By Casey Barber, CNN
The statistics are sobering: in the United States, we produce about 35 million tons of food waste every year, and as individual families, we waste about 30% of the food we buy. For an average household of four with a monthly food budget of $1,000, that’s like throwing $300 straight into the trash each month.
It’s not just our personal budgets that are affected by food waste, it’s also contributing to the current climate crisis. The annual amount of water and energy wasted by uneaten food in America would be enough to power 50 million homes, and the amount of greenhouse gases produced from food waste equals the carbon dioxide emissions of 42 coal-fired power plants, according to a 2021 report from the US Environmental Protection Agency.
At home, the central problem is that we buy too much food and throw away so much because of spoilage, perceived spoilage, ingredients “not matching food preferences” or not being able to prepare them, according to a 2020 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
It is true that there are many more factors that contribute to waste in the food system than just the behavior of our consumers. “It’s so much bigger than a consumption issue,” said Pamela Koch, associate professor of nutrition education at Columbia University’s Teachers College.
But that doesn’t mean our personal efforts can’t still have an impact. “There are so many things consumers can do,” said Roni Neff, associate professor of environmental health and engineering at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health and one of the co-authors of the National Academies report.
The process begins with “acknowledging what we’re throwing away and what led to it,” Neff said. “If we understand our own patterns and what’s going on in our homes,” she continued, the next step is “figuring out how to set up [our] the environment to avoid food waste as much as possible.
Here are expert strategies to reduce food waste and save a few dollars in the process.
Limit impulse food purchases
The first step begins with brutal honesty at the grocery store.
“I’m a public health expert, so I will say that one of the challenges is that we want to be healthier, and we’re more visionary about that when we’re at the grocery store and we see all these products “, Neff said. However, it is important to “be realistic about what we are actually going to eat” and recognize that wasted produce does not help anyone’s health.
Plus, two-for-one deals on perishables and other bulk purchases are only good for our budget if we eat all the food we buy. “Sales convince us to buy more than we need,” Neff said. “It’s not a saving if we’re going to throw it away.”
Before you add that big package of chicken breasts or that big container of blueberries to your grocery cart, ask yourself if you know what you’re going to do with it. This is where a meal plan comes in.
Embrace meal planning and leftovers
Meal planning can be a tough hurdle for many families, but like maintaining most habits, you can start with a few meals a week and go from there. “A little planning ultimately saves time and money,” Koch said. “It’s a small investment for a big return.”
Koch suggests that the primary cook/meal prep in each household start by “thinking about the week ahead and what’s going on for your family.” This is how she plans, noting how many dinners will be taken at home and how many obligations, such as sports and music practices and business travel, will affect meals.
Certain factors can make meal planning easier.
Stock your house with “must-have ingredients,” as Koch calls them, that can be used in multiple dishes instead of buying one ingredient “just for a recipe that’s going to stick around because you don’t know what else to do with it.” .” If your family likes Tex-Mex food, ingredients like tortillas, onions, salsa, beans, and basic spices like cumin, oregano, garlic, and chili powder can still be close at hand to prepare a meal.
The “cook once, eat twice” mentality also helps ease the burden of meal planning. “I’m the queen of leftovers because it directly helps reduce food waste and saves a lot of time,” Koch said. “I will sometimes cook two days in a row knowing that I will have leftovers.”
Next, take inventory of what you already have on hand. Have a running list of all meal components in the pantry, such as canned beans, pasta, and cereals, and foods in the freezer, such as portioned vegetables, proteins, and frozen leftovers , will remind you of what’s available and ready to go. When you run out of meal ideas, check out the list.
Finally, if your family suffers from “refrigerator blindness” when it comes to leftovers and available food, try these strategies to see what works best for you.
- Keep a roll of painter’s tape and a Sharpie marker in the kitchen to label all containers with cook and refrigerate dates. Use the “first in, first out” rule to keep older items closer to the front of the refrigerator, or designate a specific shelf for food to be eaten first.
- Stick a magnetic whiteboard prominently on the refrigerator to list available leftovers and/or any ingredients, such as fresh produce, that must be consumed by a certain date.
- For the tech-savvy, apps like Fridge Tracker, Fridge Hero, and CozZo can remind you what’s in your fridge and when you should eat that take-out leftover.
Understand what expiration dates really mean
It’s a common misconception that dates on food packaging are a government-mandated expiration date. Neff explained that date labels like “best before” and “sell before” don’t mean the food in question will suddenly go bad or make us sick as that date passes.
With the exception of infant formula, dating of food products is not required by federal law, and these voluntary dates are intended as guidelines for food quality, not safety, according to the U.S. Department of Health. Agriculture.
“Because the standard is voluntary, it’s not consistent,” Neff said, and that’s why terms like “sell before,” “use before,” and “best if used before” can be confusing to the consumer. consumer.
“‘Best if used by’ means that after that point the quality may decline,” she explained. As long as the food in question is stored properly (i.e. following proper refrigeration recommendations) or sealed and unused, it does not need to be discarded once the date on the package has passed. been marked on the calendar.
Composting is not a free get out of jail card
Composting is no excuse for throwing away excess food, experts warn. Compost is still a form of food waste in that it wastes previously invested resources like labor, water, and fuel that were used to grow, process, and transport food.
But it’s not a waste of time either. “If you’re cooking at home, there’s still a lot of unused leftover food.” said Koch. “Composting is worth doing – it works on many levels.”
In 2018, 2.6 million tons of food waste was composted instead of going to landfill, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. Many cities across the United States now have compost collection or drop-off programs available for households that don’t want to maintain their own compost bins.
“If you have good food, you should find a way to eat it first,” Neff said.
While most pantries won’t accept prepared food donations from non-commercial kitchens, home gardeners may be able to donate fresh produce. Neff recommends Ample Harvest, a registry resource for finding local pantries that accept surplus produce.
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Casey Barber is a food writer, artist and editor of the Good website. Food. Stories.