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Food waste is a huge problem in the United States. The good news: Each of us can help solve it.
Consider this: A typical household of four tosses out about $1,600 worth of food annually. Up to 40% of the food that's produced never makes it to our mouths, and all this waste is enough to fill the highest skyscraper in Chicago 44 times a year, according to an estimate by the Department of Agriculture. Meanwhile, 1 in 8 Americans struggle with food scarcity.
Our discarded food often ends up in landfills, where it rots and then starts to emit methane — a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide. A recent report from the United Nations panel on climate change estimates food waste accounts for as much as 10% of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions.
While many environmentally friendly practices — say, buying an electric car or installing solar panels — require an upfront investment, you can start saving immediately once you put in place these tips to reduce food waste.
Here are five simple ways to start reducing your food waste at home today.
1. Make a plan
Before you shop for groceries, think about exactly what you need for the week, make a list — and then stick to it.
Because let's be honest, many of us are "aspirational shoppers" — we throw things in the cart that sound good or look novel, and then we let them sit in the back of the fridge for a few weeks.
When food does go bad, take stock: What are you already buying too much of? What are you always throwing away?
Just the act of adding up what you let go to waste can help change the way you think about your food. Then you can use that information to be a more conscious consumer during your next trip to the grocery store.
2. Get creative with repurposing food
Before walking straight to the trash with your soggy spinach or old carrots, ask yourself: Can I make this into something new?
According to chef and restaurant owner Tiffany Derry, the answer is probably yes. Derry says, you don't need to follow any complicated recipes to turn older produce into a fresh new dish. (But if you want to try one, here's a sweet recipe for your overripe avocados).
Here are some of her favorite hacks for wilted greens:
- Saute them with some of your favorite spices — she suggests a little bit of onion and garlic.
- Throw them in for some flavor in a soup or a sauce.
- Putting mildly wilted greens in ice water may help perk them up.
Derry also says don't toss out those excess leaves and stems. Stalks and stems (like from broccoli) often hold just as much nutrition and flavor as the rest of the food you eat. Roast them as a side or shave them for a salad. Also, leaves (like carrot tops) make for great pesto.
3. Your freezer is your friend
If you realize that you won't be able to use food before it's too late, turn to the trusty freezer.
"No one would throw away anything that had a two hundred dollar value to it," says Katherine Miller, vice president of impact at the James Beard Foundation. "I mean, think about all the things, all the time that we spend trying to find lost things because they have value to us."
Did you know you can freeze almost anything? Your bread, your grains, your fruits, your veggies — even your milk!
Freezing food helps lock in its flavor and nutrients, so the next time you find those perfect strawberries for your summer picnic, don't toss the leftovers. Bag it, date it and put in the freezer for when that craving hits.
The same thing goes for those cooking scraps that don't make it to the dinner table — freeze them and they can make a great base for broth.
If you want to know how long something lasts once you freeze it, this app and online database from the USDA are both good resources.
4. Don't be fooled by that "sell by" date
For the most part, these labels are a best guess by manufacturers as to when their products will be freshest. They're not hard-and-fast rules about when that cheese has to go straight to the trash.
And yet, that's exactly what many of us do. It's estimated that about 20% of the food waste in the U.S. can be attributed to "sell by" labels. In fact, this has become such a big issue that the Food and Drug Administration is urging the food industry to change its packaging language to help consumers understand that these labels are about quality, not about food safety.
The next time you do a sweep of your pantry, remember that these dates are guidelines, not mandates. When in doubt, do a smell test. If it doesn't pass, it's time to move on to our next tip.
5. Compost, compost, compost
Composting is simple. Think of it as a way of recycling your food scraps. Instead of tossing your food waste into landfills and contributing to the greenhouse gas problem, your decomposing food helps to create nutrient-rich soils and prevent the release of methane.
Your compost-ready food scraps can be contained in your freezer, and then you can discard them at a compost collection site. Some cities have designated areas; others will come and collect from the curb; others might have collection areas at farmers' markets.
For more on getting started with your own composting, you can read the Environmental Protection Agency's guide to composting at home and for business.