This article is a collaboration with guest author Alison Mountford, founder of Ends+Stems.
The average family of 4 in the U.S. wastes $2100 annually on food. We’re throwing out almost 1 pound of food per person, per day (USDA). If you were dumping all 365 lbs in the trash can at once, solving the problem would be simple. The reality is, it’s a slow leak of edible food hitting the trash can during every meal and kitchen chore.
But don’t despair, the first step to making a change is deciding to do so! Having spent most of my 15 years as a professional chef in people’s homes, I know what’s going on behind closed doors. I’ve compiled a list of tips that anyone can apply today. Pick one or two at a time, baby steps. Start perhaps with #17, #18, and #4 – or wherever you like, just start!
26 Tips To Reduce your Household Food Waste
- Meal Plan – Decide which recipes you’ll cook this week before heading to the store.
- Shop from a List – Once you’ve selected your recipes, you can compile a list. Buying less, only what you know you need, is the most impactful way to save money and ensure you’ll use it all up. No impulse buys!
- Check your Pantry First – This is a passionate subject for professional chefs. Relying on your memory is faulty (#sorrynotsorry, its true) you will overbuy or forget something. Check your grocery list against what you actually have in stock at home before you shop.
- Eat Leftovers – Cooking the exact amount you need is challenging, so if there’s food leftover, pack it for lunch or designate a “Leftovers Night” once a week to clean out the fridge.
- Willpower and Reward – Just override the desire for Thai take out tonight. Eat what you know has been in the fridge and will be tossed out soon. Just eat it! Reward yourself for taking this step tonight by ordering in your favorite meal tomorrow.
- Eat Ugly – Ugly produce is having its moment. You may see it as a delivered farm box, in your local grocery store aisle, or at the farmer’s market. Here’s another way to think about it: when your produce at home starts wilting, browning or growing eyes, etc, use it up! Slice off the affected part and either eat it or freeze it ASAP.
- Buy Upcycled! – Hello ReGrained Bars! Companies are now upcycling food waste from all types of products into fruit juices, beer, chips, crackers, cereal, and so much more.
- Eat Less Meat – A plant heavy diet is the future of environmental eating. Animals require more resources to grow, produce, and distribute, so wasting any amount of beef or pork has a much larger negative impact than wasting an apple. If you’re buying less meat, you’re more likely to savor it and waste it less.
- Put Down The Peeler – Stop peeling carrots, cucumbers, potatoes, apples, and eat them all the way through!
- Eat your Ends+Stems – Many vegetables have parts that might not be fully utilized in traditional recipe writing. Broccoli stalks, for example, are trimmed away though they’re arguably the more delicious part. Eat your parsley stems, beet tops, kale stems, celery leaves, etc.
- Utilize Scraps for Stock – For items that do produce “inedible” waste, make stock. Chicken bones, winter squash peels/guts, onion skins, even apple cores turn “garbage” into kitchen gold.
- Be Creative, Recipes are Guidelines – If you get halfway through a recipe and are missing an ingredient, make a substitution! Parsley for basil, mozzarella for ricotta, carrot for sweet potato. Most savory cooking is adaptable and, as you gain practice and confidence, you can cook from your fridge rather than running out to the store.
- Proper Storage – Ends+Stems has a large ingredient directory to help our community know where things go. Some fruits release ethanol which makes others ripen far too quickly. Some benefit from high humidity in the fridge, while others need a dark spot to last longest. When groceries are stored properly, you’ll get more shelf life from them and more time to use them up.
- Declutter – Keep your food storage and refrigerator areas organized and pared down. If you can’t see what you have, you’ll never use it up.
- FIFO – Another professional chef rule of thumb. First In, First Out. When unloading your groceries, rotate older items to the front so they’ll be grabbed first. In the fruit bowl, for example, place new apples underneath older ones, which become easier to grab.
- Understand Expiration Dates – They aren’t real! With the exception of infant formula, there are zero (zip, zilch, nada!) regulations or standards currently applied to Best By, Use By, Eat By, Sell By dates. Its all for manufacturers and marketing. Learn to trust your senses to tell if something has turned. Most dairy is good for at least a few days after the date, and eggs can stay fresh for months!
- Measure – Run a food waste audit in your home to find out exactly what your home often wastes. Lucky for you my company, Ends+Stems, has a full Food Waste Audit Guide for you!
- Serve Smaller Portions – American dinner plates have increased in size by 36% since the 1960s. In Europe, the average restaurant plate is 9 inches (compared to the U.S.’s 12 inch plates). Not only will serving smaller portions reduce your food waste, it could help your health and waistline. If you’re still hungry, just go for seconds!
- Teach Kids Why – It’s a safe bet that your kids understand recycling as it’s now commonplace in most households. Teaching our kids to respect where food comes from, and the resources put in to grow, pack, ship and cook food teaches them to be mindful of waste for the good of the planet.
- Donate Extras – Try apps like Olio or donate to your local food banks or shelter. This can be done year round, not just during the Thanksgiving canned goods drive.
- Geek Out on Old-School Shelflife Boosters – Canning, fermenting, and pickling are all ways to extend the life of a product or rescue it from going bad.
- Leverage Your Freezer – Romaine, strawberries, and avocados, for example, can be frozen and turned into smoothies. Cooked grains and rice can go in sauces, and meat too. Just remember to label and date everything so you remember what it is!
- Feed Friends, Then Consider Animals – I love the idea of a leftover swap or cooking swap with friends and neighbors (you make a double batch of lentil soup, they make double roast chicken, then swap!). If you have animals who can be fed, that is a better use than the compost bin. Maybe you have goats, pigs, chickens nearby who need a meal. Elephants in zoos love pumpkins in the fall! (Seriously, this is a thing, google it).
- Order Smarter at Restaurants – Up to a half pound of food is wasted per restaurant meal served. Some of that is in the kitchen, but 17% of that waste is from consumers not joining the clean plate club. So order less, or take home (and use your willpower to eat) those leftovers! If you know a restaurant owner or see a suggestions box, ask them to use smaller plates, serve smaller portions, or consider selling half portions.
- Composting is Better – …But only a little. Edible food that gets composted is still wasting the water, gas, labor, growing space, and time that was spent growing that food.
- Forget Perfection – This is not a zero sum game. If you have a bad (food waste) day or you just can’t engage your willpower to follow through on leftovers today―It. Is. Ok. Start again tomorrow. 100% of Ends+Stems users surveyed said that, by being in our community, they thought about food waste at other times in their week. Awareness and effort are the most important first steps to change.
Alison Mountford is the Founder and CEO of Ends+Stems, a meal planning service designed to reduce household food waste and stop the effects of climate change. Alison has 15 years of experience as a professional chef and entrepreneur. Her first business, an early model in meal delivery, was sold in 2015. She is a 2018 Rubicon Waste Fit Champion. Alison is a San Francisco based advocate for reducing waste, a chef, a food business consultant, and has appeared on many podcasts and radio shows.