Were you taught that you always had to finish the food on your plate because starving children didn’t have food to eat? Maybe you caught yourself saying that on occasion. Afterall, home food costs have risen substantially in the past year and in 2023 are expected to rise 8.0 percent. With these kinds of prices, families are more concerned with how they utilize the foods they purchase and want simple ways to reduce food waste.
Imagine there was a simple way to save your time and money and eat more nutritiously. It sounds almost too good to be true . . . but it isn’t. If there’s one thing that impacts our schedules, wallets, and health, it’s food. As a matter of national importance, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) doled out $10.2 million to fund pilot projects aimed at food waste reduction and composting in 2022.
If you’ve ever tossed out a container of yogurt that’s approaching its date, discarded veggies that have gone limp, or thrown out a salad that’s just starting to turn a bit brown around the edges, you’re not alone. While food waste is a worldwide phenomenon, the U.S. is a big contributor. Would you believe me if I told you that food takes up more space in U.S. landfills than any other type of waste? It’s unfortunate but true. Right here at home, up to 40 percent of the entire U.S. food supply goes to waste. That’s almost 20 pounds of food per person every month.
Imagine the time and money you could save using some helpful and effective strategies I share below.
Talking about and sharing solutions to food waste is important because there are a lot of less-than-helpful (and less-than-healthy) ideas out there. I want to share some of the best ones to boost your health while also saving you time and money. Before we dive into the solutions, let’s talk about some of the many benefits you could see by reducing food waste.
The impact of food waste is wide-ranging. The less food we waste, the more time and money we can save—and these are so very important in today’s day and age to reduce the stress of parenting we’re all feeling these days. By reducing the amount of food wasted, farmers can use less fresh water, land, fertilizers, etc. because they’re not producing food that’s going to be discarded. Reducing food waste also reduces the amount of food that needs to be processed, transported, and stored (sometimes in unrecyclable packaging and energy-intensive refrigerators and freezers). Plus, with less food waste, less space is used in landfills and less greenhouse gas is produced. Not to mention that there are a few not-as-obvious societal impacts that I’m going to discuss as well.
Let’s dive a bit deeper into each of these benefits of reducing food waste.
Leftovers may not be the most glamorous meals, but they allow you to cook (or buy) once and eat twice. This uses your precious time more efficiently because you’re not making a huge effort to decide what new meal or snack to make (or buy), and then spending even more time preparing (or heading to the store or restaurant). Plus, if you’re like me, spending less energy on multiple new meals every day before or after kids’ activities means less stress.
You probably don’t want to spend your hard-earned cash on something you’re not going to use—even when it comes to buying food—the amount of produce wasted by an average American family of four costs about $1,600 per year. Imagine what you could do with that amount of money by simply buying just what you need and are going to eat without unnecessary excess.
Save the environment
Reducing food waste helps us use critical resources like our land, water, fertilizers, packaging, transportation, storage, etc. much more efficiently. That’s because these investments will go toward food that we’re going to use and enjoy, not producing excess that’s going to be discarded. These efficiencies can help to reduce our environmental impact.
Throwing food away wastes not only the water and energy that went into all of the steps needed to get the food to you, but when it’s in a landfill, food waste releases greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 95 percent of discarded food ends up in landfills instead of compost.
Boost your relationships and community
When you share extra food with people you know and care about, you build relationships with them. Plus, plenty of people may need to use community services to access food. Sharing food with them can help increase food security in your community.
Now that you know some of the benefits of reducing food waste at home, here’s how to make it happen.
It’s true that food is wasted at every level from farm to fork. Farms, manufacturers, grocery stores, and restaurants all waste some of their food. While you may not be able to control these other areas, reducing your own food waste can make a sizeable difference. That’s because household food waste accounts for the biggest amount of food wasted at 43 percent—more than restaurants, grocery stores, and food service companies combined.
1 – Freeze food and enjoy your leftovers
Sometimes we buy or make too much food to eat in one day. As a registered dietitian nutritionist, I don’t want you to try to force yourself to eat more than you need to reduce your food waste. Instead, safely store uneaten food in a sealed container in your fridge or freezer, and then enjoy it another time as a “leftover.”
Pro tip: Be sure to pack up and safely store perishable food within 1-2 hours if it’s been sitting at room temperature.
Leftovers can also save you time and money when you’re super busy because you can quickly take a meal out of the fridge or freezer instead of spending the time and money to prepare or buy a whole new meal.
2 – Know your dates
One of the biggest reasons people throw away food is because they think it’s spoiled. This is understandable because no one wants to eat or serve food that has gone bad and may make them sick. Sometimes, the labeled date is not always clear because manufacturers may use different dates on their packages. To reduce confusion, the U.S. FDA is recommending the use of:
- “Best if used by” describes the quality of the food (not its safety); the food may not taste or perform as expected, but it’s still safe to consume as long as it was stored properly.
- “Expires on” is mainly reserved for infant formulas which should not be used beyond that date.
3 – Try “imperfect” or “ugly” food
Did you know that food is sometimes dumped because it doesn’t look “perfect” enough? Looking for “imperfect” or “ugly” food, or food that’s approaching it’s “Best if used by” date, is another way to save money and reduce food waste. Some markets and grocery stores package up food that may be “ugly” or not as fresh as their latest shipment and sell them at lower prices than the “perfect” food we’re used to seeing. Many of these imperfect foods can still be used in smoothies, soups, and baking.
Pro tip: Check to make sure the imperfect foods are still safely edible and are not spoiled; then, prioritize freezing or eating these foods first.
By choosing “imperfect” or “ugly” foods when you’re out shopping, you can help prevent them from going to waste while saving money at the same time.
4 – Share extra food
If you know someone who would love to join you for a meal or appreciate your leftovers afterward, consider sharing with them. You can invite them over or drop your extra food off to them.
Another idea is to find a food bank or shelter in your area and see what types of food they accept. If you have extras of those, simply donate it to them.
5 – Optimize your fridge and freezer
Don’t forget to regularly check your fridge and freezer to keep an eye on food that may be approaching the end of its useful life. If you find any, enjoy them first.
Pro tip: Keep your fridge set to a maximum temperature of 40°F and your freezer to 0°F or lower to keep your food fresh as long as possible.
6 – Compost whenever you can
The U.S. EPA estimates that just 4.1 percent of wasted food is composted, so composting is a huge area of opportunity. If you have a backyard and ability to compost food scraps to make nutrient-rich soil, that is a great place to start. Alternatively, if your city, town, or region has a composting program, you can contribute to that instead of putting food waste into the garbage which goes to the landfill.
For composting in Palm Beach County, Florida, click here.
7 – Use a grocery list and meal plan
When you plan out the meals you want to eat and stick to your grocery list, you’re less likely to purchase and make too much food. If you create a thoughtful grocery list—and stick to it—you can buy only what you need and will reasonably eat each day or week.
Having a plan for your meals—whether you make the plan yourself or invest in one that works for you—is a great way to reduce your food waste. That’s because when your meals are planned out, you can create a grocery list of the foods you need for that plan. If you double-check your pantry, fridge, and freezer before adding something to your grocery list, and stick to the list when you’re out shopping, you will buy only what you need and are planning to eat.
By using a meal plan to reduce the amount of excess food you buy in the first place, you’re cutting down on food waste at the source. This is called “source reduction.” According to the U.S. EPA, source reduction is the most impactful step toward reducing food waste, so it’s a great one to focus your efforts on.
Meal planning has other benefits beyond reducing food waste and saving you time and money. Using meal plans can help you create meaningful and sustainable changes for your health. For example, a recent study published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine looked at people who joined a weight loss program. They found that participants who planned more of their meals lost more weight than than those who planned fewer meals.
By reducing food waste we can help to save time and money, reduce our impact on the environment and even build our relationships and communities. It truly is a win-win-win situation.
One of the best ways to tackle this problem is by using a meal plan. Meal plans can form your grocery list and reduce the amount of extra food purchased when you go shopping at the market or grocery store. But not everyone wants to spend the time and effort to create their plans. If this is you, I would love to help with your meal plans!
Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. (n.d.). Food waste. The Nutrition Source. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/sustainability/food-waste/
Hayes, J. F., Balantekin, K. N., Fitzsimmons-Craft, E. E., Jackson, J. J., Ridolfi, D. R., Boeger, H. S., Welch, R. R., & Wilfley, D. E. (2021). Greater Average Meal Planning Frequency Predicts Greater Weight Loss Outcomes in a Worksite-Based Behavioral Weight Loss Program. Annals of behavioral medicine : a publication of the Society of Behavioral Medicine, 55(1), 14–23. https://doi.org/10.1093/abm/kaaa021
RTS. (n.d.). Food waste in America in 2022. https://www.rts.com/resources/guides/food-waste-america/
U.S. Food & Drug Administration. (2019, May 23). Confused by date labels on packaged foods? https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/confused-date-labels-packaged-foods
U.S. Food & Drug Administration. (2022, February 17). How to cut food waste and maintain food safety. https://www.fda.gov/food/consumers/how-cut-food-waste-and-maintain-food-safety
U.S. Food & Drug Administration. (2022, February 17). Tips to reduce food waste. https://www.fda.gov/food/consumers/tips-reduce-food-waste