Simple steps you can take to reduce food waste

Food waste has been on my mind quite a bit lately. Reading the report Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill, recently published by the Natural Resources Defense Council, has fueled my desire to get a better handle on the amount of food my family discards. The NRDC report paints a grim picture of food waste in America:

40 percent of food in the United States today goes uneaten. This not only means that Americans are throwing out the equivalent of $165 billion each year, but also that the uneaten food ends up rotting in landfills …

One of my first actions after reading the report was to start using Avery Dry Erase Decals on our refrigerator. We write our grocery list on them and use them to track what’s inside our fridge:

My husband and I have noticed a dramatic reduction in the amount of food we discard and we’ve become much better at cooking the foods we buy. There were days when our enthusiasm for cooking and freezing meals for future use got the better of us and we’d make much more than our freezer could store. Now that we’re consistently tracking the food that we make (and buy, too), we’ve figured out the best times to do batch cooking. We’re also better at using up our freezer stash so that nothing gets lost in there.

I’ve also taken an added step of labeling what’s inside the fridge. I’ve discovered that a sticky note with the contents and the date on an item makes food easier to find in the fridge (and therefore get eaten). Once an item is consumed, it’s crossed off or erased from the list. In the beginning, this was a tedious step. But, now that it’s a regular part of our routine, we can easily find what’s in the fridge without rummaging or having to open the container to figure out what’s inside. You might not find this step to be necessary, but for us, it’s well worth it. We’ve also become more creative with our leftovers. When we get bored with eating food as originally cooked, we combine it with one or two new ingredients. Making the effort to use food labels has really encouraged us to eat what we have instead of piling more in the fridge and increasing the likelihood of older food spoiling.

As you begin to think about ways to reduce food waste in your household, it does help, of course, to keep your fridge uncluttered. You might also want to consider weighing the food you’re going to throw out. The chefs at Mario Batali’s restaurant, Lupa Osteria Romana in New York, provided me with a strategy to try. They agreed to put food that was not deemed consumable (expired, spoiled, trim waste, or overcooked) on a scale with special software that calculated its value. By doing this, they discovered that they were able to make adjustments to reduce the volume of food that ended up in the trash can:

Once we begin reducing food waste, we are spending less money on food because we’re not buying food to waste it; we’re spending less money on labor; we’re spending less money on energy to keep that food cold and heat it up; we’re spending less on waste disposal.

This extra step in food preparation can help you determine how much food is actually wasted. As the restaurant staff at Lupa discovered, you probably don’t need to weigh onion skins and other things that you wouldn’t eat anyway. And, you likely wouldn’t need special software to tell you how much food you might be wasting. Even if you didn’t weigh your food and simply kept a journal for a few weeks about the amount of food you threw away, you’d have a good idea of how much food went into your garbage can as well as how much money went with it.

When compared to buying a pricey smart fridge that reminds you what’s inside, tracking your food consumption, adding labels to food containers, and weighing your food are perhaps minor inconveniences. But, these are not the only actions you can take. In addition to using (and sticking to) a grocery list each time you shop, you can also make sure that your fridge is in good working order. Make sure the seals are working well and that it’s set to the proper temperature (between 35 and 38 degrees Fahrenheit) to slow the growth of bacteria. You can also make sure that older food is visible and not blocked by newer purchases.

23 Comments for “Simple steps you can take to reduce food waste”

  1. posted by Jen on

    I saw a blog on this where the person committed to taking a photo at the end of every week of the food and leftovers that were being thrown out. I think this helps in seeing the food waste and committing to reducing it. If something keeps showing up in the photo week after week, maybe buy less of it!

  2. posted by Shawnee on

    I love those Avery decals! My daughters have one on their bathroom mirror, too. For my refrigerator I do something similar but it really helps to use the sticky velcro squares to keep that pen from walking away. Fluffy side stuck on the side of the fridge and pokey side stuck to the pen itself. Keeps it where it needs to stay!

  3. posted by Sarah HP on

    I do wonder if the size of US fridges contributes to this problem big fridges are less common in Europe and I think the more restricted storage space for food makes you more vigilant about using everything up.

  4. posted by WilliamB on

    Have you visited The Frugal Girl’s website for Food Waste Friday and other waste-reducing posts? If you haven’t, go check her out. It’s a great blog.

  5. posted by Sarah on

    My husband and I stopped using our drawers in the fridge. Why? Our food would get lost down there, nice, fresh things like spinach, strawberries, and carrots that we just didn’t see. Instead, we keep those items near the top, and things like beer or soda in the bottom drawers. Just keeping things that need to be eaten “right away” at eye level can really save $ and time. I don’t think labels would really work for us, sadly.

  6. posted by Jeannette on

    I’ve been using the same system on a wipe-off board mounted on the front of the fridge, using the same categories for the past two years or so. I started doing it when I realized how much was being wasted and tossed each week. Not only does it make it easier to plan, but we don’t spend time with the fridge door open moving things around to see what’s inside.

    I’d like to say that this has eliminated any/all waste. However, given our work and social schedules, this isn’t the case (sometimes we end up eating out when we should be using up leftovers). But I’d say we’ve cut waste by a good 85% overall.

    We’ve also taken to freezing as much as we can of anything that is freezeable if we even suspect we won’t be able to use it by the expiration date. This has been a big help.

    Finally, to deal with a situation we can’t control (fruit and vegetables that seem to go bad almost immediately and/or are tasteless or otherwise unusable, and can’t be used for the primary dish we purchased them for), we have switched to using a lot more frozen vegetables. This is also a cost-cutting measure as the prices for fresh veggies in winter is astronomical even at places that discount. We’re huge veggie eaters so this is a major jolt to our budget.

    It isn’t just guilt that motivates us (how can we waste so much when so many have little or nothing? Doesn’t matter how small the waste is, it’s waste.), it’s our own finances. All that waste adds up and given the cost of food today, it’s important that we don’t waste the food or the $$$.

    We also spend a lot more time figuring out ways to recycle soon-to-be expired food. I think a lot of folks chuck food because they simply don’t know what to do with it, given what is or isn’t available in their pantry.

  7. posted by Narelle @ Cook Clean Craft on

    I’ve just realised I buy way more fruit than my family actually can eat (and my kids LOVE fruit!). The fruit looks so fresh and yummy, and I think I’m being good, filling the fridge with fruit. At least we have a worm farm, so the goodness gets recycled to our garden. It’s still time to recalibrate! Love the idea of the fridge labels.

  8. posted by MJ on

    Recommend book American Wasteland by Jonathan Bloom and accompanying website

  9. posted by Diane on

    We mark leftovers with name of item and date, too. We have a roll of masking tape and markers in a magnetic holder on the side of the fridge. We include the year just in case we end up having to put something in the freezer. Since the kids take turns putting away leftovers, it is a great way to get kids to learn how to spell the names of food items, too! : )

  10. posted by MayT on

    Chickens, nothing goes to waste if you have chickens. Other than things they cannot eat (potato peels for example) anything leftover, or off or peelings and scraps goes to feed the chickens, which in turn provide eggs for us. The only food stuffs that go into the garbage are bones, some fats and things poisonous to chickens.

  11. posted by purpleBee on

    Cooking for 2, I only buy bulk supplies of perishables if we have guests or I can use them for multiple meals. So a bag of ripe tomatoes that’s the same price as 3 individual tomatoes is not a saving, its edible clutter

  12. posted by Deborah on

    We use our freezer a lot. I buy the “family” pack of meat and freeze it in serving size (for our family) portions. Nothing will go bad, and I just pull out what I need.
    There may be some truth to Sarah’s comment about the small fridges in Europe and less waste. My conundrum is that we live in the country of PA, and it’s a good drive to the store- whereas many folks in Europe just walk down the street to the local market for fresh food daily. We end up using our fresh foods in the first few days after a grocery trip (strawberries!) and rely on that freezer towards the end of the week.

  13. posted by Amy on

    We use a Sharpie marker and write on the lid or jar/bottle the date we open jars of tomato sauce, applesauce, and even juice. This way we try and avoid the guessing game of how long something has been opened. My memory is not what it used to be!!

  14. posted by Mieko on

    Grease pencils are also great for marking leftovers, and can be washed off of re-usable containers.

  15. posted by Rashelle on

    I like to use the shelf rotation trick used in grocery stores to make sure I know what’s in the fridge and to prevent waste. Whenever there’s leftovers, instead of pushing food items to the back I bring whatever is in the back to the front of the fridge. It’s easy and it works!

  16. posted by Valerie on

    Even better than sticky notes or masking tape:

    My husband bought these for me and I LOVE them.

  17. posted by Ann on

    I try to keep a list of everything in the freezer on a spreadsheet. I also try to keep a list of the fresh produce I’ve bought at the weekend markets, etc. and also of the leftovers/lunch foods available.

    But the idea of using a marker pen on a mini-whiteboard on the fridge is a good one! Thanks 🙂

  18. posted by Aviva Goldfarb on

    Thanks for the great post, Deb, I’m really concerned about how much food, and therefore energy, we are wasting in the U.S. I find that planning meals for the week and shopping once a week greatly reduces our food waste. I try to plan for one less meal than we will be eating at home so we have a night to use up odds and ends and eat leftovers.

  19. posted by Letitia on

    Although I live in Europe, I try to go to the supermarket once a week for all meals and only visit the fresh market as an extra (deducting the food bought there from my weekly list). I have a son of 4 and work from 8.30 to 18.00 so I wouldn’t know how to find time for a market visit every day.

    When I get home from the supermarket and put everything in my refrigerator I sort and list the meats and vegetables I bought by perishing date and make a meal plan for the week using the most perishable foods first. This makes it easier to choose what to cook. And it also prevents us from eating out when I am tired or late, just because I know something must be eaten today.

    I have stickers on the shelves that say where the meat, the dairy, the potatoes/dough things go, new on the left, older on the right. This way any leftover is clearly visible because it is on the right side of the shelf …

    I do not freeze leftovers since I found that anything I put in my freezer gets forgotten except for the pre-packed snacks, vegetables and the bread.

  20. posted by DebF on

    Rather than using sticky-notes, keep an eye out for the Decor Tellfresh line (available in Australia) and at the Container Store –
    , which features small yellow plastic labels which click in to the outside of storage containers. These allow you to write on details in pencil, and use an eraser to remove them. You can use them in the fridge or the freezer, or loosen the lid and put them in the microwave.

  21. posted by susan on

    I agree that not all big buys save you money especially when cooking for only one or two. Never thought of it as food clutter but that will help with that need to save 50 cents by buying a larger size. That is where my waste comes from.

    I also have started really utilizing my freezer for everything. Milk, cheese butter, uncooked meats and cooked meals even cookies. Now I can come home from work and have a pre made meatball dinner or chili all ready for me. So much less food waste and saves times.

  22. posted by blimunda on

    I buy fruit and vegetables at the farmer’s market. Things are cheap and fresh – salad will keep for two weeks in the fridge, apples for months – and when I have veggies that must be used quickly I cook them or make a soup or another cooked mix that will be eaten immediately or put in the freezer (portioned and labeled with content and date). I don’t buy big family packs (it’s only two of us) unless the price difference is big, I have space to store them properly, and it’s something we buy regularly and would eat anyway in a short time. A thing that helps me a lot is to keep on the door of the freezer a detailed list of what’s in there, so I don’t have to keep the door open to dig in search of the last portion of soup that I might already have eaten.

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