Soon we’ll be heading into the eating season, stuffing ourselves with holiday fare. But how much of it will end up in the garbage?
Plenty, say food waste experts. Over a third of all food in the United States goes uneaten. Much of that is commercial food waste — crops left in fields and foods spoiled in transport or tossed by retailers. But about 40 percent of food waste happens in the home, according to Feeding America, a nonprofit working to end hunger in the United States.
The problem is much of the food we waste is healthy food — fruits, vegetables and proteins that we let spoil. Wasting food increases the odds that you’ll reach for packaged and ultraprocessed food that is less healthful.
And while it’s counterintuitive, studies have shown that people waste more food during difficult financial times. The reason: People buy in bulk to save money, only to end up tossing a lot of spoiled food. The average family of four spends $1,500 annually on wasted food, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
“Food waste reduction at home is where you can make the biggest changes with the least difficulty,” says Christopher Wharton, associate professor of nutrition at Arizona State University who studies residential food waste. “And unlike other sustainability behaviors, it saves a huge amount of money.”
From smarter shopping and storage to getting creative with leftovers, here’s how you can reduce food waste in your home.
Make a better shopping list
Any good food waste reduction plan should start with a list, Wharton says, that way “every food has a fate, and you avoid overbuying.”
Wharton personally uses a spreadsheet with columns organized by the aisles at his local grocery store. He jots down the ingredients his family normally buys and then adds new items as they run out or plan new meals for the week.
Scan your refrigerator, freezer and pantry to avoid buying food you already have. Think about your week in advance and buy only what you need for meals you’ll eat at home, says Edward Spang, associate professor of food science and technology at the University of California at Davis. Consider how many times you’ll eat out each week, whether you’ll have leftovers to last you a couple of days and whether you want to eat frozen precooked foods, he said.
Rethink bulk buying
Buying in bulk saves money, but only if you use all the food before it spoils, says Brian Roe, professor of farm management at Ohio State University and leader of the Ohio State Food Waste Collaborative.
Many foods spoil faster than you might think. Berries, leafy greens, avocados and fresh herbs go bad quickly, even when stored properly. FoodSafety.gov offers a food storage chart indicating at what point your risk for food poisoning increases. Once a package is opened, most products last only a matter of days.
Buy the ugly fruits and vegetables
You can also help reduce food waste by buying the “ugly” fruits and vegetables at the store, Roe said, which are just as nutritious but often overlooked.
Understand expiration dates
Except for infant formula, expiration dates, typically listed as sell-by, use-by, or best if used-by dates, are indicators of food quality, not safety, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). This means you can consume unopened perishable foods after the printed date passes.
Use your senses to determine whether a food is safe to eat, Roe says. “If you don’t see it or smell it, it’s very likely your food is just fine,” he said. Toss things like chunky milk and moldy soft cheeses. You can cut moldy parts off hard cheeses.
But once opened, you need to store food properly. “If you leave your yogurt on the counter overnight, you’ve put it in a situation that it’s not supposed to be in, so those dates mean even less.”
Organize your fridge and pantry to reduce spoilage
Make sure you’re storing refrigerated foods properly, which will help them last longer and taste better. Here are some tips.
- Avoid storing foods in the door. The door is the warmest part of the fridge, so it’s a good place to store condiments, but not eggs or dairy. Lower shelves are the coldest; store your meat, poultry and fish there. Doing so will also prevent bacteria from spilling onto other foods, Wharton says.
- Push open foods and leftovers up front. You’re more likely to eat them if you see them, said Roe. Invest in clear storage containers that you can stack for easy access.
- Avoid overcrowding. Storing foods that don’t require refrigeration in the fridge can prolong their life, but avoid overcrowding, says Randy Worobo, professor of food microbiology at Cornell University. Cramming your fridge will block air circulation, creating hot and cold spots that could spoil or freeze sensitive foods.
- Freeze foods when you can. It prevents the growth of bacteria, yeasts and molds that cause spoilage and foodborne illness. Freezing also slows enzyme activity that causes food to deteriorate. You can freeze nearly anything with the exception of canned foods and eggs in shells, the USDA says.
- Separate counter foods. Counter storage is also important. Some fruits, such as bananas, apples and avocados release ethylene gas as they ripen, which can make nearby produce ripen and therefore spoil more quickly. “Don’t put all your fruits and vegetables in one basket — literally,” Wharton says. Place produce such as onions, garlic and potatoes in a cool, dark and dry environment.
- Know your drawers: Put leafy greens, carrots and other veggies prone to wilting in the high humidity drawer of the fridge. Store fruits and veggies such as mushrooms and peppers that tend to rot in the low humidity drawer. Wrap celery in aluminum foil, and put fresh herbs such as parsley and cilantro in a small glass of water to revive or prolong their life, Spang says.
You can find storage recommendations for specific foods on the FoodKeeper app, developed by experts with the USDA, Cornell University and Food Marketing Institute.
Revive wilted greens and fruits
Don’t be afraid to repurpose foods that might look unappetizing but are still safe to eat, such as browned bananas or wilted greens. “Instead of serving them fresh, put food in a soup, blend it into a puree or toss it on the grill where the cosmetic elements are no longer that critical,” Roe says.
Repurpose your leftovers
Turn leftovers into something new. Make croutons out of stale bread, turn vegetables into stew or make a sandwich out of last night’s chicken. Or just freeze them, which “prevents palate exhaustion,” Worobo says. After thawing, eat leftovers within three to four days, or simply refreeze them.
Do you have a question about healthy eating? Email EatingLab@washpost.com and we may answer your question in a future column.