Americans waste almost as much food as they eat.
More than 40 percent of food that is grown, processed, packaged and shipped ends up uneaten, and in many cases dumped in the landfill, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). That translates to $165 billion in wasted food per year in the United States. Additionally, U.S. production of uneaten food wastes 25 percent of fresh water and results in 23 percent of methane emissions.
Some of that food waste happens on a large commercial scale. But most households waste more food than they realize. To help your family, here are 10 ways to reduce food waste that should save you money, help people in your community, enrich your garden soil, preserve fresh harvests and even feed local farm animals.
- Start small
You can save food and lose extra weight by reducing portion sizes on your plate. According to the NRDC, a significant contributor to food waste is super-sized servings that can be two to eight times larger than the standard recommendation for a healthy diet. This can be most noticeable at restaurants, where you may not know the portion sizes when ordering. Ask your server about sizes and consider sharing an entrée. If eating at a buffet, only take what you know you can eat. If you find you have over-ordered, have a reusable container handy to take extra food home. Not only do you save food, you also prevent another disposable container from entering the waste stream.
- Eat what you buy
Buy food that will be eaten, frozen or prepared before spoiling. People sometimes buy more food on sale than they can finish. Also, occasionally check dates printed on boxed or canned foods in your cabinet or pantry, and use the foods with an earlier date first.
However, just because a food item is past the expiration date doesn’t necessarily mean it’s unsafe to eat. Often, some types of shelf-stable foods are safe to consume well past the date. Mike Wedel, director of acquisition at Harvesters, recommends consulting The Food Keeper, a program developed by the Food Marketing Institute and Cornell University Institute of Food Science, Cornell Cooperative Extension. This guide provides proper food storage information and recommendations for the shelf life of many food items, including frozen foods, fresh dairy and meat, canned vegetables, cereal, coffee, condiments and drinks.
- Maximize shelf life
Get the most out of food by using proper storage. Store greens like lettuce, spinach and kale in the refrigerator crisper bins to prevent wilting. Keep prepared foods from drying out in the refrigerator by keeping them well covered. Use freezer bags to prevent freezer burn on self-frozen meats, vegetables and fruits. According to The Food Keeper, eggs should be stored in the original carton on a refrigerator shelf and not in the door. Monitor the temperature inside the refrigerator and freezer. Sometimes foods can freeze and thaw out in a fridge that is set at the wrong temperature, which can shorten shelf life. For both safety and best quality, The Food Keeper recommends keeping the refrigerator temperature at 40-degrees Fahrenheit or below, and the freezer at 0-degrees or below. The quality of frozen food deteriorates quickly above this temperature.
- Finish leftovers
Take leftovers to work or school for lunch or finish them on a busy night when there is no time to cook dinner. After a big holiday meal, consider asking friends and family if they want to take extra food home with them. Make leftover meals more exciting by using leftovers for ingredients in other recipes, like transforming last night’s roast chicken into chicken salad or tacos.
- Freeze for later
If you have more fresh produce than you can eat or give away before spoiling, consider freezing it to enjoy later. Frozen fruits like strawberries, bananas, blueberries and peaches can be turned into smoothies or made into pie filling. Thawed vegetables can be cooked and used as side dishes or main ingredients in recipes, and savory herbs like basil can be chopped and frozen with a little olive oil into ice cubes. Many common vegetables, including green beans, peas, carrots, broccoli and asparagus, require blanching before freezing. To learn how to blanch and freeze specific vegetables, check out food preservation information provided by the University of Missouri Extension.
- Preserve for longer shelf life
Besides freezing, you can preserve extra fruits and vegetables by canning or dehydrating. Not only do these preservation methods cut down on waste and grocery expenses, but they also provide more ways to enjoy food. Extra cucumbers can be pickled and a surplus of berries can be turned into jams and jellies. Bananas and apples can be dried into chips and combined with nuts and raisins for a healthy snack. Check local state extension offices for available canning and food preservation classes.
- Create compost for gardening
Transform food scraps like potato peelings, melon rinds, corncobs and stale bread slices into soil by composting them. Compost can improve the quality of garden soil and recycle nutrients that would otherwise end up in the trash. There are different composting techniques, including hot composting, cold composting and vermicomposting with worms. For information on composting, check the Mid-America Regional Council http://www.recyclespot.org/Recycle-More/Compost-Yard-Waste.aspx for a list of items that can be safely placed in compost.
Missouri Organic Recycling has an award-winning Food Residuals Environment Diversion program that keeps 32 million pounds of food waste out of landfills each year. That’s enough to cover 15 football fields at one-foot deep. Missouri Organic transforms yard and food waste into its Nature Wise Compost that consumers can purchase for their gardens. Missouri Organic is located at 7700 E. US Highway 40, Kansas City, MO. Or visit Missouri Organic Recycling for more information.
- Donate extra food
Help feed the hungry by donating extra nonperishable food items like cereal and canned vegetables to food pantries. Food collection bins for organizations like Harvesters can often be found inside local grocery stores. Encourage local businesses, organizations and schools to donate prepared, unserved food to Harvesters’ Food Rescue program.
Properly prepared, stored leftovers from an event can also be donated to several organizations with food kitchens.
Contact these organizations in advance for each organization’s individual food donation guidelines:
- Volunteer to Glean
Take action to reduce food waste and help feed people in need by volunteering to glean a farmer’s field of leftover produce. After the Harvest (link https://aftertheharvestkc.org/) recruits volunteers during harvest season to help glean fields of everything from zucchini to watermelon and donates the produce to the hungry through Harvesters and other organizations. To volunteer, contact Sandy Vivian at email@example.com or 816-921-1903., or visit After the Harvest. The Society of St. Andrew gleans fields in several states across the country. For more information, visit End Hunger or call Marian Kelly, 800-333-4597.
- Feed the farm animals
Talk to local farmers about donating extra food for their animals’ feed. Food that is expired, stale or stored improperly that may be unfit for people may sometimes be safe for farm animals including horses, pigs, cows and chickens. Some farmers may even offer you fresh, local foods like eggs and milk as an exchange.
Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture