Did you know that during a normal year here in the U.S., 108 billion pounds of food gets unceremoniously tossed into our ever-growing landfills? And if you think that’s appalling—especially given the fact that 38 million Americans suffer from food insecurity—you might want to take a seat, because the numbers are coming in worse for 2022. And ironically, it’s because more of us are buying groceries.
You see, in these sharply understated “unusual times,” more people have taken to their own kitchens instead of ordering or going out. But it takes time to figure out how “family-sized” portions are defined for a household, Overshoppers have contributed to $218 billion worth of wasted food according to Feeding America, and an average American family of four throws out $1,600 a year in produce alone. Individual households are responsible for 43% of the food waste in this country, followed closely by restaurants, grocery stores, and food service companies at 40%. And according to the World Wildlife Federation, the production of wasted food in the U.S. creates emissions equal to that of almost 33 million cars; it’s the number one source of methane emissions in our country. Worldwide, that’s part of a problem that has three times the footprint of the entire global airline industry. Yikes.
These numbers may seem harsh, scary, and insurmountable. But the good news is that change begins at home. Your home. By implementing a few smart tricks, you can save yourself more than $133 per month—and that’s solely based on the household of four statistic, which doesn’t even include meat. Here are 10 simple, small ways you can help humankind do better.
Stop treating expiration dates like facts
Start viewing expiration dates from a lens that’s fast, loose, and flexible. Because unbeknownst to the 80% of us who view sell-, use-, and best-by labels as expiration dates, they’re merely suggestions for taste and textural quality and not at all indicative of food safety or spoilage. Even the FDA itself has gone on record to debunk the importance we should place on these labels, and you’ll notice that rarely do products ever even use the word “expire” anymore. Yet still, it’s incredibly common for Americans to throw out food that’s perfectly fine to eat for unsubstantiated fear of contamination or food-borne illnesses. Recognizing this is the first step to reducing food waste significantly.
Make “Eat Me First” boxes for your pantry and fridge
While we are de-prioritizing best-by dates, there is still some value to them—they indicate when things are in their prime, and they also can help us track purchasing timelines. This is useful for creating “Eat Me First” boxes, which is a trend of grouping food that’s near its turning point together and storing them prominently to assure prioritization of its consumption. Doing this answers the question “What should I eat?” and can easily guide your dry snacking, yogurt eating, dairy consumption—even cooking, since it works for produce, too.
While loose fruits and vegetables may not be conveniently stamped with harvest dates, you can easily see, feel, and smell how close they’re getting to overripe. Store these boxes front and center in your pantry, refrigerators, and on your counters. Take stock of those spaces when the boxes start to look sparse so you know to re-up.
Save your veggie scraps and turn them into stock
Don’t just take stock of your fading produce—make stock with it. What you may think of as rubbish—like onion tops, garlic skins, carrot peels, tough vegetable stems, celery roots, and the like—is actually the base for a nice stock. Here’s a chef-y trick: collect your vegetable scraps in a zip-top bag and put it in the freezer. Continue to add to the bag until it’s full enough to make a big batch of from-scratch stock. All it needs is water, heat, some time and a strain, and voila!
Turn your scraps into snacks or cleaning solutions
If collecting over time isn’t your thing, turn your peels into chips! Air fryers make it easier than ever to make earthy potato chips, crunchy carrot chips, or even apple chips for a sweet snack. Wash, dry, season, and bake or fry for near-instant gratification. Try this basic vegetable chip recipe, to start.
Can’t get past the idea of eating what you’re used to perceiving as “garbage?” That’s okay. Some foods, like citrus peel, can be repurposed brilliantly into things like delicious-smelling, and highly effective cleaning solution. I also use dry peels to clean and freshen up my garbage disposal—this plumber-approved tutorial shows you how.Continue to 5 of 10 below.
Get comfortable with composting
Any gardener will tell you that compost is the key to healthy plants, better-tasting crops, and avoiding chemical fertilizers. And according to the EPA, more than 30% of what you toss is compostable. Make sure you have an equal amount of browns, like leaves—including tea—and twigs, to greens, which obviously includes your vegetable scraps as well as fruit and coffee grounds. Eggshells go in the pile, too. Here’s a list of things that can be composted.
And if you don’t have the dedicated kitchen space nor a big enough family to add to your compost bucket constantly, not to worry—many folks freeze their scraps in a compost bin or freezer bag until they’re ready to rock with the right proportions. Holding onto them that way will also help avoid attracting mold or pests as you gather.
Push “pause” on the shelf-life of your ingredients with fire and ice
Freezing raw ingredients and cooked dishes is a go-to for many. You’ll want to learn a few techniques, such as chopping up leafy greens first to grab handfuls more easily; laying liquids flat in zip-top baggies to save space; and single-layer freezing chicken breasts, dumplings, and the like before packaging them up for more even and easier future cooking and less freezer burn. Labeling and dating them will help you craft your freezer “Eat Me Now” box.
Cooking something will also help you hit the reset button on your ingredients when things start to go south. Cooking kills spoiling and other bacteria, so you get to start the clock back up—so salt, pepper, then grill, bake, or sauté your way to a little longer wiggle room.
Learn how to refresh your wilted, stale, and wrinkly groceries
There are lots of ways to revive your groceries with nothing more than what you already have in your kitchen. Here are a few examples:
- For baked goods, including unfrosted breakfast pastries and sliced or artisan breads, a medium bake for a few minutes in the toaster oven will do wonders and honestly, make it taste even fresher than straight out of the package.
- Leafy greens, like lettuce, bok choy, napa cabbage, and mature spinach will perk right up in a bath of cold water.
- Dried herbs and spices need the opposite to feel revived—bloom them in your cooking oil as you warm your pan to extract the last of their essential oils, open up their aromas, and infuse your dish.
- Stale cereal, crackers, and nuts need something more in between. They get that way due to absorbing too much moisture. A day or so in the refrigerator will dry them right out for a do-over.
Know your fridge temperature zones
All refrigerators have temperature zones, and knowing them can help you get the most time out of whatever you’re storing, thereby reducing waste. We talk about this in our fridge-buying FAQs, but the down and dirty our expert shared with us is that the door is the warmest (best for less vulnerable to spoilage items, like condiments); the lower shelves and back wall are the coldest (good for eggs, butter, cheese, and other dairy); and the upper shelves are the most consistent, so put your most sensitive items up there (like berries and herbs).
Meat goes on the bottom in case of leakage, preventing contamination of raw items which would necessitate waste; cheese and deli meat go in the deli drawer, which should be firmly shut; and produce should be in the crisper drawers with the correct humidity set (if applicable).Continue to 9 of 10 below.
Be smart about how you store your ingredients
Did you know refrigerated tomatoes will turn mealy? Or that you should be storing your asparagus like flower bouquets? Or that you can extend the shelf-life of berries by rinsing them in vinegar? You’ll be amazed at how much food and money you’ll save just by customizing your storage approach to a select few of your favorite foods. Here’s a list of popular items and how to properly store them, to start.
Make a meal plan to help combat food waste
When you prioritize reducing food waste, it’ll reframe the way you approach grocery shopping. Plan a few meals before you make your grocery list so that you buy only what you’re looking forward to eating—not what you might feel like having one day (maybe). You don’t have to stick with your plan; give yourself flexibility to riff and throw in other ingredients that need to be used up. But by getting excited about an anchor dish or two for the week, you’ll feel more motivated to follow through with using what you’re shopping for.
Before you go to the grocery store, do a quick inventory of your refrigerator and pantry. A lot of food waste happens when folks buy duplicates of things they already have, resulting in multiple opened, half-used bags of croutons, raisins, or what-have-you that you’ll end up tossing as they go bad. If you happen to have a surplus, use it to your advantage by employing any of the tips above,