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Secrets to Reducing Food Waste -It Starts in Your Kitchen!

I stared at the towering boxes and stacks of produce in disbelief.

“You mean to tell me, ALL of this was destined for the landfill?”, I asked, my voice filled with shock.

food waste skids

“Yup”, the food pantry director answered. “Isn’t it insane how much food is wasted? Thank goodness we managed to save this and now we can actually get it into the hands of people who need it.”

A Glimpse Into America’s Broken Food System

About 4 years ago, I started volunteering at my local food pantry a few hours a week. It was one of the best decisions I ever made. I love helping others in my community and it’s given me a first hand look the food distribution system.

Our food pantry is the largest in the area, so we are a major drop point for food donations, which we distribute to other smaller pantries.

Imagine my shock when I saw semi-truck after semi-truck arrive to drop off enormous skids of food. The volume was astounding. Skids of gorgeous red bell peppers. Thousands of pounds of prime rib. Hundreds of boxes of gourmet salad greens. Hundreds of pounds of tomatoes. More types of food than I ever knew existed.

I learned that our pantry weighs all incoming food and the total amounts add up to over 2,000,000 pounds of food a year. That number staggered me… and this is just ONE food pantry in America.

All of this is food (95% still in good condition and completely edible) that would have ended up in the landfill, if not for the amazing directors and volunteers that staff the pantry.

Let that sink in. 2,000,000 pounds of food. IN THE LANDFILL.

What country does this? Who can afford to throw out hundreds, millions, billions of pounds of food? How could we be so irresponsible? How much of our tax money is quite literally being thrown into the landfill? I was outraged.

God bless the food pantry, though. They use that food to feed hundreds of families and the elderly in our community. It’s wonderful they are able to direct that food to those who need it most, but my glimpse into America’s broken food system inspired me to research the topic of food waste…and what I discovered was shocking.

Stewardship is HUGE priority for me, and I assume it is for you too, if you read this blog. Seeing good food going to waste filled me a bit of righteous fury, to put it mildly!

Food waste

The Food Waste Epidemic

In my research, I discovered that the food production industry is using massive amounts of:

  • energy
  • petroleum
  • water
  • land
  • pesticides
  • herbicides
  • fertilizer

…and then throwing nearly 50% of the crop/food in the landfill! Are you kidding me?!?

All that pollution to streams and waterways from hundreds of millions of pounds of pesticides and fertilizers.

All that precious water directed to crops and livestock

All that valuable growing space.

All that expensive energy and petroleum.

For nothing. 

It makes me sick just thinking of it.

To make matters worse, I found more startling facts, such as:

  • The average family of 4 wastes $1400 each year on food that goes bad or uneaten.
  • Consumers are responsible for more food waste than farmers, grocery stores or other parts of the food chain. GULP.
  • 70% of water use in the U.S goes into growing food (livestock production and crops). It takes the same amount of water to produce ONE hamburger as it does to take a 90 minute shower.
    • The idea of throwing out meat is simply inconceivable when you look at it that way.
  • 133 billion pounds of food is wasted each year.
  • Wasted food is the largest component of solid waste in our landfills.
    • The greenhouse gas emissions produced by this food is equivalent to that of 33 million cars.
  • Only 5% of discarded food is composted.
    • Can you actually eat some of your discarded food?
  • Americans pay $1.5 billion a year on food disposal.
  • Globally, we produce twice as much food as needed to feed every person on the planet… but only half of it actually makes it to someone’s plate.
    • And unfortunately, that food often doesn’t make it to the plate of those who need it, not because we don’t have enough, but because of political upheaval and distribution problems.

3 Simple and Effective Solutions to Reduce Food Waste

So maybe you are feeling helpless and wondering what YOU can do to reverse this sobering problem.

I have good news! Experts agree that the ABSOLUTE best place to start working on reducing food waste is right in your own kitchen!

This is what Kitchen Stewardship® is all about!

I’ve complied a short list of 3 solutions that take place in your kitchen, along with a few quick tips. Even if you can implement a ONE  of these ideas, you will be well on your way to reducing food waste.

1. Meal Planning

Easy steps to reduce food waste - food that was meant to be trash now saved for the food pantry! Stop buying food you don't know when you'll use and risk it going bad.

I know, I know. Maybe you’re like me and you have good intentions to Meal Plan, but sometimes it just doesn’t happen. Well, keep trying friend. It’s worth it!

Meal Planning is the #1 way consumers can reduce food waste. 

Here is how it works:

  1. Look in your fridge and pantry, and take a quick inventory of what needs to be used up before it goes bad.
  2. Create a Meal Plan based on using up those items. Add items you need to buy to your grocery list.
  3. Take your Meal Plan and grocery list with you to the store or market.
  4. VERY IMPORTANT – As you place each item in your cart/basket, figure out EXACTLY when you are going to prepare/eat it.
  5. Do NOT let your good intentions sway you – if it doesn’t fit into the meal plan, don’t buy it! The majority of food wasted in the home is when we buy something with good intentions, but never get around to cooking/preparing it.
Katie shares 6 Different Meal Planning Methods here. Give them a try and find what works best for your family

2. Chopping/Food Prep Day

If you can, set aside a time each week to prep fruits and veggies and any other foods that need advance work. I like to do this right after I get back from the grocery store. I simply dedicate a few hours each week for “Food Prep”, which includes shopping, putting away food and chopping.

food waste chopped veggies

I like to:

  • wash and chop veggies for kid’s lunches
  • wash and chop veggies for the week’s dinners, so most of the hard work is done when it’s time to cook dinner
  • wash and prepare salad for dinner, so I can just grab it out of the fridge at dinner time
  • wash and chop kale/greens to saute with eggs for breakfast

When I fail to do this, I find I waste embarrassing amounts of food. Those poor fruits and veggies end up rotting in the fridge, because I either forget about them or don’t have the time to chop them during the week.

3. Control Portion Sizes

Anyone who has been to a school at lunch time has witnessed first hand how much food is wasted! My husband volunteered at our kid’s school last week and he was in SHOCK to see how much food waste was produced – 3 giant trash cans worth for each grade.

If your child gets a school lunch, there is not much you can do about it. Inevitably, about half of the lunch will be thrown out. Maybe your child doesn’t like the food that is offered, but most likely it’s because kids don’t have much time to eat...and they spend their time of talking instead!

My kids bring their lunch from home, and sometimes they would bring back about half of their lunch. Often, I would just make them finish their lunch as their after school snack. Unfortunately, sometimes we forgot and the lunch box would sit on the counter overnight and go bad. I ended up throwing out (composting, actually) a shameful amount of food.

food waste lunch box

This year, I told the kids they were in charge of packing their own lunches. The first few weeks, I fretted that they were not packing nearly enough food…but guess what? They came home with empty lunch boxes. Turns out they were better at knowing how much food they wanted to eat that day!

Our lunch time waste is decreased significantly. In fact, we strive for Zero Waste lunches – my kids don’t throw away anything. There are no wrappers in their lunch and everything that is uneaten comes home and is composted.

The dinner table is another great place to control portion sizes. We learned the hard way to give our children tiny portions. If they want more, they can have another serving.

Switching to smaller plates is helpful for controlling portion sizes too! Sometimes we just use the small plates for dinner, instead of the big dinner plates. This might be a great solution if you have kids that are regularly wasting food.

More Quick Tips to Reduce Food Waste

Here are a few other tips that can help!

food waste lettuce eggs peppers

Wilted veggies can be revived in ice water.

I recently tried this with a head of sorry looking, limp lettuce. After 10 minutes in ice water, it looked and tasted great!

Freeze leftover bits of food in small containers, to be reused in another meal.

Leftover veggies are particularity good in soups, stews, casseroles and quiches/fritattas.

Milk go sour? Don’t throw it out.

Use it as a substitute for buttermilk and make some pancakes!

Store food in see-through containers in the fridge.

Put them on a shelf where you will see them.

Understand that most expiration dates are really just suggestions for peak quality.

Most foods are still good days and weeks past their expiration dates (obviously, use your discretion here).

Have too much food and know you can’t use it before it goes bad? Try freezing it.

I often do with bell peppers, kale and other veggies that can be chopped and frozen. Once frozen, throw the chopped pieces in a freezer bag and use handfuls as needed.

What about composting?

food waste compost

Composting is good, but reducing waste is the first step. Remember the phrase “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”? Follow them in order.

“Reduce” always comes first. Focus your energy mostly on reducing food waste. Then think about ways you can “reuse” your food by using leftover and scraps to create new meals. “Recycle” (composting) is always the last resort. 

Composting has incredible benefits and is obviously superior to throwing food in the trash. Composting puts essential nutrients back into the soil and benefits the earth, instead of harming it (like the greenhouse gasses produced by food in landfills).

Can you imagine if those 133 billion pounds of food were composted and returned back to the growing fields to increase fertility, instead of chucked in a landfill?

Unfortunately, not everyone is capable of composting – maybe you don’t have a yard or too many pesky critters that would be attracted to food scraps. It’s encouraging to see many communities introducing composting programs, but we still have a long way to go.

If you can compost, I encourage you to give it a try. There are so many methods, I can’t even begin to describe them here. It really can be as easy or complicated as you want it to be.

Essentially, you are throwing stuff in a pile and letting it return to the earth. Don’t let anyone’s complicated systems or advice scare you away from trying it. Just last week Becca shared her easy and affordable method here. 

On our farm, all our food scraps are thrown in the compost bucket, then fed to chickens (and pigs, when we have them). It’s a great way to “recycle” the discarded food and transform it into delicious eggs! We even have family members and friends that save their food scraps for our chickens.

Doing Our Part

I hope that you are inspired to choose at least one of these solutions for reducing food waste. Yes, it’s a huge problem and there are so many things we cannot control…but we can control what comes into our homes and how we steward it!

We can each do our part, and those small changes WILL make a difference.

For more ways live green check out all our Save the Earth posts
What is your family doing to reduce food waste? I’d love to hear your tips and what has worked for you!
Unless otherwise credited, photos are owned by the author or used with a license from Canva or Deposit Photos.

26 thoughts on “Secrets to Reducing Food Waste -It Starts in Your Kitchen!”

  1. A couple more options that work when I over-buy:
    1. Make vegetable chips – slice thin and spray with tiny amount of oil (1 tsp per cookie sheet), season as desired, bake approx 20 minutes (until dry). They’ll go fast after this.
    2. Dehydrate extra veggies and a) chop and save them for later addition to soups, etc., or, b) grind to veggie powder for using in a myriad of ways, such as in meatloaf or smoothies. (Like “green” or “red” veggie powders bought at the store–but homemade.)

  2. I’d love to hear more about how long food stays good. I get nervous about serving food that has gone bad and would like to learn more about that to waste less.

    1. Lindsey, there is a great book by Dana Gunders called “The Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook”. She goes into great detail about how to best store and preserve your food, and how to determine what is still safe to eat. She has also been a guest on several radio shows. I heard her on NPR and she inspired me to dig deeper into the food waste issue!

      As for serving food that is bad… yeah, it’s a fine line. I’m careful with the usual suspects (meat, raw eggs, home canned good) but usually don’t sweat the rest. It totally depends on what foods you are serving, but I tend to think leftovers should probably be used up in 3 days. Obviously, use your senses – if it looks funny, smells funny or tastes funny, it’s probably not worth risking it.

        1. Becca @ The Earthling's Handbook

          Me too! My lunch today will be bean soup I thawed on Sunday and banana bread I baked on Sunday that was in an open container at room temperature all day Tuesday (but refrigerated since) with cream cheese from a package we opened about 4 weeks ago. My dinner Wednesday included reheated fish that was battered and fried at home the previous Friday–that’s about as long as I’d delay with any meat.

          I don’t eat things that look or smell spoiled, but I sometimes scrape off the bad part and eat the rest. I rarely get any kind of digestive upset, so I figure my sense of what’s safe to eat can’t be too far off!

  3. Those numbers are very shocking and disheartening! Thanks for the good reminders to reduce food waste.

  4. Becca @ The Earthling's Handbook

    Great article, Lori! Food waste is such a crazy problem. I can’t believe the wasteful behaviors some people think are normal.

    Thanks especially for pointing out that what many people call “expiration dates” are really “sell-by” dates, and the food is good for a while afterward. It’s better to develop a sense of how to tell when food is bad than to rely on those dates.

    I salvage a lot of food after events at church, work, and other places. I just wrote the story of why we had banana bread and black bean soup for Easter dinner! 🙂

    1. Becca, exactly! Working at the food pantry has taught me a lot about expiration dates. Most of the food we get is expired or close to the date… and I would say almost all of it is still perfectly safe to eat. It’s just the produce that gets a little wilted or rotten.

  5. Here is another tip that I started using about 10 years ago. Actually, it relates more to leftovers than fresh produce.

    I, too, would have food go bad in the fridge and was wasting a lot of money. I always thought I’d remember when I cooked that meal based on association of what day it was that we ate it or what event happened that same day. Who was I kidding?! By the time even just a few days passed, I couldn’t remember when I’d made it. So it would sit there staring back at me and I’d think, “I should serve that. No, it might be too long & going bad. But it might not be. Well, I’ll do something else tonight.” This would happen for several nights in a row until I was positive it was bad & then it would be tossed.

    So here’s how I solved the problem of not knowing (though, truth be told, I sometimes still waste food — but not nearly as often). I keep a roll of masking tape in my kitchen drawer and will write (with an ink pen so it doesn’t smear) the name of the food and that day’s date. For example, Chicken Noodle Soup 4/17/17. Then I rip that label off the roll & stick it to my storage container. I find it is better to write it while on the roll because that tends to be a hard enough surface & I won’t spill anything on accident if I stick it on the container first. (I’m sure I found that out the hard way.)

    I will occasionally write it on a store bought container, too. Last week my sick child asked for some chicken broth but I didn’t have any soup made. So I opened a store bought (healthy) kind. I knew that I might waste the rest if I didn’t write down the date. So I used a fine tip Sharpie & wrote the date on it.

    I hope that this tip helps someone. It’s saved a lot of food for our home!

    By the way, I’ve used that roll of masking tape for so many other things, too! It comes in very handy to have one in the kitchen!

    1. Natalie, this is a great tip! Yes, labeling is very helpful. I usually store our food in glass containers and I’ve found I can write right on the container with a black Sharpie marker. Comes off later with soap and water (or a Magic Eraser). Thanks for sharing!

  6. Meal planning really has helped us save so much food!! I honestly cannot imagine how much food you probably saw volunteering with the food pantry – it’s SO crazy that was all going to waste. It really makes me wonder how much food in my city is going to the landfills – it’s such a sad thought to have when you also see those hungry on the side of the road. Thanks so much for sharing! <3

    1. Savannah, yes, it absolutely blows my mind every time I’m at the pantry. Sometimes it makes me cry – with despair to see all the food that was going to the landfill…and with joy that we can redirect it to those in need. But sometimes the food is too far gone when the pantry gets it. I remember when we had to throw out 4 skids (stacked 12 feet high) of red peppers. Gut wrenching.

  7. Thanks so much for the awesome tips here!! One other idea that I do: I keep a bag in my freezer, and I toss in unusable parts of vegetables (pepper tops/stems, onion peels, etc.). When the bag is full, I use it to make vegetable stock. I either simmer it for a few hours on the stove, or just cover it with water and use the slow cooker or instant pot 🙂 I usually freeze it in smaller jars to use in soups or wherever else it’s needed!

    1. I have a small strainer that I use, forgot to mention that part of the process! I haven’t started composting but would really like to…I would think after the veggies are done with the stock process they could still be composted?

      1. Hello, Julie, I do exactly the same, and make vegetable stock or bone broth in my instant pot or stove-top pressure cooker and then use them for delicious and nutritious soups. I compost the boiled veggies (and even burry the boiled bones in pikes of wood chips which composts them quickly, too)!

  8. In my household, we are pretty good about keeping food waste to a minimum. However, I work as a “lunch lady” at my son’s school district, and the amount of food waste there is staggering. It is against the rules to let employees take home excess food, so if there is food that can’t be used (for example, if it’s Friday afternoon and the food will be spoiled by Monday), it goes into the trash. I know that school cafeteria food probably doesn’t meet the standards of readers of this blog, but for starving people, the food that gets discarded would go a long way. I would love to come up with a system of donating the food to a local homeless shelter, but my manager is uncaring and unapproachable, so I’m not really sure what to do.

    1. Oh, that makes me sooooo sad Claire! I wonder if you went up the ladder to someone in administration – maybe if you can find out if any of them have a soft spot for homeless shelters/volunteering/etc and speak to that.

      It might even be a great thing for classrooms to be involved in showing how the school can help the community! But there I go with lots of ideas that are probably outside of what you can do…although getting one really assertive teacher on board might get it out of your hands and make it all happen!

      I wish you so much luck – because yes, any food should not be wasted! 🙂 Katie

      1. Thank you Katie. I’m sure that there are liability issues and other legal issues (some of the food is provided by the government, in terms of reimbursable lunches), which is why I don’t think my manager would want to touch this with a ten foot pole. But I’m thinking of maybe contacting our local food bank anonymously to advise of the waste that occurs, and maybe he or she could approach schools in a general way to try to partner with them? It’s worth a try anyway.

        1. Becca @ The Earthling's Handbook

          Yes, contacting the food pantry is your best first step! If that doesn’t work, perhaps a letter to the editor of your local newspaper? If they won’t publish anonymous letters and you’re afraid of repercussions, ask a friend to write a “my friend works in a school cafeteria, and she told me…” letter. This is a problem that really needs to be solved!

    2. Claire, thanks for sharing this and helping to make more people aware of the problem. Yes, I think you are right – there are so many governmental and political hoops to jump through, which is why is seems like nothing ever changes.

      I highly doubt the food would ever be allowed to be shared with a food bank because of legal issues. I think the only real solution is introducing composting to school systems. There are more and more compost companies starting up and I’d love to see them partnering with schools. Imagine if all that food was turned into something valuable, instead of something harmful (thrown in the landfill). Or maybe schools could partner with farms and feed the leftovers to chickens/hogs.

      1. Those are good ideas too. Thanks Lori. I hope I’m able to make some headway with this, at least in my little corner of the world.

        1. Yes, it’s such a tricky problem. We have issues at the food pantry too. We used to have a farmer who would come and collect all the food waste and feed it to his animals, but that became too cumbersome for him. We’ve been looking for a new solution, contacting composting companies, but unfortunately, the pantry can’t afford to hire anyone to come get the food waste. Seems like money often gets in the way of doing good 🙁 So right now all the food waste goes in the trash. We do our very best to salvage what we can (and I bring home as much as I can for my goats and chickens) but it’s still a lot.

  9. I’ve got the best way to use up our food scraps – our chickens! They make the best garbage disposals of the food left on kids’ plates, weeds from the garden, the trimmings from our meat, etc. And then they give us nutritious, delicious eggs. I know that everyone doesn’t have the space for chickens, but they are really a wonderful addition if you can swing it.

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