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What consumers can do to curb food waste

Moving past the idea that 'more is better' is key, experts say

Photo (c) 22kay22 - Getty Images
Food production and consumption in the United States have seen a radical shift throughout the 20th century, and -- with almost half of the food produced in the U.S. winding up in landfills -- our current situation begs for major intervention.

"When you think that 40 percent of the food produced in the U.S. goes to waste, that is just irresponsible,” said Ruth Litchfield, a professor of food science and human nutrition at Iowa State University.

Experts estimate nearly a billion people worldwide (including U.S. citizens) still don’t have enough to eat, making U.S. food waste a “huge problem,” says Litchfield, who points out that Americans average about 20 pounds of wasted food each month -- per individual person.

Why it’s happening

There are several reasons we waste so much food, and all of them have to do with Americans’ long-outdated “more is better” mentality. This likely subconscious approach informs every excessively large grocery store haul or restaurant order, Litchfield says.

To reduce our food waste, the first and most critical step is to move past the idea that more is better, she says.

On a large scale, the food service industry is taking steps to combat food waste by donating uneaten food to shelters or soup kitchens, incorporating extra food into other menu items, and collaborating with farmers to feed unused food to farm animals, says Susan Arendt, a professor of hospitality management at Iowa State.

"Some restaurants are also training servers to ask customers what they don't want with their meal,” Arendt added. “For example, instead of bringing both butter and oil with bread, they're asking the customer which one they prefer, rather than letting one go unused and have to be thrown out.”

How to limit your waste

Employing similar tactics at home can help you limit your own food waste and save money, says Litchfield. Here are a few of her tips for reducing household food waste.

  • Plan a weekly menu. Meal planning can go a long way toward helping the planet and lowering your grocery bill. Take a look at your family’s activities for the week and try to match your activity plans with your meal plans. For example, if you know you will be too busy to cook certain weeknights, cut back on what you’re buying at the store or stockpile some homemade frozen meals.
  • Find an alternative use for produce. Fresh produce can be frozen or donated if you don’t think you will eat it before it wilts or rots. Fruits and veggies can also be frozen and added to smoothies, sauces, or casseroles.
  • Compost. Composting is another productive use for food that’s no longer edible. Whether you take advantage of a community composting program or compost at home, the environment will thank you, and so will the garden your compost fertilizes.
  • Understand sell by dates. Confusion over “sell by” or “best by” labels is responsible for a large amount of wasted food. The date on the label has to do with the quality of the food, not the safety, says Litchfield. The “sell by date” simply tells grocers how long to keep the item on the shelves.

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