The next time you’re hauling groceries home, save yourself some time and just dump half in the trash. Sounds nuts, right?—but according to a new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Americans are pretty much doing exactly that.
After analyzing all the data that exists on food waste, the NRDC found that Americans waste 20 pounds of food a month per person—that’s 40% of the food produced each year. When it comes to seafood, we eat just half, and the rest goes to waste. And 52% of fruits and veggies grown on farms wind up in landfills.
What's driving all this food waste? Every hand that touches food—from farmer to shopper—is partly responsible. For instance, low commodity prices on certain foods can mean that it's cheaper for a farmer to leave a field unharvested than to pay for labor, packaging, and shipping. And because customers like their produce perfect, even slightly sub par produce gets tossed. Oh, and restaurants? Even asking for a doggie bag doesn’t cut it—55% of diners' leftovers are left behind, the report found.
Then there's your kitchen. The average family of four wastes 25% of its purchased food. That's $1,365 to $2,275 we spend every year on food that winds up in the garbage.
Here’s the good news: You can do something about this, starting at home. Here’s how:
1. Shop wisely. Create menus for the week, incorporating leftovers and foods that might spoil if not used up, suggests Lois Killcoyne, RD, food-preservation expert with the Pennsylvania State University Extension program. Before going to the grocery store, take an inventory of what needs to be used so you can buy other items around those for meals.
2. Don’t be duped at the store. Some of the biggest problems at the consumer end, the report noted, is that we’re suckers for sales and promotions, meaning we often end up buying stuff we don’t need and won’t use. Stick to your list and don't stray from it, no matter how good a deal you see on perishable goods. A good rule of thumb for buying produce? Buy one that's ripe, one that's medium ripe, and one that's green, to prevent a mass spoiling.
3. Ignore the dates. Though "use by," "sell by," and "best by" dates show up on everything from bread to bacon, they don't mean anything, and—except the dates on infant formula—aren’t even regulated by the government. A recent study from the UK found that roughly 20% of food is wasted because of confusion over these arbitrary labels. So don't toss food based on label dates; use your nose and your eyes.
4. Organize your fridge. Make sure everything is visible so nothing gets shoved in the back and forgotten. Also develop a weekly habit of rotating about-to-go-bad produce, dairy, and meats to the front.
5. Put your freezer to work. Frozen fruits and veggies are smart options if your fresh produce tends to spoil before you use it all. Another option: Freeze any fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs you have that are about to go stale. Even milk and cheese can be frozen before they go rancid. Fruits can usually be frozen whole, while vegetables need to be blanched before freezing.
6. Eat on smaller plates. The size of the average American dinner plate has increased 36% between 1960 and 2007, and that leads people to load up on food they can't finish (or they do finish, leading to a whole other set of problems). Switch to eating dinner off salad plates.
7. When you must, compost. Food waste makes up 25%, by weight, of all garbage that gets sent to landfills, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. There, it decomposes and creates methane, a greenhouse gas that's 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Find a corner of your yard and start a compost heap, where unused food and scraps can decompose without producing methane.