40 percent of all food produced in the United States ends up being tossed, according to a recent report from the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Think about that for a moment. That means 8 out of every 20 slices of bread, 5 eggs per dozen, a breast and a leg from every rotisserie chicken—produced with the same amount of energy, water, food and fertilizer as the 60 percent we do eat—dumped into a landfill to rot.
And much of it is happening under our watch. Households throw out more food than grocery stores and restaurants combined, accounting for 43 percent of total food waste. That means a family of four chucks $1,800 worth of food a year, according to an analysis by the non-profit organization Rethink Food Waste Through Economics and Data (ReFED).
A study examining whether people could change their behavior and reduce how much food they wasted found that providing a flood of information—Use veggie scraps to make stock! Preserve produce before it goes bad!—wasn't helpful. What was: targeted, personalized recommendations based on people's biggest sticking points.
Take a look at the scenarios that follow, see which resonate most with you, and use the advice to help reduce your food-waste footprint.
Most people don't. (Remember that 75 percent stat?) Roni Neff, Ph.D., a researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, recommends nonjudgmentally jotting down all the food you throw away for a few days—to get a sense of what and why you waste, from the food your kid flings on the floor to the leftovers left too long in the fridge. Then you can address those specific issues one by one. Oh, and when you do have to toss something (realistically, some amount of waste is almost inevitable), don't feel guilty. Seriously. Feeling bad about it, as the research shows, will likely make the problem worse. Better to focus on why the waste happened and what positive changes you can make going forward.
Shop for dinner (the meal that most often gets scrapped) several times a week. This was Ligon's No. 1 tip for preventing overbuying in general. To make it easier, try ordering ingredients online from grocers with same-day delivery or a supermarket that offers drive-thru pickup—or swing in yourself on the way home. (It might sound like a hassle, but when you're only grabbing a handful of items you'll be in and out in minutes.) Or keep a cooler in your car and shop during your lunch break.
Stick to a specific type of cuisine—Thai, Mexican, Indian—for several meals a week, since they tend to use the same ingredients. For recipes that call for a small amount of meat, cheese or produce, check the grocery store salad bar. (Why buy a block of feta if you only need 2 tablespoons? Or a whole head of romaine if you only need a handful?) Get creative, too, like those mystery-basket chefs do on TV. And plan for a clean-out-the-fridge stir-fry, soup or pasta at the end of the week to use whatever odds and ends you have left.
Pack them in single-serving containers for lunches the night you make the meal or bring it home from a restaurant. If you freeze them, be sure to label and date the leftovers and put them on your list of planned meals for the week—so the freezer doesn't just act as a food-waste halfway house.
Make a pact with yourself to only go for a sale item if it's nonperishable, like pasta or cereal, and something you would normally buy anyway. For things like meat or produce, if you have a specific meal in mind for it, fine—but if not, keep walking.
Freeze the leftovers right away in individual lunch-size portions so they don't have time to go bad in the fridge. For dinner parties, send guests home with the extras. Also handy: a portion planner (like the one at savethefood.com/guestimator) can help you more accurately figure out how much food to make.
Get into the habit of labeling. Everything. Keep a Sharpie and roll of masking tape right next to the SubZero and jot the date you made that big batch of chili, when you opened that carton of stock or when you put those shrimp in the deep freeze. Also, org your fridge with the newest stuff in the back and the oldest in the front where you can see it.
Be realistic, not blindly optimistic—and give them smaller portions. They can always have seconds. Or take less yourself, knowing you may be nibbling whatever they leave behind.
Meal-plan carefully (use the shopping lists and tools at eatingwell.com) and try not to deviate from the items on your list. "Be practical about whether you are going to have the opportunity to use it that week," says food-waste expert Dana Gunders. Research shows that shoppers who stick to their grocery lists are less susceptible to impulse buys, spend less on groceries and—you guessed it—don't waste as much.
Be strategic. Stuff that can stick around a long time (boxed broth, kosher salt, steel-cut oatmeal) gets a green light, but that giant sack of grapefruit? Maybe not. Or try splitting purchases with another family.