Eat This List: 4 ways to combat food waste at home (and save a little cash while you're at it)
January 15th, 2013
09:05 AM ET
Share this on:

This is the fifth installment of "Eat This List" - a regularly recurring list of things chefs, farmers, writers and other food experts think you ought to know about.

A recent study by the UK-based Institution of Mechanical Engineers revealed that 30–50% or 1.2-2 billion metric tonnes (that's about 2.6-4.4 trillion pounds for those of us not on the metric system) of all food produced on the planet is lost before reaching a human stomach. There are plenty of factors at play - including large portions of edible crops being rejected because they're not physically attractive enough, problems in the supply chain and inefficient harvesting - but perhaps it's time to consider that your own kitchen might be part of the problem.

The next time you're heading out on a grocery run, try one or more of these simple tricks for minimizing food waste. Not only will they help you do your part to take it easy on the environment, but you may even save a few bucks in the bargain.

1. Shop more, buy less

While it might seem like a great deal to buy 24 cartons of yogurt, 20 pounds of potatoes and a crate of English muffins on sale, ask yourself if there's a real likelihood of your using them before they spoil, sprout eyes or go stale and moldy. If not, you're throwing money away. While we're all busy people as short on time as we are on funds, in the long run it will probably save you a few bucks to hit the store more often, and buy only the perishable meat, dairy, bread and produce that you'll use in the next few days.

If possible, opt for loose vegetables and bulk bin dry goods, rather than pre-measured amounts, so you can buy just what you need. Your food will be fresher, you'll waste less packaging and food, and you'll spend less time wandering around your kitchen searching for the cause of the mystery smell.

2. Get past the prep

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Healthy People 2010 data, only 4% of men and 6% of women eat enough vegetables. We polled our readers and found that a sizable chunk of them find that produce goes bad too quickly and that they don't have time to peel, chop and prep the items they bring home from the market.

What's worked for me is setting up an assembly line as soon as I get home from shopping. I fill up the sink with cold water, lob in a couple of strainers as needed and get all the washing done at once, and then drain or pat it dry with paper towels to prevent it from molding or rotting more quickly. If I know I'm going to use sturdy vegetables like carrots, squash and potatoes within the next few days, I'll do all my peeling then, and possibly even some chopping.

Once everything is squeaky clean, I'll separate it into clear containers or reusable Debbie Meyer GreenBags (really - they work) and make sure they stay at the front of the fridge and at the top of my mind. While it might be a bit of a chore right then, later in the week, I can just grab and get cooking.

3. Store smartly

Speaking of keeping abreast of your fruits and vegetables, keep a roll of tape and a Sharpie in easy reach and write the date on each container or bag to remind you when you bought it. If you're feeling extra left-brained, jot the same info onto a dry-erase board on the refrigerator door to act as countdown clock and inspiration for your next meal. As a bonus, it will cut down on opening the fridge door and allowing the contents to warm up. Make sure to include meat, dairy and baked good purchases as well.

The different drawers, by the way, are there for a reason. Store fruit separately from vegetables as it releases ethylene gas that will cause vegetables to spoil more quickly. Meat and seafood should go in the bottom drawer to cut down on the risk of dripping and cross-contamination. Eggs should stay in their original carton, as should milk and creamy dairy (don't put poured-out sour cream, milk and the like back into the original container, though - keep it separate), and once cheese is opened, wrap it in wax paper.

Leftovers should find their way into individual, date-labeled, airtight containers within two hours of cooking and consumed or frozen within the time parameters that the good folks at the USDA have decreed to be safe.

4. Use every last scrap

I've learned a lot of things from gardening on my roof deck, chief of which is that I've been wasting perfectly edible vegetables for most of my life. I'd chucked stems, peels, and greens of all sorts into my trash bin just because I didn't know any better. Now I do - and I'm learning all the time. With each new piece of produce I buy, I study up to find if the stems, leaves, tops and peels are edible or usable and I'll figure out a way to incorporate them into dishes.

Radish leaves rival schmancy, pricey salad standards like arugula, escarole and mache for crunch and distinctive flavor. Sturdy cauliflower and broccoli stems can be shaved thin to saute, roast or add raw crunch to salads and slaws. I'll take every last bit of zest from a citrus peel to add flavor to dressings and baked goods, and I've even made some funky wine from corncobs.

Vegetables that have begun to wilt (but don't show any signs of mold or rot) will likely find their way into a hearty vegetable stock, stew or soup, and what can't be salvaged goes into the compost bin to fertilize next year's crop of vegetables.

Waste not, want not, and eat incredibly well for less. It's your turn to tell the rest of us how you do it around your house. Let us know in the comments below and we might share it - with full credit to you, of course - in an upcoming feature.

Eat This List: My 8 most stained and damaged cookbooks
Vegetables. Eat them. Here's how.
Everything you ever wanted to know about cooking squash
How to roast butternut squash
How to use your CSA haul
Don't like broccoli? Give it a roast
Take a trip to the market, it might turnip a surprise
Quick, simple vegetable sides
Brilliant Brussels sprouts
Five ways to cook and eat dark greens in winter

Next entry »
« Previous entry
soundoff (29 Responses)
  1. Pat

    I saved the apple peels as I was making apple sauce. I put the apple peels in the blender with 1/2 cup water and pureed them and then added them to the apple sauce. You could not tell the difference.

    January 17, 2014 at 4:47 pm |
  2. EKL

    The assembly line for prepping veggies also works for most meat products purchased in bulk. It's awful when you save $5 by buying 10lbs of steak and then lose $10 because a third of it went bad before you used it. When I buy any beef, chicken or pork, I trim it all the way I want it and then divide it all into individual servings that go in one big wrapper in the freezer. That way, I can take out however many servings I need to cook that day and leave the rest frozen for another time. It ensures that I don't end up wasting the money I saved on the bulk purchase and I don't have to spend any time on prep or on figuring out portions as I start to cook. Also, getting rid of the original meat packaging often saves space and I can fit a lot more in the freezer than one might imagine. The most important thing to remember is to do your assembly lines the moment you get home from the market. Never put the products in the fridge, telling yourself you'll do it later... Odds are, you won't and you'll just have wasted food and money.

    September 20, 2013 at 12:03 am |
  3. ganha dinheiro ganha dinheiro

    July 13, 2013 at 8:13 am |
  4. Franchesca S.

    I have a long commute so when I cook I like to make quite a lot and freeze it. Also I have concerns about chemicals in plastics. Solution: glass freezer jars. Tiny ones for freezing pesto and soft cheeses. Medium for meat and leftover salmon. Larger for soups. For additional protection from freezer burn I put them in a heavy sealable plastic bag and use a recycled envelope marked with the content and date. Defrost a single jar in cool water then transfer contents to a saucepan for heating.

    February 22, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
    • EKL

      I worry about plastics with regard to food storage, as well. However, I've read that it is relatively safe to use them in the freezer. The chemicals that can contaminate food are released with heat. So the time to really avoid the plastic is when it comes to the microwave or utensils used for stove top cooking and serving hot foods. I was glad when I read about this because I hate losing food to freezer burn and unfortunately, air tight plastic bags really do help to prevent it. Hope this helps set your mind a little more at ease, as it did mine.

      September 20, 2013 at 12:11 am |
  5. Tommy Hensel

    I often make very tasty soups from my wilted veggies. Limp celery, wilted lettuce, other greens . . . all of these can be thrown in with some tasty stock and then pureed to create excellent soup. To thicken, since I try to eat gluten-free as much as possible, I throw in potato and then puree that into the soup. The variations are endless with just simple stock, veggies, and the ability to blend/puree.

    February 5, 2013 at 10:35 am |
  6. Ellee

    I save the bones from chicken (even the rotisserie ones from the store) that I've already cooked and put them in the slow cooker with celery leaves and a few other things and make chicken stock. That way even though I've paid too much for the ready-to-eat chicken, I can eke out some more food from it – and it's really tasty! :D

    January 31, 2013 at 4:45 pm |
  7. Michael

    . I 'scan' the fridge frequently, and foods that are 'needing attention' get moved to the top shelf, shared with 'leftovers'. I can then combine them quickly & easily into my wok, yielding some surprising & delicious dishes I would not likely have thought of otherwise!

    January 28, 2013 at 10:06 am |
  8. CareyAnn


    your lemon mention reminded me, after i squeeze every last drop out of it, i put my lemons in my garbage disposal with some ice and run the disposal. fresh smell and helps keep sharp/sharpens the blades. lovely smell when the rind is still on the lemon, still some scent when it's not. works the same with oranges or limes.

    great article!

    January 25, 2013 at 10:43 am |
  9. Daniel

    When our salad wilts, we make a sauted salad in a pan with a little olive oil. Sounds weird, but really it's quite lovely.

    January 23, 2013 at 10:00 pm |
  10. Mike

    Check out this enviornmental rap video about not wasting food! It is called the "Clean Plate Club" by a guy named Mr. Eco.

    January 22, 2013 at 10:16 am |
  11. k

    I have a pet rabbit. No more guilt.

    January 19, 2013 at 10:40 am |
  12. paleogal

    If I notice produce approaching it's best use by date, looking like it could past usable soon, or if my schedule gets busy and I don't get to use something as planned I make a quick move to freeze it for later use. Peppers, onions, and lots of other common produce freeze nicely. Just search online to see if blanching is suggested first. I even freeze salad greens that might not traditionally be frozen to use in smoothies.

    January 16, 2013 at 7:09 pm |
  13. Chantal

    I live alone so I shop often and cook every night. Most times, whatever dinner is, the leftover will find its way into a salad the next day. Tuna, red meat, salmon, chicken is wonderful cold with crispy greens, added veggies, nuts and/or fruit to create a colorful and healthy lunch!

    January 16, 2013 at 4:53 pm |
  14. davidw


    January 15, 2013 at 3:00 pm |
Next entry »
« Previous entry
| Part of