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Food waste is a big problem. These small changes can help

There are steps you can take to reduce food waste while prepping, shopping and cooking.
Yuki Iwamura
/
AFP via Getty Images
There are steps you can take to reduce food waste while prepping, shopping and cooking.

Updated January 11, 2023 at 6:01 AM ET

Tossing those unwanted leftovers or unused ingredients into the trash doesn't just hurt your wallet — it also costs the climate.

Over one-third of the food produced in the United States is never eaten, and food waste is the single most common material landfilled and incinerated across the nation, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

When food is wasted, so are the natural and human resources that go into producing, processing, transporting, preparing and storing it. Those processes generate significant carbon dioxide emissions, which is a major driver of climate change.

A 2021 EPA report estimates that U.S. food loss and waste produces the equivalent of the annual carbon dioxide emissions of 42 coal-fired power plants, and enough water and energy to supply more than 50 million homes. And that's not including the impact of food that rots in landfills, producing methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas

Nearly a decade ago, federal agencies set a goal of cutting U.S. food waste in half by 2030 — a benchmark that is hurtling ever closer. And now is as good a time as any to reduce waste, thanks to soaring grocery prices.

The USDA says the best way to reduce food waste "is to not create it in the first place." But what does that actually entail?

Morning Edition spoke with Dzung Lewis and Emmy Cho, both chefs and YouTubers, about small steps people can take at the supermarket and in the kitchen to eat more sustainably — and creatively. Here are their tips:

Before you shop

When picking out recipes and making shopping lists, start by surveying what's already in your fridge, says Lewis, the host of the YouTube cooking channel Honeysuckle.

"Try to look around your kitchen and see what you can make with it before heading to the grocery store and buying everything you see on a recipe list, because so many things can be substituted with what you already have," she explains.

In other words, you don't have to stick exactly to the recipe if it means buying a brand new jar of something that'll just end up sitting in the back of the fridge. If you won't have a regular use for that particular product, she says, just swap it out for something else.

For example: If the recipe calls for a lemon and you don't have one, go with an acid you already have in the pantry, like vinegar. You can find more expert advice in NPR's guide to food substitutions.

"Just being more resourceful with what you have ... and being creative with what you have is a skill that I think a lot of us kind of under-utilize," Lewis says.

Before you cook

Cho, host of the YouTube channel EMMYMADE, says her most common food-waste pitfall is one likely shared by many.

"I'll buy a bunch of items and then put them in my refrigerator and then I'll have a beet that's languishing in the corner of my crisper drawer or my cilantro is wilting or melting in my bag in the bottom of my fridge ... because I simply forgot about it," she says, calling it an issue of space management.

So, armed with glass containers and dry-erase markers, she came up with a better system for keeping track of what's in the fridge. She says labeling allows her to quickly assess which ingredients she's working with, then figure out how to use them.

"Not only is it a great way to reinvent or create a recipe, but it's also a great way just to use up what you've got in the refrigerator, which is super, super satisfying and cost-effective," Cho says.

While cooking

Once you have the ingredients you need, make sure you're using them to the fullest extent.

For one, that means using all parts of the vegetable, says Lewis, reminding people that broccoli stems are "perfectly edible" and carrot tops "make a wonderful stir-fry." You can also give vegetables a second life by pickling them.

"And that's something that I've started doing a lot more in my kitchen, like a red onion, if I have half of it that I'm not going to be using, for example, I'll pickle it," Lewis adds. "And pickled onions [are] great on an avocado toast. It just has that extra sourness, and you're not wasting your food."

Cho also recommends repurposing scraps, especially if you can't compost. She'll throw potato and carrot peelings, garlic and other "little snippets" into a Ziploc bag to use for stock, for example. And she's had luck getting her cilantro to last longer by storing it in a cup of water in the fridge.

When trying new things

Reducing waste doesn't have to put an end to eating at restaurants or trying new recipes, though Cho and Lewis do have tips for how to go about that in a more environmentally friendly way.

Lewis says she gets inspired by the food she eats at restaurants, and will generally try to recreate some form of it in her own kitchen later. And often, thanks to the large portion sizes at most restaurants, she can do that using the leftovers.

Take a takeout container of carnitas, for example.

"So what I like to do is bring it home, maybe for lunch or maybe for breakfast, recreate it in my own way," Lewis says. "What I would do with it is make it into like an Asian spin, a kimchi fried rice with carnitas, top an egg with it, and then my pickled onion that I mentioned earlier."

At the end of the day, Cho says it's important to be practical and realistic about what you like to eat — especially now, as people may be looking to start the new year off on a healthier note.

But if you don't love kale, she points out, you might not end up finishing — or even eating — that bunch you just bought.

"If you do want to try things, I would recommend or consider buying things loosely," Cho suggests.

So instead of getting a full package of things like carrots or Brussels sprouts, consider going for a few individual items from the shelf. It might really pay off.

The audio for this story was produced by Karan Chaudhary and Chad Campbell, and edited by Miranda Kennedy.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.