Approximately 40% of all food in the United States goes uneaten and ends up as trash in our landfills. This is the equivalent of about 90 billion lbs of food rotting away and releasing methane, a greenhouse gas that’s 25 times more detrimental than carbon dioxide, into our environment. If that isn’t bad enough, one in every six kids in this country goes to bed hungry every night. In other words, one man’s trash could be another child’s dinner if we did a better job of managing all the excess food in our country.
These startling statistics have motivated both the USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency to set a goal to reduce food waste by 50% by 2030. While everyone along the food continuum—from the farmer and processor to the retail distributor and eating establishment—needs to play a role in reducing food waste, the biggest culprit in trashing edible food is the consumer. Yes—you, me, and Joe and Josephine down the street.
This is good news for dietitians, as we can have a dramatic impact by educating the public on how to reduce food waste in their homes and reroute surplus food to those who need it. One of the best ways to do this is to lead by example. Be a warrior against food waste and a role model by incorporating the following strategies in your home and then spreading the word to the public:
1. Organize your refrigerator. Produce is the largest category of food that ends up in our landfills. While we purchase it with all good intentions, fresh fruits and vegetables typically are relegated to the bottom drawer of the refrigerator. Dubbed the “produce graveyard,” they’re often forgotten and wilt their way to the trash. Reorganize your refrigerator and place the produce on the middle shelf so it screams at you every time you open the door. If you need tips on how to revive slightly wilted produce, visit SavetheFood.com.
2. Don’t let the date on the label scare you. According to the Food Marketing Institute, 45% of consumers misinterpret the “sell by” dates on the food label and toss edible food into the trash for fear of food poisoning. The dates on the label don’t refer to food safety, but rather the suggested date to consume the item so you can enjoy it at peak quality. Foods can be eaten safely past the “sell by” or “use by” dates. If you need help determining whether a food is safe to eat, visit the website Still Tasty. It provides guidance on safe food consumption after these labeling dates have gone by.
3. Fall in love with leftovers. Rather than tossing a small portion of uneaten meals, package them in covered freezer-proof containers. Choose one day each month to clean out the freezer and reheat all the leftovers for a no-prep dinner buffet.
4. Doggy bag it. Stop leaving uneaten food for the wait staff and get in the habit of bringing home a doggy bag even if you don’t have a dog. Make sure to eat it the next day so it doesn’t rot in the takeout container in the back of the refrigerator. Freeze it if you’re not going to eat it in 24 hours (see tip 3).
5. Donate your excess foods. If you’ve inadvertently purchased food you know you’ll never eat or you’re leaving for a business trip or vacation, consider donating it to a local food pantry. AmpleHarvest.org is an online tool to help you locate a food pantry near you.
— Joan Salge Blake, EdD, RDN, LDN, FAND, is a clinical associate professor at Boston University. She’s a speaker, media expert, consultant, and the author of Nutrition & You. And she’s a nutrition blogger for US News & World Report’s Eat + Run column, a freelance writer for The Boston Globe, and has conducted more than 1,400 media interviews on nutrition and wellness.