How to Avoid Wasting Food

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Comedian John Oliver took to task the issue of food waste on an episode of This Week Tonight. Seemingly overnight, it’s become a burning issue. Finally.

I dedicated an entire chapter of my 2011 book, The Kitchen Counter Cooking School, to the issue of food waste. Here’s an excerpt from “Waste Not, Want Not,” courtesy Viking/Penguin Random House:

“Even as they bemoan food prices, American consumers are generally unaware that they spend the smallest percentage of their wages on food than any other country in the world; just above 10 percent of paychecks go toward putting food on the table. Compare that to 1900, when 40 percent of wages went toward food. Around 1960, the first time the amount spent on food was no longer the biggest expenditure, we spent about 25 percent.

The declining cost comes with the rise industrialization of farming practices and the shift of everything we eat – from pigs to cows to orange juice –into mass-produced merchandise.

Perhaps it’s the lack of investment that leads to a cavalier attitude toward food. We may give thanks for our bounty once a year, but then as a country we collectively waste about 40 percent of the food produced for consumption the rest of the time.

Anthropologist Timothy Jones spent more than a decade studying food wastes. His research finds that some crops sit abandoned or unharvested in the field where it’s grown. Supermarkets or suppliers discard another few percent dismissed as too imperfect for retail. The rest – about 25 to 30 percent –we throw away at home.

That food goes into landfills to rot where they emit clouds of methane, a greenhouse gas more toxic and damaging than carbon monoxide.

“By treating edibles as a disposable commodity, we teach our children not to value food,” says Jonathan Bloom, author of the book, Wasted Food: How America Wastes Nearly Half of its Food (and What We Can Do About It). He puts the figure on what we waste at more than $100 billion annually.

This jived with what I found in the interviews with the volunteers and the kitchen visits, and what I observed in my own house and in the homes of friends. A few of the volunteers agreed to keep a journal of what they bought, ate and threw out for two weeks. The result? They reported less waste due to the guilt they felt knowing they had to write it down, but even then, an average of 18 percent of their groceries bill went into the trash.

But why do we waste so much? Both Jones and Bloom offer some interesting insights.

First, people often shop for their aspirational life, not their real one. Everyone knows that you’re supposed to eat fruit and vegetables, so we stock up on perishables. But that leads into the second problem. Since most people don’t plan meals for the week, those beets or greens that looked so great at the farmer’s market sit untouched, as we end up eating convenience foods.

With proper planning, buying in bulk or loading up on two-for-one deals can be a genuine money saver; without a plan, it’s just a recipe to double or triple the amount of food tossed away.

Here are some strategies for avoiding food waste from my second book:

Post its in crisper drawer

These veggies represent $8.50 in post-tax income

-> The Post-It Note Trick: When you bring food home from the grocery store, put a post-it note on each perishable item with the amount it cost. No one would throw $5 into the trash, but wasted food is also wasted money. When you do toss that food without eating it, put those post-its in one place. At the end of the month, total up how much you tossed.So if you want to waste less food, here are some suggestions:

-> Take an Inventory of Your Fridge and Cupboards: Empty them out. Toss the truly expired stuff. Get to know what’s in them. I even recommend making a list. Have stuff that’s been around for a long time that you’ll never use? Or four jars of paprika? Donate excess stuff to a food bank. Start to research recipes to use up the stuff that’s been languishing.

-> Eat Down Your Fridge: This challenge was developed by food writer friend, Kim O’Donnel. It’s pretty simple: Skip at least one shopping trip a month and try to use up your remnant food instead.

Photo in back of my fridge

Our fridge, with a photo of Mike and I kissing in Paris.

-> The Photo In the Back of the Fridge trick: Chef Thierry Rautureau of Seattle suggests putting a favorite photo in the back of your refrigerator. “If you can’t see it, your fridge is too full.”

-> Shop more often, buy less: Buy one pepper, not three. Buy three potatoes, onot three pounds. Says Chef Rautureau: “If you have less food in your fridge it will actually push you as a cook. You will have to make something different. It will force substitutions. You think, ‘I don’t have a green pepper but, oh wait, I have a zucchini so I will try that.’ It’s a good thing. That’s how you learn.”

-> Don’t give up on food too easily: Apple has a dent in it? Cut it out and use the rest of the apple. If a few leaves of lettuce go brown, pluck them out, don’t chuck the whole bag.

carrot rosemary soup

Carrot and rosemary soup made from vegetables that I might have otherwise thrown out.

-> Learn to make soup: Check out my “How to Make Soup out of Anything” guide. Soup is basically sauteing a half onion, adding chopped up leftover vegetables, some water and stock and simmering it for an hour.

-> When a jar of jam, mustard or peanut butter is nearly empty, use it to make vinaigrette: Seriously, this is a great trick. Watch the video here.

-> Home-style Individually Quick Frozen (IQF):  Says Chef Rautureau: “Spread berries or vegetables on a tray, freeze them, and when frozen, put them into a plastic bag. In January, you can pull out a handful onto your pancakes and its summer again.”

  • > Follow Jonathan Bloom’s excellent blog, Wasted Food: Get his newsletter or an RSI feed, follow him on Twitter. Keep this issue top of mind.

  • > Order the classic book, More With Less by Doris Longacre: Written for the Mennonite Church, this book offers all kinds of suggestions for menu planning, shopping and rethinking how we consume in this world of such intense consumerism.

Longacre’s book taught me a lot. As Oliver notes, we don’t need all-you-can eat ribs or “endless shrimp buffets” in a country that not only wastes so much food but also has the dual issues of obesity (about 35% of Americans are morbidly obese) while nearly  four million children go hungry.

Do you have any suggestions or strategies for wasting less food? Let me know.

About katflinn

Kathleen Flinn is the author of "The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry," "The Kitchen Counter Cooking School" and "Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good." All are published by Viking/Penguin.


  1. candace says:

    Meal planning for one week, making my list off those recipes, and then grocery shopping based on that list has really reduced the amount of wasted food in our house. It also has reduced the amount of meals we eat out. I only grocery shop once a week, so I try to make what we’ve got work (which also makes me make a more focused list/shopping session). And we are saving money by not eating out.

  2. I basically make two big meals a week – one on Sunday and another midweek. I then use those leftovers for two subsequent meals. I also just plan that we always do takeout on Tuesday (I work late those nights) and a pizza on Friday. I make soup every Saturday for lunch. Getting a routine has really made my life so much simpler.

    My go to meals are a braised dish on Sunday (such as braised flank steak) and then I’ll make tacos the next night. Takeout Tuesday. Wednesday, I’ll roast a chicken (or buy one) and next night, then I’ll make stir-fry or pasta with the leftover. Pizza and movie night Friday. On Saturday, I’ll use the week’s leftovers (including chicken) for soup. While its cooking, I plan my two big meals and either go shopping or order online.

    I use tortillas all the time: breakfast burritos, wraps for lunches, quesadillas for the kids. I’ve found them to be good for easy meals and pulling together quick meals with leftovers.

    • Good for you! How funny, I am totally into tortillas/flatbreads right now, too. The nice thing about those is if one family member has a gluten issue, they can use corn tortillas and the others can use flour. I like that you recognized your real life needed two nights “off” from cooking. I am certainly not against good takeout or pizza, except for those crazy Domino’s offerings with hot dogs or bacon crust.

  3. That comment about “aspirational life” is just so true. After reading your second book, I kept a food journal. My boyfriend and I would buy all these exotic ingredients and spices thinking we’d use them… stuff like Indian curry pastes, za’tar (sp??) seasoning, jars of stuff we got an Asian market and we didn’t even know what they were, LOL! but then we just ended up with a cupboard of unused ingredients. I did as you suggested and pulled everything out and we figured out we had $200 of this stuff!

    So we gave ourselves a project — use up all of these crazy things we’d stocked up on. We ended up having a couple of cooking parties and invited a friend who is an accomplished cook to show us and two couples how to make a bunch of dishes. It was not only fun and emptied out our cupboard, but we learned a bunch of new techniques that we now use all the time.

    • Ha! We live near a big Asian supermarket and I’ve done exactly what you’re talking about, too. I love the idea of having a friend familiar with the cuisine come over and help you figure it all out. We might have to do that. Thanks, Andrew!

  4. Clare S. says:

    Thanks for this great post and for sharing the John Oliver clip. So amazing, these statistics, and so sad. I admit that I throw out more food than I should and as of today, I am cleaning out my cupboards and getting serious about it! Thanks.

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