forget about things you mean to cook and more likely to toss the things you do have into meals.

Save Veggie Scraps and Bones for Broth

After you roast a chicken and pull all the good bits off, put the carcass in a pot with some water and make your own chicken stock.

Keep a container in the freezer to collect carrot ends, onions ends and skins, wilted bits of celery, bits of pepper, herb stems, and any other broth-worthy scraps. When the container is full, simmer in a pot or water for a few hours (or overnight in the slow cooker) to make delicious vegetable broth.

Keep Produce Dry

Extend the life of fruits and vegetables by refraining from washing until you’re ready to use them; too much moisture on produce can cause premature decay and send food to the trash.

Know Where Eggs Belong

The door of the fridge is the warmest spot, so don’t keep your eggs there; they’ll go bad much more quickly. Keep them in the main part of the fridge for the longest shelf life.

Shop Ugly

Lots and lots of “ugly” produce gets thrown away by grocery stores because of weird shapes or small imperfections. Buying produce that isn’t picture perfect helps divert that food waste and keeps it away from landfills. It can also save you money if the grocery store puts it on sale.

Invest in Containers

If you have plenty of reusable containers on hand in many sizes, it’ll be easier for you to save leftovers, even if they’re small.

Get Pickling

Pickling is great for saving old veggies and adding nutritional value in the process. And you can pickle more than just cucumbers! A quick brine of water, salt, vinegar, and some spices can complement green beans, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, asparagus, and onions, just to name a few.

Use Leftovers

Embrace leftovers! If you don’t like the idea of simply reheating last night’s dinner, rework leftovers into a new meal. Use individual items like vegetables, rice, pasta, or meat as the starting point for a new meal. They work especially well in soups. Pasta sauces, curries, stews, shepherds pie, sandwiches, omelets, fried rice…the list goes on.

Save the Stems

Don’t toss your herb stems; they’re still packed with flavor. Woody ones like rosemary and thyme can be tossed in with roasted vegetables or roasted chicken, while tender stems from cilantro and parsley can be chopped up and used just like the leaves. 

Keep Garlic Going For Longer

Peel garlic cloves and store them in the fridge in oil; they’ll keep for much longer and won’t dry out.

Freeze As You Go

Freeze food that’s not at its peak before it spoils. If you notice that you have produce or meat on hand that you won’t get to cook before it’s bad, just freeze it for later use.

Make Tea

Steep fruit peels and rinds in hot water for a few minutes and add a bit of honey for a flavorful, fruity tea that makes use of what you normally throw away.

Save Liquids for Later

Everyone thinks about freezing food, but what about beverages? If you have leftover coffee in the morning you might be pouring dollars down the drain. Instead, pour coffee into ice cube trays and freeze. The same goes for coffee creamer, milk, and half and half. Use them later for homemade coffee-house-style frozen drinks and iced coffees. You not only get the most out of a costly grocery item, but you cut down on that high price coffee beverage from your favorite coffee joint.

Leftover fruit juices can be frozen, too. Use these fruity cubes for smoothies, popsicles, slushy drinks for the kids, or cocktails for the adults. These are a great substitute for regular ice cubes so that they don’t water down your drink.

Plate Food Mindfully

Portions in the U.S. are generally much bigger than those in other places around the world. This can lead to waste when we don’t eat everything on our plate simply because we served too much. Our knee-jerk reaction is to toss whatever is left on the plate, so think ahead to try to reduce what’s left.

Pay attention to how much you are serving your family. Try putting a little less on the plate if your kids are constantly ending a meal with food left over. You can always serve seconds.

Don’t Buy Cheap Food

Most people will rush out to buy the latest expensive cell phone technology, but balk at the price of a pound of apples. Food gives us the nutrients we need to thrive. We live in a culture that believes food should be cheap and when we don’t value food it’s easier to toss it. Buying good quality organic food means you might make more of an effort to use it.

Share

If you prepared too much food, or you went a little overboard at the grocery store, share with your friends and family. It’s a fact that not many people will say no to free food.

Donate

It’s a sad reality, but there are many people in our communities who face food insecurity every day. If you have extra food that you know will go to waste if you don’t eat it, it’s a great idea to donate to a local food pantry, shelter, church program, or school.

Make It Fun

Reducing food waste can be turned into a game in your house. This can be an exciting endeavor instead of a stressful or guilt-ridden task. Try to keep a light attitude, but embrace the challenge. Maybe you can weigh your food waste each week and see if you can reduce the waste with little changes.

Compost

When you feel you’ve exhausted every option, put your food waste in your compost pile. Many cities now offer curbside compost collection, which makes it much easier for us to compost than ever before.

And if you live in a small apartment, the thought of food scraps on your counter can seem like a nightmare. Just freeze ‘em and find a local compost drop, like a community garden or farmer’s market.

But make an effort for this to be your last resort, not your first.

Start Reducing Your Own Food Waste

We hope these tips help you and your family reduce the amount of food waste at home. Remember, 30-40% of food is wasted each year in the U.S. Don’t throw your hard earned food budget into the trash. Reducing waste at home is mostly about mindset and the planning, and the bonus is that we get to be a little bit kinder to our planet too.