17 Surprising Ways You Might Be Wasting Food and Not Know It

Many of us now realize that food waste is a big problem in the U.S. But did you know that a lot of that food is wasted in our homes—probably more than 40 percent in all. It may seem like just a little bit of leftover dinner going in the trash (or chilling away the guilt in the back of the freezer) but when all of us toss a little bit every week, it adds up to a tremendous amount of wasted food. Besides, there are other reasons up and down the food supply chain where food is wasted because of our bad food habits.

Here are 17 ways you might be wasting food and not realize it:

  1. Impulse treats – When we veer from a plan (or skip a plan all together) we end up with more food than we need or foods that don’t go well together. Meaning they don’t get eaten. Sometimes impulse takeout orders replace planned meals that we already purchased; those original foods no longer have a place in the plan. If you know you’re going to default to pizza on Wednesday night, build room in the plan for those ad hoc treats.
  2. Peeling vegs – In this day and age, carrots are immaculately scrubbed clean of the tiniest hint of debris before they get anywhere near your shopping basket, so why are we still removing their peels? Give them a good wash and just eat the peels like any other part of the veg. The same goes for potatoes, apples, you name it. If you must peel your veggies, don't just toss those peels, use them for something else, like potato peel chips, veggie stock or apple peel tea
  3. Milk carton is too big – I see you staring at the price tags in the dairy aisle, trying to figure out which carton is the best deal. You may think that you’re saving money by buying the gallon container of milk, but if the kids (or you and roomie) don’t finish 3/4ths of it, you probably would have saved more money with the smaller container. Don’t be fooled by the “it just costs a little bit more for a much bigger quantity” scheme and don’t waste your money on food you’re not going to eat.
  4. Only perfect produce – Doesn’t that shiny, large, perfectly red apple look beautiful? Growing food is a temperamental business and not all of the fruits and vegetables come out perfect. When we leave misshapen or scarred fruit in the bottom of the grocery bin, supermarkets change their contracts so that they have fewer of those odd-ball products left unsold. Crooked carrots taste just as sweet! 

    photo by Si B under creative commons via Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/si_b/878893320/

  5. Chicken breasts – On the whole, Americans eat significantly more chicken breasts and wings than the rest of the chicken. Excess dark meat either gets exported (with a much higher environmental footprint), further processed (sometimes into pet food), or goes to waste. Next time you’re at the butcher counter look for less-common cuts of meat, you may get a deal and reduce food waste at the same time. Expert level tip: award winning chefs are using more than the fish fillet and you could too.
  6. Buying food out of season – Peaches in January. When we demand them, supermarkets figure out a way to supply them. But they come a very long way to get here and they don’t sell well because ... come on! They came a long way so they’re pretty tasteless. There are lots of casualties: during shipping, in the store, or on the counter when we desperately try to ripen them but they just turn to mush. Seasonal, local foods don’t have as much opportunity to get damaged in transit, are picked closer to ripening thus allowing farmers to harvest more of the crop and they taste better when we bring them home.
  7. Romaine hearts – The name sounds so decadent, but when farm laborers harvest romaine hearts, they leave all the bigger leaves in the field to rot. Those lush outside leaves are also salad ready, but they don’t make it into the package.
  8. Packs of Perishables – Any time perishables are sold in a pack bigger than you intended to purchase, you may be heading for a food waste set-up. Opt for loose fruits and veg if you’re not going to eat the entire bag. And this gives you the opportunity to skip the plastic packaging while you’re at it!
  9. Insisting on fresh – If you're not going to eat it before it goes off, freeze or pickle it.
  10. Forgetting food in the pantry, back of the fridge, or freezer – Ok, so you don’t have the same perishability problem with packs of canned beans as you have with packs of bell peppers, but how often do you bring home ANOTHER can of tomatoes even though you already had several in the pantry? And if you diligently froze those bell peppers as they started to get wrinkly, did you eat them before they were covered in freezer burn and became totally unrecognizable? The back of the fridge is a no-persons-land, so put dates on leftovers and periodically rotate food to keep everything in sight and accessible.
  11.  ALL THAT COFFEE – NRDC did research into what kinds of foods are the most likely to get tossed and in all three cities that we surveyed, coffee was the number one discard. Are we overestimating how much coffee we’ll need? Are we making lots of bad coffee? We don’t know. But we know it takes a lot of resources to grow that coffee. If you’re a frequent coffee ditcher, make a smaller pot so you don’t waste the resources needed for those precious beans. If someone else in your office makes a bad pot of coffee, it may be time for a bit of tutoring – if you do it nicely, everyone could benefit!
  12. Portion sizes – When we cook or order portions that are too big, we end up with uncomfortable tummies or wasted food. Learning to cook in appropriate portion sizes and ordering half size portions when they are available and desirable can help fend off unwanted leftovers.
  13. Ignoring recipes – Some people have enough experience or innate talent to craft well-balanced meals out of the perfect mix of ingredients, but let’s face it, most of us need some guidance. If you don’t follow a recipe, you’re likely to end up with a less than optimal concoction. And in my personal experience, those weird meals never get finished. Save yourself from the awkwardness and save the food from going to waste by just following a recipe.
  14. Aquafaba – Edible food is hiding in many unexpected places. Did you know that the juice in a can of garbanzo beans is edible? It’s called aquafaba and it’s a super hip, vegan replacement ingredient with a wide spectrum of emulsifying, foaming, binding, and thickening properties. Use it like egg whites without needing to find a recipe that uses up the egg yolk.
  15. Herbs – The bane of my window sill gardening experiments every spring. I usually end up buying a big, beautiful bunch of the requisite herb. If you’re not freezing those leftover herbs, you’re missing out. Bonus tip: Are you only using herb leaves? There’s a ton of additional flavor in the tender stems. Chop them fine or puree and add to your favorite sauce for a true food waste prevention gold star.
  16. Overfilling plates that are too big – There is amazing research into our perceptions of food and empty space. In short, we don’t like it. And that leads us to overfill our grocery carts, refrigerators and plates. The size of plates (both in restaurants and on our dining tables) have gotten much bigger in the last decades. And because we want to fill them up, we have far too much food on our plates. Try it for yourself: eat off of a salad plate for a week and see if you want less.
  17. The Expiration myth – Food doesn’t magically spoil as soon as the date on the package is passed. Sell-by, use-by, and best-by dates are manufacturers’ suggestions for peak quality. Ideally, the federal government should standardize food date labels to reduce confusion. But in the meantime, learn how to understand these labels and rely more on your own judgment about food quality.

About the Authors

Andrea Spacht Collins

Sustainable Food Systems Specialist, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program
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