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Create meals, not waste: Planning ahead to reduce food waste

Parents with two young boys chopping vegetables in the kitchen

Reducing food waste is a surprisingly powerful climate solution. About 40% of food is wasted somewhere along the supply chain. Wasted food has both upstream and downstream impacts, from the energy used to grow, transport, process, and refrigerate it to the methane generated when food waste is landfilled.

The Natural Resources Defense Council reports that wasted food accounts for 2.6% of the annual greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., which is equivalent to 1 in 7 cars on the road.Reducing food waste is a top strategy for addressing climate change according to Project Drawdown.

It may be surprising to learn that consumers are the biggest contributor to the food waste problem. But that’s also good news. We have the power to significantly reduce the amount of food that goes to waste, save ourselves money, and have a positive impact on climate change by making changes right at home in our kitchens and when we go shopping.

Ways to save food

Food is wasted for a lot of different reasons. Whether it’s produce that goes bad before we prepare it, crackers that get lost in the back of the cupboard, or leftovers we just don’t eat up, that wasted food has a big impact. Fortunately, there’s a lot we can do about it!

Get to know what you throw

Many people working to reduce food waste have found that simply tracking what food goes to waste and why has the greatest impact on preventing food waste in the future. Knowledge is power! Use the food waste tracking worksheet (DOCX) to explore food waste in your household.

To get a complete understanding the food that goes to waste in your household, we recommend conducting a fridge and cabinet cleanout or otherwise assessing the food in your fridge, freezer, and pantry that you are unlikely to eat.

The worksheet not only has you track what you tossed, but also asks you to reflect on why the items went to waste and what you could do differently to avoid wasting it in the future.

Plan ahead

Planning what you will eat ahead of time and using up the food you have seems simple but can go a long way in reducing food waste. This requires some planning and organization, but that effort should make mealtime easier in the long run.

There are many different approaches you can take to meal planning, and it’s important to find what works for your household. Some common ways to approach meal planning include:

  • Schedule-based: Look ahead in your schedule and plan easy or quick meals for busy days.
  • Theme-based: Set daily themes that give you a starting point, such as pizza night, crockpot meals, soup, pasta, or tacos.
  • Ingredient-based: Work backward from the staples you keep on hand and find recipes that use them in different ways.

Other ideas for taking the guesswork out of meal planning are to repeat recipes you already know, plan days to eat up leftovers, and to create a “household cookbook” of meals you know are tried and true.

To create your work plan, try printable worksheets if you prefer putting pen to paper, use a whiteboard posted on the fridge so the whole family knows the plan, or check out the best meal-planning apps. Many apps offer additional features, such as recipes, nutritional info and auto-generated grocery lists.

Keep track of the food you buy

Example of an inventory of ingredients on a fridge

Keep an inventory of the food you have in your fridge, freezer, and pantry. Check what foods you already have at home before heading to the grocery store. You can also use a recipe generator to help you use up the food that you already have - just search online to find one that works for you!

Download free printable sheets from I Value Food (PDF) or Shelf Cooking to get you started.

Or go digital and try a food inventory app such as Cooklist, Cozzo, Foodkeeper, or Pantry Check. These apps let you keep mobile lists and include helpful perks like “use it up” reminders, shelf-life estimates, and item pricing.

Be a smart shopper

Make sure your grocery list is ready when you hit the store or online cart. Write a list when you create your meal plan, check to see what food you already have at home, add any go-to staples for snacks, and include the quantity of ingredients you need.

Get tips and a template for your grocery list from the USDA (PDF) or EPA (PDF), or check out reviews of the 10 best grocery shopping list apps from Good Housekeeping.

Get familiar with what your grocery store offers for produce and bulk goods. Different stores and markets offer varying options for how you purchase food, so your ability to buy just the right amount of food may depend on where you shop.

Eat the food you buy

Prepare food in advance, such as pre-chopping or slicing vegetables, to be used for cooking later. Store food in clear containers so you can easily see what’s in them. Create an “eat first” bin in your fridge for food that needs to be used up before it spoils.

Properly store fresh produce to make it last, and use your freezer to press the pause button and make food last even longer. See the article Eat the food you buy: Storing food to make it last for strategies and tips.

Lowering the costs of wasted food

Food waste costs a lot. The average family of four spends $1,800 on food they’ll never eat and just end up throwing away.

Wasted food also wastes a ton of resources, including all of the water, land, and energy that goes into growing, processing, and transporting it.

The problem with food waste is happening while many people in our community deal with food insecurity — about 11 percent of households in the U.S. experience food insecurity at some point.

Because food has undergone more transport, storage, and preparation at the consumer level, food thrown away at home has the largest footprint than at any other point in the food supply chain.

Making changes to prevent food waste will save resources and money while reducing greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.

Combat climate change and put more money in your pocket - take steps to reduce your food waste today!

Other actions

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Eat the food you buy: Storing food to make it last

The cost – and impacts – of rotten apples, spoiled vegetables, leftovers that never get eaten, and questionable half carton of milk all adds up. Fortunately, there are many ways that we can store food different to make sure it gets enjoyed instead of going to waste.


Composting at home

Turn your fruit and vegetable scraps and yard waste into compost you can use in your garden. The county sells compost bins to help you get set up.

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