It’s all over the news: the massive volume of unspoiled, perfectly edible food that developed nations throw away. Restaurants and grocery stores are trying to turn the tide of this waste, both by utilizing product that would otherwise be pitched and by implementing more efficient systems of inventory and product turnover.
But it’s waste at the consumer level that accounts for the lion’s share of otherwise-edible landfill fodder: up to 20 percent of American landfills are composed of food waste, in fact, according to the EPA. If you want to see who’s to blame, go look in the mirror. (This includes me, who yesterday pitched a quarter of a giant but not very tasty Dairy Queen ice cream cake. Guilty as charged!) A recent study by the American Chemistry Council concluded that the average American household throws away $640 worth of food a year.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel great about throwing away ice cream cake, and I’d love to keep that $640 a year. Here are some ways we can reduce food waste in our own homes.
Ironically, throwing out food may be the first step to avoiding future food waste. Go through your fridge and toss out or give away anything you know you won’t eat—either because it’s fuzzy with mold, or because you bought it for a recipe you’ll never make again. That way you’ll have more room for the food you want to eat, making it more prominent and easily accessible.
Easy to say, hard to do. But you don’t need to map out an entire month of menus. Instead, sit down when you make a grocery list and start by writing down three or four dinners you intend to make that week. Think about the ingredients you already have, plus the foods you’ll need to buy, and then craft your list accordingly.
Leftover soups, sauces, and even a lot of cooked vegetables freeze wonderfully. Your freezer is like a bank. Instead of letting the leftover stew you are tired of seeing get funky and over the edge, freeze it while it’s still good.
That freezer bank needs withdrawals, not just deposits. Try to schedule those frozen foods as meals ahead of time—that way you’ll be able to pull out the package in the morning and let it thaw, instead of smacking your head after getting home from work, exclaiming,”d’oh!”
No one wants to get sick from consuming rotten food, and that very reasonable fear propels many people to toss out food once it passes the sell-by date on its container. But milk and eggs do not instantly transform to poisonous time bombs the second they cross over the sell-by date on their cartons. When in doubt, use your nose, eyes, and—yes—mouth to determine if food’s gone bad. This chart might help, too. And keep in mind: far more people get sick from eating food contaminated at a foodservice or commercial level than food that spoiled at home.
Clear storage containers, either glass or plastic, are a lot harder to look over than an opaque re-used tub of yogurt—like the one I have in my fridge right now, full of perfectly good bean salad that I keep on forgetting to eat because I keep on thinking it’s full of yogurt. If you have leftovers that are more perishable than others, store them strategically in the front of the fridge.
Leftovers are starter kits for your next meal. It’s food you’ve already paid for, and it’s halfway prepared. Any good restaurant kitchen uses this principle for creative specials or popular menu staples—leftover baked potatoes become stuffed potato skins, for example. Some home cooks have a flair for re-imagining leftovers and some don’t, so if you are in the latter camp, don’t freak out. But also, don’t discount the world’s most trusty user-upper of leftovers: hash.
It helps to know the best ways to store food items. For instance, bananas ripen much faster when they are kept in close proximity to apples—it’s because of the ethylene gas the apples give off—so unless you looove to bake banana bread, store those fruits fairly far apart. Avocados and tomatoes, meanwhile, are totally okay to pop in the fridge once they’re ripe, despite the long-held myth that both will suffer texturally if not kept at room temperature. So when your fresh tomatoes or avocados are getting on the softer side, you can tease a few more days out of them by putting them in the refrigerator.
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Maybe you, or people you live with and cook for, don’t like leftovers. If that’s the case, a baked bean recipe that calls for four cans of beans is not the best fit for a household of two. Look for recipes that don’t make as many servings, or, if some of your favorite recipes make massive amounts, experiment and see if you can successfully halve it.
Sad, slimy cooking greens seem to be a big culprit in home food waste. The idea of cooking them for a healthful dinner seemed so noble a week ago, but somehow you never got around to it (I speak from experience here). Buy the food you know you’ll cook, and if you are trying out a new food item you’ve been curious about, purchase smaller quantities.
Look, an entire side of salmon! A five-pound block of aged cheddar! A giant carton of baby spinach, all for such a seemingly reasonable price! There’s a bit of a mania that can set in once you set foot in a Costco or Sam’s Club, but think twice before you put fresh meat, produce, or anything with a shorter shelf life in that giant cart: how quickly will you realistically go through this?
Maybe a perishable item is on sale, or maybe there’s a package that includes 33% more for free. If you are not going to be able to use it before it goes off, there’s no point in bringing it home just so you can pitch half of it. Sometimes the unit cost of smaller packages is higher, but you’ll still come out saving money most of the time once the amount you truly utilize is taken into account.
Ah, the glory of restaurant leftovers in a take-home box. It’s lunch or dinner for the next day or two, right? But sometimes it’s just not as good reheated as it was in the restaurant. If you visit a spot that has gigantic portions you know you can’t finish, see if that dish is available as a half-order. That way you won’t feel terrible for tossing the contents of a grease-spattered Styrofoam clamshell into the garbage the following week. And as for me, next time ask at Dairy Queen if the ice cream cake comes in a smaller size—if not, I’ll just nab a few pints of gelato and call it a day.
Don’t put a guilt trip on yourself for throwing food away. It happens. Meaningful changes in our shopping, cooking, and eating habits happen gradually, one step at a time. With some foresight and a little luck, next year hopefully we’ll all be pocketing some of that $640, not pitching it.
Sara Bir is Paste’s food editor.