As many of us stay at home in an effort to practice social distancing due to COVID-19, the only trip out of the house is to the grocery store. A priority for many is how to make the food in the kitchen stretch as far as possible before the next trip to the store. Learning how to reduce food waste is not only a powerful tool during times of trying to live leaner, but is also one of the top solutions to climate change. Now is a great time to hone your skills at effectively using all your food.
Why Focus on Food Waste?
Other than having to leave the house, there are plenty of reasons to reduce food waste. Almost everyone can find a good reason to make the most of the food in their kitchen.
If you are focused on economic impact, consider that the average family of four in the United States throws away $120 of food each and every month. 40% of food grown for human consumption here is not eaten and disposed of in other ways each year. 40% of that food waste occurs after consumers purchase food from grocery stores and restaurants and throw it away in our own homes. This translates to 27 million tons of trashed food that we have paid around $144 billion for each year. The economic impact of reducing food waste in the United States and within families would be significant.
If reducing personal waste is your motivation, setting sights on reducing food waste can account for a substantial drop in the number of trips you make to take out the trash each week. Across the country and in Missouri, around 15% of what goes into landfills is food. When this food eventually breaks down in these oxygen deprived conditions, methane gas is produced. Methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gases so it is especially important to avoid creating methane. Besides that, food can be composted, creating rich soil additives that nurture the next generation of our food.
If climate change is top of mind for you, food waste should be one of the first things you are focusing on in your home and community. Project Drawdown, an organization that aims to help the world lower the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, evaluated many solutions to climate change and ranked them based on how effective they were at preventing greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere. According to their most updated models, reducing food waste by 50 to 75% by 2050 ranks as one of the top three solutions — the top three! By reducing food waste, the world could reduce the amount of carbon dioxide equivalent from entering the atmosphere by 87 to 94 gigatons over the next 30 years. Picture for a minute an Olympic sized pool — got it? Now imagine 400,000 of them. The amount of water in those 400,000 pools is one gigaton. As a global society, we could save 87 gigtaons of carbon dioxide equivalent by reducing our food waste, not by 100%, but by 50%. Many of these choices are so deeply personal, but collectively, this is something we all can do.
How Do I Reduce Food Waste at Home?
There are many different levels at which we can reduce food waste. The EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy is a great visual to think through which steps have the greatest to the least impact.
There are many great resources and initiatives occurring at all levels of the hierarchy. Check out OneSTL’s Food Waste Recovery Toolkit and other toolkits to learn more about what is happening locally. The following recommendations are solely focused on what you can do in your own home.
As Americans, we knew during World War I what the best recommendations were for reducing our food waste in the midst of that international conflict. In the same way today, we can follow those same basic principles: buy food with thought, cook it with care, buy local foods, serve just enough, and use what is left.
One of the best tools to make yourself into a food waste reduction champion is to conduct a food waste audit in your own kitchen. This can be as simple as a small notebook and pen by the trash can, but the goal is to make a note every time you throw food away. It is good to note the following information:
- The food item
- The amount of food (number or weight)
- The approximate value
- The reason for throwing it away
On this last point, it is important to be specific. Instead of saying “moldy,” try “I didn’t eat as many oranges as I thought I would.” By tracking what food you are throwing away and why, you can start focusing on what steps might be the most useful for you.
Make a Plan for Buying Food
One of the best ways to reduce your food waste is to create a plan for what you are going to shop for and eat and then stick to it. When creating your list, be as realistic as possible. If you know you eat out or need an easy night of cooking, make that part of the plan. Before making your list, check your fridge and pantry for items that need to be used up.
Also, make a list in a way that works for you. There are an endless number of meal planning, grocery list making, and shopping apps out there. Or you can stick to paper and pencil.
Store Your Food Properly
Once the food is at home, it needs to be stored properly. If you have never paid much attention to where you put food in the fridge, now is the time to take a look at where everything is stored. First, the fridge should be set to maintain a temperature of 40°F or below. The coldest parts of the fridge are the lower shelves and the warmest are the upper shelves and the door. Meat and fish should be stored at the bottom so they stay cold while leftovers, drinks, and condiments should be near the top since they can be warmer. Next, check out those humidity drawers. The high humidity drawers prevent air from coming in — these are great for vegetables that have a tendency to wilt, like carrots or leafy greens.
The low humidity drawers are open and allow more air in – these are great for fruits and some veggies like peppers.
Some of these drawers have sliders so that you can adjust the humidity level. For more information, check out this graphic from the Natural Resources Defense Council.
If you are unsure of where to store something or the best way to store it, check out Save the Food online. They are part of the Natural Resources Defense Council and have great resources on how to best store your food in addition to resources on planning meals.
Know your food labels
After all your food is stored properly, make sure you know how to read the wide variety of labels and dates that appear on our food.
About 20% of at-home food waste occurs because consumers are unsure of what the dates mean and throw away food that is not yet spoiled. Currently in the United States, there are no date labels on food related to food safety, other than for infant formula. Most of the date labels on products refer to when they will have their best flavor or quality, but most properly stored food does not go bad after the date on the product. If stored improperly, food can spoil before that date. It is best to let your senses guide you when it comes to food safety. If you stored the food properly and it still looks and smells good, it probably is. You can learn more about food labels from the USDA.
If you like using apps on your mobile device, check out the FoodKeeper app. This provides good information on how long foods can last when properly stored.
Use Up the Leftovers
So you have shopped carefully, stored all your food correctly, and followed your food plan for the week, but you still have some odds and ends and maybe some produce that is starting to look a little worse for the wear. What now?
If you know ahead of time that you will not use all the food you bought, a great option is to freeze it. Foods that are frozen properly can last a long time and are great to have on hand for recipes later. There are also many ways to use foods that are a little past their prime. The options for using food are very dependent on the type of food, so check out Save the Food’s guide to freezing and reviving foods. There are also many ways to use the leftover pieces of veggies and meats to make soup stocks. Some vegetables can actually be regrown in your garden from the pieces that are normally considered scraps. A quick search on the internet will give you lots of options for making stocks and for your garden.
Compost What is Left
At the end of all these steps, most people still have some food waste. At this point, the best thing to do is to compost the food if possible. The Missouri Botanical Garden has great resources on creating an outdoor compost pile. If you are short on outdoor composting space, consider an indoor worm composting bin. Check out this video from the EarthWays Center on worm composting.
Reducing our food waste is so important because of its impact on our environment and your pocketbook. Luckily, each of us can have an impact in our own homes. By all of us taking one step at a time and doing our part, we can have a massive positive impact.
To read more about potential solutions and the economic impact of food waste, check out ReFED’s roadmap to reducing food waste.
EarthWays Center Education and Volunteer Coordinator