This article originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Tufts Nutrition Medicine.
We asked Danielle Nierenberg, N01, president of Food Tank: The Think Tank for Food, and Marisa Tsai, N18, a Food Tank researcher and master’s student in the Food Policy and Applied Nutrition Program at the Friedman School, for their advice on combating food waste locally. Here, in no particular order, are some things you can do to make the most of the groceries you bring home and cut back on what ends up in the compost bin or landfill.
Plan, plan and plan.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends making shopping lists with quantities noted for each item. Shopping on a full stomach can help consumers avoid overpurchasing food, says the World Wildlife Fund. Not sure exactly how much you need, or hosting guests? Online portion calculators can estimate just the right amount to cook.
Familiarize yourself with the fridge.
Before you head to the store, the EPA recommends taking stock of what you already have to avoid purchasing duplicates. Apps like Fridgely can help record and track your fridge contents. The Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition recommends putting items close to their expiration at the front of the fridge so they get eaten sooner. And using clear storage containers can help you quickly identify foods, according to the Boston-based food-rescue organization Lovin’ Spoonfuls.
Donate to feed the hungry.
One in six Americans is food insecure. Donating excess food to community organizations or food banks helps get food to those who need it most. Find food-rescue organizations using the Food Rescue Locator, launched by Sustainable America, End Food Waste and the Food Rescue Alliance.
Ample Harvest helps more than 42 million home and community growers donate their garden surplus to food pantries across America. Food businesses and institutions can donate to DC Kitchen or NYC-based City Harvest, which take surplus food and deliver it to community organizations, homeless shelters, transitional homes and other locations.
Technology is helping to streamline the process. Copia in the Bay Area uses a smartphone app to pick up food from individuals and businesses and deliver it to charities. Similarly, Chicago-based Zero Percent helps businesses with surplus food easily connect with neighborhood hunger charities via their smartphone app.
Keep the scraps.
Repurpose food scraps that you typically toss. Broccoli stems can be chopped and cooked along with the florets. Carrot peels, mushroom stems and green onion ends can make delicious vegetable stock. Check out Save the Food for a collection of recipes that use chicken bones, stale bread, potato peels and other food scraps.
Rethink “sell by” and “best by” dates.
When it comes to food safety, simpler can be better. Looking for mold, or using a sniff or taste test can tell you when food has gone bad, for the most part. Food date labels such as “sell by,” “best by” or “use by” are not definite rules for determining whether a product is safe to eat—they are indicators of quality rather than food safety. The Natural Resources Defense Council says, “learning what dates actually mean will help consumers to make better food-safety decisions, and will also reduce premature disposal of products, saving people money in the process.”
Support good food policies.
Local and state policies affect the way we identify, assess and deal with food waste. “Reduction of food losses and waste needs to be prioritized within political agendas,” says the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition. ReFED, a collaboration of business, nonprofit and government leaders fighting food waste in the United States, recommends standardizing date labeling, increasing food-donation tax incentives and expanding best practices in food recycling.
Find out where your legislators stand on food issues by checking out this scorecard from Food Policy Action.
Love your leftovers.
According to the website Love Food Hate Waste, a major reason people waste food is that they prepare too much. One simple solution is to save, properly store and repurpose leftovers. Keep leftovers in the refrigerator and eat them within two to three days. Leftovers can also be turned into new dishes (postholiday turkey sandwiches, for example, or omelets made with leftover veggies).
Freezing is a great way to preserve food while maintaining its nutrients. Love Food Hate Waste advises wrapping food well in freezer bags and pureeing items with higher water content, such as fruits and vegetables, before freezing. Sauces can even be stored in ice cube trays—pop the cubes out of the trays when you need them to avoid defrosting too much. Just make sure the food hasn’t already gone bad before freezing it.
Offer, don’t serve.
Even with careful planning, it’s hard to know how much people will eat at a dinner party or gathering. To allow for varied appetites, let guests decide how much they want. Creating a buffet line or letting guests serve themselves at the table family-style can reduce what gets left behind on plates.
Store food properly.
Storage choices make a huge difference in how long food stays fresh. In fact, storage temperature affects food safety more than the amount of time that has passed since the product’s production. Keeping the refrigerator below 40 degrees Fahrenheit will keep food fresh longer, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. Love Food, Hate Waste recommends keeping ready-to-eat food on the top or middle shelves, raw meat on the bottom, and fruits and vegetables in drawers in their original packaging.
The Food Storage Directory, created by Save the Food, provides guidance on how to store and revive your favorite foods, including keeping herbs with their stems in a glass of water, wrapping cheese in wax paper (not plastic) and recrisping celery by soaking it in ice water.