By Lori Bongiorno
(Photo: Ross Anania / Getty Images)Americans are notorious for wasting food. Each year, we toss out about 27 percent of edible food, and the average family of four throws out about $600 worth of groceries.
Here's one way to visualize the collective impact of all the limp lettuce and moldy bread that makes its way to landfills. We waste enough food each day to fill up the Rose Bowl (a 90,000 seat stadium in Southern California), according to Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland on CNN.
We're not only wasting money, we're also wasting energy. New research from the University of Texas quantifies just how much. Americans waste the equivalent of 350 million barrels of oil every year on wasted food -- or 2 percent of the annual energy consumption of the United States.
The upshot? Preventing food from going bad saves money and energy. Here are some tips to help you waste less food:
You've heard this before, but that's because taking the time to plan your meals ahead of time can really help to cut down on wasted food. There's one key point to remember: Be realistic about what you have time to prepare given your schedule each week.
Check your fridge and cupboards before you head to the grocery store so you don't buy what you already have.
Write a detailed shopping list and don't stray from it as you navigate the aisles of your grocery store.
We all love a good bargain, but try not to buy food that you simply cannot eat just because it's a good deal. How much money are you saving if uneaten food ends up in the landfill?
That's not to say that you shouldn't buy items on sale or in bulk. If you buy that 5-pound package of hamburger meat, split it up into smaller portions and freeze it when you unpack your groceries.
Use up what you buy
- Here's a tasty way to use the seeds of butternut, acorn, or any other squash you're making. Add a little salt and oil and roast the seeds in the oven, just like you would pumpkin seeds.
- Turn old bread into fresh breadcrumbs, Parmesan croutons, or Panzanella bread salad. Bread pudding is a good option for those with a sweet tooth. Better yet, store bread in the freezer as soon as you bring it home so it lasts longer.
- Saute small amounts of different kinds of unused veggies and mix with eggs, cheese, and herbs (if you have some in the fridge) to make a frittata. Pair it with a salad for a quick, delicious, and spontaneous weeknight dinner.
- Use berries, bananas, melons, or other fruit to make smoothies. Freeze ripe fruit for future smoothies or Popsicles. Some tips: Remove the peel from bananas before freezing. Lie berries out on a tray in the freezer and add berries to a container once they're frozen.
- Add extra rice to soup or make Rockin' Rice Pudding. Turn take-out white rice into some inspiring new side dishes such as rice fritters or tomatoes stuffed with rice.
- Were you overly ambitious when you went apple picking? Use up your stash by making applesauce or apple butter, which can be stored for months. And don't forget about apple muffins, crisps, and pies. This advice isn't just for apples. Transform any abundant fruit into delicious baked goods.
Freeze before you toss
We all know you can freeze meat, casseroles, and other meals. Here are some items you might not have considered:
- Store extra waffles and pancakes in the freezer, and pull them out when you want a healthy, inexpensive, and quick breakfast.
- Pour leftover coffee in ice cube trays. Use the cubes to enhance the flavor of iced coffee or to cool down coffee that's too hot.
- Don't toss leftover chopped onions or peppers. Freeze them and use them the next time you make a meal that requires those ingredients.
- Keep a container in your freezer to store parts of veggies that you don't typically use such as trimmed ends of onions, carrots, and celery. When you have a good amount saved up, boil them in water for a homemade stock. Carnivores can keep a bag of unused chicken parts or bones in the freezer to add to the pot.
No one wants to eat unsafe food, but it's a good idea to understand what expiration dates mean because, in most cases, they indicate quality, not safety. The "use by" date indicates the last day an unopened item is at peak quality (taste, texture, nutritional value, etc.).
The "sell by" date tells stores when to remove a product from the shelf because quality will begin to decline. Milk, for example, will remain safe to drink for about a week after the "sell by" date if it's refrigerated properly. Of course, it's wise to smell it before you drink it just to make sure.
Think beyond eating
Mix overripe fruit, such as avocados, with honey, eggs, yogurt, oatmeal, or other pantry items, to create homemade facial masks.
Or combine fruit that's past its prime with soil to nourish your plants instead of relying on chemical fertilizer.
Give to others
Donate non-perishable items that you're not going to eat (such as an unopened box of granola bars or cereal that your child decides she no longer likes) to a local food bank.
Search the Feeding America website to find food banks near you.
Environmental journalist Lori Bongiorno shares green-living tips and product reviews with Yahoo! Green's users. Send Lori a question or suggestion for potential use in a future column. Her book, Green Greener Greenest: A Practical Guide to Making Eco-smart Choices a Part of Your Life is available on Yahoo! Shopping and Amazon.com.