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6 Ways to Reduce Your Food Waste

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For many of us, the kitchen is the heart of our home. It may be a cramped little space just big enough for a stove and a sink where you make your morning brew. Or you may be lucky enough to have a cavernous open-plan space with all the latest mod-cons to let loose your inner Gordon Ramsay. Whatever set-up we may have, the kitchen is a place where we cook, eat, talk, work, and ruminate.

Perhaps due to the amount of time we spend in them, our kitchens also produce the most waste out of all the areas of our home. RTS estimates that when it comes to food waste alone, Americans throw out nearly 40 million tons of food each year, with a value of $161 billion. Add to this the fact that nearly 45% of all plastic ending up in landfills comes from food packaging and containers, and you can see that the average American household produces a staggering amount of waste just from cooking and eating.

Thankfully, the scale of the problem is not insurmountable. In comparison to a decade ago, there are lots of easy and cheap solutions that you can implement right now to help reduce the amount of food and plastic waste your kitchen generates.

1. Make a meal plan

A major cause of food waste is that we often buy more than we need. Pushing our trolley through the aisles of the supermarket, we are assaulted by a veritable cacophony of product choices, each trying to entice themselves into your fridge and pantry. Even if we have a shopping list, we often grab items that we were not planning on buying because the packaging looks enticing, or there is a promo on. Combine this targeted advertising with the fact that many Americans try to save money by buying in bulk, and you can see how easy it is load up our trolleys with stuff that we don’t actually need.

An easy fix is to plan out your meals for the week in advance. Sit down together as a family and discuss what you would like to eat, including any snacks. This planning also gives you the chance to see where you can make some savings – for instance, if you see that you have chosen two meals that call for mushrooms, then you can buy a club size pack of mushrooms; otherwise, you are probably okay with a smaller pack. In addition, if you know that one day you will be eating out or having a take-away, then you do not need to plan a meal for that day. In this way, meal planning not only reduces avoidable food waste, but oftentimes helps save you money on your grocery shop as well.

2. Use your leftovers

Another common culprit when it comes to avoidable food waste is leftovers. It is easy to overestimate how much we will eat, so we are frequently left with some1 to spare. But, instead of simply throwing this perfectly good food into the bin, you have several alternatives:

  • Eat it – many people are under the assumption that you need to cook a different meal each day. While this certainly keeps you weekly meal line-up diverse, there may be days when you do not feel like cooking or you simply do not have time; in such cases, you will be grateful that you kept that leftover spaghetti you cooked the day before.
  • Freeze it – many cooked foods, such as pasta sauces, soups, bakes, and curries can be frozen if you want to save them for a later day. In addition, if you realize that you will not finish all your cheese, ham, bread or yoghurt before its best before date, simply stick it in the freezer to extend its shelf life.
  • Re-use it – most leftover meat can be reused in an alternative dish. For instance, leftover roast chicken can be repurposed for chicken soup or a chicken pot pie. In addition, leftover mashed potato can be turned into dumplings, croquettes or be used to make shepherd’s pie. There are even specific cookbooks dedicated to reusing leftovers, so there is no excuse not to try this simple solution to reducing food waste in a creative and delicious way.

3. Shop smart

While some food packaging is sadly unavoidable due to safety reasons, you can still take steps to reduce how much single-use plastic you take home with your grocery shopping, as well as reduce the amount of food that you don’t end up using:

  • Buy loose – if you have not eaten an entire bag of apples the past few times you have bought them in bulk, then consider buying a fewer number of loose apples instead. While many fruits and vegetables – and increasingly nuts, chocolates and cereals – are presented in bulk (and packaged in plastic), most supermarkets and grocery shops do offer loose alternatives, which can be a great option if you live by yourself or do not end up using the whole of a bulk-buy pack before the expiry date.
  • Check ripeness – most fruit and vegetables, especially in the loose produce section, range from very green to almost overripe. If you have made a meal plan in advance of your shopping trip, then you will be able to assess whether you should buy greener or riper produce, depending on when you want to use it by. This avoids things spoiling in your fridge, and also reduces the amount of food that supermarkets end up throwing out.
  • Go bagless – if you are buying loose produce, avoid single-use plastic bags by investing in multi-use cloth produce baggies, or just plopping the produce straight in your trolley without bagging it at all.
  • Use the deli – if you are an avid consumer of charcuterie, and regularly shop at a supermarket with a deli, then consider buying your favorite hams and cheeses in larger quantities from the deli, instead of buying multiple little packages (which contain fewer slices and result in more single-use plastic waste).

4. Know your expiry dates

Another important reason why more food ends up in the bin than needs be is because 90% of Americans misinterpret food expiry dates. Here is a lowdown of what each of them means:

  • Manufactured On – this date simply states when the product was made and has nothing to do with expiry.
  • Best Before – this label tells you before what date the manufacturer is guaranteeing the optimal flavor and quality of the product. Food past its ‘best before’ date is usually still edible, but the quality may have deteriorated a bit (the food may have separated, or the taste may not be as fresh).
  • Sell By – this date is aimed at retailer and tells supermarket staff until what date they can display the product on their shelves. Food is still edible past the sell-by date, as manufacturers anticipate that in most cases, consumers will store the product at home before using it. Sell-by dates are normally accompanied by a ‘best before’ or ‘use by’ date.
  • Use By – this is probably the label that causes the most confusion, as some manufacturers used this wording to mean ‘best before’ while others use it to mean that the food must be used by the stated date in order to ensure that the food is safe to consume.

There is a push by regulators and various industry groups to standardize expiry labelling to make consumers’ lives easier when it comes to assessing what food to keep and what food to toss. However, there are a couple of important things to note about expiry dates:

  • Expiry dates are usually determined via lab testing, for which there are no set parameters. Therefore, some expiry dates may be conservative, while others may be based on ‘optimal’ storage conditions. Therefore, more often than not, food is safe to eat for a couple of days past the expiry date, unless you noticed obvious signs of spoiling (like mold, mildew, discoloration, slime or a bad smell).
  • Expiry dates assume that food will be stored correctly. Some food will spoil faster if kept in the fridge, while others will go off if not kept in the fridge. Check the packaging for instructions on proper storage.
  • Certain non-perishable items such as dried fruits, nuts and seeds, dried spices, pasta, flour, sugar and honey (provided that it does not contain any artificial preservatives) can be used well past their expiration date, provided that they are stored correctly. In addition, most canned items (with the exception of canned tomatoes, juices and pickles) can be safely stored for up to 5 years.

5. Use your fridge wisely

In comparison to the rest of the world, Americans have large fridges. As a result, it is easy to lose sight of your food if it is crammed to bursting, leading to food becoming spoiled. In addition, many of us store things in our fridge that can actually have a longer shelf-life in the pantry. Therefore, if you want to avoid food waste, make sure you use your fridge wisely.

The first step in organizing your fridge is to take everything out and toss anything that looks questionable. Then, wipe down all the shelves, drawers, and compartments with a kitchen disinfectant to clear away any food residue and bacterial build-up. You should aim to clean out your fridge once a month or every couple of months.

Once your fridge is clean and fresh, restock it, using the following system:

  • Top shelf – the top shelf should be reserved for ready-to-eat foods like cheese, eggs, yoghurt, spreads and deli meats. If you have space, you can also store left-overs and drinks here.
  • Middle shelf – the middle shelf can be used to store any items that do not fit on the top shelf, as well as eggs and herbs.
  • Bottom shelf – the bottom shelf should be reserved for raw meat, in order to avoid any juices dripping onto other food.
  • Crisper drawers – the bottom drawers of a fridge are often temperature and humidity controlled to help keep food fresh for longer. Modern fridges will have one drawer for fruit and vegetables, and another drawer for meats, but you can use the drawers exclusively for fresh produce or meats. If you are storing fresh produce in the drawers, line the bottom with paper towels to help soak up excess moisture and keep your food fresh for longer. Also, avoid overpacking your fruits and vegetables, as this can lead to bruising and faster spoiling.
  • Sides – the door compartments of a fridge are actually the warmest part of the fridge, so only long-life items like condiments, soft drinks and pickles should be stored here.

In addition, the following items do not need to be stored in the fridge, which frees up space for those items that do:

  • Most fruits and vegetables ripen better and taste juicier if left at room temperature (and will go soft and spoil faster in a fridge, as the cold temperature breaks the outer protective skin)
  • Most condiments can be kept out of the fridge, provided that you use them up relatively quickly; however, if you do not expect to use them up within a month, then stick them in the fridge
  • Honey, peanut butter, and chocolate spreads should be kept in the pantry, as they will go hard in the fridge
  • Butter while commonly kept in the fridge, can actually be kept in the pantry for about week, especially if you prefer slightly softer butter for easier spreading; however, if storing for longer, stick it in the fridge
  • Eggs can be kept at room temperature if they have not previously been refridgerated. But, if you buy your eggs from the refridgerated section of the supermarket, or if you cannot be 100% certain that the eggs were not previously kept in a cold environment, then you need to store them in the fridge at home, as otherwise the eggs will start to 'sweat', leaving them open to bacterial contamination.
  • Bread and pastries should be kept in the pantry as refrigerating it will make it go stale faster. To extend its life, freeze any bread you are not planning to eat in the next few days, and wrap the rest in a kitchen towel to stop it from drying out.
  • Chocolate should not be kept in the fridge, as it can lead to the cocoa butter separating (leading to a white coating on your chocolate); it’s still safe to eat, but it will not taste its best.

For a full list of food and how to store them, check the FDA’s FoodKeeper app.

6. Compost

Composting is seriously underutilized in the US as a method to reduce food waste, even though the EPA estimates that it could divert 30% of organic waste away from landfills. This may be partly due to the fact that many of us under the impression that you need an outdoor space to be able to compost, because it is a smelly and kind of icky process (food thrown in the bin smells, after all), so you want to hide it in a discreet corner of your garden.

This aversion to composting due to the perceived yuck factor stems from a misunderstanding about how composting works. Correctly set-up composters are aerobic environments, meaning that there is an abundance of oxygen that allows organic material to break down fully, without the release of smelly gases. Bins and landfills, on the other hand, are anaerobic environments (i.e. there is a lack of free-floating oxygen), which forces decomposing organic material to ‘steal’ oxygen from other compounds, thereby producing smelly by-products like methane.

Now that we have cleared up composting’s undeserved yuckiness, apartment and house dwellers alike will be happy to know that composting is not just for outside spaces. Clever eco-warriors have invented various composting solutions ranging from tried-and-tested backyard composting to the high-tech electronic composter. And don’t be put off if you don’t have a garden or even a measly houseplant to use your compost on – you can sell or donate your compost to green-fingered friends, relatives or neighbors.

But, if composting still grosses you out, then there are other options. More and more municipalities are starting to offer curb-side food waste collection, as waste processing facilities look to reduce the amount of rubbish that ends up in landfill, so if you happen to live in such an area, then all you need to do is invest in some compostable bin liners and you’re good to go. Alternatively, if you are lucky to live near a farmer’s market, many farmers will take unwanted fruits and vegetables for composting or for feeding to their animals.