Fact Sheet FS1332
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that about 30–40% of food is thrown out in the U.S., equating to 63 million tons and $218 billion of food wasted annually. Food waste in America has been increasing at an alarming rate with a 50% increase in food waste since the 1970s. Additionally, American consumers waste more than other consumers around the world; for example, Americans waste ten times more food than their South Asian counterparts.
Food waste occurs in every part of the food system, from food that is wasted at harvest to food that we throw away at home. According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS), most of the food that is wasted happens at the consumer level. The ERS estimates that in 2010 consumer waste accounted for 31% of total waste, which was approximately 133 billion pounds of food and a value of $162 billion. Consumers waste food when they improperly store food, cook more than needed and throw out the extras, or acquire more food than they need. Learning ways to decrease food waste at home can be the first step towards making a positive environmental impact.
Planning out meals can save food waste and money. The average U.S. household throws out one in every four bags of groceries costing $1,866 per year. By planning meals in advance, individuals and families can have a much better idea of the quantities of food they will need for a specific period of time. By eating all the food you buy, you save money that may have been spent on food bought on impulse that ends up going to waste.
TIP: If planning out a whole week of meals feels overwhelming, start with two or three days’ worth of meals. As meal planning becomes a more comfortable habit, add one to two days at a time into your meal plan.
- BEFORE you go shopping, "shop" in your own kitchen so you can plan meals around what you currently have and avoid buying food duplicates. Make your shopping list based on your current "inventory."
- Make a list and stick to it! In addition to reducing food waste, this can save time and money by eliminating browsing and impulse purchasing.
- Include amounts on your shopping list to make sure you buy just what you need. This is particularly relevant for fresh ingredients, such as meat and produce. For example: apples—enough for kids' school lunches for three days.
- Be realistic about your lifestyle and make your shopping list based on how many meals you plan to eat at home. Consider how often you plan to eat out or order in each week.
- Consider timing. Only shop for the food you plan to eat until your next shopping trip, whether that will be in two days or two weeks.
- Beware marketing ploys that persuade you to buy large quantities. Although "10 potatoes for $10" may sound like a great deal, if you eat only three potatoes and throw away seven, that is still money and food wasted.
- Fresh foods tend to spoil more quickly than packaged foods and should be bought in smaller quantities more frequently. (Alternatively, you may plan to freeze certain items.) Buy fresh ingredients in smaller quantities more often so you waste less and enjoy fresher ingredients.
- Choose loose fruit and vegetables over pre-packaged to better control the quantity you need and ensure fresher ingredients.
Package date labels can be very confusing. Most date labels are indicative of food quality and not food safety. However, often people confuse them for food safety labels and throw away food that is safe to eat.
Eating food after its "best by," "use by," or "sell by" date means that the product might not taste as good as if it was fresh but should not present any food safety concern. One important exception is infant formula. Some infants get a majority of their nutrition from formula, and the nutritional value of food deteriorates with time. Do not use after the "use by" date has passed, since it could result in life-threatening malnutrition for the baby.
Storing food properly can also help ensure foods last longer. This is particularly true for produce. On average, Americans throw out 19% of vegetables and 14% of fruits after purchasing. Produce often emit or absorb a gas called ethylene. Ethylene gas is a natural gas that fruits and vegetables release as they ripen. However, if your produce rots within a few days of purchasing, you might need to separate your ethylene gas-releasers from your produce that are ethylene gas-sensitive. A list of ethylene gas-releasers and gas-sensitive produce is below:
Ethylene gas-releasing produce:
Ethylene gas-sensitive produce:
TIP: Use ethylene gas to your advantage, when you need to ripen produce more quickly, put ethylene sensitive-produce next to ethylene-releasing produce.
During mealtime, taking portions that you know you will finish can help to reduce food waste. To help ensure that your portion sizes do not exceed your appetite, serve meals family-style. Take a little at a time of each food you plan to eat, knowing that you can always take more if you are still hungry when you finish the portion on your plate.
Love Your Leftovers
Getting creative with how you use your leftovers can be a great way to help save them from ending up in the trash. Repurposing previous meals into soups, stews, and casseroles can help you make an easy and quick meal while reducing waste. The internet is full of great ideas for how to turn leftover items into new and creative meals. Before you toss your leftovers, consider searching for some recipes you can use to repurpose those foods. Learn more about food safety considerations when managing leftovers through fact sheet FS588, Handling Leftovers Safely.
Sharing or Donating Food
Be realistic about what you and your family will eat. If a neighbor gave you a bounty of tomatoes from their garden, but no one in your household likes tomatoes, you can donate them to a local food pantry/soup kitchen or pass them on to another friend or family member who will use them. Be aware that some organizations do not accept certain items such as prepared foods, so be sure to call and ask ahead of time about what they can and cannot accept.
Give It Back to the Earth
Composting is a natural process that allows microbes to break down certain materials into their mineral components. The finished product can be added to soil to improve growing conditions for plants in the garden or landscape. Although this use is close to the bottom of the hierarchy, composting is still a great way to create nutrient-rich soil and an educational opportunity at home or at school. Learn more about reducing food waste through composting. (Learn more about home composting with fact sheet FS811, Home Composting.)
- Gunders D. Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill. Washington, D.C.: Natural Resources Defense Council. 2012.
- Gunders, D., Bloom, J., Berkenkamp, J., Hoover, D., Spacht, A., Mourad, M. (2017). Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill. Retrieved from National Resource Defense Council Washington, D.C. Retrieved from: www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/wasted-2017-report.pdf (PDF)
- ReFED: A Roadmap to Reduce US Food Waste by 20 Percent. Berkeley, CA. 2016. refed.com/downloads/ReFED_Report_2016.pdf
- USDA: Food Loss and Waste: Consumers.
- Klemm, S. Understanding Dates on Food Labels. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
- USDA: Food Product Dating.
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: How to Keep Produce Fresh Longer—Infographic.
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