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Why Americans Throw Away a Quarter of the Food They Buy

Are you going to eat that?

Probably not, if the stats on wasted food are any indication. Americans throw away roughly a quarter of the food we buy, says author Jonathan Bloom, who explores our excessiveness in American Wasteland.

“For a family of four, a pretty conservative estimate is that they’re throwing away $2,200 a year in food,” he says.

In earlier columns, we’ve explored some ways to reduce your waste, from produce freshness to finding creative uses for scraps and near-expired fridge goods. But it’s not enough, if you really want to save.

Frugal Foodie talked to Bloom about what attitudes American cooks need to shift to get more for our money and waste less:

Frugal Foodie: Which part of the food-waste problem prompted you to write the book?

Bloom: Seeing food that was recovered. I volunteered at this food-recycling group DC Central Kitchen , which turns surplus from supermarkets, restaurants and catering companies into meals for homeless shelters, rehab groups and after-school programs. Having the chance to look around at all these delicious, healthy foods that otherwise would have been thrown out got me thinking about how much food isn’t saved. I began to research the topic and the more I looked, the more I noticed things being thrown out. It doesn’t make sense ethically, economically, or environmentally.

Talk to me more about that environmental impact.

There are two main things. First there are resources that we’ve squandered; the oil and the water that go into producing our food. We spoil about 40% of what we grow, which means those resources go for naught. That percentage never going to go to zero, but we can certainly do a lot better. The other environmental impact is the methane that’s released when food ends up in a landfill. That goes into the air and creates a very, very harmful greenhouse gas. We’re basically creating climate change from our waste bins.

What shocked you the most?

The commonplace nature of waste in our lives — a lot of people think about waste at restaurants and supermarkets, but they don’t turn the lens on themselves. A quarter of the food we bring into our homes, we don’t use. That, to me, was just staggering.

That’s a lot! What are we doing wrong that we’re wasting that much food?

The overarching problem is that we’re not valuing our food enough, because food is still fairly cheap. When you look at food spending in relation to disposable spending, it’s at an all-time low. We’re buying too much, partly because we can afford to, partly because we don’t want the sight of an empty fridge. We guarantee waste by keeping our fridges well stocked. That ties in to another real pitfall, that people know that they should be eating fresh foods and cooking for themselves, but they don’t have the kind of lifestyles where they can do it. But they still end up buying those foods and not being completely realistic.

Sort of like how plenty of people here in New York never cook at home but we have a fridge full of food.

That’s right. You get all the ingredients for this ambitious recipe to make Wednesday night, but then you get out of work at 7 p.m. and you’re picking up a pizza on the way home. That ambitious meal gets pushed to tomorrow, and tomorrow again until it seems like tomorrow never arrives.

Then we throw out that chicken or whatever, and buy another, and the cycle perpetuates?

Exactly.

When we do eat out, what can we do to be less wasteful?

Before you order, ask how big the portions are especially if it’s somewhere you haven’t been. Most restaurants give you way more than you need. Portion size is more important to know if you’re traveling and you can’t bring home leftovers. If you are in a position do so, ask them to box up your leftovers, or bring your own container. That food is something you’re paid for and can save you not just money but time the next day in serving up another meal.

You should take the breadbasket, too, right?

Yes, by law they’re supposed to throw it out, so you might as well. Some folks feel a little sheepish doing that but, it’s either that or you watch them throw it in the trash.

What do consumers do that we think saves money, but is really wasteful?

We ultimately lose money on those deals at the supermarket that encourage us to buy more. It’s the idea of saving, but you’re buying things you wouldn’t have bought anyway, and you won’t use them. It’s better to steer clear and buy only what you need.

How about in the kitchen?

Serve reasonable-sized portions so you don’t have as much plate waste and use your leftovers. A lot of people are good at the former, but not at the latter. Be aware of the time built into expiration dates when you’re looking in the fridge, too. It’s not the ultimate arbiter of freshness.

I understand there’s a pretty big difference between sell by and use by.

Best by, too. Sell by is meant to tell retailers how long they should display it for. That date is meant to give us a week to bring it home and eat it within a week for maximum freshness. Best by is in the middle of sell by and use by for freshness. All the terms have some degree of wiggle room and they don’t refer to food safety concerns as much as when things are going to taste their best. That’s where a little bit of food know-how comes into play.

What needs to happen for people to change their habits?

My realistic side thinks that it’s going to be driven by economics. If food becomes so expensive that we actually feel the effect when we waste it, that’s going to have an impact. It goes hand in hand with eating better food, buying locally or organic. If you are saying, “I value this more and it’s worth paying a little more for,” then you’re probably going to have more of a drive to use that food. The example I like to point to is, if you’re buying a whole chicken at the farmer’s market and it costs $20, you’re going to make sure you use it. But if it’s a $4 or $5 bird from the supermarket, if you get to it, great, if not, no big deal. My optimistic side would also point to people hopefully being more aware of the importance of not wasting and some of the ramifications of throwing away food.

How have you changed your habits since writing the book?

I’ve tried to be more efficient in my kitchen. Specifically, I make smaller, more frequent shopping trips. I try to be fairly nimble so that if I have an extra of one ingredient I can incorporate it into the next night’s dinner. If I have a half of a red pepper, say, that I need to use, then I’ll make a pasta dish and put it in that. I’ve also started composting to keep that food out of the landfill. With composting you’re using the nutrients from those foods and starting the cycle again.

Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner. Chat with her on Twitter through @MintFoodie .