Food waste is a real and serious problem, both on our wallets and on our environment. You can do your part by cutting down on your food waste at home. Read on to learn how.

Picture this: you rummage through your fridge trying to conjure up an idea of what to make for dinner when you spot, way in the back, a full container of leftovers that was left there for weeks. You have no choice but to toss out the old and rotten food, sighing as you realize you are also throwing precious money down the drain.

If you can relate, you are not alone. Food waste is pervasive and troublesome, both in the United States and globally, and has garnered a lot of attention for its negative impacts not only for the wallet, but for society, our natural resources, and our environment.

Food waste by the numbers

As consumers of food, most of us fail to realize just how much of it gets discarded - and the numbers are alarming.

It is estimated that developed countries worldwide toss out 1.4 billion tons of food each year. This includes 30% to 40% of the entire food supply in the United States, which amounts to 20 lbs of food per person per month, and $165 billion in food every year.

Food scraps make up the largest category of landfill waste, comprising 22% of landfill material.

This trend hurts our wallets as well: food loss translates to the loss of 1% of our household disposable income, or $1.07 per day per household.

Why we waste food

Unfortunately, food waste happens at every step of the food chain, but most waste happens at home.

Consumer preferences, behaviors, and understanding relating to the food they are eating can play a major role in how much food is discarded.

Specifically, research shows that a consumer’s food shopping, meal planning routines, and his or her knowledge of how to handle food properly, can be decent predictors of food waste behaviors.

For example, people who do not plan before they shop are more likely to waste food. They tend to lose track of what they already have in their kitchens and not follow a shopping list at the store, both of which frequently lead to excessive purchasing of food.

Buying food in bulk can also lead to food waste. Families with younger children, especially children under the age of 5, are more likely to buy their groceries in bulk compared to other families. Because it is sometimes challenging to foresee the amount of food children will eat at any given time, whether at the dinner table or in the school lunchbox, food waste is often a certainty.

While overstocking the shelves ensures that food is available when it is needed, it can contribute to food waste because it is not easily known when and how the food will be consumed. If you are looking for a way to keep your pantry stocked but want to keep your food waste to a minimum, buying extra foods that are canned or can be frozen is a sensible idea.

People who are less experienced with cooking and how to store food properly also report higher levels of food waste, and those who misunderstand the meaning of product date labels prematurely throw out food due to anxiety about food safety.

There are no uniform or universally accepted descriptions used on food labels in the United States for open dating, which is the imprinting of calendar dates on food labels to inform the consumer about their safety and freshness. As a result, there are a wide variety of phrases used for product dating, which can be confusing and misunderstood by the average consumer.

Plus, as food buyers, we have an expectation of what our produce should look like: fresh and blemish-free. We equate visually appealing produce with quality produce. Yet, produce that goes uneaten at home eventually spoils, resulting in our discarding it more often than not.

How to cut down on food waste

Fortunately, the problem of food waste has garnered widespread awareness, prompting a number of initiatives to combat this troubling trend.

One such initiative, U.S. Food Loss and Waste 2030 Champions, has inspired a number of organizations and businesses to commit to reducing their own operational food loss by 50% by the year 2030.

Follow these practical tips to cut down on your own food waste at home.

Become aware. Becoming aware of just how much you are throwing away is an important first step to tackling the issue. Also, ask yourself: when do I throw most food away? Which foods am I throwing out the most? Try to observe patterns in how you are discarding your food.

Only buy the food that you need. Not buying too much food and avoiding spoilage in the first place is a critical component of preventing food loss. This can entail planning your weekly meals and sticking to a shopping list. Know when your food will be eaten.

Check your inventory. Each time before you shop, compare your list to the contents of your fridge and pantry to make sure you do not buy what you already have.

Do not buy certain foods in bulk. Buying dairy and produce in bulk can be risky. They have a limited shelf life, and it is sometimes a challenge to consume them before they spoil.

Store your food safely. Your refrigerated foods should be stored in the fridge set to 40°F or below and frozen foods should be kept in a freezer at 0°F or below. Use a refrigerator thermometer to check if you are unsure. Avoid overpacking your food; an over-packed fridge keeps food from getting enough circulated cold air. Keep your foods covered and sealed at all times to delay spoilage. Peeled or cut vegetables should be stored chilled in the refrigerator. Remember the 2-hour rule: perishable foods should not be left out at room temperature for more than 2 hours. Hot food should be kept hot and cold foods should be kept cold.

Repurpose those leftovers. With a bit of ingenuity, it is possible to whip up delicious new meals made of leftover ingredients from the day before. Have some extra veggies from yesterday’s stirfry? Throw them into a pot with some vegetable broth to make some soup, or saute them with chopped onion and garlic for a tasty veggie-filled pasta primavera. Leftovers from dinner? Stash a portion into a container for a healthy lunch tomorrow.

Use your freezer. Made a large batch of food for dinner? Portion out the leftovers into freezer-safe containers and freeze for fresh, quick, and easy dinners at a later date.

Make your own veggie broth using vegetable scraps. Making your own inexpensive and healthy vegetable broth is easy! Simply reserve peels, scraps, and ends of vegetables you’d usually throw out, like carrots, celery, onions, garlic, and herbs, and keep in the freezer in a freezer-safe bag. When full, place into a large pot, fill ¾ of the way with water, and simmer for an hour. Strain the liquid and store in large mason jars. Keep refrigerated for 4 days or freeze for up to 3 months.