If you’re like me, you regularly experience the dreaded Fridge Cleanup—the horrifying look through all the food that you’ve let go bad in the past few weeks, as you’re searching for food.
Open the fridge.
Comb through packages gingerly, trying not to sniff anything.
Find the lumpy packages, discolored Tupperware, and wilty, mushy things in the corners and the bottoms of the crisper.
Check a few expiration dates.
Throw everything away, Tupperware included.
Slate and their partners recently put out a thought-provoking article on food waste, and how shopping at bulk-buying chains like Costco and Walmart can actually contribute to food waste—and it’s not pretty. Basically, the idea that having large quantities of food available to us makes us buy more than we can use, which makes us end up throwing more away.
Not being a bulk shopper myself, I was curious about how accurate that was. I mean, from my perspective as an observer, buying 16 pounds of bison burgers at one go round seems like maybe it could lend itself to excess, but maybe it’s not so cut and dry as Big is Bad. Whether I shop Big Box or Mom & Pop, at the end of the day, I’m the one that bought the food I’m throwing away.
Are bulk stores and a “bigger is better” mentality a factor in our food waste? Certainly. But for those of us with the freedom to choose when and where to shop for food, and how much to buy (it’s estimated that 20% of kids in the United Sates live in households with food insecurity), we’ve got to fess up to our share of the problem.
Food waste by retailers—including grocery stores and the hospitality industry—is absolutely a reality, but individual consumers actually throw out more food than restaurants (twice as much!). We throw away an average of 20 lbs of food a month, which can cost the average family more than $2,000 a year.
And the costs go beyond money. The food that gets tossed ends up in landfills where it makes methane gas. It has to be transported in trucks that create fuel byproducts. And the energy and resources it took to be harvested, processed, transported, and stored at the appropriate temperature all contributes to waste.
So, as Slate suggests, is shopping more frequently at smaller stores the best solution? It may be for many, though it depends on what type of shopper you are, what stores you have access to, and how many people you live with. But with those factors in mind, here are a few tips for the everyday shopper:
1. Take the Time to Make a Gameplan
Really take the time to see what you’re throwing away, and count everything—the leftover eggplant parm, the tomato you didn’t use, the opened crackers that went stale. Produce, meat, and dairy products are the biggest chunk of food that gets tossed. We throw out meat and dairy especially because we don’t want to get sick. Produce has a shorter shelf life and sometimes we get a bit ambitious with our buying.
Once you know what you most frequently throw away, you’ll know better what to buy less of.
One of the big contributors to food waste is that we don’t recognize the leftovers or spoiled produce we throw away as a result of our buying too much or stocking up on things we don’t really use. If you start to see what you’re throwing away, you can cook different sized portions and buy less of what you don’t eat.
I threw out my dilemma to the experts—busy moms and dads on budgets—and asked for their opinions. They all said the same thing: make a meal plan, and shop to a list.
Planning can be helpful—but you have to be realistic. I am not a planner at all, so for me this rings true, but other people I talked to said the key was not planning for seven days a week. Instead, plan 4-5 days for the week, and leave a few meals flexible, in case there’s a day you don’t feel like cooking, or everyone goes for pizza after the game.
2. Plan for leftovers, too
Another big factor in individual consumer food waste was found to be leftovers—cooking extra that then languishes in the fridge until clean-out day.
One way to plan around this is to cook less. Many of us have cultural or family values that make us always put out a little bit more—whether to make guests feel welcome or show friends and family we love them. But if you regularly throw out lots of leftovers, look at reducing your recipes.
Or, if you’ve got to cook big, try to figure out what second meal might be made from the leftovers. Today’s rack of roasted veggies can be tomorrow’s ratatouille.
3. Shop more frequently and in smaller batches for perishables
Perishable items—fruits and veggies, dairy, meat, and bread—are the most frequently tossed items. Buying those in smaller, more ‘as-needed’ sizes will help make sure you’re not tossing heads of lettuce that never had a chance, or that great deal on milk that went bad.
Make sure fresh food goes quickly by using it first in recipes and putting it within easy reach. One mom told me the fruit bowl is always front and center in her house, so that hungry kids don’t have to go searching for it.
4. Focus your bulk buying
If you do buy in bulk, focus on non-perishables—from paper goods to dry goods like rice, lentils, cereal, and canned items, you can save it for later. For meat, dairy, and produce, see what it’s like to go as needed.
Is this a viable strategy for every living unit? Probably not. A family of five that has a 20 minute drive to the grocery store will want to shop less. People who use public transportation or share a vehicle and who have limited times to do food shopping will want to amass as much of the hard-to-haul items as they can.
In that case, commit to your freezer. There are a lot of things you can freeze, from loaves of bread to meats to prepared meals you can pull out and heat up. The freezer is an effective tool to shop less and use everything—but, like all these considerations, you have to be realistic. Will you eat the frozen meals once they’re stored or will you always prefer something “fresh”?
5. Beware the impulse buys—even if they’re on sale
I am super prone to shopping on a whim. I think if I buy a papaya, I’m going to eat it. But that’s frequently not the case—I’m more likely to eat three pears in the time it takes for the mystery fruit to start to rot. Trying new foods is awesome for kids and grown ups, but balance out your level of adventure with realism.
Bok choy, I hear you cry. I should have known stir fry was too ambitious during a July heat wave. A good way to gauge if you’re likely to cook something is—have you done something similar before? You’re unlikely to become a different person overnight. Last time I made stir-fry, Justin Bieber had zero tattoos. So that was an unreasonable assumption on my part that led to food waste.
Buying something because “it’s a good deal” is frequently unwise. If you spend $3.00 on something you weren’t otherwise going to buy….you spent $3.00 you weren’t going to. And if you toss it, you lose that money and contribute to food waste.
If you’re going to consume more of it because it’s in the house… you’re not really saving, you’re just spending more. Buying food is a give and take—so if something you want to buy is on sale, you should consider dropping another item from your list that accomplishes the same purpose.
The best way for you to eliminate food waste is to know where you waste food the most, and build your shopping strategies around that.
There’s no one strategy that works for everyone to eliminate food waste—but I know I can look harder at what I use, so that I can change by not committing the same waste fouls week after week. Small changes make a big impact—on my wallet, on landfills, and on the earth.
Now who’s hungry?
Emily Rabbitt is a freelance and fiction writer in the Washington, D.C. area. She is a Massachusetts native, iced coffee enthusiast, and marathon runner, and tries to be a good citizen of the planet. Follow her on Twitter: @rabbitterun.