Most food waste happens at home. Here's how to change that

Food Waste

click to enlarge See this mustard? It's fine to keep using it. "Best by" labels aren't related to food safety, but rather taste and freshness. - DEREK HARRISON PHOTO
Derek Harrison photo
See this mustard? It's fine to keep using it. "Best by" labels aren't related to food safety, but rather taste and freshness.

We've all been there: You're squatting in front of the open fridge, trying to figure out where that funky smell is coming from. Maybe it's some vegetable that has degraded into a liquid, a dish of moldy leftovers, or that fish you bought two days ago and totally meant to cook but never did and now it's bad. Whatever the culprit, it gets tossed in the trash, and you get a twinge of guilt for being wasteful.

In the U.S., we're particularly guilty of this. Household food waste accounts for 43 percent of the more than 125 billion pounds of food that goes uneaten every single year, according to a 2017 report by the National Resources Defense Counsel, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group. The most commonly tossed out items include fish and seafood, as well as fresh fruits and vegetables, but meat and other products are close behind.

Not only is all that waste pretty bad for the environment, it also represents enough to feed about half the country, with an estimated 1,250 calories per person thrown away every single day.

Food waste is also costly. The organization Save the Food estimates a single person throws out a little more than a dollar a day worth of food, totaling $375 in wasted money each year. For a family of four, that's $1,500 every year going right in the trash.

The good news is, there are plenty of things each person can do to reduce their impacts. Here are just a few.

DON'T FALL FOR THE LABELING LIE

OK, so it's not exactly a lie, but many people wrongly believe they need to toss out food as soon as it's past the "best by," "sell by," "use by" or "freeze by" date.

The thing is, not one of those are actual food safety dates required by the Food and Drug Administration. The only dates required by the FDA for safety are for infant formula.

For basically everything else, those dates really just mean, "Hey, dude, this is going to taste best by this date." It's a guessing game for manufacturers. Milk can go bad before an expiration date, or it could last days after a sell by date. Condiments and canned food can last well past the date that's really marked to get them off store shelves.

The rules for dating also vary from state to state. In Washington, for example, a "pull by date" means the last date that a product can be sold while the customer still has "a reasonable amount of time to use the product under normal usage and storage conditions," but food can still be sold after that date if it's still good. Just be aware you may need to use it that same day, rather than storing it for a week.

STORE IT RIGHT

Speaking of storage: Can't remember if tomatoes should be kept in the fridge and apples stored at room temperature, or vice versa? There's an app for that!

At foodsafety.gov, the federal government has compiled a huge list of safety recommendations that includes tips on how many days you can store virtually any ingredient in your fridge or pantry, as well as how much longer you can get if you freeze those items. There are even notes on which veggies don't hold up when frozen, along with cooking temperatures and methods for each item. All of that is available via the USDA FoodKeeper app.

For curious minds, the app says tomatoes can keep for a week once they're ripe, and it's recommended that you store them in a pantry because refrigeration can affect flavor. Apples are typically OK for up to three weeks if stored in a pantry, but last more like four to six weeks when kept in the fridge.

PLAN, PLAN, PLAN

Yes, it can be hard with hectic lives, but planning out a schedule of weekly meals can go a long way in making sure you only shop for what you need.

Many agencies recommend "shopping your fridge" before making a trip to the store so you know what you have. If you've got leftovers, eat those first before going to buy more food. If you have random vegetables that are still good, consider making a potato salad or soup. Some fruits that seem a little soft are perfect for throwing into smoothies or making jams.

Then, once you're sure you need more food, write down your plan and stick with it, and chances are you'll waste a lot less.

GET MORE OUT OF FRUITS & VEGGIES

Easy Vegetable Scrap Broth

Every time you cut onions, peel carrots, and slice up celery, there are usually some peels, roots, and scraps leftover. Toss those in a gallon-sized Ziploc bag, squeeze out the air and store it in the freezer. Keep adding to it until it's full, then put everything in a large pot, fill it up with water, and simmer for an hour. Strain off the scraps and you've got a delicious vegetable broth to use for soups.

Infused Water

Cutting up a pineapple or slicing the tops off strawberries? Throw the leftover outer pieces in a jar or pitcher, fill with water, and leave it in the fridge overnight to infuse the flavors and have a tasty drink to take to school or work. If you can, compost the scraps afterwards. ♦

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About The Author

Samantha Wohlfeil

Samantha Wohlfeil covers the environment, rural communities and cultural issues for the Inlander. Since joining the paper in 2017, she's reported how the weeks after getting out of prison can be deadly, how some terminally ill Eastern Washington patients have struggled to access lethal medication, and other sensitive...