I am not asking for specific diets or reducing plastic waste. Many people may not want to change their diets.

How do people buy food so that they throw away as little food as possible? There must be people out there with systems or calendars that facilitate as little going bad in the fridge as possible. In America we throw away 40% of our food or something. This is not sustainable as food production and transportation accounts for 10% of energy use, and 25% of methane emitted from landfills. Many people don’t have coops nearby, can't afford them, or can only go to the grocery store once a month due to lack of transportation or distance. It gets more complicated with buying organic and local food because it typically doesn't last as long.

Any system or cultural practice (non-dietary) that might reduce this food waste could be helpful.

  • I'm curious about your comment about locally grown food not lasting as long. This has not been my experience, but a few things come to mind - first could it be the varieties local farmers are growing (varieties chosen for flavor over long shelf life)? Could it be the way you are storing them once you get home (do you wrap them in plastic, like the grocery store veggies are wrapped, for example)? Maybe there are ways to solve that problem.
    – michelle
    Feb 17, 2014 at 15:02
  • I guess I was talking more about organic meat which lacks the preservatives etc. But some non-organic/local vegetables are packaged air tight with nitrogen so that they don’t react with oxygen and last longer.
    – Enjabain
    Feb 17, 2014 at 22:18

5 Answers 5

  1. Tune your fridge. We keep ours just barely above freezing. Enough that if we get a package of hamburger out of the freezer it takes several days to thaw in the fridge. We don't throw much away -- about a 2 gallon compost bucket a week, and that includes all the peels.

  2. Plan your meals to use leftovers. We routinely make twice as much rice as that meal needs. Then the rest is used two days later in another meal. My mom made "Everything Soup" once a week. All the leftovers went in it, sometimes as is, sometimes after a pass through the food processor.

  3. Use a freezer. We have two outside on the porch where they barely run in winter. If you use a chest freezer, use crates to keep stuff in the bottom accessible. Do not believe the times claimed for how long stuff keeps. That's only true for the cling film packaged stuff. And it doesn't go bad, it just gets freezer burned. Soup stock.

  4. Feed small amounts of leftovers to pets. Be aware of what's harmful. Not all things good for people are good for fur faces.

  5. Buy in bulk and freeze. This reduces the amount of package waste per portion, and with experience it aslo reduces leftovers -- or you can cook the right amount for 2 meals.

Refining with comments from @Hortsu

  1. Compost everything you can't eat. We don't compost sharp bones. The dogs dig them out of the compost heap. But otherwise, yes.

  2. Purchase in bulk: Costco and bulk barn are your friend. Bulk barn allows you to bring your own containers. They weigh them and put a Tare label on them. You can fill them up, they weigh them, zap the barcode on the tare label, and Bob's your uncle.

  3. Vegan diet: Eating a balanced vegan diet that is also tasty and affordable is hard. This is especially true in northern climates where produce is expensive or unavailable for much of the year. However we have notice that our meat consumption has dropped substantially over the last 3 years.

Adding some more:

  1. Frozen veg is usually cheaper and fresher than fresh produce. In combination with having one or more freezers at home this can reduce shopping trips. We now go grocery shopping once a month.

  2. Start further back in the food chain. Buy chicken breasts, not "Primavera swiss cheese rosemary marinated chicken breasts" Better: Buy whole chickens. Or buy the cuts are not in demand, such as thighs. Work from scratch.

  3. Use a crock pot. Make your beans, peas, lentils, chilli, stew from scratch.

  4. Bake your own bread. Good book, "Artisanal bread in 5 minutes a day"

  5. Containers: The Gold Standard are restaurant 1 gallon jars. These are easy to clean, usually free, and have lids that last for years. The jars are airtight and vermin proof. If you live in humid climate there is merit in transfering crackers from the box into a jar. Metal cookie tins are often available at thrift stores. I don't use 2nd had plastic containers from thrift stores as older plastic may have BPA, formaldehyde, etc from before standards came in.

  • 2
    6. Compost everything you can't eat and can't feed your pets
    – hortstu
    Feb 16, 2014 at 22:05
  • 2
    7. Buy whole foods that aren't wrapped up in large amounts of packaging to reduce waste even further
    – hortstu
    Feb 16, 2014 at 22:06
  • 2
    8. Change your diet. I know you don't want to hear it, but a family going vegan is a bigger deal in terms of pollution than giving up fossil fuel burning.
    – hortstu
    Feb 16, 2014 at 22:07
  • @hortstu all good points, but I specified non-dietary so that this question would be relevant to Vegans and Factory Farm meat eaters alike.
    – Enjabain
    Feb 17, 2014 at 22:20
  • 1
    @Enjabain Understood but if they hear/read it enough it might make a couple more vegetarians/ vegans. Every one makes a difference in someone's life, and if ethics/cruelty reasons doesn't change someone's mind maybe environmental,or political reasons will.
    – hortstu
    Feb 18, 2014 at 5:07

The 40% figure includes not just food thrown out by the end consumer, but also food that spoiled between the time it left the farm and made it to consumers' houses. From what I've read, most of the waste actually happens before the consumer purchases the food.

I am blessed to live in an area with a lot of CSAs and wonderful farmers' markets. It takes a little more work to track down, but we can also find farmers who sell a side of beef, lamb, chickens and fresh eggs. If you're purchasing from a responsible producer who knows the market and is growing based on demand, you have a greater chance of reducing the amount of waste, because you the consumer have the food straight out of the field. If CSAs are an option for you, using one combined with the tips others have given for using everything you buy would make a difference.


For us there are three aspects to it:

  • meal planning. This reduces the "I bought it, but it went bad before I cooked it" waste, and as a side effect makes it simple to know just how old leftovers are. My planning is a piece of paper with 7 horizontal areas on it marked Saturday through Friday, and in each I write that night's meal in as much detail as I feel like (eg once in a while it says Takeout.) Everyone knows what we'll be eating tomorrow, or what to cook tonight, or when this mac and cheese is from.
  • buying non-supermarket food. My Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) food is not packaged at all, and nor has it been washed for me or otherwise used up resources. (I bring egg cartons to the farm for the days I get eggs.) I also happen to know my farmer uses horses instead of tractors and doesn't use chemical fertilizers. My butcher wraps my meat in paper, and it comes into the shop in animal or half-animal pieces, so they aren't getting plastic-wrapped stuff and throwing that wrapping out. I also know they make soup and pies from the trimmings.
  • eating more home-made food. This reduces our packaging tremendously, and also our food waste, because we can make any given meal a little larger or a little smaller according to who is eating it and how hungry we are. It also gives us a way to use things that have only a small amount left - two stalks of asparagus or half an onion - just as a matter of course.

I think also that my attitude to food has changed since I joined the CSA and started shopping at the butcher. I feel worse about wasting food now, so I waste less of it. My garbage has gone to essentially zero and my recycling is less than it was (less cans and jars) while my compost is far more.

(A side note that probably applies only to me - the closest supermarket is about 20 miles away, and my regular supermarket is 40 miles away. The CSA is only 2 miles as the crow flies, 5 miles round trip on our bikes. For me I actually go to the supermarket less often, especially in the summer, than I used to so the CSA is also saving gasoline.)

  • 1
    Hi Kate, welcome to Sustainability.SE. Perhaps it's me being ignorant, but I don't know what CSA is. Could you consider editing your answer to explain it? THanks :-)
    – Flyto
    Feb 26, 2014 at 10:46
  • @Flyto sure. Since it appeared without explanation in an earlier answer on this question, I assumed it was in general use here. Feb 26, 2014 at 14:00
  • Sorry - my fault. They are quite common where I live, and sometimes I forget that it isn't a common acronym everywhere!
    – michelle
    Feb 26, 2014 at 14:48
  1. Use what's in the fridge first, then the freezer, and finally canned or dried goods.
  2. Eat what you can, and what you can't, can. (drying is better, solar dried is best.)
  3. We call it "kitchen sink soup", same idea, once a week make soup with all the little bits of this and that.
  4. I don't know if this applies, but many things you might compost can be planted instead , i.e. potatoes, celery, onions. and those herbs you can buy at the grocery store now with the roots still on them, we have planted many of those successfully.
  • When i was a student we made pancakes out of the leftovers: take whats left in the fridge, chop and slice, add to pancake batter. One thick pancake per person is a whole meal, add molasses and enjoy!
    – Ivana
    May 5, 2019 at 14:41

For canned goods, you can cover them and put them in the fridge rather than throwing out the unused portion.

The most sustainable way is to buy a hand-crank “smooth edge” can opener. They create a reusable lid via the method used to open the can. Electric ones exist as well. They cost the same as regular can openers and are advertised as a cut-proof option, I haven’t actually seen any that acknowledge the reusable lid aspect. Here is an example (don’t mind the price, I’ve only ever seen it for $5-10 at TJ MAXX or Bed Bath and Beyond): https://www.zyliss.com/shop/gadgets-tools/can-openers/safe-edge-can-opener/

Other options are reusable silicone lids (often available for free as “pet food can covers” at the vet or at any event with vendor tables), Saran Wrap, or even putting a plate over the open can.

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