Food waste is a big deal. 22% of all municipal solid waste that ends up in our landfills is food waste. In 2017 almost 41 million tons of food waste was created. I’ve been working to cut down on our food waste at home and have found lots of ways that can help you cut down on your food waste as well. And – BONUS – cutting down on food waste will save you money too!
Some quick facts and figures.
First, let’s talk about a few reasons why you should care about food waste. Food waste not only ends up filling up our landfills unnecessarily, but it is also problematic for other reasons as well.
1) When food goes into landfills instead of getting eaten then people who need that food are not being fed.
2) The cost of food waste for retailers and consumers is estimated to be 161 billion dollars annually according to the USDA.
3) Wasted food that’s put into a landfill rots and releases methane gas. Methane is a greenhouse gas that’s more than 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide when it comes to heating up our atmosphere.
4) Since food production uses 10% of the U.S. consumption of energy, 51% of its land, and 80% of the consumptive water use in the U.S., when we waste food we are wasting much more than just the food itself.
We’ve become more and more wasteful as a nation. In 1960 the U.S produced about 12 million tons of food waste. By 2000 we were producing over 30 million tons of food waste and in 2017 we produced close to 41 million tons.
So now that you know why it’s important to reduce food waste, let’s get to some practical actions you can take to fix this growing problem.
20 Tips to Reduce Your Food Waste
1. Meal Plan.
One of the best ways to make sure you’re not throwing food away is to plan your meals. When you know what you’re going to make for breakfast, lunch, and dinner – or even just dinner – it’s a lot easier to buy just what you need in just the right amounts and use it before it goes bad.
If you buy a lot of random ingredients you may end up with a whole bunch of celery that you don’t end up using. I use celery as an example because I’ve had more bunches of celery go limp (and worse!) on me than I care to remember. (There’s a solution to that below.)
Having a system to make meal planning easier is a great idea. But you can also just sit down on Sunday night and list what you want to make each night of the week. Clip recipe cards to the list so they are handy. Then transfer any ingredients from the recipe cards to your grocery list. Add in any items that you know you’ll need for breakfasts and lunches and you should be all set.
2. Eat the same thing for breakfast every day.
When you know what you’re going to eat for breakfast for the week it’s easy to shop and plan for how much of it you will need. If you eat half a banana on cereal every day, you’ll need 3 1/2 bananas per week. You can buy accordingly. It also saves time in the morning because you aren’t thinking about what you can eat and still get to work on time.
If you can stretch this to eating the same one or two meals for lunch every day of the week that can be helpful as well. But I know a lot of people would get bored with this pretty quickly.
3. Stick to a grocery list.
This idea certainly isn’t new and it can definitely help keep us from throwing out spoiled food. But here is one thing that people sometimes forget.
You gotta do the math! Be sure to write out how much of each item you need on your grocery list.
So rather than just writing down “tomatoes” or “lemons” figure out how many you’ll need based on what you’ll be eating this week. (See how that meal planning comes in handy!) That way you’ll have just the right amount to make whatever recipes need that item for, but not too much that food will end up spoiling. This isn’t a big deal with canned items, but for produce, it’s important to do.
4. Don’t buy “aspirationally.”
Buying “aspirationally” is when you go shopping and say to yourself, “I think we should be eating more _____________________.” (Fill in the blank with whatever food items you wish you ate more of.) So you buy some ______________.
Note, this is usually something healthy and often a type of produce.
Unfortunately, you don’t seem to get around to cooking or eating that item before it goes bad in your produce drawer. I know a lot of food gets wasted because of aspirational buying. Stick to what you actually eat, or if you want to broaden your horizons, be sure to plan a meal that will use that “new” item and make that meal while the item is fresh.
5. Prep foods in advance.
If you plan your meals ahead and do batch cooking where you make a lot of something and freeze what you aren’t going to eat right away in meal-sized portions, and you’ve “done the math” you effectively remove the problem of wasted produce. Most cooked foods can freeze pretty well without any fuss.
But, if you have some raw or fresh produce that you know you won’t be able to use before it goes bad, you can often freeze that as well and have it handy for recipes later. I’m famous for buying celery, only using two or 3 stalks for the recipe I’m making and then the rest of the celery ends up sitting in the produce drawer until it’s way past its prime.
After doing this for years, I finally realized if I washed it well and chopped it up and I could freeze it in small portions (like 2 stalks worth) so that it’s ready for recipes when I want it. It makes cooking easier and there’s way less waste.
You can do the same thing with lots of different types of produce. Oftentimes you just have to start while the produce is still fresh, wash it well, chop it or slice it into recipe ready sized pieces and you’re all set.
Some foods, like cauliflower, broccoli and other vegetables benefit from blanching first. So if you aren’t sure of the best way to freeze a specific fruit or vegetable just Google it and you’ll find all kinds of helpful information. Be sure to pick a reliable source so you know your food is prepared correctly and will be safe.
6. Freeze portions of leftovers.
I love having leftovers. That means I don’t have to cook the next night or maybe make lunch the next day. But if you have made a lot of something (which can be a very good idea as far as saving time and money) and you aren’t sure if you’ll be able to (or want to) finish it before it spoils. Package it up in meal-sized portions and put it in the freezer.
You’ll love having that batch of chili or homemade soup handy for a night when you are too busy to cook.
7. Have a Frittata night each week.
Use leftover veggies meats and grains to make a tasty frittata. If your family isn’t big on leftovers, then turn those leftovers into a whole new thing.
Frittatas are basically like a quiche but without the crust. And since I’m watching my carbs these are my preference. Frittatas can be a great way to use up any leftovers you have and make a quick dinner.
The key ingredients in a Frittata are eggs, milk, and cheese. Here’s a great recipe base that you can use to create your own masterpiece (and use up all your leftovers!). I don’t eat meat, so this is a meatless frittata, but you could include, bacon, ham or whatever meat you want in this.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees
Beat 6 eggs with 1/4 cup of milk (dairy or unsweetened non-dairy), 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder, and 1/2 teaspoon salt and set aside.
Cut 2 total cups of whatever vegetables you have on hand into bite-sized chunks.
If your veggies are raw then you’ll want to saute them in an ovenproof skillet in some oil until they are cooked. The bigger/denser veggies (like potatoes or carrots) need to saute longer to get tender so start with those and add your lighter veggies, (say spinach) when the denser ones are almost cooked.
If your veggies are all cooked already, then just give them a quick saute to warm and soften them up and go to the next step.
Spread veggies out evenly in the skillet and gently flatten them with a spatula.
Top with 1 cup cheese or non-dairy cheese. And let it begin to melt. (Or you can skip the cheese altogether and still get a great result.)
Pour the beaten egg mixture over the top of the veggies and cheese and gently tilt the pan so it covers them easily.
Let cook on the stovetop (still on medium) for a minute or two until you can see the edges of the egg start to set.
Place skillet in a 400-degree oven for 8-10 minutes until eggs are set.
Remove from oven and let cool for about 5 minutes.
Then cut into wedges and serve. It’s an awesomely delicious way to use up leftover veggies.
8. Make “whatchagot stew.”
I think “whatchagot stew” was actually created by renowned humorist and writer Patrick F. McManus. In fact, I believe he wrote a book with that name. My version of “whatchagot stew” is actually more of a soup, but as a tribute to Mr. McManus I call it a stew.
Basically, it’s whatever vegetables I have on hand, carrots, celery, onions, green beans, cauliflower, or whatever, cut into bite-sized pieces and sauteed in a liberal amount of olive oil and garlic.
Add a chopped potato (skin on), and maybe a handful of rinsed lentils for some protein. Cover with enough vegetable broth to give you the consistency you like, less broth if you want a stew-like consistency, more if you prefer a thinner, lighter soup.
Let simmer until the potatoes are tender and the lentils are done.
Then add in one chopped tomato, a liberal splash of white wine, 1 teaspoon of Italian seasoning (or another seasoning of your choice) salt and pepper to taste and cook until the tomato is softened and the flavors are blended.
It’s delicious, healthy, and super easy to make with pretty much whatever you have on hand. Change up the spices and veggies to keep it interesting.
9. Stir fry sauce to the rescue.
Plain old vegetables can get kind of dull and what if you just have a few pieces of red bell pepper, a little bit of onion, a carrot, and some broccoli that you didn’t get around to using? If you’ve got a bottle of stir fry sauce handy you are all set.
You can easily use your random veggies to make a delicious stir fry. Make some rice on the side and you’ve got a delicious and healthy dinner. You can make your own sauces, and if you like to do that, that’s great! But if you’re in a hurry then having a bottled sauce on hand can be a real lifesaver.
As you can probably see from the last 3 tips. Having recipes you like to make and eat that use up leftovers or odd bits of produce can be really handy if you want to cut down on your food waste and save money as well!
10. Buy produce from the “salad bar”
If you only need a little bit of some type of produce and know you won’t be cooking with it again for some time, it might be more economical and less wasteful to buy it from the “salad bar” section of your grocery store. Usually buying larger amounts of food is cheaper. But when it is some little specialty item you only need a small amount of the salad bar can be the way to go.
11. Change the Way you “clean” your Produce
Rather than peeling your potatoes try scrubbing them well and cooking and eating the peels. “Dirty potato salad” is a winner in my house. That’s where you make potato salad with the skins on. (Trust me they are not actually dirty, they are scrubbed very well!)
You can do the same thing with carrots and other vegetables. Don’t peel, just scrub.
Use as much of the broccoli and cauliflower stems as possible. As long as they aren’t very woody they can be slivered or shredded and added to lots of dishes and salads for a crunchy twist.
The idea is to use more and throw less away.
12. Use coffee grounds in the kitchen & bath.
Keep an attractive small canister or jar of used dry coffee grounds near the sink and when you’re done cutting up an onion or chopping garlic, use the grounds as a scrub to rid your hands of the strong odor.
Keep a similar jar of grounds mixed with a little coconut oil near your bath or shower. Coffee grounds make a great exfoliating scrub. Bonus, because of the caffeine in coffee grounds the scrub can also be helpful in dealing with cellulite. Try gently using the scrub on areas affected by cellulite for 10 minutes, twice weekly.
CAUTION: Be sure to be careful when using the scrub because the coconut oil can be slippery.
13. Use coffee grounds in the garden and yard.
Coffee grounds are a pretty good fertilizer. They contain nitrogen, calcium, potassium, magnesium, and other minerals and nutrients that plants need. It’s easy to use them as a fertilizer. Just collect them in a can and then sprinkle them around your plants.
Apparently worms like coffee, too, because coffee grounds attract more worms to your garden and that’s good for your plants as well.
Mosquitos, fruit flies, and beetles don’t like coffee grounds, however. So you can actually use coffee grounds to keep these critters away. You can set out bowls of grounds or sprinkle grounds around seating areas.
CAUTION – if you have a cat or a dog DO NOT leave coffee grounds around where they might be able to get to them and eat them. Caffeine is very dangerous and toxic for cats and dogs.
14. Use eggshells in your garden.
Eggshells are super useful in the garden. You can crush them up and spread them around plants to help keep slugs and snails away. Apparently they don’t like crawling over sharp edges of the shells. Is this foolproof? Not always, but many gardeners have had good success with this method. By crushing the shells and putting them in the garden you are at least keeping them out of the landfill.
Plant a crushed eggshell in the bottom of the hole you’re putting a tomato plant in to give the plant a good boost of calcium. This may help you avoid blossom end rot if your soil lacks calcium.
Use half a cleaned eggshell as a mini-pot to start seedlings. Then when transplanting just crush up the remainder of the shell and spread it in the garden.
This will work better with smaller plants and if you have larger eggs. Also, if you can just take off the top of the shell to make a bigger space for the plant to get started this can be helpful as well. Note, the shell takes a long time to decompose so when you are transplanting you’ll want to help the plant break out of the shell so it doesn’t end up trapped and root-bound.
15. Turn fat from meat into suet for the birds.
If you have fat you’ve trimmed from meats you can make it into suet for the birds. You can freeze pieces of fat as you get them and when you have enough you can render the fat by heating it over low heat on a double boiler. Be careful because the fat can catch fire.
Once the fat is melted you can add crushed eggshells, seeds, pieces of fruit, or nuts, and pour it into a mold. A tuna can works great for this. Muffin pans can work as well. Once it’s solid you can remove the suet from the mold and hang it in a mesh bag from a tree branch for the birds.
Or you can freeze your homemade suet it and save it for winter when the birds need the nutrition even more.
16. Save bacon fat to use in other cooking.
Meat scraps and fats shouldn’t be composted so what can you do with them?
Well, my grandmother always saved bacon fat, otherwise known as lard, and used it for cooking other foods. For example, for frying eggs, making pie crust, in baked beans, etc. Just drain off the fat that’s left in the pan after the bacon is done cooking, be sure there aren’t any small bacon pieces left in it, and store it in a container in the refrigerator until you need it.
Many people say you can store lard safely at room temperature, and I know my grandmother did. But I would not recommend that.
17. Collect food scraps to feed to local farm animals.
If you live near a farm that raises chickens or pigs you might ask the farmer if they would be interested in your food scraps to use as feed for their animals.
There are certain types of food scraps that the farmers might be interested in using depending on the rest of their feeding system for their livestock. Obviously the care and health of their animals if of primary concern to them. So following any guidelines the farmer sets is very important.
If you don’t have a local farmer you can donate to, check with your county agricultural extension office, or even your solid waste management company to see if they know of programs in your area that accept food scraps for animal feed.
To find out more about the possibilities, guidelines, and regulations check out the EPA’s web page on reducing food waste.
Composting is an absolutely AWESOME way to keep most food scraps from the landfill.
You may remember the statistic from the beginning of this article that in 2017 almost 41 million tons of food waste was created. Only 6.3% of that was kept out of landfills and incinerators and actually composted. We can do better than that!
Composting isn’t difficult. But you do need some space for it. So if you are in an apartment or have very little land or live in a neighborhood that doesn’t allow composting this can make things tricky.
Be sure to do a quick search of your city or town for any ordinances that limit composting.
If you have space and want to give composting a try, check out this post I wrote on composting. At the bottom there is a link to a free Master Composting course from the University of Wisconsin.
Or if you have enough room you can try the trench compost method. For this method, you just basically dig a trench and bury your waste scraps 12-18 inches deep. You can find out the ins and outs in this helpful PDF from the Compost Education Center of British Columbia.
You might be able to use a community composting center if you can’t do your own composting. For example, in Rochester, NY for $16/month you can get a 4-gallon bin to put your food scraps in, and then every week you put your bin out (like you would your garbage) and they actually come and pick up your food scraps and swap out a fresh bin.
Then every spring they give finished compost back to you for free to use in your yard and garden. Pretty cool, right. You can team up with neighbors and if they only have to pick up buckets in one spot, the additional subscriptions are only $8/month. It’s worth checking to see if your community has anything like this.
If you’re in an apartment you might also consider the FoodCycler. It’s an appliance that looks kind of like a bread machine and it can take your food scraps and in 3 hours turn them into a dry odor free nutrient-rich material that you can add to your plants or give away to people who have plants and gardens. You can learn more about the FoodCycler on Amazon’s web page.
Technically this isn’t “composting” but it ends up turning food waste into a great product to use on your garden or lawn so I think that’s not a bad deal.
19. Start a Composting Group
If your community doesn’t have a composting program look into getting one started with a couple of your friends. Someone will have to host the compost, which will likely be the person with the biggest yard.
If you have a community garden that you are a part of then you might consider getting permission to locate it there as well. Be sure that everyone involved knows what can be composted and what can’t. Take turns with turning the compost if that’s the kind of composting you decide to do. Set a schedule so everyone knows when it’s their responsibility.
20. Work with Homeless Shelters & Food Banks
Contact your local homeless shelter or food bank to see what food items they might accept. Think about being a volunteer to help connect places that have leftover food, like university dining halls, with people who need food at soup kitchens. It’s trickier with perishable food than with canned goods, but you might be surprised at what kind of system can be set up and how helpful it is in reducing food waste and feeding those in need.
Thank you for reading and thank you for caring about our environment and the cost of food waste on both an economic and environmental scale. Every decision we make counts! If we work together we can make a difference!