21 Simple Ways to Reduce Food Waste
In the face of non-stop bad climate news, eating those last apples in the fruit bowl may seem futile. It's not.
The unrelenting bad climate news can leave us feeling depressed, paralyzed and resigned to the worst. And, yes, industry and its PR team of politicians are to blame for much of this mess. However, we individuals can take one meaningful action immediately as we deal with the climate crisis: Eat the food we buy.
Rest assured, we will move on to some solutions to the food waste problem right after we get the bad news out of the way.
Up to 40 percent of the food we produce in the US goes uneaten. National Resources Defense Council
Worldwide, a third of the food we produce goes uneaten. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
Americans waste, on average, one pound of food per day per person. Guardian
If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, just behind the US and China. World Resources Institute
When food decomposes in landfill, it releases methane gas, a greenhouse gas that warms the planet at a rate 86 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 10- to 20-year period before decaying to CO2. Scientific American
Worldwide, food waste contributes 8 percent of all anthropogenic (manmade) greenhouse gas emissions. Project Drawdown
Wasted food squanders 21 percent of all the water used in US agriculture. National Resources Defense Council
By weight, food is the largest contributor to US landfills. National Resources Defense Council
1 in 8 people living in the US is food insecure. While this statistic doesn’t relate to emissions, I included it because it is obscene. National Resources Defense Council
Reducing food waste is—sometimes literally—the low-hanging fruit of combating climate change. The following solutions will take a huge bite out of the food waste problem at home.
1. Start a food waste audit
You will have a better idea of what you waste if you measure it. At the end of each day, jot down what food went to waste and why. If you discover that no one in your household likes your red velvet ketchup cake, you could stop baking it.
Or perhaps you find shriveled Romaine in the back of the refrigerator all too often. You may just need to plan your meals a bit (more on that later).
2. Use your senses
Do you think your leftovers in the refrigerator have gone south? Give them a sniff and take a look at them. If they smell okay and look okay, they probably are okay to eat. If not, compost them (see number 21).
With packaged food, make this same judgment rather than relying on the best-before, sell-by and use-by dates stamped onto the packaging. Generally unregulated, these dates do not indicate food safety. Rather, these suggested dates from the food manufacturer indicate the food company’s opinion of peak quality. In other words, they are often a marketing gimmick.
Best-before dates encourage people to waste food. Concerned they will poison themselves and their loved ones if they eat food a day past its best-before date, they regularly toss out perfectly edible food—and then proceed to buy more food.
3. Plan a few meals
Think of a dish or two you can make with the food you have on hand and make a list of any missing ingredients. What else would you like to eat within the next few days or week? Add the ingredients you’ll need for those dishes to your shopping list—and stick to that list when you shop. Go here for easy meal planning and a planner you can fill or download.
4. Shop the pantry and refrigerator first
If you use up food that you have on hand, then you’ll waste less of that food—and save money. Before you shop, take a quick glance through your pantry and refrigerator and make a mental note (or paper note or digital note) of what you find.
5. Buy less food
Many of us, when we see all the delicious food at the farmers’ market or grocery store, can’t resist it and buy too much. Or we vow to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables in a noble attempt to eat better—and we buy too much. Or we go shopping hungry. Generally, to waste less food, buy less food. If you can, also consider buying smaller amounts of food more frequently. This ensures your food will always be fresh. (Covid makes more frequent shopping difficult, however.)
6. Choose ugly fruit and vegetables
Some of the food we waste in the US never actually makes it to the store. Why? Because most grocery stores reject ugly produce—kinky carrots, oblong apples, misshapen potatoes. But thanks to awareness-raising movements like the “Ugly” Fruit and Veg Campaign, people have begun to discover that produce that doesn’t fit into the supermarket image of ideal beauty tastes delicious—and costs less.
Some grocery stores have begun to sell ugly produce. If you shop at the farmers’ market, however, much of the produce is wonky because that’s how fruit and vegetables grow. A few vendors at my farmers’ market sell cosmetically challenged apples, avocados and occasionally other types of produce for a deep discount. I sometimes can’t tell the difference between the supposedly ugly offerings and their “pretty” counterparts.
7. Do some prep work when you return home from shopping
Leafy greens like lettuce, kale and spinach tend to wilt quickly so I plan to eat them soon after I buy them and I prep them when I return home from the farmers’ market—ideally. I trim them, cut any large pieces into smaller ones, wash and then spin them around outside over my head in a clean cloth produce bag. I then put the bags of prepped and ready-to-eat greens in the vegetable crisper of the refrigerator. They stay fresh this way for a long time—at least a week.
8. Store food properly
Not everything needs to go—or should go—in the refrigerator. Cool temperatures render tomatoes mealy and bland. Apples, however, will keep longer in there than they will at room temperature. Citrus—oranges, grapefruit, lemons—can develop spots on their rinds in cool temperatures. Click here for my A to Z list of storing produce without plastic.
9. Store food in glass containers
If you store leftover lasagna in an opaque container, you may forget about it until you stumble upon its decomposing remains a month later in the back of the refrigerator. Store food in glass and you can see what you have at a glance.
10. Freeze excess food
If you have some food on your hands that will start to turn before you can eat it, freeze it. You can freeze all sorts of food—soup, bread, cooked beans, nuts, cheese, milk, blanched vegetables, roasted tomatoes, fruit (slice it, spread it out on a tray to freeze, then transfer to jars) and more. Click here for how to freeze food without using plastic.
11. When the time comes to buy a new refrigerator, consider choosing a smaller model
The Western diet, consisting of pre-packaged, processed convenience foods, does not require cooking skills. People used to preserve food through fermentation (see number 14), salting and smoking. They would put up food when it was plentiful in order to prepare for when it would not be.
Today, we rely on our refrigerators to prolong our food’s shelf-life, essentially preserving our food for us. And refrigerators—big energy hogs—just keep getting bigger and bigger. This trend affects our wallets, our health and our waste streams—all for the worse. Because the larger the refrigerator, the more food you buy, the more food you eat, and the much more likely some of the food stashed in the refrigerator will end up in the trash.
12. Learn to cook without a recipe
Forgo the recipes, learn how to cook a few endlessly versatile and simple dishes, add this and that, taste as you go and you won’t waste a morsel. Cooking this way—I call it freestyle cooking—may not result in Instagram-worthy meals but they will taste delicious. Click here for a pile of freestyle non-recipe recipes.
13. Cook extra food that can go into the next dish
Wait, what? I want you to cook more food?! Won’t that lead to more food waste, not less? Cooking and kitchen efficiency reduce food waste at the consumer level more than anything. But cooking takes time. If you always have something on hand to turn into something else, you’ll save precious time.
For example, when you cook rice to go with a broccoli tofu stir-fry, make extra rice and the next night, turn the leftover rice into fried rice. You won’t have to start from scratch every night, you’ll use your creativity and you’ll use everything up.
14. Preserve food
Fermentation not only makes food incredibly delicious, it also extends its shelf life. If you have excess cabbage on your hands, chop it, salt it and submerge it in its own juices for a few days, after which you’ll have sauerkraut, which keeps for many months. Lactic acid bacteria (LAB), which occur naturally on all vegetables and increase after harvest, perform this magical transformation. Click here for sauerkraut 101 and the recipe.
15. Save your scraps
Vegetable scraps for broth. Apple scraps for vinegar. Potato peels for frying up. Citrus peels for candy, zest, citrus salt, cleaning and more. Cooking with every last little bit makes cooking more fun and creative—and less expensive! Here are 15 creative uses for food scraps.
16. Eat the food
Yes, this is both obvious and simplified. But the problem of food waste is an edible one. We can eat the food. And although industry plays a huge role, a whopping 43 percent of food waste occurs in homes.
17. Serve less food
I have no idea what Covid Thanksgiving will look like this year but do you really need to cook an eight-course meal for it? And will you serve it on giant plates? Smaller plates translate into smaller portions which reduce the amount of food we can’t finish—and waste.
18. Stick to your meal plan and snack less
You can consume only so much food in a day. If you graze constantly in between mealtimes, you won’t be hungry for meals you planned and some of that food you carefully bought for those meals will go uneaten.
19. Eat meals at—and from—home
When we eat most of our meals at home (or from home when brown bagging it to work or school), we eat the food we have at home and waste less of it as a result. Covid has forced many of us to cook more at home.
Solutions: Feeding others or the soil
20. Give away excess food
Share your extra food with friends and neighbors. Or go online.
Apps and websites have made this easier to do. OLIO, a free app, “connects neighbours with each other and with local shops and cafés so that surplus food can be shared, not thrown away. Users of the app simply snap a picture of their items and add them to OLIO. Neighbours then receive customised alerts and can request anything that takes their fancy. Pick-up takes place at the home or store, an OLIO Drop Box, or another agreed location—usually on the same day.” Visit the website here.
Another site, Falling Fruit, provides a global map of free edible plants. Enter your address on the website and up pops a map with nearby locations for free foraging. When I first learned about this site and searched my area, hundreds of locations popped up within just a few miles of me. I was amazed. Use the site to either list or find food. Check out the website here.
Check out this list of organizations both diverting perfectly edible food from going to waste and sharing it.
21. When food goes bad, compost it
Ideally, we would eat all of the food we buy but… the best laid schemes of mice and men and all that.
Compacted in a landfill, food lacks exposure to air and so breaks down anaerobically, producing methane gas. Landfills emit this methane gas—a greenhouse gas much more potent than carbon dioxide—into the atmosphere. Food waste and food scraps do not belong in a landfill. Put that same food waste on a compost pile and it will sequester carbon while fertilizing the soil.
Can’t compost in your small apartment? There’s an app for that. ShareWaste is like Airbnb for your food scraps. You search the ShareWaste map for people accepting compost scraps where you live—or where you will be traveling to—and then you drop them off. Or you sign up to accept food scraps. All free, all volunteer run. This is the real sharing economy!
Finally, show food the respect it deserves
An overabundance of cheap, fast food coupled with a lack of knowledge about where food comes from foster little respect for what sustains us. The more we respect food, the less of it we waste. So plant a fruit tree, teach your kids how to tend a vegetable patch or get to know the hard-working people who grow our food.