Posted on May 23, 2011 - by

How to Cut Back on Food Waste


Photo: Watt_Dabney/Flickr

Americans waste 40% of the food that they buy. One of the major culprits? Our oversized refrigerators, packed with food that we buy, store, and then neglect. Take a look at your refrigerator shelves right now. Is that a wilted head of lettuce in the back? Or a jar of moldy, half-used pasta sauce? Don’t worry, we’ve all been there!

One simple change will dramatically reduce your food waste and save you money: keep your fridge half-empty with food! It’s hard to resist the temptation to fill up your fridge, but you’d be better off leaving some breathing room in there. When you can immediately see everything you have available, you’re less likely to buy more than you can cook or forget about leftovers. This means you should shop more often and buy less so that you eat food when it’s fresh and appetizing. When you come home from shopping, put newer items behind older ones so you’re sure to use those up first. For a real eye-opener, label each item with a Post-it note stating its price: you’ll be more inclined to make the most of your food when you can see that food waste is literally money in the trash.

Here’s a few more simple ways to further reduce your waste:

  1. Plan your meals in advance.

    Making yourself a menu for the days ahead may take some extra effort, but it will cut down on time you spend mentally inventorying your cupboards at the grocery store and ensure you bring home exactly what you need. Make a list and stick to it at the store, and try to use up leftover ingredients from one meal to create another as you plan.

  2. Serve sensible portion sizes.

    The more we put on our plates, the more we’re likely to eat. For children, serve kid-friendly portions so that they can finish their plates. This portion calculator from LoveFoodHateWaste allows you to enter the type of food you’re cooking and how many adults and children will be eating it, then tells you how much of that food you should cook to achieve sensible portion sizes.

  3. Don’t be a slave to expiration dates.

    Let your senses be the judge: if it still looks the right color, smells appetizing, and tastes good, it’s almost certainly fine to eat.

  4. Make the most of your leftovers.

    Bring your dinner leftovers to work for lunch the next day, jazz them up by using them in a new dish the second time around, or…

  5. When you can’t eat it, freeze it.

    Just like your fridge, don’t overcrowd the freezer, but do realize its potential as a tool to prolong the life of all sorts of foods and meals. LoveFoodHateWaste shares some excellent tips for how to freeze everything from potatoes to lemon juice to milk.

  6. Learn to compost.

    The food waste in landfills emits methane while it rots, which is 20 times “better” at trapping heat than CO2, speeding climate change. By keeping your food waste out of the garbage, you’ll significantly reduce your kitchen’s environmental impact and create valuable “food” for your or someone else’s garden.

  7. Put old milk jugs filled with water in the back of your fridge.

    Energy conservation caveat: Refrigerators run more efficiently and stay colder when they are full. To avoid filling it with food, place old milk jugs or other containers filled with water in the back of your fridge. The water can later be used for other purposes, like drinking, cooking, watering plants or pouring into your washing machine. If you are shopping for a new fridge, considering getting a smaller, European-style model which will cut electricity costs and give you more space in the kitchen.

For more information on why food waste matters, see our guest blog post by Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It).

More tips on avoiding food waste, crowdsourced from readers of Jonathan’s blog, can be found here. Drop by and add your own, or include them as comments here!

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3 Comments

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  1. Emily B said:

    I appreciate all your suggestions, especially the Post-it one, what a great visual reminder! I might also add that another good idea would be to encourage folks to not buy GIGANTIC refrigerators in the first place! Get little ones like the Europeans and then you don’t waste the electricity either. Plus, you get more space in your kitchen.

    I also personally have a white board on the outside of my fridge with a list of all the produce in it so I don’t have to stand there with the door open wondering what’s inside. Less things get forgotten and therefore not thrown out when bad, and again, less electricity waste too!

  2. Virginia said:

    1.) Make a written inventory of all your food items by location, pantry, freezer, fridge, etc. While making this inventory, list the food by date on the package so you know to grab the oldest ones to use up first. For example, I list mine like this:

    Vegetables:
    Broccoli (9/10) x 6, (2/11) x 3
    Brussels Sprouts (8/09) x 2, (9/10) x 7
    Carrots, diced (6/10) x 4 (8/10) x 5
    Carrots, sliced (6/10) x 2

    2.) Make a file of 12 months (one file folder per month) of menus and recipes that you would like to try for that month, as different foods are available at different times plus all those holiday food recipes too…you don’t have to do it all at once, start with the current month. If you choose a recipe in a cookbook..simply copy it for the file and put in any changes you made and how your family liked it.

    3.) Decide what main dish will be for each day of the week, for example

    Monday – Soup/Stew & sandwiches
    Tuesday – Poultry
    Wednesday – casserole or stir-fry
    Thursday – Salad and Seafood
    Friday – Fun food night (Cone Islands, burgers, pizza)
    Saturday – Beef
    Sunday – Pork

    But do it your way, and then when you make that choice per day, it narrows down your menu choices and then you just need to select 4 different recipes with that item choice to put into your file folder for those days. If you family ends not liking a recipe, simply toss it.

    3.) Using your written inventory and current month’s file of recipes & menus, make as many menu options as you want. This will help you to both spend less, and use what you already have on hand.

    4.) Pull out the menus and recipes to go with it for the month (I do a monthly plan and a monthly shopping list but you may want to do it weekly or bi-weekly) and check your written inventory for items needed and if you need to do so, put it on your grocery list.

    5.) Do the preparation of menu items as you have time but try to do 3 days worth at one time.

    6.) Delegate clean-up duties. Men and children can wash dishes, scrub the counters/stove, and take out the garbage…after all, you did the rest of the work and they also benefited.

    This method has helped me change the amount we spend on food from almost $400 a month to at times, just $84 but usually about $130 now and shopping just once a month has taken a lot of effort and adjustments but we now only rarely indulge in last minute temptations and are rarely buying any already or partially prepared items though my son does love those frozen items that only need to be thrown into the oven or microwave, which can really escalate the amount spent. I find I love making sauces, dressings, desserts, and everything else from scratch and we are eating more fresh vegetables and fruits.



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    Terri said:

    our back yard is a huge garden we also bought a dehydrator for veggies and fruits my food tastes great this is my first time using this we also bought a food sealer thats were we put our foods after dehydrator and i name whats in it and date it and store it either in my cubherd or in my storage cans for just in case of a emergencywe have stored water can food and our dryed food ,we also have candles matches flash light batterys among alot of camping stuff also for my whole family.i really thhink we should all put stuff a side for just in case.