$165 Billion in Food Waste: What Can You Do?

In a recent appearance on ABC World News with Diane Sawyer, Marcus was sent to New Jersey to help a family reduce their kitchen waste. According to the report, the average American is tossing away nearly $190/month in uneaten food. That's close to $2,400/year that we're throwing away - hard to stomach when so many people are going hungry and our own budgets are tight. It may seem like a never-ending battle, but it's a battle worth winning financially and from the standpoint of managing our carbon footprints.

While big change can't happen overnight, here are some practical tips for getting a handle on kitchen waste:

1) Read the dates carefully: Sell by doesn't mean toss out the product on the indicated date. Given that you haven't opened the package, you should have at least 3 days left before the produce goes bad, a week for milk. Remember that the spoilage clock starts ticking when you open the product so that date isn't necessarily valid if you've broken the seal. If I haven't cooked chicken by the sell-by date, I like to pop it in the freezer.

2) Plan your plate: Smaller protein portions (about 3 oz/person after cooking) will help steer clear of ending up with a platter of uneaten seafood staring at you when you clean out the fridge.

3) Plan zones in your fridge: Marcus suggests placing heavier items and liquids on bottom shelves, the coldest part of the fridge.

Problems with shopping, cooking, food storage, and meal planning all come together to make the food-waste register ring. It's taken me a few years to get food waste under control in my house because between absolutely LOVING the grocery store and cooking under the delusion that I'm feeding massive troops, I've been known over the years for cooking "just a little too much." It's been a long road to cutting our family's food waste and I'm far from perfect. Here are some of my tips for minimizing what gets away from us:

1) Take inventory before you put together the shopping list: Knowing what I have has helped me figure out what I truly need. It also stops me from buying what I don't need.

2) Clean out the fridge before you go shopping: This is your chance to look at what you ate, what you didn't, what went bad, what's on the brink. If you find that you routinely toss the brussel sprouts before you cook them, by all means stop buying them until you know that they will be the star of the show.

3) Get real in the store: The farmers market and grocery store are no time to indulge your fantasy if you're not going to eat what you buy. Nor, is it the time to decide that we're going to pile on the fruits, veggies, and whole grains that are great for our bodies without a plan for using them. Fresh produce and breads spoil. Better to pick up high-quality frozen berries, peach slices and veggies to add to the menu and let whole grain pastas and grains sub for bread. You won't toss as much.

4) Play accountant with your food an adopt FIFO (First in First Out) as your roadmap: I make it a point to rotate the milk and fruit when I return from shopping so we'll drink and eat what we already had first. Cuts back on spoilage.

5) Understand that it's O.K. to run out of things sometimes: You don't always have to have everything in your fridge. Don't have any arugula after all? Go to Plan B and put that romaine to work for you. French Toast Bagel Thins made their debut at my house one Sunday brunch because it was the only bread we had. My husband loved it and it's a regular on our menu now.

6) Think beyond the obvious when putting meals together: A half-eaten box of mushrooms, a quarter head of cabbage, a lone onion hanging out with a few cloves of garlic, and a baked chicken breast will put you on the way to minestrone. Just reach into the pantry for a can of beans, a box of stock, and some herbs to finish it off. Slice that two-day old baguette, brush with garlic-flavored olive oil, sprinkle with Parm and oven-toast it for a great topper. Dinner's served!

7) Introduce "Empty the fridge night": Everybody doesn't have to eat the same thing at the same time. Once a week, pull out those leftovers and reheat them. Just add a freshly cooked veggie, a tossed salad, or a bowl of soup and not only will you avoid throwing away the food but you'll also have an easygoing dinner.

8) Remember the freezer and cabinets when tracking waste: All of the waste doesn't come from the fridge. Those petrified blocks in the freezer are waste; the canned tomatoes bulging past their "use-by" date are waste. Try thinking three times before you put it in the freezer. Unless you have a clear plan for eating it, don't put it there. Watch what you buy in the canned food aisle and rotate.

9) Brown-bag it: If you haven't already joined the lunch brigade, this is a good time to consider brown bagging at least once a week. Last night's leftovers can become today's lunch instead of next week's bio experiment in the fridge.

10) Store it so that you can see it: If you can't see it, you can't eat it. Store in containers you can see through and line like things up together. I'll always remember the cooked broccoli that went bad because it was stored in a cream cheese container.

11) Bigger isn't always better: I'm not downing warehouse stores. Just be careful to buy only what you can realistically use before it goes bad. That 5 pound bag of spinach isn't such a good deal if you end up tossing 3 pounds of it.

12) Take stock of the situation: Homemade stocks are a great way to use veggie pieces and meat bones and sometimes you just have to use the old vegetables. Fried rice and pastas are perfect ways to turn bits and pieces into a delightful dinner.