Reducing Food Waste: It can start in our own kitchens

I really hate to throw away food. As a volunteer at Food for Others, I’m continually reminded that hunger is very real, food is not free, and each one of us can be a force for good in the fight against hunger.

According to the USDA, 31% of all edible food in the United States becomes waste at either the retail or consumer level without making it onto mealtime plates. The last year it was tracked, retail and consumer food waste totaled $161 billion in America. My family and I believe that is not acceptable. In our own small way, we are helping to drive down these numbers by developing habits to avoid sending usable food to the landfill.

The foundations for our good food use habits are: (1) a meal plan I make every week, (2) a shopping list I create from that plan, and (3) the discipline to stick closely to the list while I grocery shop. The habits cut  down on the times I reach for an item while cooking and find I don’t even own it. More importantly, the meal plan and list ensure I’ll be using what I bought that week so things don’t end up in the trash just because I forgot about them. I’m also not making additional trips to the grocery store because I’m out of something or an ingredient turned bad. Food transportation expenses matter too.

As the title above indicates, I’ll share steps I take to cut down on inedible food in the cupboard. In later blogs I’ll talk about using our refrigerators and freezers to reduce spoilage.

I keep a very organized pantry. Without a lot of fuss or expense, I make it work so that cooking hassles are reduced and the amount of food I throw away is minimized. Most weeks, I don’t throw away any food at all!

My pantry is arranged so I can see everything without digging. A quick look tells me what I already own so I avoid unintended duplicates. I keep similar items together: canned fruits, baking supplies, breakfast choices. When a can of black beans comes home with me, it goes behind the one I already have on the shelf so that I am always using the oldest can of black beans first. I do this stock rotation with every can, box and bag in the cupboard, keeping shelf items as fresh as possible. It only takes a moment as I’m putting away the week’s groceries.

While I do of course toss out cupboard staples that go bad, I don’t throw away an item just because it is past the “sell by” or “use by” date. For foods you would keep in your pantry, those dates are overly conservative, assigned by manufacturers without any formal guidelines. The federal government doesn’t require dates on any food with the exception of infant formula which must carry a “use by” date to ensure infants are receiving the highest level of nutrition possible from the product. Grocery stores use “sell by” dates to rotate out older stock and bring in newer food. Still, the dates are simply a means of record keeping, not an indication that the food is or isn’t too old to eat. Foods are usually good quite a while after their pull date.

Despite careful rotation, because I have some ingredients I don’t use often, I routinely have a couple of boxes or cans in my pantry that are past their sell or use date.  I go ahead and use them and have never been disappointed with the quality of a past-date product with only one notable exception: I tried to whip up some powdered whipped topping that was 13 years (!) past its pull date and it wouldn’t whip. It wasn’t rotten, it had simply lost its vitality. It was a great experiment though.

I make a regular habit of looking through my pantry for things I know we don’t need to keep. The soup I bought in error? The blueberry pancake mix we received as a gift and will never open?  It all gets bagged up and taken to Food for Others where I know each item will find a new home. By passing on the food, I’m making sure that it doesn’t end up neglected in my cupboard, making an eventual trip to the curb in my trash bin. Instead it meets the needs of someone hungry who will enjoy it.

Reducing food waste in your home kitchen takes mindfulness. You can start immediately without spending extra money or turning your kitchen upside down. Take baby steps and slowly get better  organized. Try something new and see what works for your family. Together, we can reduce food waste, helping the planet and our hungry neighbors at the same time.