PRiyanka Naik has been looking for creative ways to reduce food waste for as long as she can remember. As a vegan chef, author and TV personality, she often turns kitchen scraps into inventive new dishes and packs up restaurant leftovers — including the bread basket — to take home later. Instead of throwing out the white rice that goes with her takeout meals, which she says she’s “not a big fan of,” she could toss it in a food processor with beans, potatoes and spices and the mixture into patties for vegetarians shape burgers.
From a climate perspective, Naik’s approach makes sense. While food waste is difficult to measure, an estimate by the UN Environment Program found that if food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China and the US.
“Approximately 30 to 40% of the food in the US goes uneaten each year. And about 40% of that waste comes from our homes,” said Andrea Spacht Collins, Sustainable Food Systems Specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
While it’s important to address the systemic factors and business actors that contribute to a wasteful food system, Collins noted that this is an area where customized solutions can really pay off. “Preventing food from becoming waste around the world is the most powerful solution we have right now to address climate change,” she said, citing Project Drawdown research.
Here are expert tips on four ways to reduce food waste at home.
Plan ahead, shop wisely
Food waste prevention can start before you even get to the grocery store or farmer’s market. Collins noted that making a grocery list and sticking to it can help ensure you don’t come home and find you’re missing a key ingredient that will mess up your meal plans and discourage you from using the other ingredients you’ve bought.
Naik added that the American tendency to buy in bulk or try to do a month’s shopping in one go can also lead to over-shopping, which causes food to spoil because it wasn’t used up on time. While noting that different lifestyles allow for different rhythms, she recommended more frequent, smaller grocery purchases rather than a few large ones. She usually tries to shop every Saturday or Sunday to prepare for the week ahead.
Her other recommendation: “Don’t go to the grocery store hungry,” she said, unless you’re about to head home and realize you somehow bought five bags of tomatoes you don’t need. “The state of mind you are in while shopping has a big impact on the outcome.”
Store food properly
“We all know that milk spoils faster if it’s left on the counter. But there are similar tricks you can use to put away your veggies and fruit so they stay good longer,” Collins said.
Referring to the NRDC website savethefood.com as a source for practical tips, she highlighted some of her favorites: storing apples separately from other fruit, as apples release a hormone called ethylene, which causes other produce to spoil more quickly; place fresh herbs, stem side down, in a cup filled with water in the refrigerator, almost like a bouquet; Store mushrooms in paper bags instead of plastic bags to keep them from getting slimy; Place a paper towel in the bag you store your veggies in to absorb excess moisture. and storing bread in the freezer for freshness.
dr Hannah Birgé, a senior agronomist at Nature Conservancy, found that creative approaches to storage not only extend the lifespan of food, but also increase the likelihood that you’ll use what you have. Switching to smaller, clear containers for storing food has helped her family see what they have at a glance, making it less likely to be forgotten in the back of the fridge.
One of the ways people throw away food without realizing it is by not realizing that what they think is inedible might actually be both delicious and nutritious. According to Naik, this is especially true for products.
“Often the skin or leaves of the vegetable are more nutritious than the actual ‘meaty’ part of the vegetable,” she said. Carrot tops, for example, can be repurposed into a delicious pesto, and the pumpkin skin is just as edible as the flesh—the skin softens when sautéed in oil.
In addition to finding uses for every part of the food you have while cooking, Naik also points out that there are endless ways to reuse leftovers so you don’t get too bored with the flavors to finish. Candied yams left over from the holidays can be turned into sweet potato biscuits, cranberry sauce could be used to whip up seasonal cocktails or encased in puff pastry to become delicious hand pies, and (for carnivores, unlike Naik) a turkey scrim and an uneaten filling could be turned into a turkey dumpling soup.
disposal and composting
You don’t necessarily have to throw something away just because the use-by date on the package has passed, Collins said. “Contrary to popular belief, food sell-by dates are not federally regulated, resulting in many foods that are perfectly good being thrown away,” she said. “Your nose and tongue will tell you if things went bad a lot better than the date.”
Still, there will always be some things – think eggshells or banana peels – that you want to throw away. This is where composting comes into play. Whether you have a backyard to dedicate to your own compost pile or a drop-off or pickup service in your city, composting can be a “gamechanger” for reducing emissions, said Dr. Birgé Amount of food going to landfill.
In the end, Collins said, there is no one approach that works for every person or household. “It’s important for everyone to take a critical look at why food is being thrown into our homes and then find a solution that fits that,” she said. “There is an opportunity for each of us to change small behaviors that lead to a big solution.”