It’s no secret that we humans waste a fair bit of food, but the extent of the problem and its impacts are perhaps lesser known. It’s estimated that globally nearly a third of all food produced is wasted and the sustenance squandering is even worse for many developed nations. In the U.S. roughly 40% of all food produced is lost or wasted, with the average person tossing out around 238 pounds of it per year. The impact of all this inefficiency is profound, ranging from the environmental consequences, to the economic effects, and of course the moral implications. The scale is so vast it can simply be hard to fathom, so some facts and figures may help put it into perspective:
- “If food loss and waste were a country, it would be the third biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions.” That’s more than the combined emissions generated to heat all buildings globally and produce all home cooked meals.
- About a quarter of all freshwater usage in the United States can be attributed to food that is wasted. Considering that in 2021 the U.S. declared a water shortage on the Colorado River for the first time in its history, Lake Mead water levels became so low that decades old bodies are being discovered on the newly exposed soil, and farmers across the West are letting fields lay fallow for a lack of water, it’s a particularly poignant time for such wastefulness.
- Americans each waste an average of $1800 worth of food per year
- The wasted food from North America alone could feed approximately 260 million people. To put that into perspective, North America has a population of about 500 million people. That means the current food produced for every 10 people could feed 5 extra people if we removed waste out of the equation.
Given the severity and gargantuan impact of this issue it’s surprisingly a lesser covered topic. If food waste could garner as much attention as plastic straws or Kim Kardashian’s rear end we might be in a better place. Perhaps, the aversion to the issue is partly a product of a major cause: us. Household waste, alternatively referred to as consumer level waste, accounts for approximately 40-50% of food waste in most developed nations, the largest single component. But, before you spiral in into an endless depth of despair and self loathing know that simple solutions abound. Unlike other issues of the day such as geopolitical tensions, sovereign debt crises, or global contagion, an effective solution for food waste is much more tangible. In this article and the series of articles linked from it, we’ll outline the causes of household food waste and highlight proven and common sense tactics to reduce it.
Digging Into Household Food Waste
Given that households (i.e. you and me) account for such a large share of the food waste pie it’s reassuring to know that we can make a difference too. But in order to begin reducing the amount of food that ends up in the trash it’s important to first understand the main drivers of food waste at home
Spoilage and Perceived Spoilage
Spoilage, or food “going bad” is broadly believed to be the primary driver of household food waste, accounting for an estimated two thirds of the total problem. The reasons for this can be complex, ranging from over-purchasing to a byzantine system of dates printed on foods that confuse consumers.
Overpurchasing and Lack of Planning
One of the leading causes of household food waste is over-purchasing and inadequate meal planning. When consumers buy more food than they can consume within a reasonable timeframe, a portion of it often ends up discarded. Similarly, poor meal planning, such as not utilizing leftovers or neglecting to incorporate perishable ingredients into meals promptly, can lead to unnecessary food waste. Impulse buying plays a significant role in the overpurchasing phenomenon. When consumers make spontaneous purchases without considering their actual needs or meal plans, the likelihood of food going unused and subsequent waste increases.
Misinterpretation of Dates on Food (a.k.a. Date Label Confusion)
Another major cause of household food waste is the misinterpretation of dates printed on food. Most consumers mistakenly believe that the date printed on food is a hard deadline indicating when food becomes unsafe to consume. In reality, these dates often refer to peak freshness or quality rather than safety. Consequently, perfectly edible food is frequently discarded prematurely due to misunderstanding or fear of consuming expired items.
Improper Food Storage and Handling
Improper food storage and handling practices contribute significantly to food waste. Inadequate storage conditions, such as improper refrigeration, failure to seal containers correctly, or not using appropriate storage methods for different food items, can accelerate spoilage and lead to premature discarding of edible food. Additionally, mishandling, such as not using proper food rotation techniques, can cause items to go bad before they are used.
Over-preparing, or cooking and serving too much, accounts for the remainder of household food waste. Understanding the causes can help individuals address the issue and reduce unnecessary food waste.
Lack of Portion Control
A significant cause of overpreparing food is a lack of portion control. It can be challenging to estimate the right amount of food needed, especially when cooking for multiple people or guests. As a result, individuals may err on the side of caution and prepare more food than necessary, fearing they might run out. This tendency to overestimate portions can lead to surplus food and subsequent waste.
Fear of Not Having Enough Food
A fear of running out of food can drive individuals to overprepare. Especially when hosting gatherings or events, the desire to be a generous host and avoid any shortage of food can lead to excessive cooking. This fear is often fueled by social norms and the pressure to provide an abundance of options, even if it means preparing more than necessary. As humans we are hardwired to perceive the risk of having too much food as much lower than the risk of having too much food, so our inclination is to prepare more.
Desire for Convenience
The desire for convenience can also contribute to overpreparing food. Preparing extra portions or large batches of meals can be a great way to save time and effort in subsequent cooking sessions. However, if individuals fail to consume or utilize these excess portions effectively, it results in spoilage and the associated food waste.
Underlying all of these causes is an overarching foundation of a lack of education about the issue of food waste and current societal norms. In the age of abundance the value of food has been diminished and most of us simply don’t think twice about tossing food into the garbage. Fostering greater awareness of the issue and shifting cultural norms around wasting food will be key to decreasing food waste over the long term.
How to Prevent Food Waste at Home
So the question at hand is, how do we prevent food waste at home? As mentioned before, simply understanding the size and impact of the issue, as well as the primary drivers, is foundational to beginning to impact them. Several
The Silver Bullet: Meal Planning
One of the most effective solutions is devilishly simple, a bit of planning and management. Meal planning is one of the core strategies to combat food waste recommended by a slew of authorities on the subject ranging from the EPA, to the USDA, to the much revered Mayo Clinic.
The process of meal planning helps us think ahead to what we actually need to buy for the week. When we meal plan it forces us to thoughtfully build our grocery list, which usually involves a quick accounting of what we already have on hand vs. what we need to purchase at the store. The practice helps keep you more aware of what’s in your fridge and pantry, which reduces the chances of food going bad, and prevents us from buying groceries we likely won’t need. This again reduces the odds that we purchase items we’ll eventually toss. Furthermore, planning ahead helps us contemplate how much food we’ll need to prepare for a meal. This simple exercise decreases the likelihood that we’ll cook too much and end up discarding the overage. Meal planning makes us more mindful and intentional about many of the dynamics that cause food waste. Meal planning also has a slew of other benefits, from promoting a healthier and more varied diet, to saving time and money, the practice can make a huge difference.
For a more comprehensive overview of meal planning, including the core benefits and how to get started, check out our meal planning hub.
Other methods of reducing household food waste generally involve implementing parts of the meal planning practice, but not going all in. Because full blown meal planning may not be possible or desirable for everyone, these tactics still can make a big difference. There are also additional “meta” tactics that can prove helpful whether or not you decide to start meal planning.
Educate & Inspire Yourself (Meta Tactic)
Forming new habits and changing behavior is hard, so it’s always helpful to get educated and inspire yourself. Our food waste resource directory has a plethora of helpful resources to educate yourself on the topic of food waste. Understanding the tremendous impact of food waste and the opportunity it represents to help fight climate change can help get you motivated. Thoughtful words from inspired thinkers can also make change, so check out our list of food waste quotes to find one that resonates with you. Further, visual cues can help sustain habits, so printing out a food waste poster or infographic might just provide the regular reminder you need to stick with any changes you decide to make. If you’re more into memes than infographics, our more humorous list of food waste memes are ready for your perusal.
Always Make A Shopping List
Going grocery shopping without making a shopping list is a recipe for a suboptimal outcome. It’s likely you’ll end up buying items you already have, buying items you won’t use up, or forgetting to buy items you need. The process of making a grocery list acts as a natural reminder to take stock of what you have on hand, which is another key tactic to fight food waste.
Keep Track of Food You Have
One common reason food ends up going bad is that we simply forget about it. Getting into the habit of tracking what you have on hand greatly helps reduce food waste. Take stock of the food in your home at least once per week. Combining this with the process of making a grocery list is a natural fit. Since some items will spoil in less than a week, to really get the upper hand in the battle against food waste it’s best to check even more frequently than once per week. The simple act of setting a reminder for a midweek check in can make a big difference. This gives you an opportunity to prioritize finishing up any at-risk items before they turn.
Use Your Senses Before Tossing Food
Since the dates printed on food can mean so many different things, and often have nothing to do with food safety, relying on them too heavily will result in perfectly good food being tossed out. While it’s somewhat surprising to hear, many experts recommend using your senses to assess whether or not food is still good to eat. Humans are actually remarkably good at determining whether something is still safe to eat by using our senses. First, look at the food to assess it for any discoloration, visible mold, or other telltale signs of visual decay. Smell the food to evaluate whether there is a discernible odor you wouldn’t expect. Finally, taste a small amount of the food to check whether it’s turned sour or unexpectedly “tangy.”
Let’s Fight Food Waste Together
Food waste has a major negative impact on our climate and environment, eats into our finite budgets, and feels downright wrong when considering the huge number of people in the world who don’t have access to enough food. By bringing greater awareness to this issue and offering practical solutions to address it we can make a difference. The tough reality is that in developed nations the largest contributor to the food waste problem is us. Households are the single largest source of food waste, but this also means we have the power to make a major difference. Fighting food waste represents a tangible opportunity to individually help fight climate change, something more and more of us feel increasingly motivated and desperate to do. Plus, you’ll even save a significant chunk of change - so what’s stopping you?
In case you still need some more convincing, or are looking for fuel to recruit more individuals into the fight against food waste, here are some more astounding facts and figures about food waste to ponder:
- The climate impact from food that is wasted is greater than that of the entire airline industry combined
- It’s estimated the energy embodied in the food waste from North America alone could power just shy of 270 million homes
- Uneaten food accounts for the single biggest component of municipal garbage. It’s no wonder the U.S. is considered to be a dumpster diving paradise by some, even prompting quirky short documentaries on fringe movements like the “Freegans” and the broader food waste issue.
Are you interested in reducing your food waste, saving time, and money? Check out our app. We create personalized meal plans that consider your budgetary, dietary, taste, and cooking preferences, incorporate ingredients you have on hand, and generate easy to use grocery lists that don’t break the bank.