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12 ways to prevent food waste

Millions of tons of edibles wind up in the garbage each year -- and food thrown out means money thrown away. Reduce your 'foodprint' with these tactics.

By Donna_Freedman Feb 12, 2013 12:47PM
Logo: Family preparing food (ERproductions Ltd, Blend Images, Getty Images)Thrown out any leftovers lately, or cleared the freezer of dessicated meats you don't even remember buying? You're not alone. North Americans waste approximately 209 to 253 pounds of food per person per year, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

Worldwide, about one-third of all comestibles produced gets lost or wasted each year. A new U.N.-based campaign, "Think.Eat.Save. Reduce Your Foodprint," hopes to focus awareness on the reasons that about $1 trillion worth of food goes uneaten each year.

Some 35 million tons of food waste were generated in the United States in 2010, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Almost all of it went into landfills or incinerators -- and, more to the point, it didn't go to people who are hungry.

"Food rescue" programs, from local food banks to organizations like the Society of St. Andrew and the Food Recovery Network, are trying to change that. They pick up unused edibles from a number of locations -- colleges, businesses, sports arenas, supermarkets, farms -- and deliver them to food banks and shelters.

At the consumer level, keep this in mind: When you throw out food, you're throwing money away. According to Think.Eat.Save, some of the main reasons for food waste among developed countries are:

  • appearance-based food standards.
  • confusion regarding dates.
  • buying too much.
  • inappropriate storage.
  • meals that are just too big.

Any of that sound familiar?

If you want to save money and resources, read on.

Make a plan

1. Create a menu. Then build your grocery list based on those meals, making sure you have everything you need. Sounds simple, right? Yet too often we forget one or two crucial ingredients and the other stuff either goes bad or gets frozen/stored and forgotten.

Without a menu you could find yourself wandering through the market grabbing whatever looks good (which is swell for the store's bottom line but not for yours). Ultimately, you wind up with lots of fun things to eat but not enough for a week's worth of actual meals. 

2. Read store ads two ways. The first way is to focus on the most bang for your nutritional buck, i.e., "What's on sale that my household will actually eat?" The second is to "plan great leftovers," according to Meagan Francis, a mom of five who blogs at The Kitchen Hour. Her menus feature "gap days" between large meals, treating leftovers not as penance but rather as the springboard for new meals. That could mean cooking a special side dish to go with the meat loaf and corn that didn’t get used up, or turning leftover that chicken breast and rice into a stir-fry.

3. Buy less. Get your pantry and freezer stocked, then do most of your "shopping" there. Getting creative with what's on hand reduces the chance that meat, fish and vegetables will become freezer-burned. Plan fresh-food purchases around your menu and stick to it; if you don't make those side salads, your crisper drawer will be filled with liquid lettuce and collapsed cucumbers.

4. Buy what you love. Sound obvious? Then you've never had one of those "Gosh, we really should eat more fish/kale/quinoa/whatever" moments of nutritional guilt. You know, the kind that leads to impulse buys with no clear plan on how to prepare such items. Focus on the foods your household enjoys, and add new ones to the rotation gradually -- after you've found intriguing recipes.

5. Don't buy more than you need. Yes, milk is cheaper by the gallon than by the quart and head lettuce is cheaper than buying greens at the salad bar. But if you can't use larger quantities before they go bad, you might be paying more in the long run -- and in the short run, food goes to waste.

Rethinking old habits

6. Don't judge a cuke by its cover. In the U.S. we too often focus on appearance. For example, some people will pass over a winter squash with a rough patch on its rind even though it doesn't affect the quality of the fruit. Such items might eventually be discarded.

7. Go small. Want to buy only one chicken breast or a quarter of pound of spinach? The meat department or produce manager might be able to accommodate you. It beats buying too much and having to throw some of it away.

8. Don't fear "best by" dates. There's no uniform system for dating food in the U.S. and, except for baby food and formula, no requirement that food be dated at all. "Best by" refers to quality, e.g., canned pears good until August 2014 will probably taste better than pears dated December 2012. Then again, you may not notice much of a difference.

9. Heed "use by" dates, though. If the ground beef package says "use or freeze by Feb. 17," believe it.

10. Love your freezer. One bowl of minestrone or two slices of pizza left over? If you're pretty sure it will get lost in your fridge, pop it into the freezer. (Hint: Small servings make great brown-bag lunches.) This works for leftover takeout or the overflow from your anniversary dinner at the steakhouse. And speaking of restaurants . . .

11. Ask for smaller plates. Some restaurants will serve you a lunch-sized or senior-menu portion even if you're there for dinner. Or split an entrée with your partner (but be prepared for a shared-plate charge). Again: Some of these things freeze well, if you don't want to eat them the next day.

12. Donate! So you bought three boxes of high-fiber cereal to be healthy but found you don't like the taste. Or your roommate left behind cans of Spam and tuna when she moved out, and you're a vegetarian. A food bank, church or social services program can probably use them. Ask before you go, however, since some places aren't set up for individual donations and others have specific rules about what they can and can't accept.

Readers: How do you avoid wasting food?

More on MSN Money:

Feb 13, 2013 7:54PM

I always look at ads to see what's on sale before even thinking about a menu. In other words, my menus are always based on what's on sale. If chicken is 88cents a pound this week, you will see that on our menu for 2-3 days. Then I need to consider sides and what I can do with my chicken, like casserole,soups,etc. "Critical ingredients" should be in my cupboard usually and I often leave something out or replace it with something else. Don't be a slave to a recipe.

Feb 12, 2013 2:51PM
The other obvious thing is to learn what are the best ways to store food.  For example, I found potatoes (and yams) last much longer in the refrigerator than stored at room temperature.  I also found bananas are best stored in the refrigerator, but you should only put them in once they have fully ripened.  The outside will turn dark brown in the fridge, but they taste and look fine on the inside.

I store all of my bread in the freezer, and pull out slices as I need them.   They defrost quickly, and don't go bad in the freezer.  Same for cookies, coffee, flour, and butter - they are all best in the freezer.

Feb 13, 2013 2:51PM
We start with restocking what we have used from the pantry as the base of our shopping list. so as we use cans of mushrooms or greenbeans, we replace them, We have just a small frezzer so we often think about how much we will eat in a 3-4 day period of a sale hunk of meat. I do most of the cooking in the house, and will cook a roast on day one, thin piece bbq sandwitches on day two, and on day three it will be stir fry with the meat from that roast. That does not count the breakfast or lunches that we might get from it. We never buy a Gallon of milk, at best we go though a half gallon of the milk by the time it goes bad. We buy 4-6 pieces of any fruit at a time as that is about how much we will eat befoe it gets to teh point that it will not be eatten, so why by the 4-10 pound bag that will cost a little more, but wont get eatten.
Mar 13, 2013 8:55PM
Thanks for mentioning Society of St. Andrew, Donna. We're a faith-based nonprofit operating throughout the US, working to reduce food waste and feed the hungry. We focus primarily on farm-level food waste, building relationships with farmers, mobilizing volunteers to glean (pick, dig, or gather) unmarketable produce, and then sharing the rescued food with nearby direct-service hunger relief agencies, like shelters, soup kitchens, food banks & pantries, senior and child nutrition programs, etc. In 2012 more than 40,000 volunteers worked with us to recover and distribute 100 million servings (33.3 million pounds) of fresh, nourishing food to folks struggling to get by. You can learn more about Society of St. Andrew at
Feb 18, 2013 3:04PM
I can see on these answers that we actually do need a higher min wage, because the middle class and rich would never bother with this entire blog.
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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.