Food Waste: How Dietitians Can Help

Though Americans have increasingly preferred dining out in the past few decades,1 there’s a growing movement towards staying in to cook, especially among millennials. A recent survey found that 72% of Americans report cooking at home four nights or more per week, and 34% were planning to cook at home more often in 2017. Millennials were twice as likely as their older counterparts to make this a resolution for 2017.2

While this rising interest is likely positive from a nutritional perspective, it comes with a potential caveat: increasing food waste, if consumers don’t know how to properly handle food. The USDA defines food waste, or food loss, as the edible amount of food after harvesting that’s available to eat but isn’t used.3 Reasons include losses from cooking; losses from mold, pests, or inadequate climate control; and intentional food waste.

Why does throwing out a container of week-old leftovers or a bag of wilted spinach really matter? Consider these statistics: As much as 40% of all food produced in the United States goes uneaten, and about 95% of discarded food ends up in landfills, which makes it the largest portion of municipal solid waste.3-5 Decomposing food in landfills produces methane, a strong greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.

Not only does reducing food waste help the environment and provide immense cost savings but it also can feed more Americans who lack access to nutritious food. It’s estimated that reducing food waste by 15% could feed more than 25 million Americans every year.6

On June 4, 2013, the USDA and Environmental Protection Agency announced the U.S. Food Waste Challenge to groups involved in all levels of food production and handling: farms, agricultural processors, food manufacturers, grocery stores, restaurants, schools, and local governments.3 The goals are to 1) reduce food waste at all stages of food procurement; 2) recover food waste by connecting food donors to food banks and pantries; and 3) recycle food waste for animal feed or compost for natural fertilizers. On September 16, 2015, both agencies also announced a first-ever national food loss and waste goal, calling for a 50% reduction by 2030 to improve overall food security and conserve natural resources.

What RDs Can Do
Dietitians teach patients how to follow prescribed therapeutic diets through shopping tips, meal planning, and easy recipes. Guide your clients on proper food handling and storage with the following suggestions to help meet the USDA’s national food waste goal.


  • Plan weekly menus with a shopping list so that you buy only as much as needed. Help your patients get started by creating a one- or two-day sample meal plan with a corresponding shopping list.
  • Be wary of impulse purchases or sales on foods you normally don’t eat. Don’t shop when hungry, which can influence how much and what foods you purchase.
  • For perishables like dairy and eggs, restock only when the current amount is 75% finished.
  • Join the “ugly produce” movement. These are misshapen fruits and vegetables that may get thrown out because they don’t meet the usual standards for appearance. However, they’re perfectly edible and delicious. Some farmers’ markets and grocery stores are beginning to offer and track sales of ugly produce—buy them whenever available.


  • Expiration dates are one of the biggest contributors to food waste, as consumers often throw out food after a “sell by” “use by” or “best by” date. The dates are the manufacturer’s suggestions as an indicator of quality, not safety. Most foods can be safely eaten well beyond these dates. To alleviate confusion, the Food Date Labeling Act was proposed in May 2016 to create a standardized label on all perishable foods.7 The exact wording hasn’t been finalized, but suggested statements are a quality date of “best if used by,” indicating the peak quality of a food, and a safety date of “expires on,” indicating when the food is unsafe to eat.
  • Follow the “first in, first out” method. Place oldest foods in the front, and plan meals around these ingredients first.
  • Keep leftovers in the front. Label the container with an “eat by” date. Generally, leftovers last about three to four days.
  • For vegetables that dry out quickly or are sensitive to ethylene gas emitted from other produce (which speeds ripening), store in a produce bin with the slider knob closed. This keeps moisture circulating inside the bin and gasses out. Leafy greens, herbs, cucumbers, carrots, strawberries, bell peppers, and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts can be stored here.


  • Don’t throw out wilted greens or herbs. If there’s no discoloration, they have simply dried out and can be rehydrated. Chop the vegetables and soak in a bowl filled with ice water for 15 to 20 minutes. Dry before using.
  • Sauté the leafy tops of carrots, celery, and beets.
  • Add slightly overripe fruits to smoothies, muffins, or fruit breads. Add sagging vegetables that can’t be revived to soups or casseroles.
  • Eat skins of produce whenever possible for extra nutrients and fiber. Potatoes, cucumbers, kiwi, eggplant, tomatoes, carrots, apples, and mangoes all have edible skin.
  • Place stale bread in a food processor to make bread crumbs, or cube, add olive oil and herbs, and bake at 350° F for 15 minutes to make croutons.

— Nancy L. Oliveira, MS, RDN, LDN, CDE, is an outpatient dietitian specializing in diabetes, oncology, weight management, and gastrointestinal disorders. She has worked for Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and currently manages the Nutrition Clinic at Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital in Boston. She’s dedicated to educating and empowering her patients to improve and sometimes reverse their health conditions, and is equally passionate in the areas of public speaking and writing to clarify confusion on nutrition topics presented in the media. Nancy is also a staff writer for The Nutrition Source at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and features easy vegan recipes and nutrition articles on her blog and Instagram @RDRecipeResource.


  1. Smith LP, Ng SW, Popkin BM. Trends in US home food preparation and consumption: analysis of national nutrition surveys and time use studies from 1965-1966 to 2007-2008. Nutr J. 2013;12:45.
  2. Peapod predicts 2017 will be the year of the home cook. The Business Journals website. Published December 29, 2016. Accessed March 20, 2017.
  3. S. Food Waste Challenge: frequently asked questions. US Department of Agriculture, Office of the Chief Economist website. Accessed March 30, 2017.
  4. Gunders D; National Resources Defense Council. Wasted: how America is losing up to 40 percent of its food from farm to fork to landfill. Published August 2012. Accessed March 30, 2017.
  5. Sustainable management of food. US Environmental Protection Agency website. Accessed March 30, 2017.
  6. Hall KD, Guo J, Dore M, Chow CC. The progressive increase of food waste in America and its environmental impact. PLoS One. 2009;4(11):e7940.
  7. Food Date Labeling Act of 2016, H R 5298, 114th Cong, 2nd Sess (2016).

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