What's in your trash? A few moldy apples, half a can of spoiled tomato paste, limp veggies, Saturday's leftovers? That might not seem like much, but it adds up: The average household creates about 1.28 pounds of daily waste, equal to 14 percent of the family's food purchases.
It's bad enough that discarded items take up space in landfills. But rotting food also releases methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
The good news: We can reduce food waste. Here, experts tell us how to shop and eat a little more carefully.
1. Watch Your Trash
For one week, take note of what's in your trash. Don't just look at it, but analyze everything that goes in the bin or down the disposal. (If you're really serious, you might jot down your observations in a notebook.)
Then adjust your habits. If you threw away half a box of stale cereal, either buy a smaller box or store cereal in an airtight container immediately after opening. If week-old leftovers are still taking up real estate, prepare less next time or make a more conscious effort to eat the remainder (for instance, pack it in your lunch bag and leave a note reminding yourself to take it to work).
"When you pinpoint why and what you toss, you can make changes to your behavior," says Jonathan Bloom of wastedfood.com.
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2. Reorganize the Fridge
Keep an orderly fridge, and you won't push ingredients to the back and forget them. "Knowing what you have is more important than you think," Bloom says.
In addition to cleaning out the fridge once a week, keep leftovers as well as odds and ends (half-eaten onions or sweet potatoes) in sight. Bloom stores them in clear plastic containers and then places them in the front upside down, since "it's easier to see the contents."
3. Take Smaller Portions
Before you dish out another restaurant-sized portion at home, ask yourself if you really will finish what's on your plate (or, for that matter, if you should). Since it's unlikely you'll save that piece of nibbled-on casserole, stick to smaller portions; you can always get seconds.
4. Be Flexible with Produce
Declare one dinner a use-it-up meal, suggests ecologist and chef Aaron French, designing it around things that are about to go bad. Casseroles, frittatas, soups, and smoothies are all forgiving dishes that embrace food that's close to turning, like overripe bananas, limp asparagus, or slightly wilted carrots.
"Imperfect doesn't mean inedible," Bloom says. Just cut the bruises off fruits and veggies; if they're moldy, though, it's time for the trash. Same goes for bread. Moldy cheese? Cut 1 inch around the unpleasantness and save the rest.
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5. Check Your Settings
Setting your fridge at 39 degrees can help keep foods safe, says Angela Fraser, associate professor at Clemson University. Studies show that the average person's fridge tends to be too warm, encouraging faster spoilage. A fridge thermometer will ensure it stays at the right setting.
6. Freeze Your Leftovers
If you know you won't get to those leftovers soon, store them in individual servings, which will make thawing easier, and cover them in freezer-grade wrap.
Extra ingredients, like broth or tomato paste, can be frozen in ice cube trays to be used later as a base for sauces. Nuts, which eventually turn rancid when stored at room temperature, get a long life in the freezer, since the cold stabilizes their oils. If you have extra fruit, store it in the freezer, too.
And just like the fridge, freezers tend to be too warm: Make sure yours is set at zero degrees.
7. Shop More Often
If you do one sweeping shopping trip per week, your fruits and veggies will go bad long before you have a chance to eat them. Try supplementing your major weekly shop with a couple of small trips to restock produce.
8. Buy Local
Broccoli in the produce aisle has already endured a trip of at least 7 to 10 days -- that's half its life span.
It would be nice if we all lived in California, where there's an abundance of in-season produce year-round. But the rest of us can still make a commitment to shop as locally as possible, so we're purchasing perishables that last longer, says Marion Nestle, Ph.D., professor of nutrition at New York University and author of "What to Eat."
9. Plan Ahead
You had high hopes for that ratatouille made from scratch -- but then a late night at the office foils your good intentions. "The reality is, life happens, and we want a 10-minute meal," French says.
So before you hit the store, look at the calendar and develop a weekly menu around your schedule, flagging days you're more likely to be able to cook. Plan three or four days to make recipes and two to eat leftovers; reserve one or two "free" days for impromptu events, like dinner with friends.
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10. Rethink Quantity
Shop at the deli counter or in the bulk aisle so you can buy precisely what you need. Do you never finish that full pound of turkey? Ask for five slices instead. Want pumpkin seeds for a muffin recipe? Scoop out the exact quantity from a bin instead of buying a whole package that will go rancid in your pantry.
According to a 2009 study from the Bulk Is Green Council, you can save an average of 35 percent by just buying what you need.
11. Learn Label Lingo
"Sell-by" or "use-by" dates don't always mean "toss-by." The sell-by date is the last recommended day you should buy a product in the store, but you can eat it several days to a week after. "Use-by" is the date through which the item will be top-quality.
However, "if stored properly, most foods stay fresh several days longer than the use-by date, even meat," says Fraser. "I've eaten plenty of foods past the date."
Of course, if you note any off odors, textures, or colors, don't risk it. And you never want to use baby formula past its date. (For a handy food storage guide, check out stilltasty.com.)
12. Have a Plan B
Itching to try out a new green curry recipe? The first hurdle is to actually make it. In a study by Brian Wansink, director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, more than 50 percent of thrown-away food items were purchased for a specific meal or special occasion that never happened. To avoid abandoning cabinet castaways, have a backup plan handy. For example, before you buy okra for a soup, think about how you might roast it instead.
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