Food waste in the United States costs companies billions and families thousands of dollars each year. This doesn’t even take into account the energy used to transport commodities or the water and land used to grow crops. The impact all of this has on the environment, through wasted resources and overfilled landfills, is enormous. On a personal level, if you are a starving artist, you cannot afford to throw food away.
Food waste takes place at every step in the supply chain from growers and shippers to grocery stores and restaurants, as well as our own homes. We may have little control of how many imperfect peaches never make it to the produce department, but we can limit the amount of food we waste by planning better, buying smarter and storing, freezing and using leftovers to minimize waste. It will be better for the environment and our own bank accounts if we follow a few simple rules.
Food Waste Facts
Here are a few statistics provided by the Natural Resources Defense Council in their 2012 report Wasted: How America is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm To Fork to Landfill
- Forty percent of the food supply in the United States is wasted annually. The value of this uneaten food is about $165 billion.
- The average family of four in the US throws away roughly $2,275 worth of food every year.
- Food waste is the largest solid waste component in our country’s landfills
- The US has seen a 50 percent increase in food waste in the past forty years
- Reducing food waste by 15 percent would create enough surplus to feed 25 million people each year
Here are some tips to help you cut down on the amount of food (and money) you throw away.
Plan Better, Buy Less
A little planning can help you save money at checkout and helps cut down on the amount of food that gets thrown away. Plan out your weekly meals. Make enough soup, sauce or casseroles to freeze, then thaw them out as needed. Make use of condiments and things you may already have in your pantry or cupboards such as grains or pasta. Take visual inventory before you shop so you don’t buy more of what you already have. Make a shopping list before you go to the store.
I love to make lists, it keeps me from procrastinating, and that includes shopping lists. Having a plan when you go grocery shopping is key to avoiding overspending on stuff you don’t need, and of course, never do your food shopping when you’re hungry. Stick to the list you made (the one you’ve based on your meal plan) and avoid impulse buys.
Have a plan for leftovers too. You’re an artist, so create new recipes to incorporate those leftovers. Throw them in a stew or make chili. Don’t overeat just to get rid of food, that may be tempting, but it doesn’t really help anyone.
Don’t Live by the Sell by Date
Do sell by, use by and best by dates really matter? Are they simply suggestions? This can be tricky for many people, but it’s really just a mental block that you need to overcome. A good rule of thumb is, “when in doubt, throw it out.” When dairy, meat or fish turns bad, you’ll know by the smell. Fruits and vegetables won’t keep their expiration dates a secret either. For packaged goods dates can be misleading. Dating food gives consumers the assurance they are buying fresh and it helps retailers rotate stock better, but a product that is past the ‘best by’ date is likely to be perfectly fine to eat. Retailers may reduce the price on these items as they approach these dates so don’t be afraid to take advantage of those bargains.
Here is a brief summary of what these dates mean:
The use-by date is intended to give consumers an idea of when the product should be eaten in terms of best quality. It is not an expiration date. This date is determined by the manufacturer.
The sell-by date is intended as a guide for retailers so they know when to rotate stock and perhaps discount the price to move product. It is also NOT an expiration date and if it’s in your cupboard it is safe to eat, provided of course that is has been stored properly and passes the smell test.
Best if Used By
The ‘best if used by’, or ‘best if used before date’, is not an expiration date either and many would argue that it does more harm than good. It simply adds to consumer confusion and results in food getting pitched prematurely.
Buy Fresh, Eat Fresh
Yes, you should be eating less processed food. That means less canned and frozen entrees, et cetera, but when buying fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and fish, there is a higher risk of food waste. Fresh needs to be eaten sooner than later. If you make a point of buying fresh, have a plan to use it. Don’t buy according to what you’d like to eat, buy according to what you will eat.
Freeze it, Store It!
You can’t freeze everything, but there are many food items you can freeze and thaw out as needed. Some of the food items you can freeze may surprise you (fresh citrus fruit, raw eggs, potato chips!). You can read more about freezable food commodities here.
Proper food storage is important for the pantry, cupboards and the refrigerator too. Food items should be kept in airtight containers. Invest in a good food storage set. It will save you money in the end. Glass is better than plastic and they’ll last longer. Save those plastic produce bags and twist ties from the grocery store and reuse them for tight storage on food at home.
Exercise Some Shelf Control
Use your fridge wisely. Heat rises, of course, so this means the higher the refrigerator shelf, the warmer it will be. Keep this in mind when stocking your fridge. Use the top shelf for drinks and leftovers. Use the crisper for fruits and veggies. Keep condiments in the door and you’re good to go. Basically, use the refrigerator as it was designed and you’ll be one step ahead of the game.
Some food does not last longer in the refrigerator. Tomatoes and onions—don’t refrigerate them until after you’ve sliced and diced them. Refrigerating bread will dry it out and make it go stale faster. It might take me a week or more to go through a loaf of bread. The solution, I freeze it and thaw out a slice or two at a time.
I hope this post helps you cut down on the amount of food you throw away. It will save you money in the near-term and the long run. Let me know your own ideas and check out the books below to learn more about the negative effects of waste.
Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal
Tristram Stuart is a UK-based author, one-time dumpster diver and committed food activist. Waste mostly concerns Britain’s food waste issues, although not entirely, and many of the problems Stuart draws attention to are universal. At any rate, I recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn about food waste.
by Derf Backderf
Trashed isn’t just about food waste, it’s about ALL the waste we throw away every day. The best part of this book is it’s a graphic novel so you can read a comic while you learn. There’s a story line as well. You can checkout my review of the book here. If you are unfamiliar with Derf he is the creator of the long running comic strip “The City,” as well as the graphic novel My Friend Dahmer which is being made into a movie.