According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the average American family of four throws away roughly $1,500 worth of food every year. Household food waste might include uneaten leftovers, expired pantry essentials, or produce gone bad. This tendency to throw out food contributes to a larger problem.
Over one-third of all food produced in the U.S. goes to waste, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). And 60% of that unwanted food ended up in landfills in 2019—that’s more than 130 billion pounds. While this is a bigger problem than any individual consumer can tackle, there are changes every household can make to help mitigate food waste.
What Is Food Waste?
Food waste refers to edible food thrown away or kept for so long it expires—and it creates a problem far beyond filling up the landfills.
Wasted food creates a higher demand for food production, which means farmers have to clear more forests for agriculture and apply more pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers.
In the United States, 30% to 40% of the food supply is wasted. Excess household food waste “requires more frequent pickup, which generates added transportation emissions,” says Alannah Hardcastle, the social impact manager of the climate action group Random Acts of Green. “It’s also worth considering how our current food systems could be altered to help combat world hunger.”
The Benefits of Reducing Food Waste
Helping the environment is just one of the many benefits of reducing food waste. When you spend money on food you throw away, you’re essentially throwing that money away. The less food we toss out, the less we have to buy to replace it. By reducing the amount of food wasted, we can also increase the world’s food supply without increasing production. This would help to ensure there’s enough food to meet the needs of the world’s growing population.
When we waste food, we aren’t just discarding the end product. We’re also discarding the resources needed to produce it, including farmland, water, and the energy sources used to transport, process, and store food. Each year, enough water and energy to supply more than 50 million homes is used to produce food that ends up wasted, according to the EPA. Reducing our food waste leads to more efficient use of multiple resources.
Having a lot of leftover food waste in your garbage can also make for unpleasant odors that can attract unwelcome visitors. Pests such as cockroaches, wasps, and rodents are attracted to decomposing food, so eliminating your food waste may also reduce the risk of having to call a pest control company.
20 Ways To Reduce Food Waste in Your Home
We’ve discussed why reducing food waste is important, but things are often easier said than done. Below are 20 tips for reducing food waste in your home.
1. Plan Your Meals
Planning your meals is one of the best ways to ensure you don’t over-buy food. Make a reasonable meal plan before you head to the store, and try to plan a few meals that use the same ingredients so you know you’ll use everything you purchase.
2. Make a Shopping List
A shopping list can help you stay focused at the grocery store. After making a meal plan, create an inventory of your fridge and pantry. Note what you already have and make a list of things you need. When you get to the grocery store, stick to the list and avoid impulse purchases.
3. Buy in Smaller Quantities
While buy-one-get-one deals are appealing, they only save you money if you’ll actually eat the extra food. The same applies to buying in bulk. If you have a large household or plan to cook for others, go for it. Otherwise, stick to the amount of food you know you’ll eat.
4. Store Food Properly
Many packaged foods have labels with proper storage instructions. Here are some basics for maintaining freshness:
- Store potatoes, onions, and garlic in a cool, dry, dark place with good airflow
- Store leafy veggies in your fridge’s high-humidity drawer
- Store rot-prone veggies, such as mushrooms and peppers, in the low-humidity drawer
- Wait to wash produce until you’re about to use it
- Use food storage containers with tight seals.
5. Organize Your Pantry and Fridge
Try to set up your food storage spaces so you can see everything. Staying organized will help you keep a running inventory of what you have on hand and track what you might be over-purchasing.
6. Practice FIFO (First In, First Out)
Rotate your food items and place newer groceries behind older ones to help you use up the older items before they expire. It will also help you make informed purchases moving forward because you’ll learn how often you use ingredients.
7. Get Creative With Leftovers
With the right planning, last night’s leftovers can take on new life at lunchtime. When you store leftovers, portion out enough for lunch the next day. Leftover ingredients such as pasta or veggies are easy to incorporate into other meals.
8. Preserve Excess Produce
Freezing is a zero-cost option for no-fuss preservation. Label the container with the date you put it in the freezer. Even frozen items have a shelf life.
9. Use the Whole Ingredient
If a recipe only calls for half an onion, go ahead and chop the whole onion. You can freeze half to use later in another dish.
10. Practice Portion Control
Portion control means adding an appropriate amount of food to your plate. While we often consider this a dietary strategy, it also helps reduce waste. Smaller portions on your plate mean you’ll throw out less food after a meal.
11. Donate to Food Banks
If you won’t be able to use up items in your pantry before expiration dates start rolling in, donate them to a local food bank. Try to do this before any trips out of town to ensure you don’t come home to a pantry full of stale food.
12. Compost Food Scraps
Composting involves saving food scraps to use in your garden. It’s a great way to dispose of the inedible parts of produce. Learn more about composting.
13. Reuse Packaging
Food waste doesn’t just involve food but also the various containers needed to transport and store it. Use resealable tubs to store leftovers and jars to preserve food for future use. Use reusable produce and grocery bags wherever possible.
14. Shop Consciously
Shopping consciously means paying more attention at the grocery store. Don’t get distracted by cravings or advertisements for food you don’t need. Your grocery list will come in handy here.
15. Check expiration dates
Check expiration dates before you buy, and make sure you’ll be able to use the food according to the date. Also, note the different dates listed on food packaging:
- “Expires” means you shouldn’t use the products past these dates
- “Best by” and “use by” refer to optimal freshness. You can generally eat the food past this date, but it might not taste as fresh
- “Sell by” is intended for merchants rather than consumers. There’s wiggle room for using these foods after that date
- “Pack date” is when the food was packaged and doesn’t indicate a deadline but can be used to determine optimal freshness.
16. Learn Preservation Techniques
Food preservation techniques include freezing, canning, pickling, and dehydrating or drying. Each method has pros and cons that depend on your preferences and habits. Regardless of your chosen techniques, preserving food is a great option to reduce waste.
17. Share Meals With Others
If you overdo it and end up with a lot of extra food, phone a friend. Invite someone for dinner, ask your neighbors if you can bring them leftovers, or surprise your coworkers with a snack.
18. Monitor and Track Waste
If you want to be thorough about managing your household's food waste, you can start to track your household waste. Apps such as NoWaste can help you keep tabs on your food habits.
19. Educate Children
If you have kids, teach them the importance of eating responsibly. We don’t mean the old tactic of “there are starving children in the world, so eat your peas.” Have your kids help you take inventory of your pantry and check expiration dates. Give them some say in the meal plan and explain why it’s important. If you have a garden, let the kids lend a hand.
20. Spread the Word
Share your knowledge and experiences with friends, family, and social media to inspire others to reduce food waste in their homes.
Food waste is a global problem that has many negative impacts on the environment and our wallets. Taking small steps to reduce food waste in your own home can save you money and help solve a larger worldwide challenge.
Note: Content for this post was provided by This Old House.