Tips for Food Waste Prevention

Getting food from the farm to our fork eats up 10% of the total U.S. energy budget, uses 50% of U.S. land, and swallows 80% of all freshwater consumed in the U.S. Yet, 40% of food in the U.S. today goes uneaten. - Natural Resources Defense Council, 2012

On September 16, 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the first ever domestic goal to reduce food lost and waste by 50% by 2030. The USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) defines food waste as "the component of food loss that occurs when an edible item goes unconsumed, as in food discarded by retailers due to color or appearance and plate waste by consumers." On the consumer level, we can take immediate action to prevent food waste by educating ourselves and making a few changes to the way we think and to our daily routines.

Food is wasted when we buy more than we need, plan poorly without meal plans and shopping lists, store or prepare it incorrectly, have confusion over date labels and throw away leftovers. When we throw away food, we also waste all the resources - including fresh water, land, energy, labor and capital - used to produce, package and transport food from the farm to our plates. Meanwhile, 50 million Americans do not have consistent access to food. Food waste significantly impacts our environment and our communities.

Food Waste by the Numbers

  • 40% of food produced in the U.S. is wasted each year, which represents a retail value loss of $166 billion and produces 135 million tons of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions
  • The average American household of four throws out 25% of the food they purchase each year, which costs them at least $1,500 annually
  • The average American throws away about 20 pounds (or about $35 worth) of food each month
  • In terms of total mass, fresh fruits and vegetables account for 28%, dairy accounts for 17%, meat accounts for 12%, and seafood accounts for 33% of total food losses at the consumer level

Smart Shopping: Buy What You Need

Plan your meals in advance and create a shopping list. It helps to check your fridge, freezer and cupboards to see what you already have before heading to the store. Include any take-out or dining out meals. These actions allow you to accurately estimate what's needed for meal preparation and to buy only what you need. Sticking to your shopping list helps you avoid impulse buys and marketing tricks that lead to overbuying and, more often than not, food waste. Stay on track with this helpful Weekly Shopping List (PDF).

Keep in mind that although bulk purchases and promotions may cost less per ounce, if the food spoils before being eaten, it may actually cost you more in the long run.

Choose to buy loose produce over pre-packaged produce to avoid packaging waste, better control the quantity you need and ensure fresh ingredients.

Misfit FoodChoose to buy imperfect produce that vary in "normal" size, shape or color the next time you're grocery shopping. About 20 billion pounds of perfectly healthy produce is wasted at the farm each year before it even reaches the grocery store because it doesn't meet our strict cosmetic standards. Oddly-shaped or wrinkled produce may look different than what we consider "normal" on the outside, but it's still perfectly fresh, nutritious and delicious. By supporting retailers or local farmers who sell imperfect produce, you're voting with your money to reduce food waste and to change the conversation about food choice.

Smart Storage: Keep Food Fresh

Know which fruits and veggies stay fresh longer inside or outside the fridge. By storing them properly for maximum freshness, our fruits and vegetables will not only last longer, but they'll also taste better.

Keep inside the fridge:

  • Apples, berries, and cherries
  • Grapes, kiwi, lemons, and oranges
  • Melons, nectarines, apricots, peaches, and plums (after ripening at room temperature)
  • Avocados, pears, tomatoes (after ripening at room temperature)
  • Almost all vegetables and herbs

Keep outside the fridge:

  • Bananas, mangoes, papayas, and pineapples (store in a cool place)
  • Potatoes and onions (store in a cool, dark place)
  • Basil and winter squashes (store at room temperature; once cut, store squashes in fridge)

Download this handy Fruits and Vegetables Storage Guide (PDF) for more details.

  • Keep apples, bananas, citrus, and tomatoes away from other produce as they give off ethylene gas that hastens the spoilage of nearby produce
  • Separate very ripe fruit from fruit that isn't as ripe
  • Store fruits and vegetables in different bins
  • Wash berries just before eating to prevent mold
  • Rather than keeping a fruit bowl out, take what you'll eat for the day out of the fridge in the morning if you like your fruit at room temperature
  • Consider using storage containers designed to help extend the life of your produce; make sure the containers used are safe for heating and cooling
  • If you don't have time to eat it, freeze it! Continue reading in the Prep Now, Eat Later section to learn more
  • Produce past its prime may still be fine for cooking; chop it up and combine with the random assortment of ingredients in your fridge to make:
    • Sauces
    • Smoothies
    • Soup
    • Stock
    • Frittatas
    • Casseroles and more

This is Where Food Waste Ends. Freeze. Plan. Conquer.Smart Prep: Prep Now, Eat Later

  • Prepare perishable foods soon after shopping. You'll make it easier to whip up meals later in the week, saving time, effort and money
  • When you get home from the store, wash, dry, chop, dice, slice and place your fresh food items in clear storage containers for snacks, easy cooking and use throughout the month
  • Remember to label your frozen food to avoid any future Unidentified Frozen Object incident
  • Freeze food such as bread that you know you won't be able to eat in time, and visit your freezer often; earn more by visiting the Save the Food: the Art of Freezing page

Smart Saving: Eat What You Buy

Be mindful of old ingredients and leftovers you need to use up. Learn how to correctly interpret food date labels.

  • Move food that's likely to spoil soon to the front of the shelf or a designated "eat now" area each week
  • Have an "eat the leftovers" night once or twice a week; you can experiment with different recipes, find a new favorite dish and prevent food waste in the process
  • Use the Ikea effect; people tend to like things they helped make, and children are no different so involve your kids in cooking
    • The Ikea effect can also extend to gardening or visiting farms or the local farmers' market. Kids who are involved in growing fruits and vegetables are more likely to eat them; give your child an appreciation and respect for the resources required to bring food to the table, and you'll have less cleaning to do as a result

There are many apps and websites out there that provide suggestions for using food past its prime and the random assortment of leftover ingredients you may have on hand. Employ that use-it-up mindset to prevent food waste. Resources include, but are not limited to the following:

Understand Expiration Date Labels

An estimated 90% of Americans prematurely discard food due to confusion over the meaning of date labels (e.g., "sell by," "best if used by," "expires," etc.), according to a 2013 study by Harvard Law School and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). In reality, these food date labels aren't federally regulated, except in the case of some infant formula, and only serve as manufacturer suggestions for peak quality. This is what date-labeling phrases really mean, according to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service:

  • "Best if Used By/Before" indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality - it is not a purchase or safety date
  • "Sell-By" date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management - it is not a safety date
  • "Use-By" date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality - it is not a safety date except for when used on infant formula