Households are some of the biggest contributors to food waste in the United States, according to research from ReFED.
The organization reports that households generate 30 million surplus food tons, or 37 percent, of all food waste in the U.S. Almost half ended up in landfills, where it emits harmful greenhouse gases that contribute to the climate crisis.
“The number one of source of food going to waste is actually us, consumers, all 329 million of us in our homes, letting food go bad in our homes, not managing it well,” says Dana Gunders, Executive Director of ReFED.
Thankfully, there are steps that everyone can take to tackle this problem, starting in their own homes. Through better shopping habits or experimentation in the kitchen, it is possible to cut food waste and support the health of the environment.
Waste reduction efforts can also provide opportunities for eaters to connect more deeply with their food, chef and food advocate Haile Thomas argues. “It’s a way that we can be more mindful of the food that’s on our plates and honor all of the energy and time put into it, not only by our planet, but also by those who produced it,” Thomas says.
To help eaters slash food waste, Food Tank is highlighting seven tips to implement at home.
Get creative in the kitchen
With a little ingenuity, it’s possible to use up greens wilting in the fridge or take advantage of all parts of an ingredient. Cooks can turn everything from carrot greens to seafood scraps into a delicious part of the meal.
“Everybody knows you get spinach, you buy some kale, it starts to get a little softer, now what do you do with that?” Chef and restaurateur Tiffany Derry says. “All of sudden we turned that into a little bit of wilted greens [or] you throw it in soup. You get creative in your own household.”
The James Beard Foundation offers a number of tips and recipes to help home cooks use up foods sitting in their fridges and pantries. Together with Derry, the James Beard Foundation also put out a series of videos like this one to help everyone cook with food waste in mind.
Brush up on your understanding of date labels
Except for infant formula, there are no federal standards regulating the date labels that appear on food and beverages. Best before, use by, and sell by are just of the date labels that can appear on packaging. And while some indicate safety, other labels reflect quality. “Currently, there are about 30 different types of labeling language used across products,” Katy Franklin, Operations Director for ReFED says.
The variety of terms often leads to confusion, with research in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior showing that many consumers do not understand how to differentiate between them. Often, consumers opt to throw food away, mistakenly assuming it is no longer safe to enjoy.
But becoming familiar with date labels, consumers can take steps toward reducing unnecessary food waste. Resources including the Labels Unwrapped website from the Vermont Law School’s Center for Agriculture and Food Systems (CAFS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture can help consumers determine what they can hold onto—and use—and what should make its way to the compost bin.
Food waste warriors like Chef Tiffany Derry encourage eaters to shop strategically. By buying food with recipes in mind, Derry argues it can help households ensure that they use up the food they bring home. “We have to make a plan,” Derry says. “Oftentimes when we aren’t prepared, we fail…Figure out what works for you, what works for your family, what works for your budget.”
Katy Franklin, Operations Director of ReFED also encourages everyone to hang onto their receipts. Using a sharpie or highlighter, individuals can then track the foods that went to waste from their last grocery trip. Though simple, Franklin says, it can serve as a reminder of how much is too much and which products may not be as tempting once they’re sitting in the fridge.
Make the season’s bounty last
Preservation methods — some of which have been practiced for thousands of years — allow eaters to prevent food waste and enjoy fruits and vegetables long after their season’s end. Whether this means canning, picking up a new recipe for infused vinegars, or simply making better use of the freezer, consumers can work to use up everything they bought from the store or grew in their garden. Check out Food Tank’s roundup of resources and safety tips to get started.
Become friends with your freezer
In addition to using the freezer to preserve fresh fruits and vegetables, the Natural Resource Defenses Council (NRDC) also recommends freezing extra portions of a prepared meal, baked goods, raw protein, and more. Save the Food, a campaign from NRDC working to end food waste, includes recommendations to make the most of the freezer. Tips include keeping containers airtight, freezing in portions, and defrosting foods safely.
Share with your neighbors
Chef Crystal Wahpepah (Kickapoo), Owner of Wahpepah’s Kitchen in Oakland California tells Food Tank that one of her favorite food waste tips is to share excess food with friends and neighbors. Not only does this help home cooks ensure that their dishes don’t end up in the landfill after cooking a large meal, but it also helps to build community and strengthen relationships.
Apps including Fresh Food Connect and OLIO are also helping to facilitate food exchanges. By providing individuals with a platform, these apps help individuals look beyond their immediate networks and share food with other members of their local communities.
“We all play a vital role in our food system for our community health and wellness,” Wahpepah says.
Compost the rest
“We shouldn’t feel guilty, we all [waste food],” Denise Osterhues, Senior Director of Sustainability and Social Impact for The Kroger Company and President of Kroger’s Zero Hunger │Zero Waste Foundation. But, Osterhues says, after taking steps to manage food better in the house, look to “composting what we can’t eat or use.”
When food is no longer safe to eat or donate, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) encourages consumers to follow their Food Recovery Hierarchy and compost what they can. Composting not only reduces the amount of food sent to landfills, but also generates organic material that can enrich soil and reduce the need for chemical fertilizers.
Check to see if your area has composting sites accepting household food scraps or see NRDC’s tips for building your own compost bin. The EPA also offers guidance to help determine what foods do and don’t belong in the compost.
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