A Bulk of Food Waste Happens at Home. Here’s How to Cut Your Footprint. - Modern Farmer

A Bulk of Food Waste Happens at Home. Here’s How to Cut Your Footprint.

Experts tips for reeling in unnecessary waste.

A pile of wasted food.
Buying less food is key to reducing home waste.
Photography by Shutterstock

Food gets wasted at every point in the system. It happens on farms, at factories, in grocery stores and at restaurants. But as we reported in our food waste explainer, the biggest share of wasted food comes from households across the country. In 2022, food waste cost the US $428 billion. Nearly half—48.2 percent—of the country’s uneaten or unused food occurs at the household level.

With numbers like that, it’s clear that wasted food is a big issue, with an impact on the environment and food security. For problems this large, it’s easy to feel like individual action can’t make a difference. But in this instance, since we know that the largest share of wasted food happens at the household level, individual action being impactful isn’t just possible, it’s necessary.

“If we don’t take action as individuals, we will not be able to solve this problem,” says Dana Gunders, executive director of ReFED. “All the grocery store and restaurant work and supply chain work that’s happening out there will not solve this problem without people in their homes changing their food habits as well.”

After talking to some experts in the field, we put together a list of recommendations for cutting down on your food waste at home.

Buy less

While this isn’t particularly groundbreaking, it really is the key to reducing home waste. Don’t buy more than you can consume within a given time period. The thing is, many of us become guilty of this without even realizing it. 

There are a lot of different mindsets that can contribute to food waste at home, says Brian Roe, leader of the Ohio State Food Waste Collaborative. Some of these can be very well-intentioned, such as the provider mindset—overprovisioning so as to always have enough on hand for everyone. “Your love language translated into a waste language,” says Roe. “People are more focused on trying to be that good provider and don’t necessarily think about the waste as much.”

When that’s the case, keep a food diary. Every time you toss something out, mark it down. Look for patterns. Are you buying too many bananas? Are you cooking in portion sizes that leave you with leftovers you aren’t eating? Roe also recommends physically collecting the waste in one place. The visual of how much it is can motivate change. Noticing these patterns is the first step in breaking the cycle.

You can also keep track of how much you spend on food and compare it to how much is wasted. Many consumers are financially motivated, and they don’t want to waste money. However, that isn’t always enough of a mindset to reduce household food waste.

“The point of waste and the point of purchase are so far apart,” says Roe. “People aren’t reconciling their books the way a retailer or processor is.”

Store it right

Have you noticed that every time you buy spinach, it wilts before you can use it? Do your raspberries go bad within days? Storing these things properly makes a difference.

Secondly, proper storage can prevent things from getting lost in your refrigerator. Using clear storage containers so you can see what’s inside or marking the contents with labels and dates is a good way to keep what you’ve got at the front of your mind.

Harvest Public Media recently ran a piece about how canning is coming back into style. Canning used to be very popular at the household level, but it has largely fallen out of practice. While many people do this to preserve their garden’s harvest into the winter, you can also draw upon tried and true preservation techniques to avoid throwing away surplus food before it goes bad. Try canning, jarring or jamming.

Lastly, use your freezer to buy yourself extra time. “Freezers are a great way to put a pause button on your food,” says Gunders.

A person screws the cap onto a jar of green beans.

Safely canning or jarring vegetables is a good way to avoid wasting them. (Photo courtesy of Shutterstock)

Reevaluate ‘best by’ dates

We’ve all pulled a can of soup out of the cupboard only to see that its “best by” date has long since passed. But these dates are widely misinterpreted, says Gunders. Many actually refer to best quality, not to actual safety. 

“There is a small subset of products that can have some kind of increased risk associated with them,” says Gunders. “Deli meat is a great example. But we have no way as consumers to tell the difference at this moment because there [are] no actual legal definitions for the words they use next to the dates.”

There is now a push to create legal uniformity in the language you see on packaging so that it’s easier for you to tell what these dates actually mean. There is a voluntary language guide, which you can find here, but it is not universally adopted.

In the meantime, give things a sniff or taste, says Gunders. If it seems fine, it probably is. Of course, this doesn’t apply to everything. As a rule of thumb, Gunders says the exceptions are likely to be the foods that pregnant women are recommended to avoid.

[RELATED: The Staggering Scale of Food Waste, Explained]

Try weekly fridge clean-outs

It’s normal to accumulate extras in your fridge. Leftovers that you couldn’t quite finish or some surplus ingredient that you didn’t use all of, such as fresh herbs or half an onion. These are the items that are most likely to be tossed out unnecessarily. But you can reduce these occurrences with a designated day to use them up. Maybe you dress up leftovers with the extra ingredients you have lying around, or perhaps you cook all the extras into a stir-fry or soup. Being intentional about this can reduce the amount of food you toss.

“[Shop] your fridge before you go back to the store to really make sure you’re using stuff up,” says Gunders.

Compost as a last resort

We love compost. But, ideally, you are composting the parts of your food that can’t be used for something else. Roe says that research has suggested that, for some people, reducing food waste upstream and composting the scraps can be complementary attributes of a conscious consumer. But there’s also evidence to suggest that, sometimes, composting wasted food mitigates the guilt that people feel about letting it go bad. To address the food waste problem, compost should be the last resort, not a way to absolve yourself from wasting food.

A lot of things that often get tossed actually have viable uses in the kitchen—think, radish tops in your pesto or zesting your organic citrus rinds. For some clever tips on how to do this (plus many more), check out FoodPrint’s ABCs of Reducing Food Waste.

A graphic depicting how to reduce food waste.

This graphic shows the optimal steps for reducing and handling wasted food. (Courtesy of the EPA)

Get the app

Thinking of creative ways to plan ahead during shopping trips or reuse ragtag ingredients may not be your strong suit. For those of us who might need help imagining what half a bell pepper and some shredded cheese might turn into, there are fortunately an abundance of phone apps that might help, such as Your Food – No Waste Inventory or KITCHENPAL: Pantry Inventory.

Roe recommends Hellmann’s campaign to decrease food waste, where you download the Fridge Night app and it helps you squeeze one more meal out of the stragglers in your fridge.

“You don’t have to be perfect at provisioning, you don’t have to be perfect at storing. But if you have the ability to make up for it at the end and the motivation to find the things in the fridge and put it together, then you are going to save money, get that one more meal a week out of your fridge [and] waste less,” says Roe. “And so, it kind of helps correct for other earlier errors in the chain.”

Learn more. Most of the data used in this article was sourced from ReFED, a leader in understanding food waste through data. Check out its homepage, Insights Engine and  Policy Finder for more information.

Let us know. We picked up these tips by talking to experts, but a lot of people have developed strategies from their own experience. Let us know in the comments about a creative way you reduce food waste.

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1 month ago

1.Stop raising “picky eaters”. That is a constant refrain in the comments on recipe websites. That is a learned behavior. 2. Freezer soup. Take that half a green pepper or whatever and collect leftovers in a tub or bag in the freezer. When full, make soup. 3. Return education in the schools in home economics or household management. Provide this also in food banks and community pantries. 4. Can we stop these little bloggers from saying stupid stuff like “go to your pantry/fridge and throw out everything out of date”. I’ve had milk last long after that date. 5. USDA… Read more »

Betty Black
1 month ago

Get a few back yard chickens

1 month ago

Think like a frontier woman! Collect veggie peels for stock before relegating them to the compost. Stale bread & crumbs become croutons or bread pudding or strata. Corn chip dregs into migas. Freeze chicken bones for stock. Pizza, lasagna, omelettes, & smoothies are great use-it-up meals, too. Or borrow a teenager to make leftovers disappear!

1 month ago

Soups and stews! Every week I cook a pot of beans and see what veggies I have (one sweet potato, half an onion, maybe some greens in the freezer, etc.) with which to make a stew or soup. This way the leftover veggies are eaten rather than tossed into the compost. Plus, it’s fun to be creative and make soups/stews out of random veggies and spices.

1 month ago

I find it very hard to believe (esp after working at restaurants and in other parts of the food chain,a and esp w 30% increase in food prices) that most food waste in US happens in “households”.

1 month ago

Every Sunday I make a frittata with everything that is about to go bad. Fry up some onions in a large cast iron pan, cut everything into bite size pieces, pour cream, eggs, cheese and seasonings over the top and bake. After it’s done I cut it into pieces, putting it into the fridge once it’s fully cool. At my house Sunday is errand day and we are all running in and out of the house at random times. You can grab a slice on the go and use up all your leftovers/about to turn food at the same time.… Read more »

John Porterfield
1 month ago

Great guidance on ways to cut food outlay, in $ and calories, which ranks high on DRAWDOWN’s climate solutions! Thanks to my worm “castle,” peels and the little food that spoils wind up as extremely rich soil! Superb how-to guidance to an in-the-kitchen (zero-smell) option to repurpose non-edibles > https://quiviracoalition.org/rural-dryland-composting/

1 month ago

I think it really comes down to how much food you’re buying. We have an inclination as humans to buy food before we even need it. Only two bananas left? Better buy another bunch. We cooked all the broccoli? Let’s buy a couple of more crowns. On and on. I think a great strategy is to not be afraid to run out of your favorite foods. Those of us that are lucky enough to be in a position to waste food means we also have easy access to and abundance of food. So you can always run to the store… Read more »