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How to Reduce Food Waste: 19 Tips for Cutting Back

Learn how to stop wasting food, save money and make the world a healthier place

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The cost of wasted food

With sky-high prices and inflation around every corner, we’re all trying to find ways to tighten our budgets. You don’t have to clean your plate, but being mindful about what food you buy and consume can save money and help protect the planet. (To do even more for the planet with your diet, opt for more meatless meals, seek out sustainable foods and compost your food scraps.)

Incredibly, food waste contributes 8% of global carbon emissions. The food you put in the trash rots in landfills and gives off methane gas—a greenhouse gas that’s 87 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Learning how to reduce food waste makes sense to cut costs now and create a brighter, greener future. I like to call small steps like this “one green thing.” And by engaging in a daily practice of “one green thing,” we can create an important culture shift toward global climate solutions.

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The extent of food waste

It’s a lot of waste. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, rotting food makes up 24% of the trash in United States landfills. The United Nations estimates that globally, one third of all food produced is wasted. Here at home, food-insecurity nonprofit Feeding America estimates that 40% of food is wasted, the equivalent of 130 billion meals.

It costs billions. All that waste adds up and takes a huge financial toll. The U.S. Department of Agriculture states that food waste costs approximately $161 billion annually, including $370 per person. That means a family of four could save $1,500 a year by limiting food waste, a smart way to save at the grocery store.

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Why food waste is so important to climate action

The methane connection. When food goes into the trash, it ends up in a landfill. Rotting food emits methane, a greenhouse gas that is vastly more powerful than carbon dioxide. The EPA estimates that food waste in the United States creates as much greenhouse gas emissions as 42 coal-fired power plants. The Washington Post points out that household food waste contributes the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as the entire airline industry.

You can make a difference. While some climate solutions require huge market and policy shifts, being mindful about the food you buy and use is one of the most powerful actions you can take to create a greener future. According to the nonprofit think tank Project Drawdown, individual and household actions could constitute 25% of the global carbon emission reductions we need to curb global warming. Learning how to reduce food waste is an essential strategy to become a better steward of the planet.

Read on for 19 ways to reduce food waste and create a win-win for your budget and the planet:

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Shop smarter

  • Create a shopping list. This type of discipline keeps your eyes from wandering at the cash register or splurging for the new, snazzy snack you see in your favorite aisle. Writing down a list and creating a plan helps save money too. If lists aren’t your thing, you may want to take a “shelfie” of your pantry or fridge to remind you of what you already have at home.
  • Buy only what you need. We all love big-box stores, but be conscious about buying in bulk. Make sure it’s something you really need and not an 84-ounce bottle of a rare sauce you love but your family hates. Even if it’s on sale, if it ends up in the landfill, it’s not worth it.
  • Look for compostable packaging, or at least skip the single-use plastic when you can—and especially avoid fruits and vegetables that are shrink-wrapped in plastic. Don’t forget to bring your reusable shopping bags!
  • Look for low-mercury, sustainable fish. Overfishing is a serious problem globally, and buying sustainably and using fish dishes efficiently is better for the environment as well.
  • Embrace the ugly. Fruit that is bruised, damaged or just plain ugly can be used for soups, jams, smoothies and grilling. It’s estimated that one-third of all fruits and vegetables are deemed by farmers as too ugly to sell. So don’t shy away from that ugly produce —it tastes the same, and you’re doing your part to reduce food waste.

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Menu plan

  • Start out by looking at your weekly schedule. Think about activities or evenings away you might have coming up. Once you know how many meals you’ll have at home, take stock of what you already have in your pantry. Any soups you haven’t used in a while? Are there some dried beans you could use in a summer salad or a chili? Note what’s missing and write it down.
  • Think about your family’s go-to meals. Write down your ingredients (be mindful of portion size) and then plan to go to the store. Be honest with yourself about how adventurous your family is when it comes to mealtime. Your exciting new recipe might not be a hit, so think through what you should buy. When my schedule allows it, I prefer to go to the store on Friday mornings instead of Saturday or Sunday. It’s a great way to beat the rush, and the store is usually fully stocked for the weekend.
  • Keep a running shopping list. Consider using Google Keep or a shared document to write down your list and your menus. That way, when you—or your partner or your kids—realize you’re out of an essential item, like coffee beans or milk, you can add it to the list quickly for the next person who goes to the store. It helps cut down on repeat shopping trips, which helps cut down on those tempting, yet unneeded, purchases.
  • Add more plants to your diet. Meatless meals are a key way to reduce the cost of groceries, plus they’re healthier for you and the environment. Check out these ideas for Meatless Mondays and 30-minute vegetarian recipes for some inspiration.
  • Plan to use your leftovers. Did you know there are all kinds of food scraps you can use like cheese rinds, radish leaves, broccoli stems, and more? I have friends who have “fend” night—as in “fend for yourself”—where the family cleans out the fridge and eats leftovers. It’s a fun game to see who can be the most creative.
  • Grow your own. Have you thought about starting a simple container garden? It’s another key way to cut food costs, and you can throw your vegetable scraps into your compost. Here are some easy vegetables like radishes, green beans and zucchini to grow at home.

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Store food the right way

  • Try to avoid plastic containers. Use glass storage when you can. Plastic containers can leach toxic hormone-disrupting chemicals like BPA or BPA-related compounds and phthalates into the food. Even BPA-free containers may contain phthalates that can leach into food when used to reheat leftovers in the microwave.
  • Be mindful of expiration dates. My kids love examining these dates and tossing anything that might be expired, but it’s important to learn the difference between “use by” and “sell by” definitions. According to USDA, other than infant formula, dates don’t indicate the safety of the food. For example, “best if used by” language indicates flavor, not the safety of the food. The term “sell by” is used for inventory management. “Freeze by” and “use by” are dates that refer to quality, not the safety of the food.
  • Think about food placement in your fridge. The FDA encourages you to keep your fridge at 40 degrees or below to keep food safe. Place items you think might spoil soon at eye level, at the front, so you use them.
  • Use your freezer. If you have leftovers, think about freezing them for the future. Be sure to put a sticker and a date. This works great for meals like casseroles, lasagna and soups.
  • Donate excess. If it turns out you missed the mark with your menu plan and have leftover non-perishable goods, donate them to a local food bank. Hunger is on the rise in America, and food banks are always in need. Find your local food bank.

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Compost

  • Ask if your town offers curbside composting. Composting takes vegetable food scraps and helps them break down into soil. The State of California recently passed a law requiring composting, making it much easier for the everyday consumer there to reduce food waste. In addition, some municipalities around the country also offer community-wide composting. In some towns, you can bring your vegetable scraps to farmers markets or farm stands and they’ll do the composting.
  • Hire it out. If you live in a community like mine and you don’t have access to community composting, you can hire a company to pick up your food scraps. Outfits like Happy Compost in my hometown of Bozeman, Montana, give you a kitchen bin. You put your scraps in and then put your compost bin at the roadside for weekly pickup. The average cost of these types of services are $15 to $20 a month per household.
  • Do it yourself. Composting at home is easy—and you don’t have to be Laura Ingalls Wilder. Simply buy a composting container and kitchen compost bucket. Then add your “browns,” which are leaves and twigs, and “greens,” your lawn cuttings and vegetable scraps (aim for a ratio of 2:1 browns to greens), and water. Then turn your compost once a week depending on the humidity where you live. Here’s a complete list from the EPA on what to, and what not to, compost, plus some easy tips to get started.

Times are tough, both economically and ecologically. The climate crisis is overwhelming, and so many of us don’t know where to start. You can start here, with this simple “one green thing.” Taking a few minutes each week to think about your food—where it comes from and how you’ll use it—can make a big difference for your health, your wallet and the planet. If you’re interested in doing more, read up on fast fashion, upcycling and the future of recycling.

Sources:

Heather White
Heather White is a writer, lawyer, environmental policy expert, and the founder of the nonprofit OneGreenThing.org. She's the author of One Green Thing: Discover Your Hidden Power to Help Save the Planet (Harper Horizon 2022).