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Throwing out food, throwing out money

Wasted food is a hot topic these days and for good reason. We’re not talking about food scraps or compost here, but edible food. Food that could have been eaten if it didn’t get slimy or moldy, if we had planned better, or been more realistic about menu planning and shopping. Visit the Master Composter Recycler website for additional resources.

Wasted food means wasted money, as well as resources. Growing food requires a lot of energy and resources, with many externalized costs (i.e. water, gas and fertilizers) that should not be taken lightly or for granted.

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Related articles: Thoughtful Consumption | Holiday Waste Reduction | Thrift Store / Donation Map

food waste article

Did you know?

Consumers are responsible for more wasted food than any other point in the food system. This has become the case only in the last 40–50 years. Going back even further, “leftovers” was not a category of food in the 19th century (until the advent of the refrigerator), as using up food was fundamental and normal. It wasn’t until the country started to prosper and people felt a sense of abundance, that leftovers became a bit of a joke, and dinnertime was met with grumbles if food made a repeat appearance.

Food insecurity

hungry kid eating spaghettiAs if we need another compelling reason to care about wasted food, consider world hunger and how many people experience food insecurity in our country. “In the United States, reducing losses by one-third would save enough food to equal the total diets of all 50 million food-insecure Americans — if only this food could actually be captured and distributed to them.” (Gunders)

What’s being done?

Recent public awareness about the amount of food we collectively waste has spurred research, campaigns, discussion, and resolutions — all in the name of changing both consumer behavior and the overall loss of food in our food system. The U.K. has launched a widespread public awareness campaign, “Love Food Hate Waste”, with a helpful website. In the U.S., the EPA and USDA set goals in 2015 to halve food waste by 2030.

Dana Gunders from the Natural Resources Defense Council urges in her book, Waste Free Kitchen Handbook, to become a “food-waste warrior!” Her book is packed full of interesting information and helpful tips, some of which we have highlighted here.

What you can do

plate of leftover food

You can help reduce waste in your home using a variety of methods. Examples include shopping for less food more frequently to prevent spoilage; learning when food goes bad and understanding sell by, use by, and expiration dates; buying imperfect produce; storing and cooking food with an eye to reduce waste; freezing unused ingredients and leftovers; serving smaller portions and getting creative with leftovers.

Whatever form your food waste prevention takes, remember not to be too hard on yourself. No one is perfect and change takes time. Try focusing on one behavior change at a time and see how it goes!

Wasted food prevention tips

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Sounds crazy, right?

From farm to fork, up to 40% of food in the U.S. is wasted.

TIPS to reduce wasted food

Did you know…

Food is lost at each point along our food system supply chain — when it is grown, processed, shipped, stored, sold, prepared, and consumed.

Your waist or your waste!

Food waste might be due to the “portion size explosion” that has happened in the U.S. over the past generation. Portion sizes have increased, which lead to expanding "your waist or your waste.” Food is wasted when we eat more than we need to, and when we throw away excess food. The key is to portion food well and purchase only the amount needed.

Did you know…

In the 1970s we wasted 50% less food than we do today. We have lost a “use-it-up” mentality, a mind-frame that resulted in creative dishes we still eat today (French toast, fried rice, and bread pudding).

Become a Food-Waste Warrior!

Waste Free Kitchen Handbook, written by Dana Gunders, is packed full of interesting information and helpful tips, some of which we have highlighted here.

More about the book

Shopping and Meal Planning

shopping listAlign your grocery shopping to the reality of your week. Easier said than done, but making a meal plan, then a shopping list, and sticking to it, will both save your wallet from the effects of impulse purchases and your garbage can from spoiled, unused food.

We might have good intentions to cook from scratch every night, but planning to cook two to three larger meals might be more reasonable with our busy schedules. Then we can count on having leftovers other nights, freezing leftovers, and eating some previously frozen meals!

Creativity and Staples

pantry shelvesTo avoid wasting perishable food, it is often necessary to get creative! Have some staples on hand to help use up these more date-sensitive foods. Use cooking oils, dried herbs, pasta, rice, beans, flour, frozen vegetables or meat with your leftover perishables to make something creative. Example dishes include fried rice, soup, a stir fry, curry, or a shepherd's pie. Using your perishables as a starting point and having these staples in your kitchen will help you be successful in creating a delicious meal while saving money by avoiding food waste.


Ever wondered about the “sell by,” “use by,” “best before” dates on food packaging? Sometimes we assume that means it’s bad and should be thrown out if it reaches that date. As it turns out, these dates are mere suggestions, are not consistently regulated, and the majority of us misinterpret the dates. Unfortunately, the dates end up seeming arbitrary, but understanding them better will help us waste less food. Manufacturers decide which wording and what date to use based on their own criteria, which might include sales data, lab or taste tests. Except for the higher risk foods, the take home message is that food past its stamped date might not necessarily be spoiled and inedible.

Food Storage

fruit and veggie binHow well do you know your refrigerator and what it is capable of? It was designed to keep foods at optimal freshness when used correctly. Even in the fridge, heat rises, so keep in mind that the most perishable items, like meat and fish, should be stored on the bottom shelf. Consider placing drinks, snacks, yogurt, and items to eat soon in plain view on a top shelf. As the door is the warmest place, it’s really only meant for condiments, nothing too perishable. Click for a Fruit and Vegetable Storage Guide.

We all know things tend to hide both in our pantry and fridge, so do the best you can to organize, rotate, label, and list contents to see as much as you can and avoid buying or opening yet another container of tomato sauce when you already have several!

leftovers in fridge

To help food last longer, the goal is to stop microbe activity by decreasing moisture, warmth, time to grow, or oxygen. Keep these in mind while organizing your fridge. Use clear containers to store leftovers so they are less easily overlooked. The best ones are glass and stackable, as they can go from fridge to freezer to microwave. Don’t be afraid to rely on your freezer, labeling contents with dates!


takeout containerWhether you only used a half head of broccoli in a dish and aren’t sure what to do with the remaining half, have restaurant take-out containers lurking in the fridge, or a half pot of soup from a few days ago, various items get parked in our fridge.

People have varying feelings about leftovers, but if you’re on the food waste prevention path, we urge you to embrace them. Learn to love them, revel in your leftovers! They just made your life easier and gave you a starting point in answering, “what’s for dinner?”. The reality is that leftovers save us time, money, and food.

Thoughtful Cooking

  1. Use older items first – Print an "Eat First!" sign to use in a section of your fridge
  2. Revive food – create new leftover combinations, add new spices, toast stale bread, soak wilted vegetables in cold water
  3. Use all parts of your food – make stock, chop food to make the most of it
  4. Take note of what you throw out – conduct your own mini waste audit to help track what food gets tossed
  5. Right-sizing – cook the right amount instead of making too much, unless you plan on eating the leftovers

Additional Resources and Info

Interested in becoming a Master Food Preserver? WSU Extension offers a 7 week training class that includes hands-on canning.

More food for thought at other points along the food chain:



  • Supermarkets get creative in marketing “cosmetically challenged” produce — still nutritious and delicious (and cheaper!). What is your local market doing to reduce food waste?
  • Imperfect Produce has locations throughout the U.S. to deliver ugly fruits and vegetables to your door.