Reduce Food Waste and Save Money

fresh fruits and vegetablesSome people think that eating healthy can be expensive, but do you know how much money you can save simply by taking steps to reduce food waste? One estimate states that the average American family wastes around 25% of the food that they buy. All of this wasted food adds up to more than $1,600 a year for the average household. That’s $1,600 thrown into the trash can each year!

Fortunately, you can cut down on food waste by making small changes in how you shop, prepare, store, and serve food. Here are some common problems that lead to food waste along with tips that may help.

Problem #1: Buying more food than you need.

In the United States, we are fortunate to have grocery stores packed with just about any kind of food we could possibly want; and most people have the means to keep their pantries and refrigerators well-stocked. Unfortunately, we often bite off more than we can chew. Whether it’s due to a lack of planning, taking advantage of bulk sales, or simply giving into impulse buys; it’s easy to come home with more food than your family needs.

The Fix: Plan ahead (and stick to it)!

Try to plan meals and snacks ahead of time. Be honest about how often you might be eating out, and use this plan to create your grocery list. It’s a good idea to base as many meals as you can around the foods that you already have in the house. This will mean less money spent at the grocery store and potentially less food waste.

Keeping a running inventory of the foods you have on hand is a great way to stay up-to-date on what you have, and it prevents foods from getting lost and forgotten in the back of the fridge. Finally, only buy amounts that you will realistically need. Buying in bulk saves money, but only if you are going to be able to eat it all.

Problem #2: Improper storage.

Fruits and vegetables are some of the most common foods to be thrown out. This is largely because many of them have a relatively short shelf-life. While some highly perishable foods like berries may not last beyond a few days even under the best conditions, you can get the most life out of your produce by knowing how to properly store it.

The Fix: Learn the best way to store different types of produce.

Not all fruits and vegetables store well under the same conditions. Vegetables need less humidity than fruits. Foods that mold easily like grapes and berries should only be washed just before they are to be eaten. Herbs and celery last longer when treated like cut flowers, kept in a cup with stems in water. Other produce such as whole pineapple, garlic, and potatoes are better kept in the pantry. Here is a helpful guide on how to store some common fruits and vegetables.  

If you have more produce than you can eat in a short amount of time, it can be helpful to know how to preserve these foods properly. Canning, freezing, or dehydrating foods can be a great way to extend the shelf-life of your favorite fruits and vegetables. To learn more about food preservation, contact your local University Extension office. In Missouri, we have hands-on classes throughout the state. There is even a new online class available. Click here to check it out, or contact me at woodsarah@missouri.edu for more information.

Problem #3: Throwing out “old” food that is still good.

We’ve all been there, you pull something out of the refrigerator or pantry to use and notice the expiration date has passed. Into the trash can it goes, right? Not always. There is a lot of consumer confusion around these so-called expiration dates, sell-by dates, best-by, and use-by dates.

The Fix: Learn what should be thrown out and what is safe to use.

Those dates on the packaging of food don’t always mean what we think they mean. Just because the date has passed, it doesn’t mean that the food is unsafe or bad to eat; and it certainly doesn’t always mean it needs to be thrown away. Here are the definitions of these terms as stated by the US Department of Agriculture:

  • “Best if Used By/Before” indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date. 
  • “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It is not a safety date. 
  • “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It is not a safety date except for when used on infant formula.

Even in cases of highly perishable foods such as milk, that date is more an estimate of when the product might go bad rather than a hard and fast rule. Factors such as how the product was handled before and after you purchase it at the store affect how long it will last. Some products may last longer than the marked date, or they may deteriorate significantly sooner. Rather than relying on a date, look for signs of spoilage – foul odors, tastes, or visible mold growth. If these things are present, toss it.

The Takeaway

It’s easy for many of us in the US to buy and throw away food without giving it much thought, but the food waste in our country is a major problem. Not only is it a drain on our wallets, but it is also bad for the environment. In 2014, we disposed of 38 million tons of food waste, 95% of which ended up in landfills where it doesn’t just harmlessly decompose.

The good news is, you can take steps to reduce waste in your own home. Simply by planning ahead and increasing awareness around the foods you are buying and eating (or not eating); you can reduce food waste, save money, and help the environment.

Sarah Wood, the author of this article, is available to speak to groups or hold classes on a variety of health-related topics such as nutrition, physical activity, healthy cooking, stress management, and wellness. To schedule an event or get more information, call 816-279-1691 or email woodsarah@missouri.edu.

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About Sarah Wood

Sarah Wood is a registered dietitian with a Master's Degree in Applied Health Sciences. Currently, she is a Nutrition and Health Education Specialist with the University of Missouri Extension. When taking time for herself, she runs, travels, and creates art.

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