Eat Well to Be Well: Show thanks by wasting less food

I confess: I have wasted food in my lifetime. And, so have you. Admit it. Remember the moldy cheese you found lurking in the back of the fridge or the limp lettuce languishing in the crisper. All of us has tossed, thrown out or disposed of food that was uneaten at one point or another. We may even tell ourselves that our food waste is “not a big deal” since grocery store shelves remain stocked and restaurant gargantuan portion sizes still exist. However, a 2012 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council opened my eyes to a problem we have in this country – not only do we waste food, but a significant portion of it. Wasting any good food would be bad enough, but this report says the average American household wastes around 40 percent of edible food – let me repeat, 40 percent! Here are more facts this report provides:

  • The average U.S. family of four wastes between $1,350 to $2,275 worth of food each year. That averages out to be about 20 pounds of uneaten food per person per month.
  • Since the 1970s, the amount of food we throw out has increased by 50 percent.
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables have the largest disposals, then dairy, followed by meat, poultry and fish.
  • Food waste is the largest portion of solid waste in our landfills.
  • The average American consumer throws out 10 times the amount of food compared to a consumer in Southeast Asia.
  • We could feed 25 million Americans if we wasted just 15 percent less food.

This is unacceptable and we can do better than this. As a nation, educating ourselves on what we can do to cut down on wasted food will immensely benefit future generations to come, when it is predicted there will be 9-10 billion people to feed in the world by 2050. Here are some ways that we can help reduce food waste:

  1. Shop wisely – Plan meals ahead and stick to a shopping list when at the grocery store. Buying in bulk is not always beneficial unless you use all of it. Strive to buy what you need and what you know you will eat.
  2. Eating out – Restaurants notoriously provide large portions, which often don’t get completely eaten and subsequently, get discarded. Consider sharing meals, taking any leftovers home, and cutting back on the frequency at which you eat out.
  3.  Inspect your refrigerator and cupboards – how many times have most of us thrown out moldy cheese or bread, expired deli meats or limp fruits and vegetables? Before grocery shopping, always do an inventory of what you already have on hand before grocery shopping so you don’t overbuy without using up food already in your refrigerator and cupboards.
  4. Make use of leftovers – You didn’t eat all of last night’s meal? Not a problem. Have it again within a day or two to save money and avoid throwing it out.
  5.  Check expiration dates – Know when perishable foods will expire and use them before that date to avoid food waste.
  6.  Create new uses for excess food – Have leftover bread? Make croutons. Fruit that needs to be used up? Make it a dessert topping. Too much rice? Make fried rice.
  7.  Talk to your grandparents and great-grandparents – People who lived though the Great Depression knew food was precious and didn’t take it for granted. They can tell you how they conserved food and how very little food was wasted back then.
  8.  Here’s my favorite – For one week, skip going to the grocery store and eat only what you have on hand in your refrigerator and cupboards. Doing so will dramatically clean out excess food, save money, and force you to get creative in using up food on hand.

In just a few short weeks, our nation will be celebrating one of our most beloved holidays, Thanksgiving. This year, as you gather with your family and friends around a table full of food, pause and reflect on how blessed our country is to have such an abundance and variety to choose from. Food is a precious resource and one not to waste. The more we appreciate it, the less we will take it for granted. The less food we waste, the more food there is to feed others around the world. Starting today, become more mindful about buying only what you really need at the grocery store, using up the food you have at home and throwing out as little as possible. Live by the mantra, “waste not, want not” to throw less food out and conserve more.

I have touched only briefly on the problem of food wasting. There are numerous excellent websites to check out to learn more. They go into more detail on this issue and how it also affects food businesses, restaurants and school food services. Here are a few resources I used for this article:

  • Natural Resources Defense Council, www.nrds.org.
  • Grace Communications Foundation, www.gracelinks.org.
  • Ferdman, Roberto A. “Amercians throw out more food than plastic, paper, metal, and glass.” Washington Post, Sept. 23, 2014.

Graphic adapted from a Canada Food Board World War I poster.


Cheryl_Mussatto_pictureCheryl Mussatto MS, RD, LD, is a registered dietitian who works as an adjunct professor at Allen Community College, where she teaches the course Basic Nutrition. She is also a certified health and wellness coach. She writes Eat Well to Be Well, a column about health and nutrition, and may be contacted at [email protected].

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