5 Small Ways to Cut Down on Food Waste in Your Kitchen

updated Apr 20, 2020
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Since we’ve been sheltering in place and limiting our interactions with the outside world, we’ve all had to be a bit more resourceful when it comes to food: rummaging through our pantries and freezers, trying to make meals out of anything we can find so we can put off going to the grocery store just a little bit longer. This has definitely been a challenge as we all adapt to this new normal, but there’s a silver lining: We’re learning how to reduce our food waste.

Food waste is a massive global problem. About a third of the world’s food is never eaten, according to a new study published in February. That’s twice as much food as previously estimated. And, even if it seems like we’re not generating a lot of waste in our kitchens, most of us can do more than we think: According to the National Resources Defense Council, about 75 percent of Americans say that they waste less food than average (a statistical impossibility).

But, again, there’s a silver lining: Project Drawdown, a nonprofit focused on solving climate issues, identified reducing food waste as the solution with the greatest potential for reducing carbon emissions. In other words, we can do something about it — and it doesn’t involve totally overhauling the way we shop, prep, and eat food.

Here are five small steps you can take to start reducing your food waste.

1. Take the shortcut.

Buying a head of lettuce might feel more virtuous, but if having to wash and cut up a head of lettuce is going to prevent you from using it, the bagged lettuce is a better bet. Pre-sliced strawberries and peeled oranges will spoil faster (and cost more) than whole fruit, but if you’ll be less likely to eat them with an extra preparation step, go for the easier option that you’ll actually consume.

2. Store food the right way. 

Storing milk and eggs in your refrigerator door might seem like an obvious “don’t,” but there are subtler ways to organize and store food to keep it from spoiling faster than it needs to, says Andrea Collins, sustainable food systems specialist with NRDC. To start, she says, knowing what to store in the humidity drawers and leaving enough space on shelves to allow the air to properly circulate can make a big difference in how long your food stays fresh. Use resources such as SaveTheFood.com to access information on how to store every kind of food.

3. Rethink those expiration dates.

The expiration dates on food are related to that food’s freshness, not an indication (in most cases) that the food is past its quality. “Generally speaking, ‘old’ food won’t give you food poisoning — that comes from pathogens like E.coli, salmonella, and listeria, [which] will typically get you sick regardless of how old the food is,” explains Dana Gunders, executive director at ReFED and author of Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook. Even food that looks like it’s on its way out can often still be put to good use. “If something looks fine, smells fine, and tastes fine, the fact that it’s ‘old’ doesn’t mean that it’s bad,” says Gunders.

4. Label open containers.

Speaking of expiration dates, they often become irrelevant once a product is open, as whatever is inside a package (think: ricotta cheese or jarred salsa) begins to spoil much more quickly once the seal is broken. That means, you may end up with a lot of questionable containers in your fridge that end up getting tossed in the trash because you have no idea how long they’ve been hanging around for. A simple solution: Use a marker to write the date you opened it on the container.

5. Take it one step at a time.

When you begin to put an effort toward reducing food waste in your own kitchen, give yourself a little grace. It’s nearly impossible to truly be zero-waste. “I don’t think we need to seek perfection,” says Gunders. “I’d [like to see] people having a different mindset about the value of their food and doing everything they can to use it.” Adds Collins: “If we could all integrate one food-saving behavior at home, that would make a big cumulative difference.”