Green living

How to Avoid Food Waste and Save Money

Food waste going into a composting bin.


What would you do if you had an extra $1300 lying around at the end of the year? What about an extra $1500? $1800? Would you treat yourself by going to an upscale spa or upgrading some home appliances?

Well, one thing is for sure, you would be spending less on food.

According to numerous studies, American households spend between $1300 and $1500 on food that becomes waste.

What Is Food Waste?

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food waste is defined as "food that is fit for consumption but consciously discarded at the retail or consumption phases".

Essentially, on the average-consumer level, food waste is what happens when safe and edible food is thrown away. Food can be thrown away for aesthetic reasons, because the consumer overbought, or because the food was stored improperly or for too long.

But that does not mean that the end consumer is solely responsible for food waste.

Michigan State University offers a breakdown of the process of food waste through each phase of food production:

  • Phase 1: Losses during production and harvest

  • Phase 2: Post-harvest, handling, and storage losses

  • Phase 3: Losses during packaging and processing

  • Phase 4: Distribution and retail losses

  • Phase 5: Consumer losses including restaurant foods

As of 2018, food waste made up almost 22 % of municipal solid waste, the second highest category of waste following paper waste.

As you might imagine, this massive amount of wasted food has to go somewhere. Unfortunately, it does not often end up in places that promote positive environmental effects. About 95% of discarded food ends up in landfills, making food waste a rampant contributor to climate change.

The USDA says this about food waste's effect on the climate:

"When food is discarded, all inputs used in producing, processing, transporting, preparing, and storing discarded food are also wasted. Food loss and waste also exacerbates the climate change crisis with its significant greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint. Production, transportation, and handling of food generate significant Carbon Dioxide (CO2) emissions and when food ends up in landfills, it generates methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas..."

Fighting against food waste not only helps you be more environmentally conscious, but also fight food insecurity, positively impact farming practices, promote resource and energy conservation, and address climate change, which in turn, could also decrease climate change-related impacts on the agricultural supply chain.

The top 5 most common types of wasted foods are fruits, vegetables, dairy products, bread, and meats.

How to Reduce Food Waste

While it may seem like an unavoidable hazard of grocery shopping, here is a list of 10 ways you can reduce your household food waste.

1. Store Smartly

Knowing how to properly store your produce is the best way to reduce your food waste. For example, to prevent them from spoiling, do not put potatoes, onions, garlic, squash, and tomatoes in the refrigerator. However, do put apples, pears, loose root vegetables, and leafy greens in the refrigerator to keep them nice and crisp.

The freezer can also be your friend for storing food. Buying frozen veggies can reduce the hassle of knowing how to store certain items. Raw meats and fresh bread wrapped in tinfoil are the author's favorite freezer fixes. (Meat will store for a long time and the bread can be heated up to be as fresh as the day you bought it!)

Click for a more comprehensive list of produce storage and a handy chart of food short-term storage tips.

2. Proceed on a Plan

Planning meals is another easy way to reduce your food waste. Before you go grocery shopping for the week, pre-plan your meals. You now have a basic shopping list of the ingredients you need to cook those meals. This will help you stay within budget and within your needs for the week.

Also, if you have been keeping up with the tips from our blog post "6 Simple Switches You Can Make To Reduce Your Plastic Consumption", then there are probably some items already in your home from buying them in bulk, so make sure check your pantry (and refrigerator) first before buying anything new.

3. Love Those Leftovers

When you save food that you intend to eat later, actually eat it later! Loving your leftovers does not only mean eating them cold or heating them up. Loving your leftovers means refreshing them with more ingredients and repurposing them into entirely new meals. Or, if you cannot eat them within two or three days and you really want to keep them, put those leftovers in your freezer. One of the best ways to ensure those lovely leftovers get eaten is to plan ahead a day of eating mostly leftovers.

4. Personal Produce

One of the more time-consuming, but rewarding ways of preventing food waste is to grow your own food. There are a lot of variables to growing your own food like yard space, climate, and time. There are also a lot of things that could go wrong during the growing process like drought, pests, using the wrong fertilizer, or overwatering. However, the effort is often worth the reward. Think about the types of seasonal produce you buy: tomatoes and cucumber in the summer, squash and beets in the fall, and radishes and spinach in the spring. All of those are seasonal produce that is at its best quality during certain times of the year.

By growing your own, you can have quality produce to eat (both fresh now and preserved for later) for a fraction of the monetary and planetary cost of driving to the grocery store to buy it. If gardening food intimidates you, start small! Grow some herbs like parsley, chives, and basil; they require very little effort, just daily sun and water. For some tips on how to start a food garden, check out these tips from FoodPrint.

5. Discern Package Dates

Another common cause of food waste is a misunderstanding of the dates that are printed on the packages of your food. The dates found on food products inform both the seller and consumer about the shelf-life and optimal quality of the product. What you might not know is that many foods can still be eaten safely after these dates (with the exception of fresh meats, dairy products and some produce products like pre-cut vegetables). Harvard University's School of Public Health has a guide to understanding food labels that explain the differences between sell-by, best-by, and use-by dates.

6. Practice Preserving

Preserving food might seem like a dated approach to keeping fruit in a spreadable form, but it actually means a lot of things about how you keep your food in the long term. Preserving requires patience, time, and trial and error. However, if you want to save money by buying in bulk (a plastic-use-reducing and money-saving tip!) you can use different methods of preserving to store your food items for long-term storage, saving you money over time.

Some of the most common ways to preserve your food for long-term storage are freezing, dehydrating, pickling, fermenting, and canning. The Good Trade has compiled more information on these methods of long-term food preservation including how long the food lasts, what materials you need to start preserving, and video tutorials on how to begin these different types of preserving.

7. Cook Like a Chef

Are you ready to be the next Iron Chef? How about the next Worst Cook in America? Luckily, cooking like a chef in terms of preventing food waste is not very difficult or time-consuming, but you need to be dedicated to trying new things.

There are many ways to "cook like a chef'' that prevent food waste. The main focus of this exercise in preventing food waste is to ensure that all parts of any products you cook with are used. Essentially, it is the most literal form of "how not to waste food" on this list, as all parts of most of your produce from stems to seeds to leaves can be used in your cooking. Visit Food Print's list of 17 Zero Waste Cooking Ideas for more suggestions on how to use the various parts of your produce in the kitchen.

8. Know Your Growers

Did you know that where you buy your grocery is as important as what you buy? Michigan State University suggests you buy your produce locally as a way to cut down on the negative environmental impact of your buying produce; because it goes through fewer phases of production and distribution when grown and sold locally.

The Good Trade takes this a step further and suggests buying your produce from regenerative farms. This practice not only reduces the environmental impact of growing and transporting produce to you by encouraging local produce buying, but it also negates some of the negative effects of poor farming practices that have become industry standard in the United States by prompting you to support farms that practice regenerative agriculture.

9. There's an App for That!

Yes, really! In fact, there isn't just one app that helps you prevent food waste, there are multitudes of food waste-preventing apps. These apps provide a variety of services to help you prevent food waste.

Some help you find food (or even complete meals) from restaurants and grocery stores that are about to expire, and purchase that food at an incredibly reduced price or just take it off the business' hands for free. Some apps allow you to give food away by directing you to give that food to those in need in your area. Some help you skip the store and send almost-wasted produce directly to your door. Well + Good has a list of 7 apps that can help you do your part to end food waste and potentially help local businesses.

10. If You Must Discard It, Compost It

Another literal form of "how not to waste food", composting is an easy way to help the planet (and your lawn or garden). The term "compost" actually describes the decomposition process of organic materials. There is a lot to the science of composting but there are also a lot of benefits. According to Common Ground Compost, composting your food scraps can improve soil structure, fertilize, and cause plants to be more disease and pest-resistant.

You might be wondering what you should put in your compost. The short answer is, unfortunately, that all compost piles vary. (As we said earlier, there's a lot of science involved!) However, the long answer is, according to Common Ground Compost, fruit and vegetable scraps, leaves, dried flowers, grass clippings, wood chips, mulch, egg and nut shells, rice, and bread. Once your compost pile has finished the decomposition process, there are a few different ways you can use that compost to benefit your lawn and garden. As stated earlier, it can be a fertilizer for your edible plants. However, compost can also be a fertilizer for your lawn and grassy areas. When you use compost in place of mulch, it adds nutrients to the soil as it continues to decompose. When you use compost as a potting mix for your indoor plants, you are giving your plants a variety of nutrients that are not available in regular potting mix.

There are also organizations where you can donate or sell your compost, should you not need all of it for your home. Many of these organizations even pick up the compost right from your door! Also, if you do not have the facilities or the time to make your own compost, there is likely a number of sellers of certified compost in your state you can contact if you would like to use compost in your home.

You've Got This

Reducing your food waste does more than positively impact your wallet. You can impact your garden, your health, and the environment by reducing your food waste through any one of the methods listed above.

Remember to start small. When making the "green" choice, choose one way to reduce your food waste and stick with it. Small steps turn into systemic shifts toward substantial success. May your food waste-reducing habits grow with your compost pile!

Read more from The Sour Scoop blog to learn other ways to choose sustainable, waste-free, and "green" for your home or business.

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