Reduce Your Food Waste in 10 Minutes

Updated on May 16, 2011

Quick waste-reduction tip: Carve away the gash and you'll find that bruises are often just skin deep. Photo: Jonathan Bloom

After working as a food-service volunteer at a homeless shelter, Jonathan Bloom became passionately aware about all the food we waste in this country.

An average American throws away nearly 200 pounds a year. The good news is, once you’re looking for it “you see food waste everywhere,” says Bloom, and that awareness can help change your wasteful ways.

Bloom’s book, “American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It)” is chock-full of hard facts about food waste. By literally going through garbage, Bloom uses humor and fascinating stories to help readers understand this stinky issue. We caught up with Bloom and did a little trash talking ourselves.

1. Food-saving bags

Earth911: What are some of the best containers or storage devices that you came across during your research? Does the food saving that a plastic Ziploc bag does outweigh the fact that that plastic bag ends up in a landfill? Do any of those bags that claim to extend the life of produce actually work?

Jonathan Bloom: This is a thorny subject, as most people have strong opinions on what works best. I haven’t used green bags much, but the feedback I get on them is that they don’t work miracles.

Sometimes my goal of reducing food waste is at odds with that other worthy objective of reducing packaging. That’s true mostly at supermarkets. But to avoid sending yet more stuff to the landfill from your home, I’d recommend reusable containers (plastic or, if possible, glass) over bags. But if you have storage strategies that help you reduce waste–by all means, stick with them!

Two other tips: Using clear containers is vital – so you can see what’s inside. Also, some things – potatoes and onions come to mind – don’t need any kind of container.

2. At the grocery store

Earth911: What are some simple food shopping tips you could give to our readers?

JB: 1. Plan meals. Create a menu in advance and make a corresponding shopping list. (If this doesn’t appeal, make smaller, more frequent shopping trips)

2. Stick to your list! Avoid impulse buys, especially with perishable foods.

3. Be realistic. If you work late, don’t shop like you have time to make meals from scratch.

4. Plan for a leftover night or two. Can you say smorgasbord?! It saves time and money!

5. Shop for perishable items last. They won’t start breaking down in your cart and you’re less likely to make impulse buys because you’ll be ready to finish and leave.

6. Don’t hit the store hungry – you’ll buy way too much.

3. Getting the kids on board

Earth911: Remember when our parents said, “Finish your dinner! There are children starving in the world.”? That certainly curbed our food waste. Do you have a personal mantra that you say or would recommend to say to kids to remind them of how food waste affects the world?

JB: I don’t love the “starving children” mantra because it invites guilt to the dinner table. I’d steer clear of any kind of mantra until you learn about your kids eating habits and they can communicate what they want or don’t. Then, I think teaching the clean-your-plate ethic is fine, as long as it’s in a low-pressure way and the portions are reasonably sized. But with children, it’s always best to add the disclaimer: No two kids are alike!

When young people are old enough to serve themselves, I like this one: Take what you’ll eat and eat what you take.

4. Outside the kitchen

Earth911: Both hunger and extreme food waste exist in this country. Is there anything an average citizen can do to help with these issues outside of their own kitchen?

JB: Domestically, you can make an effort to stop wasting food, keep track of how much money you’re saving and donate those savings to a local food bank. Or if that’s too abstract, find non-perishables to donate from your cupboard.

But, as your question implies, there are macro factors at work here. Outside of your home, you can support politicians who support hunger relief. You can volunteer at a soup kitchen or food recovery operation. Most educational and fun, perhaps, go gleaning or participate in tree fruit collection!

5. Favorite low-waste recipes

Earth911: Are there any unique meals you make at home using leftovers?

JB: Everyone needs a “use-it-up” meal or two. It can be a simple pasta dish, frittata [see recipe], pizza, chili, quiche, or a whole range of options. For me, it’s burritos. I end up adding whatever vegetables or meat extras remain to the pot.

6. Expiration dates

Earth911: What’s the deal with sell-by dates? Is your food still good after the date has passed?

JB: Almost always. The “sell-by” date tells retailers when they should stop displaying goods. The item should remain perfectly edible for about a week after that date, so, by all means, don’t throw something out just because it’s reached its sell-by!

With all expiration dates, I’d say: approach them with a bit of skepticism and trust your senses.

[Editor’s Note: Growing up we would use our cat to detect if the milk had gone bad. If she turned her nose up at her saucer we weren’t having cereal that morning.]

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  1. For cereal make almond milk by grindin up almonds and then dilute the almond milk with water to use in cereal. But stay away from dairy. Almond milk tastes good and good for you.

  2. Buy peaches, pears or any fruits in a can or frozen if you want to quit waste. All fruits are picked not ripe and many are in the store not yet ripe, so it’s not worth buying. Canned fruit will keep for a couple years. Plus it’s ripe. The same for veggies. Fresh tastes best, but fresh requires refrigerator. People could actually just have a small frig like 3′ high by 2′ depth by 3′ feet wide. Buy canned fruits and veggies and just use the small frig for leftovers and dairy products. A big frig can cost $1,800.

    It’s easy to save, but you have to think 100 years ago they didn’t have refrigerators. People canned and preserved their own food. Canned tuna, salmon are very good. Canned chicken is very good. Plus a large frig uses a lot of electricity. Plus they can go up and spoil all your food.

  3. Don’t buy kosher food. Kosher food is marked with a U in a circle or a K on the label. Kosher food costs a lot more than non-kosher food. Just buy store brands that aren’t marked kosher abd compare the prices with kosher foood. The difference is huge. Compare kosher meats and non-kosher meats. They say it’s only pennies a pound, but why is kosher food many times half again as much as non-kosher?
    The kosher racket adds billions of dollars to the price of food. These profits goes into the Rabbis pockets. This is nothing but extortion, because if you don’t pay the kosher tax when asked, you will be closing your doors. Just ask Rudy “Butch” Stanko who had his 3 generation meat packing business closed because they were really causing the kosher boys a lot of problems.

  4. I could add so much to these suggestions, for example: don’t shop once a week, go several times, food will be fresher when used, and your backpack (much better than a shopping cart or shopping bag) will be lighter. (I am writing from the urban point of view: no car.)

    The plastic bags you are forced to take home with your prepackaged purchases are re-usable. Sometimes a quick rinse is advisable, usually unnecessary since you will rinse off the next produce that you buy anyway. Really useful are the grape plastic bags perforated with large circles–these have the right proportion of cover and ventilation when you reuse them in your fridge for lettuce, mushrooms, virtually everything. They will eventually be grundgy and thrown in the garbage, but by then you will have new ones.

    Re leftovers, omelettes are great, soups fantastic, chinese-style stir-fry–make sure you have soy sauce in the house–and just use your imagination and creativity to use combinations of leftovers. My freezer always has a couple of frozen hamburgers or chicken legs or Italian sausage to use with the leftovers to make a balanced meal.

    Buy from bulk displays, so you can get the exact number of carrots, string beans, apples, ginger root, lemons, etc., that you need. Many stores don’t allow this, but look for one that does. I go to the Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn, where almost everything (besides produce, there are oatmeal, dried beans, rice, coffee etc.) is available on a choose-your-own-quantity basis, not prepackaged. And I always have my supply of previously used small plastic bags (from things like dried fruit, etc. that do come prepackaged.)

    The coop no longer gives out free plastic shopping bags for carrying all the smaller bags. Nobody complains. Most people are using reusable canvas or strong plastic bags. Best is backpack!

  5. Buy produce at your Farmers’ Market. That way, half of its shelf life hasn’t been wasted transporting it from farm to you, giving you several more days to get around to using it.
    Also, I’ve found the “green bags” really do make a difference. Rinse and reuse.

  6. Dogs and/or chickens! With kids, we find that we have a lot of little leftovers – not enough to save, plus it’s been eaten from. It goes down for the dog. Keep in mind that we eat made-from-scratch food almost exclusively. So it’s not like we’re feeding the poor dog Fruit Roll-ups or anything. Plus, we save on feeding the dog. Chickens are great for produce scraps and less-than-optimal veggies. They’re not picky!

    Another use for veggie scraps: your own vegetable stock. You will be AMAZED at the difference in your soups.

    Know how to store your produce optimally. Use your fridge’s crispers. Also, I read somewhere that lettuce & herbs like to be wrapped in a damp dish towel. I tried it and it really works; it keeps them nice and fresh, without getting gross. Another example: I put my celery in a flower vase to keep it nice and crisp.

  7. I really like your tips “at the grocery store.” I think all of those tips can be applied easily. When my mother forgets her list at home, she always ends up buying things that no one in the house likes and it goes to waste and forget the important items. I really like the “Don’t hit the store hungry – you’ll buy way too much.” Haha. So true…

  8. Great article on various ways to try to eliminate food waste.I achieve this by planning meals better which includes controlling how much is bought, and utilizing many of the ingredients into multiple meals. Additionally, I make sure if the packaging is coded for recycling, it gets rinsed out and put with the items that can be recycled. At some point owning a compost bin which is good for kitchen waste would be ideal for creating great enriched soil for gardening.

    I think the best way to keep from having to throw food away that your kids don’t eat or leave on their plates is to portion their food better. If they have room; you can always offer them more.

  9. I’ve been really working at this for five years now, and I’ve made tremendous progress. But it seems like there’s always more to be done. Your book/article has various key concepts, each of which is worthy of sustained effort. First: spend less MONEY on food. Buy less, use up what you buy. This is good, but sometimes it’s worthwhile to do the opposite. For example, my husband has eaten Cheerios with a banana on top for breakfast every single day (except Sunday) for the 20 years we’ve been together. Recently, the local Krogers had a super-duper sale on Cheerios and I bought a cartful! It’s going to take a while to work our way through all those Cheerios, but that’s fine — they have plenty of shelf-life left.

    Right now I have some bananas that might need to be made into banana bread — I’ll do that later this morning. I bought chicken livers for 75 cents — I’ll cook those up for the dog. He loves them and they are incredibly good for him.

    Having a central pot that you fill with water and put all the “soon to be iffy” stuff into has a long history. Depending on the seasonings you add, you will suddenly have a Chinese, African, Middle Eastern, South American or Nordic “base” that can be used to cook all sorts of other foods.

    I am now working on reducing meat in our diet. If I buy meat, I’m going to cut it in half (portion wise) and start adding beans in various ways. I have a bean cookbook I need to look at again. One time, I made a big pot of beans that the family couldn’t eat in time. I dug a hole in my garden, dumped the entire pot of beans in the hole, and then put a camelia bush on top of it. It’s the happiest camelia bush on my block!

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