Sam Marvin remembers walking to the farmers market with his grandmother every day as a child. When they got back home, she would begin cooking dinner for the family.
“And the next morning, we would get up, and me and my grandma would do the exact same thing, over and over,” said Marvin, a Los Angeles-based chef and owner of Echo and Rig Butcher and Steakhouse in Las Vegas and Sacramento, and Pluck in San Diego.
Years later, living in Europe and other large U.S. cities, where kitchens tend to be smaller and most residents use public transportation, Marvin noticed that people shopped similarly, going out daily to buy food for the day.
We simply buy more food than we need, and shopping for fresh food more often can help stop that.
Families waste $1,500 a year on food they throw away
Food waste is a major problem in kitchens across the U.S. Consumers throw away more food than restaurants and grocery stores combined, said Yvette Cabrera, deputy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s food waste program.
About 40% of all food in the U.S. is never eaten, and consumers waste about 20 pounds of food a month, according to the NRDC. At the same time, 1 in 8 Americans lack a steady food supply.
The gravity of the food waste problem is tough to conceptualize. To put it in perspective, Cabrera suggested thinking of your own grocery bill. A family of four spends around $124 a month, or $1,500 a year, on wasted food. Couples spend $62 a month or $750 a year on food that’s never eaten.
So, she said, being less wasteful with food is “putting money in your pocket.”
Food waste also has a serious environmental impact. When 40% of food goes to waste, the water and land used to produce that food is wasted, and it contributes to the greenhouse gasses. Plus, Cabrera said more than 20% of landfills are made up of food waste.
“It’s a good incentive to start figuring out how to put that food waste to better use and also just preventing it from happening in the first place,” she said.
Rethink value when shopping for food
Angel Planells, a Seattle-based registered dietician nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, said shopping more frequently could help consumers reduce food waste, but shopping smarter is just as important.
“I think shopping more frequently is going to feel a little counterintuitive to a lot of people, but it means you have more control over what you’re bringing in your house,” Planells said. “Therefore, you’re less likely to waste.”
His advice: Buy only what you need, when you need it. And avoid most of the grocery store sales that involve purchasing large quantities, even if it’s technically a better value. You’ll save money and waste less when you buy three oranges, which you’ll actually eat, for example, versus a whole bag, when many may get thrown away.
Throwing away one piece of fruit may seem small in the scope of the food waste problem, but if 50,000 homes throw away one piece of fruit, “that’s a big deal,” Planells said.
“Buying for the day or buying for a couple days, you’re less likely to overconsume, and less likely to waste food,” he said. “I think it’s complicated because we like to get a good value, but I think many consumers aren’t knowledgeable about the amount of food waste we have.”
How to grocery shop with reducing food waste in mind
Even if daily grocery store trips aren’t feasible, consumers can adjust how they shop to reduce the amount of food that gets tossed, and this will also cut grocery bills. But it does take careful planning and a conscious effort.
Marvin, Planells and Cabrera shared these tips:
Plan your meals. The benefits of meal planning are well documented, with research linking it to healthier, more varied diets and lower obesity rates. But it also saves money, and knowing exactly what you plan to eat for each meal focuses grocery shopping, Planells said.
NRDC offers Meal Prep Mate, an online tool that helps shoppers buy the right amount of food based on meal prep.
Always make a list. Making a detailed grocery list helps avoid impulse buys, which often include unhealthy foods, Cabrera said. Lists also help you remember everything and keep your grocery bill in check.
Cross-utilize ingredients. Marvin said cross-utilization of ingredients is common in restaurants, but can help reduce food waste as you plan meals at home. For example, he said, if you make lasagna and buy a bunch of fresh basil, think of other dishes, like tomato soup, for using the rest of the basil so it doesn’t go bad.
Make recipe substitutions. In recipes with lengthy ingredient lists, Marvin suggested substituting items that are pricy or require you to buy more than you need ― for example, using fresh parsley or thyme in place of sage, if you don’t plan to use sage anytime soon.
Buy canned or frozen fruits and vegetables. Since produce often goes bad quickly, Planells urged consumers to consider frozen or canned fruits and vegetables, which often have just as many nutrients but last longer.
Once you get your groceries home, properly storing foods and freezing leftovers and scraps, like bits of onions or carrots to use in stock later, are some ways to reduce how much food you throw away, Marvin said.
Paying attention to food labels is also important, Cabrera said. With no consistency, labels can be confusing, contributing to the food waste problem. Most “use by,” “sell by” or “best by” labels refer to when a food is at its peak, not necessarily that it’s unsafe to eat. Relying on the senses is one of the best ways to know if a food has gone bad, she said, adding that NRDC is working on legislation to standardize food labels across the U.S.
Families should make reducing or eliminating food waste part of their culture, and let it influence how they shop, cook and eat. This is a major step in solving the problem, said Marvin, who embraces a “nose to tail” philosophy at his butcher shop and steakhouse.
“Someone has to take accountability for it, and it’s the individual who’s buying the food and throwing it away has to take accountability because you don’t have to waste anything if you don’t want to,” Marvin said.