How to reduce food waste to help the planet and your wallet

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The statistics are alarming: In the United States, we generate approximately 35 million tons of food waste each year, and as an individual family, we waste about 30 percent of the food we buy. For the average household of four with a $1,000 monthly grocery budget, that’s like throwing $300 straight into the trash every month.

It’s not just our personal budgets that contribute to food waste, it also contributes to the ongoing climate crisis. The amount of water and energy wasted each year from uneaten food in America would be enough to power 50 million homes, and the amount of greenhouse gases produced from food waste was equivalent to the carbon dioxide emissions of 42 coal-fired power plants. A 2021 report from the US Environmental Protection Agency.

At home, a key problem is that we buy too much food and then throw away so much because of spoilage, perceived spoilage, ingredients that “don’t match food preferences” or that we can’t cook, according to a 2020 report. National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.

It is true that there are many more factors than our consumer behavior that contribute to waste in the food system. “It’s much bigger than a consumer problem,” 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’s only so much consumers can do,” said Roni Neff, an associate professor of environmental health and engineering at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health and one of the authors of the National Academies report.

The process “starts with figuring out what we’re throwing away and what brought it on,” Neff said. “Once we understand our patterns and what’s going on in our homes,” he continued, the next step is “figuring out how to set it up.” [our] to make the environment as simple as possible to avoid wasting food.”

Here are some expert strategies to reduce food waste and save a few dollars in the process.

The first step starts with brutal honesty at the grocery store.

“I’m a public health person, so I will say that one of the challenges is that we want to be healthier, and we have the biggest vision of that when we’re in the grocery store and we see all these products,” Neff said. he said However, it is important to “be realistic about what we are going to eat”, and to accept that wasted produce does not contribute to anyone’s health.

Also, the two deals on perishables and other bulk purchases are good for our budget if we consume all the food we’re buying. “Sales convince us to buy more than we need,” Neff said. “It’s not a savings if we’re going to throw it away.”

Before you add that big package of chicken breasts or that big bowl of blueberries to your grocery cart, ask yourself what you’re going to do with it. That’s where the meal plan comes in.

Meal planning can be a difficult hurdle for many families, but as with most habits, you can start with just a few meals a week and work your way up. “A little planning ultimately saves time and money,” Koch said. “It’s a small investment for a big return.”

Koch suggests that the main cook/meal preparer in each household start “thinking about the week ahead and what’s going on with your family.” This is how he plans, taking into account how many dinners will be at home and how many obligations will affect the meals, such as sports and music practices and work trips.

There are a few factors that can help make meal planning easier.

Stock your home with what Koch calls “the right ingredients,” instead of buying one ingredient that can be used in multiple dishes “just for one recipe that’s there because you don’t know what else to do with it.” him.” If your family loves Tex-Mex food, ingredients like tortillas, onions, salsa, beans, and basic spices like cumin, oregano, garlic, and chili powder can always be on hand to whip up a meal.

A “cook once, eat twice” mentality also helps ease the burden of meal planning. “I’m a waste queen because this directly helps reduce food waste and saves a lot of time,” Koch said. “Sometimes I cook two days in a row knowing I’ll have leftovers.”

Then keep an inventory of what you have on hand. Having a running list of all meal ingredients in the pantry, such as canned beans, pasta, and grains, and foods in the freezer, such as vegetables, proteins, and frozen leftovers, will remind you of what’s available and ready to use. When you run out of meal ideas, look at the list.

Finally, if your family is “fridge blind” when it comes to leftovers and available food, try these strategies to see what works best for you.

  • Place painter’s tape and a Sharpie marker in the kitchen to label all containers with the date they were cooked and refrigerated. Use a first-in, first-out rule to keep older items closer to the front of the fridge, or designate a specific shelf for food that needs to be eaten first.
  • Stick a magnetic board on the fridge to list available leftovers and/or any ingredients, such as fresh produce, that must be used by a certain date.
  • For the tech-savvy, apps like Fridge Tracker, Fridge Hero and CozZo can remind you of what’s in your fridge and when to eat leftovers.

A common misconception is that the dates on food packaging are hard and fast government-mandated expiration dates. Neff explains that date labels don’t mean that food will suddenly go bad or make us sick after that date has passed.

With the exception of infant formula, dating of food products is not required by federal law, and these voluntary dates are benchmarks for food quality, not safety, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

“Because the standard is voluntary, it’s inconsistent,” Neff said, which is why terms like “sell,” “use” and “best if” can be confusing to the consumer.

“‘If used by this’ means beyond that point, the quality can go down,” he explained. If the food in question is stored properly (ie, following proper refrigeration recommendations) or sealed and unused, there is no need to throw it away once the package date is marked on the calendar.

Composting is not a get out of jail free ticket

Composting is no excuse for throwing away excess food, experts warn. Compost is still a form of food waste because it wastes resources already invested in growing, processing and transporting food, such as labor, water and fuel.

But it’s also not a waste of time. “If you’re cooking at home, there’s still a lot of unused food waste.” Koch said. “Composting is worth it; it works on many levels.”

In 2018, 2.6 million tons of food waste was composted instead of going to a landfill, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Many cities in the US have composting or drop-off programs available for households that do not wish to maintain their own compost bins.

“If you have good food, you should first find a way to eat it,” Neff said.

Since most food pantries do not accept donations of prepared foods from non-commercial kitchens, home gardeners may be able to provide fresh produce. Neff recommends Ample Harvest, a registry resource for finding local food pantries that accept leftover produce.