Never Throw Food Away Again

Broken down per capita, we waste about 1,400 calories per person, per day. But you can save more food, and save money.

December 8, 2009

Americans waste almost half of their food, according to a new report.

Food waste is becoming a major American problem. Americans waste an astounding 40 percent of their food, a statistic that has doubled since 1974, according to research published in the journal PLoS ONE found. And it's not just trashed food that gets wasted, but also tons of the food and water used to grow, harvest, process, and transport the food, the study authors say. "Food waste in America has become a very large problem that significantly drains national resources," explains study coauthor Kevin Hall, PhD, of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. For example, about one quarter of the total consumption of fresh water in the United States is used to produce food that is not eaten, the study authors found. Furthermore, more than 300 million barrels of oil, or about 4 percent of the nation's oil consumption, is used to produce wasted food—and that figure doesn't even include the costs for processing and transporting food.


Researchers calculated the food waste of the nation as a whole over the last three decades, and then expressed the food waste on a per-capita basis to come up with the calculation that every person wastes about 1,400 calories of food per day. To arrive at that number, researchers found how much food was eaten by the population over the past several decades (data that had been compiled to explain the observed increase of body weight corresponding to increasing prevalence of obesity), then subtracted the amount of food eaten from the food available in the national food supply, and adjusted for imports and exports. This difference between the available food supply and the food eaten was defined as food waste. The numbers correspond with a 50 percent increase in food waste since the mid-1970s.

The study does have limitation, however. "The waste could have occurred at any point along the food supply chain, and our methods give us no information about where the waste is occurring," explains Hall. "Much of it could be due to household food waste, but waste also occurs in restaurants, supermarkets, food-processing facilities, and farms," explains Hall.

Individuals probably aren't to blame for all of the food waste. But it's a safe bet that even as obesity rates continue to climb, so does the amount of food we throw out—probably because it's a consequence of the easy availability of calorie-dense food that makes us fat. The pattern of doubling food waste during the last three decades is bad news for the environment as well as our waistlines. "We use so many resources to grow food. Shipping, tractors, and [chemical] farming practices are pretty damaging to the earth in terms of emissions and petroleum usage," Bloom says. "If we're going to do all that, we might as well eat the food. It makes no sense to grow twice the amount of calories we need and then throw out what we don't need."

While this waste occurs in all parts of the food chain, there is a lot you can do on the consumer end. And the best part? It'll help save you money, too.

Here's how to never throw food away again:

• Prevent food wastage. We are all for eating more fresh produce and whole grains as much as possible, and avoiding belt-busting processed foods (processing and packaging are also the leading culprits in food-related greenhouse gases). However, this healthier way of eating takes a little more planning. Create menus for the week, incorporating leftovers and foods that might spoil if not used up, suggests Lois Killcoyne, RD, food-preservation expert with the Pennsylvania State University Extension program. Before going to the grocery store, take an inventory of what needs to be used up. You can buy other items around that to create a meal.

• Cook once, eat twice. It's one of Killcoyne's golden rules to prevent food waste. Use leftovers in a different form for another meal; for example, eat roast chicken one night, and use the leftovers to make chicken salad later.

• Add leftovers to soup or stew. Keep a container in the freezer to accumulate leftovers, if needed. As small amounts of leftovers are added, plan on a hearty soup made from them as an entrée.

• Plan a weekly smorgasbord. Put out a buffet of what's in the fridge, and let family members choose their favorites. Fill in with other foods as needed.

• Eat leftover dinner foods for lunch the next day. This seems like a no-brainer, but many people don't do it. And with all the extra food floating around during the holiday season, now's the perfect time to get in the habit. Just remember to always follow safety guidelines for handling leftovers: Refrigerate leftovers within two hours of cooking, and use them within three to four days. In the case of stuffing and gravy, use them within one to two days, or freeze them.

• Buy frozen. Fresh produce is great, but you can also opt for bagged, frozen vegetables and fruits if your produce tends to spoil before you get to use it all. Remove exactly as much as you need for a particular recipe at a time. Look for frozen organic produce, which isn't farmed with unhealthy chemicals and keeps greenhouse-gas carbon out of the atmosphere.

• Buy sensible amounts. "Sometimes the quantities of fresh produce we can buy are more than we will use up before it spoils," says Killcoyne. "Instead, get just the needed amounts of fresh prepped fruits or vegetables at the salad bar in your market—no extra." Another idea is to share extra produce with friends or family. You both get to enjoy it, and the foods are used up before spoiling.

If you don't want to run to the store every day for fresh ingredients, a good rule of thumb when buying produce is to buy one ripe item, one medium-ripe, and one green to prevent a mass spoiling.

• Favor long keepers. Produce like apples, cabbage, sweet potatoes, oranges, and carrots will keep well for longer periods under refrigeration, Killcoyne says. Hydrated spices and seasonings can replace fresh and won't spoil before being used up. Consider devoting part of your home to cold storage for vegetables.

• Create a divide. Divide packages of raw meat like chicken or ground beef and freeze in individual portions for later use. Cook just enough for the meal. Recognize that you can also freeze extra bread and baked goods.

• Learn the freezing basics. For busy people, freezing offers a great way to preserve food. There are, however, some foods that don't freeze well, according to the National Center for Home Food Preservation. They include: cabbage, celery, cucumbers, lettuces, radishes, cooked spaghetti, macaroni, rice, cooked egg whites, milk sauces, and fried foods (french fries and onion rings are an exception, but it's a good idea not to eat too many fried foods, anyway).

Some people with limited room prefer using plastic freezer bags to store food because they use less space. While the No. 4 plastic that these bags are generally made of is considered pretty safe, if you're worried about plastics chemicals, you can also freeze in wide-mouth canning jars. Just be sure to leave about an inch of space between the food and the jar lid to prevent breakage if the food expands during freezing. Narrow-mouthed canning jars require about 1½ inches of headspace.

Almost all vegetables require blanching before freezing, done by briefly placing them in scalding water to stop enzyme action. To make it easier, find a wire basket that fits into a large pot with a lid. Boil one gallon of water for each pound of vegetables, and then lower your basket of veggies into the water, covering the pot with a lid. Once the water begins to boil again, start timing. Different vegetables require different blanching times.

• When you must, compost. Compost can be as simple or complicated as you'd like to make it. Some people mix kitchen scraps into a pile of grass clippings and leaves, while others purchase or build composting bins or spinning barrels. If you do it right, the payoff is a rich garden soil amendment. You'll also be keeping rotting food out of the landfill. Whatever composting method is best for you, most gardening experts recommend that the average person composting at home keep dairy, meat, and bones out of the compost system—otherwise things could get very stinky and attract vermin. For more tips, visit our composting topic page.