How to Prevent Food Waste: A Primer for Home Cooks

by Sarah Henry on July 18, 2012 · 36 comments

in bay area bites,food safety,food security,frugal gourmet

Who hasn’t let lettuce languish at the bottom of the fridge until it resembles green slime? Anyone guilty of forgetting pantry items long past their expiration date?

American consumers are good at allowing food to go bad. Consider these staggering statistics, mostly gleaned from a recent expert panel on food waste at the Sustainable Foods Institute, a media conference held in conjunction with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Cooking for Solutions events:

  1. Almost 40 percent of the food grown and produced in the United States isn’t eaten.
  2. The typical household wastes one quarter of all perishable edibles that come into the kitchen.
  3. Every day the U.S. wastes enough food to fill the Rose Bowl, which seats 90,000.
  4. The U.S. is the number one waster of food in the world, yet 1 out of 6 in this country go hungry.
  5. The average American household allows $500 worth of produce to spoil a year and wastes around $2,200 worth of food annually.
  6. Some 97 percent of discarded food ends up in landfills, where it produces methane, a greenhouse gas about 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide.

Chew on those numbers for a minute. Then find ideas below from panelists like food waste expert Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland, and celebrity chef Alex Guarnaschelli, who took part in “The Big Waste,” a Food Network show in which chefs prepared a feast for 100 using food destined for the trash.

    1. Buy Less: Shop more often and purchase just the food items you need. If frequent, smaller trips to the grocery store or farmers market aren’t an option, then plan meals and make a detailed shopping list to keep impulse and excess buying in check. Consumers need to get over the mind set, Broom cautions, of filling the fridge to the brim. And if you’re a weekly shopper, leave one or two nights open for repurposing leftovers.
    2. Rethink Portion Size: Most cooks want to feed family and friends well and err on the side of generous servings. But such thinking contributes to a phenomenon known as plate waste: Uneaten food headed straight for the compost bin or (worse) garbage pail. Instead, try small servings the first time around, and place seconds within easy reach on the table. Or serve food family style, where individuals can help themselves. As one conference participant pointed out, overeating is a form of food waste too and many eaters feel compelled by culture or conditioning to eat everything dished up for dinner.
    3. Love Leftovers: Pack that extra pasta and salad (keep dressing on the side to avoid gluggy greens) into containers for the next day’s work or school lunch. Or turn leftovers into an entirely new dish for a future dinner: Excess chicken can make its way into a rice bowl or pasta dish. A pot of beans can be transformed into a soup or stew. Stale bread, as Tamar Adler notes in her ode to sustainable cooking, An Everlasting Meal, can find a happy home in bread soup (pappa al pomodoro) or salad (panzanella).

    1. Make the Freezer a Friend: Lots of food items get a second chance thanks to the freezer. Extra stock, pasta sauce, or tomato paste can be stored in individual servings in an ice cube tray. Ripening fruit such as berries or bananas (peeled) can go from freezer to smoothies or baked goods. Bread and rice freeze well, as do nuts, which are less likely to go rancid in the cold. Most leftovers, stored in air-tight, clear containers, are good candidates for freezing for future use. (Label and date items to jog your memory regarding contents.)
    2. Learn Label Lingo: Expiration dates like “sell by,” “use by” and “best before” may indicate when a food item is at its optimal quality, says Bloom, but don’t necessarily equate to a ‘toss by” date. Your nose, eyes, and taste buds are often the best indication that something has gone off. This guide to expiration dates can also help you determine whether to dish up a food or ditch it in the compost.
    3. Embrace Imperfect Foods: Chef Guarnaschelli encouraged panel participants to “buy something imperfect today.” A gently bruised peach can go in a smoothie, an oddly-shaped egg can find a home in an omelette, a slightly soft avocado might wind up in a dip. “Imperfect doesn’t mean inedible,” adds Bloom, who advises cutting off bruises and blemishes on produce. Bonus: As anyone who has shopped the Berkeley Bowl seconds section knows, less than stellar looking fruits and veggies cost less too.
    4. Cook creatively: Conference panelist Rick Bayless, the chef-restaurateur, cookbook author, and television personality who has long focused on Mexican cuisine, says that Americans need to become a culture of cooks to prevent waste. Instead of giving cooking lessons, he notes, professional chefs should give anti-food waste lessons. “‘Food waste’” is a first-world problem,” adds Bayless, “in the rest of the world, what we think of as waste gets eaten.” A roast chicken, say, can form the basis of a dinner. Leftover meat goes in tacos, salads, or sandwiches. The carcass can make soup stock.

  1. Preserve Abundant Produce: Canning excess tomatoes, jamming extra apricots, pickling surplus green beans, are all ways of extending produce life and adding to a kitchen pantry, in households with the skills, time, and interest in taking on such projects.
  2. Compost with Care: Most landfills are packed with discarded food scraps that are unlikely to ever break down. But rotten food will biodegrade and can be recycled as compost. That said, Bloom encourages consumers to try to use food before composting it, since composting has a carbon footprint. “Composting is great,” he says, “but producing too much food, and then composting the excess to then grow more food is a broken approach.”
  3. Give Away Excess: Glean from your own garden (or kitchen) and find a food bank, homeless shelter, or food pantry who could put these edibles to use. It’s a win-win: You’ll feel good about feeding someone who is hungry and free yourself from guilt over food waste.


“The Big Waste” on the Food Network explores restaurant food waste — and turns it into a gourmet meal for a crowd.

This post originally appeared on KQED’s Bay Area Bites.

You might also like:

Eating Richly Even When You’re Broke
Canning For a Cause: Let’s Preserve
Gleaning For Good: An Old Idea is New Again

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{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

Alexandra July 18, 2012 at 10:04 am

This video is shocking. The waste is shocking, although it does not surprise me. I have seen this with the guests in my rental cottage, the waste I mean, especially those who get take-out on a regular basis while on vacation. Also, there is a restaurant in town which just got green certification, and created two sized portions, enough for $14 or too much for $19. They also offer two sized portions for dessert. This cuts down on waste, since no one needs to take home a doggy bag anymore.
Alexandra´s last [type] ..Conversation at Winslow’s

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Sarah Henry July 18, 2012 at 10:55 am

Ever since I wrote this post I’ve become a bit obsessed about waste in my own refrigerator and do all I can to recycle, reinvent, and keep an eye on what’s in the crisper bin. I’m also shopping more often at farmers’ markets and buying less at each outing, though this time of year there are so many tempting things to take home.

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Brette July 18, 2012 at 10:11 am

Thanks for these tips. I struggle with food waste and really hate it.
Brette´s last [type] ..Cornmeal Pan-Fried Flounder From the Fish CSA

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Sarah Henry July 18, 2012 at 10:56 am

I hear you Brette. Have you found any strategies that work for you?

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Irene July 18, 2012 at 10:18 am

These are great reminders! I hate to admit but that aged tomato looks very familiar :-)
Irene

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Sarah Henry July 18, 2012 at 10:57 am

You’re not alone, Irene. Tomatoes get eaten up pretty quickly in my home but I’ve been as guilty as the next person of allowing greens to hang around too long until they resemble a slimy mess.

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Roxanne July 18, 2012 at 2:39 pm

I’m getting MUCH better about all this, but these are great tips. Thanks so much. I stumbled the post so that I can find it again easily (and others can too). I’m big on eating leftovers.
Roxanne´s last [type] ..Wordless Wednesday: Colorado Drought 2012

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Sarah Henry July 19, 2012 at 10:26 am

Leftovers are my friends. We call them lunch at my house. Thanks so much for stumbling, Rox.

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merr July 19, 2012 at 7:03 am

This post and your numbered list could not be more timely. I just went through my fridge and was sad to see all the (once) fresh produce that needed tossing. I used to be worse – and I am getting better – but it really has taken being conscious at the grocery store before I buy. Sometimes I must be forgetting that I’m just cooking for two instead of four (as our kids are out of the house).
merr´s last [type] ..The 5-Question [Author] Interview: Barbara Abercrombie

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Sarah Henry July 19, 2012 at 10:28 am

I know what you mean, merr. I shop very differently if I know I’ll have a ravenous bunch of teenage boys on board versus when I’m flying solo. It’s an adjustment. But those hungry adolescents are good for eating up everything in sight.

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Diana July 19, 2012 at 7:47 am

Luis wants to comment: Those photos were yucky! how did you put the photos up there? i’m going to check our fridge, just in case!!

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Sarah Henry July 19, 2012 at 10:29 am

That is hilarious, Diana. So nice to know I have a young fan (even if I grossed your boy out:). Next time I see Luis I’ll ask him what he discovered during his refrigerator investigation. Hope nothing too frightening.

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Danielle July 19, 2012 at 10:02 am

Food waste is probably the most overlooked issue in the general discourse around food. I am guilty of over-shopping and letting greens wilt or grow in the crisper, and definitely need to get better at that. Totally agree as well about the cultural pressure to finish everything on the plate….I think that mindset and the current state of food portions in America play as big a role in the obesity problem as do HFCS and processed foods. Lotsa food for thought! (pun unintended)

Interestingly enough, I read Tamar’s piece on Gilt about her cooking class for leftovers. Brilliant: http://www.gilttaste.com/stories/5492-a-recipe-is-not-always-the-place-to-begin
Danielle´s last [type] ..Edamame + Soba

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Sarah Henry July 19, 2012 at 10:32 am

Good points all, Danielle. And thanks so much for pointing readers to Tamar’s Gilt Taste story on leftovers. I read that one too. Perhaps the stigma of leftovers will start to lift — especially when home cooks reimagine previously prepared and cooked foods into entirely new dishes.

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Mary Arulanantham July 19, 2012 at 11:05 am

I get a farm box every two weeks and try hard to use every lovely piece of produce. One tip I am passing on to my young adult children is use the softest things first, save hard squash and root vegetables for the end of the week. When I end up wasting tomatoes and greens, it is usually because my cooking plans got derailed by changing schedules or the whims of said children. I try to use up everything that is fresh, except perhaps the last few potatoes or onions, before I indulge myself with another trip to the market.

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Sarah Henry July 20, 2012 at 2:02 pm

Mary so lovely to see you here and what a great suggestion to add to the mix.

I do something similar to you: Those berries, for instance, barely last beyond a day or two in my house. And you’re absolutely right, there’s more wiggle room with root veg than, say, salad greens. Smart way to organize the crisper, actually, with more delicate (and more perishable) produce on top, where they won’t get forgotten.

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Jeanine Barone July 19, 2012 at 4:54 pm

Great tips on a much overlooked topic. I personally love leftovers. In fact, I typically eat dinner leftovers (including Chinese food or sushi) for breakfast. And, so many restaurants serve such huge portion sizes, I easily get at least another meal from last night’s dinner.

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Sarah Henry July 20, 2012 at 1:57 pm

I know what you mean about portion size from some restaurants, Jeanine. They can definitely do double-duty as lunch — or in your case breakfast the next day.

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Jane Boursaw July 19, 2012 at 5:06 pm

We really do waste SO much food in this country. It’s sinful – and not in a good way, when you think about all the people who could use that food to survive. Great tips, Sarah.
Jane Boursaw´s last [type] ..Marion Cotillard Debuts Raf Simons Couture at The Dark Knight Rises Premiere

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Sarah Henry July 20, 2012 at 1:58 pm

Well said, Jane. So many solid reasons for keeping food waste to a minimum.

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Living Large July 20, 2012 at 8:24 am

Boy, do I need this post. I have what once was cucumbers sitting in a bag in my produce drawer right now. Great suggestions!

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Sarah Henry July 20, 2012 at 1:59 pm

Oh, dear, LL. Are those cukes now of the liquid variety? If it looks like you’re not gonna eat ‘em in time before they get to that stage, I like cucumber slices added to tap water with lemon.

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Julie July 22, 2012 at 7:51 am

We waste a lot less produce now that I’ve quit using the crisper drawer! The drawer is evil for two reasons: First, out of sight, out of mind. Too easy to forget what’s in there. Second, a lot of produce spoils FASTER in there than if you just leave it on the counter.

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Sarah Henry July 23, 2012 at 8:06 am

Great tip, Julie. Thanks for sharing it here. Curious to hear what produce lasts longer if you leave it on the counter. (I know certain fruits and veg — tomatoes come immediately to mind — shouldn’t be chilled at all, from a flavor-saving perspective.)

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Casey@Good. Food. Stories. July 22, 2012 at 4:22 pm

Ouch. Those are some crazy statistics, and I have no doubt they’re true. I stopped buying whole heads of lettuce after sending too many wilted blobs to the compost bin, and now make that my one concession at the salad bar. Sure, it’s not from a farmer’s market, but I’ll take it.
Casey@Good. Food. Stories.´s last [type] ..Neighborhood Guide: Charleston Chew

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Sarah Henry July 23, 2012 at 8:08 am

So you just buy what you want to use in a day or two from the salad bar section of your grocery store, Casey? Speaking of wilting greens: If I notice that a bag of spinach is passed it’s prime (but not yet a muddy-colored, watery mess) I saute in some olive oil and garlic and eat it with whatever is on the menu that day.

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Vera Marie Badertscher July 23, 2012 at 10:02 am

Oh, boy, what a terrific article. Several thoughts come to mind. 1. I’m glad I read this AFTER breakfast–those graphic “scientific food experiments” would have made for more leftovers. 2. I ate an ugly ugly tomato for breakfast this morning and it may have been the best tomato I ever ate. 3. I need to date the leftovers in my fridge, and daily, pull the ones in the back toward the front. They get hidden back there and never used. 4. It is a bit ironic to hear chefs talk about waste. It always bothers me to see them chopping and tossing huge pieces of the veggies they cut up. I scrape up ever bit off the cutting board. 5. I’m with you on trying to limit my farmer’s market purchases to what we’ll eat in a week.
Vera Marie Badertscher´s last [type] ..Beyond the Corridor: Prussia

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Sarah Henry July 23, 2012 at 3:06 pm

1. Glad you got breakfast in before reading this, too, Vera.
2. Sometimes the squishiest fruit tastes the best.
3. Sounds like a plan.
4. I hear ya on that score.
5. Given that my house can be an inferno inside and I have scant storage space, I tend to shop for just a few days of produce at a time and eat it at its peak.

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Sheryl July 23, 2012 at 5:52 pm

we are constantly on a “search and destroy” mission in our fridge, even though I try so, so hard not to waste anything. It KILLS me to have to throw out spoiled, rotten, moldy food. But there is always something that escapes my watchful eye and ends up getting tossed. Last week, every time I opened my fridge, the odor was horrendous. I poured out lots of milk, thinking it was spoiled, but no luck. Finally I located the culprit – beans, of all things! They can smell quite gross if they sit for too long.

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Sarah Henry July 26, 2012 at 8:36 am

Oh, yeah, bad beans can really funk up a fridge. Try freezing them in small batches instead — they’re great additions to soups and stews — and defrost just fine.

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Amy Solis July 24, 2012 at 7:08 pm

Great article and love the recommendations. Thank you

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Sarah Henry July 26, 2012 at 8:36 am

Thanks for saying so, Amy.

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MyKidsEatSquid July 27, 2012 at 7:13 pm

Great comment from Rick Bayless, one of my personal favs. We eat Mexican food around our house a lot and it’s true that it uses food in ingenious ways to avoid waste. Fresh corn tortillas one day become enchiladas or chips the next.

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Sarah Henry August 2, 2012 at 3:54 pm

Agreed, MKES, and also think you could say this with regard to many other “ethnic” cuisines (Italian, Greek, Japanese etc.)

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amee August 2, 2012 at 3:14 pm

Wow! What a fantastic informative post!!! This topic doesn’t get enough attn so I am glad you wrote about it. I do LOVE the moldy photos…they got my attention. Anything gross gets attention. like a horror movie where you don’t want to look, so you cover your eyes, but then you peek through them. Cuz you gotta know!
And about that mold, i gotta know! :) hope you are having a great summer, sarah!

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Sarah Henry August 2, 2012 at 5:04 pm

Amee: You are hilarious, horror movie references and all. Happy summer to you too, may it be (relatively) mold free:)

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