8 Small Ways to Actually Cut Down on Your Food Waste
It’s an unfortunate truth, but a good portion of our groceries end up in the garbage. That’s why taking the time to understand ways to reduce food waste is so important.
Tossing the last of the berries that turned moldy or the container or half-eaten leftovers might not seem like a huge deal. But all those little bits can add up to a lot of extra waste.
Between 30% and 40% of the U.S. food supply goes to waste, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.And the vast majority of those ingredients go straight to the landfill, generating massive amounts of greenhouse gases like methane that contribute to global warming, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says.
Our food-waste problem is happening pretty much everywhere in the U.S., including on farms, in supermarkets, and at restaurants. But it’s also happening in our homes. “All those fridge clean-outs and scraped plates add up,” Dana Gunders, executive director of ReFed, a national nonprofit dedicated to fighting food waste, tells SELF.
In fact, Americans throw away $165 billion in wasted food every year, according to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a nonprofit environmental action group. “There’s no way we can make a meaningful dent in our food waste without people wasting less in their homes,” Gunders says.
And there are plenty of ways to reduce food waste. Here are eight strategies to use up more of the food you have and keep excess from making its way into your kitchen. Added bonus: They’re all easy enough to start ASAP.
1. Stick to a shopping list—and fill it with versatile ingredients.
It sounds almost deceptively simple, but just committing to buying only the ingredients you know you’ll need can go a long way toward keeping extra food (and your grocery bill) from piling up, the U.S Food and Drug Administration says.
That’s not to say you have to plan out every single thing you’ll cook or eat. “Having some go-to meals that are vehicles for those random veggies helps to ensure that they all get used. Some of ours are lentil soup, bhaji (an Indian veggie dish), and quesadillas,” Trishna Saigal, founder of Down to Cook, which upcycles aging vegetables into plant-based meat alternatives, tells SELF. And choosing groceries that you know you have tons of use for—say, ground beef you can use to make burgers or a bolognese sauce, or butternut squash you can roast or purée into a soup—can make sure you use them up before they go bad.
2. Go for frozen.
There are some instances where fresh produce really is best. (Frozen strawberries will turn mushy in a fruit salad, for instance.) But often frozen fruits and veggies work just as well for things like smoothies, stir-fries, and soups. And since they stay good for months and months, leaning on them more heavily could help consumers cut their food waste nearly in half, research in the Proceedings of the Nutrition Society suggests.
And you don’t need to worry about taking a nutritional hit if you go for frozen over fresh: According to the USDA, the freezing process doesn’t destroy any nutrients.
3. Store your food so it stays fresh for as long as possible.
The longer you can keep your food fresh, the less likely it is to go bad and get tossed before you can eat it. Part of that is about getting savvy on the best way to store different ingredients. (The NRDC’s interactive food-storage guide is a great place to start.)
For instance, you can refrigerate ripe avocados to keep them at their peak for up to five days. And did you know that apples can stay fresh up to 10 times longer (as long as six weeks!) when you keep them in the fridge instead of on the counter?
But it’s also about being real about your eating habits. Washing and chopping lettuce days before you plan to eat it can actually cause it to go bad more quickly, Kate Bratskeir, author of A Pocket Guide to Sustainable Shopping, tells SELF. “On the other hand, if washing and chopping ahead of time makes you more likely to eat it, then you should prep in advance,” she says. “Whatever action will keep the food from being wasted is the move for you.”
4. Eat older food first.
Think of this as first in, first out: Reach for foods that have been sitting around longer first so you can use them before they go bad. Set aside a front-and-center spot in the fridge for items that’ll only last a few more days so you won’t lose track, recommends the FDA. When you bring new groceries in, rotate your older stock to the front and put the newer stuff in the back.
Doing a quick regular sweep can help. “Consider doing a little fridge organization every morning, so you have an idea of what’s available to cook for dinner later in the day,” Bratskeir says. But if every day seems too overwhelming, once or twice a week will make a difference too.
5. Share what you can’t use.
Come across something in the fridge or pantry that’s still fresh, but that you know you won’t be able to use up? Maybe you bought a new fruit or veggie to try and didn’t end up liking it, an unexpected takeout night left you with some extra ingredients, or you’re just clearing out the fridge. Hey, life happens sometimes! But that still doesn’t mean the food has to end up trashed. Just share it with someone else, ideally in a no-contact way if it’s someone outside of your household.
Offer the food up to a neighbor, post it on your local Buy Nothing group, or try the food-sharing app Olio. “I’ve used it before going on vacation. I didn’t want any food to go to waste, so I gave it to a person in my community,” Stephanie Seferian, host of The Sustainable Minimalists podcast, tells SELF.
6. Get creative with what you’ve got.
It can be as easy as playing ingredient musical chairs to prioritize stuff that you should use ASAP. “If a recipe calls for spinach but you have some older kale lying around, consider using the kale for the same recipe and saving the spinach for another day,” says Bratskeir.
But that’s just the beginning. Store veggie odds and ends that you won’t use (like herb stems or carrot peels) in the freezer until you have enough to simmer in water to make a broth; toss potato peels with olive oil and salt, and bake to make chips; add overripe fruit to a smoothie; or add carrot fronds to pesto, Seferian recommends.
7. Don’t automatically throw food away based on expiration dates.
Ever tossed a half-full carton of milk or eggs just because it was a day or two past the expiration date? You’re not alone. Confusion over those little date stamps is responsible for 20% of consumer food waste, the FDA says.
The truth is that best-by, sell-by, and use-by dates really just indicate when a food is at its peak of freshness—not whether it’s safe to eat, the USDA notes. (The one exception is infant formula, FYI. It’s best to follow those expiration dates strictly.) In other words, you’re better off going with your gut than living by the date stamp. According to the USDA, a product should still be safe to eat after its date has passed as long as it shows no characteristics of spoilage, like an off flavor, odor, or texture.
On the other hand, if it seems weird or off, you should toss it even if the date implies that it should still be good. (These tips can also help you determine whether your food has gone bad.)
8. Buy produce that doesn’t look perfect.
Plenty of produce gets tossed on farms or at the supermarket just for being misshapen or physically imperfect—even though it’s perfectly safe (and tasty) to eat, says the FDA. Buying up these uglies is an easy way to keep them out of the landfill, and there are plenty of ways to do it.
“I’d suggest being less vain about the food you buy in the places you’re already buying it, be it the supermarket or the farmer’s market,” Bratskeir says. Scan the carrots or berries for the weird-looking bunch or container and toss it into your cart.
If you see only the perfect stuff around, try asking if the store or farmer’s market seller has any misfits they’d be willing to sell you. Some will—possibly at a discounted price, the FDA notes. So not only can you be saving some tasty veggies from the trash, but you can also be saving some cash on dinner too.
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