Tips for Understanding and Avoiding Food Waste

By Jonathan Parker

You’ve probably heard it before. ‘Americans waste too much food!’ And while that may be true, it might not necessarily mean what you think. It’s easy to imagine a family cheerily cleaning out their refrigerator every week, tossing hundreds of pounds of perfectly good food into the trash to be shipped off to a landfill.

Although the average family of four throws away over $2,000 worth of food a year, the majority of waste happens before the food even reaches your table. 

It borders on the unbelievable. For all the time, research and effort put into effectively raising crops, almost 20% of the harvest is left on the field. Millions of tons of potential food simply rots in the rows, or is plowed under the soil.

Slaughterhouses have a similar waste ratio. Millions of tons of unprocessed meat and animal ‘by-products’ are discarded every year. And you might think most of the waste is lost in production. Unfortunately that is not the case. Even after the raw product has been harvested, packaged and shipped to your local grocery store, it’s not safe from being wasted. It falls under the jurisdiction of the almighty expiration date.

You should know that almost all food products are required to have the expiration date visibly printed. What you might not know is that in many cases, it’s not so much a hard timeline for decomposition as it is a general suggestion for freshness. And not an easy one to interpret. Is there a difference between sell-by and best-by dates? Does a food item automatically drop dead when it hits its coded departure date?

Most retail sellers err on the side of caution and immediately discard any products that reach the date printed on the label. A lot of this has to do with finicky consumers. Be honest, when you run across a can of beans that has a date 2 days older than the one next to it, which one do you pick? Do you really think that a product sealed for a two-year shelf life will be ruined if it manages to become 2 days older than its retail shelf neighbor? But we all want to be safe with our food, and people HAVE gotten sick from spoiled groceries. So what can you do?

Like all things in life, becoming frugal with food waste isn’t something likely to be launched on an international scale anytime soon. We need to start with ourselves, like fitness and recycling, and take individual responsibility for our impact. You’ll be glad you did, most of these tips translate to a lighter hit on your food expenses. 
  • Take the time to consider your grocery list. Plan your meals
Sure Admiral Crusty is on sale for .99 cents a box, but will you really eat 43 lbs of cereal in the next month? Meal planning can be a great help in this process, because if you’re like me, you often find random ‘hunger shopping’ items in your cart at the end of the trip. Knowing what meals you want to make in advance can help you stick to those ingredients and leave a night or two open for dinner out with the family. (If that’s in your budget). Another great benefit of meal planning is that it allows you to use fresher ingredients. Know what you are going to be using for the week, you know it won’t go bad, and you already have a use for it in your kitchen. 
  • Know how to store your food properly

This covers a few different thoughts. Knowing the proper way to store your groceries can help them stay fresh longer. Does this veggie need to be in the crisping drawer? Will my strawberries mold faster next to the refrigerator fan? Just a couple minutes of research can help you find the right fit for each item you buy, and help you get the maximum shelf-life from your items. There are some interesting devices out there that claim to eliminate mold or mildew from your fridge and keep your produce fresh longer. It sounds like an interesting idea. I’m not going to post the name because I have never used one, or seen one used, so I really can’t make any claim on their effectiveness. Interesting idea, though, and worth looking into. 

  • Portion size

OK, forgive me. I promise I’m not going to resurrect this horse just to beat it again. Planning ahead can allow you to make specific trips to the grocery store, instead of stocking up for the month. It’s up to you to measure if the savings in food is cheaper than the savings in fuel. It could also be a good excuse to find a local farmers market or co-op. I just happen to live on the delivery route of an organic farm co-op that can drop of fresh fruits and vegetables every week. Keep in mind that recipes are not one-size-fits-all. You can cut them into any size that fits your needs. Maybe do this before you go grocery shopping?

If the meal isn’t quite large enough, have a snack later and change your measurements for next time. It’s good for your metabolism to eat small meals throughout the day anyway – mainly if there are blood sugar issues. Or, if you want to stick to traditional sizes, make sure you have good containers and immediately seal leftovers for use in lunches or afternoon snacks.  Try to use your leftovers first before starting a new meal. Leftovers and rotten fruits/vegetables tend to be the largest percentage of family food waste. And speaking of leftovers . . . .

  • Freeze them, Eat them, or Compost them

If you have a large serving of meat, or don’t use all of your planned ingredients in a recipe, date it, seal it, and toss it in the freezer for later use. You can still make that good sale at the grocery store work for you. If you plan your meals ahead you will know what amount of an ingredient you need for specific recipes and can divide it up and freeze it in advance.

Composting is also a great way to use un-eaten food. Instead of just throwing it away and letting it clutter up a landfill, put it to work producing more food for you! Build a wooden box that you can keep right outside your kitchen door. You can keep the scraps that accumulate in there (covered in layers of dirt) and after a few days accumulation, walk the box out to your main composting area. This can provide some excellent fertilizer for your garden, and it’s free of all those nasty chemicals. Pour in that unfinished beer.

Another idea is to challenge yourself in the kitchen. Allrecipes.com has a nifty tool that allows you to plug in ingredients and see what can be made from them. Turn your unused groceries into a culinary masterpiece!

Don’t feel bad if the concept of waste feels a bit overwhelming. We have all been doing things a certain way for so long it’s become a deeply ingrained habit. To change the way we deal with waste, we have to change the way we think about food. It starts with us.

Jonathan Parker is an EMT-Paramedic and Preparedness Instructor with a love for emergency medicine, self-sufficiency and homesteading. His goal is to empower people towards a natural and sustainable lifestyle.

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