The Rose Bowl is a massive, 90,000-seat stadium in Pasadena, California. Its rim circumference is 2,430 feet—about half a mile around. Typically, the Rose Bowl is filled with rabid, cheering football fans. “Now picture it filled to the brim with all kinds of food,” suggests Jonathan Bloom, author of the book American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It). “That’s the reality of how much food America wastes every single day: about 40 percent of our food supply. And that squandering happens at every stage of the food chain, from farm to fork.”
Nobody likes forgetting about berries in the fridge only to find a moldy mess five days later. And who doesn’t feel a twinge of guilt when throwing out a box of food that’s past its “Enjoy by” date? Yet the average American still tosses an average of 36 pounds of food a month, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Thankfully, some pioneers are working to reduce food waste and help people rethink what they’re throwing away. For example, Daily Table, a not-for-profit retail store in Dorchester, Massachusetts, founded by the former president of Trader Joe’s, opened in June to recover food from supermarkets, farmers, and food distributors that would otherwise have been wasted. Typically, food gets tossed because it’s at or approaching its “Use by” or “Best by” dates. But the truth is, it’s still safe to eat, which is why Daily Table extends its shelf life and sells it at a reduced price.
Rolling Harvest Food Rescue is another nonprofit that is making a difference in food waste. It collects donated produce from local markets and farms and distributes it to non-profit hunger-relief agencies throughout select areas in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Across the border in Canada, select Safeway and Sobeys have partnered with the RedHat Co-operative to sell “misfit” produce—think bumpy tomatoes, crooked cucumbers, and other “ugly” produce that’s still just as nutritious as their perfect-looking counterparts—at drastically discounted prices. The idea was sparked by France’s “Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables” campaign, which sagely points out that “A grotesque apple a day keeps the doctor away, too.”
With a few simple tweaks and a little bit of concerted planning, you can cut back on your own food waste, which will help decrease the 37 million tons of discarded food the Environmental Protection Agency says goes to landfills every year. Added bonus: You’ll save money too. About $455 annually gets scrapped with unusable leftovers. Here are a few ways to get started:
1. Learn what “Sell by” really means.
“Many products may have a “Sell by” date, but they could be good in your pantry for another 12 or 18 months,” according to Chris Bernstein, a spokesperson for the USDA. The dates you see stamped on products are usually just recommendations for enjoying food at its optimal quality and not an indication of food safety. With the exception of infant formula, product dating isn’t even federally required. For instance, as the Food Marketing Institute explains, “Use by” is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at optimal quality. That doesn’t mean the food goes bad once the date passes; it just means it might taste 98 or 99 percent as good instead of 100 percent. “But in most cases, it’s going to taste perfectly fine,” notes Rolling Harvest founder and executive director Cathy Snyder. “Plus it will still have its full nutritional benefits.” Try downloading the USDA/EPA’s FoodKeeper app to get notifications when, say, your oatmeal is nearing the end of its recommended storage date.
Eggs will usually last 3 to 5 weeks after purchase even if the “Sell by” date has passed. Want to know for sure? Place the egg in a bowl with cold water. If it sinks, you’re good to go. If it floats, throw it out. Eggs are porous, so as they age, the inner liquid evaporates and is replaced with outside air, which makes the eggs buoyant.
2. Work on your refrigerator Tetris game.
When it comes to storing leftovers, container size matters. That’s why Rebecca Scritchfield, R.D., a dietitian based in Washington D.C. recommends imagining your fridge as a game of Tetris, the classic video game where you try to pack as many falling cubes into as tight a space as possible. “My husband teases me for making a game of trying to find the container that will fit our leftovers perfectly,” she says, “but that one extra step of using the smallest container possible reduces the chances of our extra grilled peppers, onions, mushrooms spoiling before we enjoy them.” That’s because the more air that surrounds your eats, the more opportunities for food-spoiling bacteria to wreak havoc. Scritchfield also points out that wrapped produce lasts far longer than produce without any packaging. For example, a cucumber wrapped in plastic lasts three times longer than a naked one.
3. Host a “Friday fridge clean up.”
Once a week, scour your refrigerator for anything that looks like it’s about to head south, then apply some culinary triage: Collard greens on the cusp of wilting can be sautéed for a few extra days of life. Peaches that won’t be eaten over the weekend can be sliced, frozen, and saved for a smoothie. Hearty veggies, like carrots, broccoli, kale, and potatoes can go straight from fridge to freezer for future stir fries or roasts. And milk and yogurt can be frozen in ice cube trays for smoothies or baking. If nothing else, take all of your remaining vegetables and make a big pot of veggie soup for the weekend.
4. Look for resealable options.
Scritchfield says many of her clients are so stressed between work and family that even transferring food from the store to their house feels like a Herculean feat. “After that, meal planning seems overwhelming, so they often forget about it or don’t care for it properly, and it spoils.” If you’re time-pressed, shop for pre-rinsed, trimmed produce like Brussels sprouts, green beans, broccoli, or cauliflower in resealable plastic bags. You can use what you need one night and quickly bag up the rest for later in the week.
5. Share your leftovers.
If all else fails, why not share your leftovers with a stranger? The Leftoverswap app allows you to snap a pic of your leftovers (half a pizza, or even a slice; cans languishing in your pantry; that pineapple that looked great in the store but you now have no clue what to do with) and upload it, where hungry people can claim it and arrange for pick-up or delivery. There’s also AmpleHarvest.org, which allows you to donate extra produce from your backyard garden to a nearby food bank. As Rolling Harvest’s Snyder puts it, “The goal is to turn food pantries into farmers markets. Everyone deserves to have fresh fruits and vegetables, and what you may not be able to use, someone else can.”