Simple Strategies for Preventing Food Waste

— Written By Tracy Davis
en Español / em Português

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person scraping food scraps into trash canEvery day, households, schools, institutions, and businesses throw leftover table scraps and food preparation waste into the garbage. Food – whether it is being grown, harvested, prepared, served, or consumed – always creates waste.

Farmers are sometimes forced to leave food unharvested in the field due to low market prices, high labor costs, and a market that demands perfect-looking produce. Grocery stores and restaurants waste food as they try to anticipate ever-changing consumer demand. Consumers waste food in their homes because of inefficient shopping and cooking practices, misunderstanding of date labels, and under-use of backyard composting.

The land allocated to grow food, the use of scarce resources like water to make it grow, the fossil fuels used to ship it, and the space used to store it are all wasted when food ends up in a landfill. Approximately 21 percent of the United States’ fresh water supply and nearly 300 million barrels of oil are used to produce food that goes to waste. Uneaten food is the largest contributor of solid waste in our landfills, and once in a landfill, food waste is a significant emitter of methane. The negative consequences of wasting food extend beyond the environmental impacts. At the same time we are wasting 40 percent of our food supply, 1 in 7 Americans suffer from food insecurity.

Food is wasted at all levels of the food system, therefore, everyone has a role to play in reducing waste. Experts in the field of waste recovery recommend a hierarchy of steps, from most to least preferred, to help consumers and communities deal with food waste. Source reduction and prevention is the most preferred strategy since this method prevents food waste before it is generated.

There are many ways for consumers to put waste prevention into practice. Before going out to purchase food, shop from your own refrigerator and pantry first. Cook and eat what you already have at home before buying more. If you often throw away perishable food because it spoils before you can use it, buy less of those foods next time. Make a list before you go shopping and buy only the items on your list. Choose foods in the amounts or sizes that you realistically need and will use. Buying in bulk only saves money if you are able to use all the food before it spoils. Plan menus that intentionally use leftovers, such as grilled chicken one night and quesadillas another night using leftover chicken. Include a “use-up” day in your meal plan one night per week. Recipes for soups, stews, pasta and stir-fry dishes work well for using up whatever is left in the refrigerator, freezer, or pantry.

Storing food properly increases its shelf life. Fruits and vegetables such as potatoes, onions, and apples will keep longer if stored in cool, dark, and dry conditions. Refrigerated foods should be kept at 34-38 degrees and frozen foods at 0 degrees. Maintaining these temperatures significantly extends a food’s storage life. A refrigerator/freezer thermometer kept inside the appliance at all times makes it easy to check and maintain proper temperatures.

Understanding the purpose of dates on food packages can avoid waste as well. A “best by” date, sometimes called a freshness date, tells you how long a food will be at best quality if it is stored properly. After that date, the product is still safe to eat, but may not taste as fresh. Canned, boxed, bagged, and bottled foods often carry best-by dates. A “sell by” date is the last day a food should be sold at the grocery store. Most foods will still be fresh and safe to eat for about a week after the sell by date. This type of dating is often seen on fresh meat and dairy products. An “expiration” date is the last day a food should be consumed and may not be safe to eat after the date has passed. A good example is baby formula.

Before throwing food away, think about other ways it could be used. For example, stale bread could be made into croutons by simply cutting the bread into cubes, placing on a baking sheet, and baking in the oven at 300 degrees for 10-15 minutes. Stale bread can also be turned into toasted breadcrumbs for coating meats or topping casseroles. The parts of vegetables that are usually discarded, like celery tops and carrot peelings, can be used to make vegetable stock. Fruits and vegetable scraps can also be composted. Compost creates a nutrient-rich amendment for soil. It’s a great way to keep kitchen scraps out of the garbage and save money on potting soil.

With thought and effort, each of us can reduce food waste. It’s good for our wallets and good for the planet. For additional resources on food waste, contact your local Cooperative Extension office.