Stop Food Waste Day offers an annual reminder that we all have a role to play in reducing food waste. But with 35% of all food going unsold or uneaten, sometimes the problem can seem too big for one person to do anything useful. It’s true that reaching the United States’s national goal of a 50% reduction in food waste by the year 2030 will require businesses, funders, policymakers, innovators, consumers, and more all working together to implement waste reduction solutions across the food system – there are things that you can do right in your own kitchen that can start to make a difference.
Our recent Insights Engine analysis found that consumers are still responsible for the majority of food being wasted. Why? Poor food management leads to spoilage and ultimately drives food waste in homes – and a typical shopper wastes hundreds of dollars each year on food that goes uneaten. Many consumer purchases are unplanned, which can lead to over-purchasing, and many families are tempted into bulk purchases of food they will never consume just to get a good deal on a “per-unit” basis. Many consumers also lack the knowledge of how to repurpose ingredients and store food properly. (It’s important to note that some of this is changing due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has driven consumers to prepare more meals at home, thereby helping to improve their food management and kitchen skills.) Misunderstanding of date labels often leads consumers to throw away food before it’s spoiled. And many consumers have limited access to municipal food waste recycling programs and perceive barriers to composting at home.
The good news is that it’s not hard to reduce the amount of food that goes to waste. The “Food Waste Five” are five easy-to-use strategies to get the most out of the food that you’re buying. They can help you implement a food waste reduction program in your own home:
Reduce the chances of buying food you don’t eat by thinking ahead a few days or a week to plan out your meals before you go to the grocery store – or order your groceries online, which can make it easier to avoid impulse purchases. If you’re buying food in bulk, plan out how to use all of it. One way is to consider “recipe trios” that all make use of the same item – for example, if you cook a roast chicken for dinner one night, plan to make chicken tacos the next night and chicken salad for lunch the following day. If you’re going to eat frozen pizza one night a week, plan for that too, so you don’t buy anything else for that night and end up not eating it.
Store Your Food Properly
Different foods need to be stored in different ways, and they’ll last a lot longer when they are stored right – for example, fresh herbs can be stored in a glass of water like flowers in your fridge; apples should be stored in the fridge, but oranges are fine on your counter; and bread should be wrapped in plastic or aluminum foil to retain its moisture. Some other foods are fine on the kitchen counter until they become ripe, and then they need to be transferred to the refrigerator. Do some easy online research to see how best to store food – you’ll be surprised how much longer it can last.
Use Your Freezer
Your freezer is a magic “pause” button to keep food fresh longer. Freezing food is a great way to extend its life – you can freeze most anything, cooked and uncooked (check online to see which is best for the foods you’re freezing). And an added benefit is when you don’t feel like cooking, you can just take something out of the freezer to heat up and eat.
Learn the Labels
The most common date labels are “best if used by,” “sell by” or “expires on” followed by a specific date – learning what labels really mean can save you from throwing something away when it’s still perfectly good to eat. It’s important to note that date labels typically refer to quality, not safety. (Major food industry groups have endorsed the use of “use by” to indicate when a product should be discarded for food safety reasons.) So use your best judgment – if a product looks good, smells good, and tastes good, it’s probably OK to consume.
As you’re planning ahead for what you’ll be eating for the week, plan in a day to “eat down” all of the leftovers and excess food in your fridge – separately, they might not be enough for a full meal, but together, they can be just right. Create a smorgasbord of leftovers for your family to graze on. Make meals like tacos, soups, and salads where you can be creative with a range of different ingredients. Some people like “Waste Less Wednesdays,” others go with “Stir-Fridays,” but whatever you call it, designate one day a week to use up what you’ve already purchased.
ReFED recommends SaveTheFood.com from the Natural Resources Defense Council for more information on how to make the food you buy last longer. It’s got a lot of great information – including meal plans, storage tips, recipes, and more.