Wasted food is a bigger problem than most of us realize. Globally, about one-third of food products end up in the trash every year, which is why taking simple steps to prevent food waste can impact environmental sustainability (1).
While food is wasted at all stages in our food system— from the field to the plate — food wasted at home is the single largest contributor (2). When food goes to waste, all the resources that were used to produce it are also wasted, including water, land, and energy. That’s why reducing food waste in your home is among the most powerful steps you can take to reduce your environmental footprint.
Study: Food Waste and Healthy Diets
Those who choose healthy diets may have the greatest opportunity to impact the problem of food waste, as suggested by the results of a recent scientific study. Researchers examined food waste and its relationship to diet quality and environmental sustainability (3). Their data revealed that between 2007 and 2014, consumers wasted almost one pound of food per person every day. Most of the waste, 39%, came from uneaten fruits and vegetables, followed by smaller amounts of dairy, meat, and grains (3). The researchers estimated that over 800 calories’ worth of food per person was thrown in the trash each day.
Consumers’ food waste equates to about 30 million acres of cropland used each year to grow food that is ultimately thrown away. This amount of farmland requires 780 million pounds of pesticides, 5.5 billion pounds of fertilizer, and 4 trillion gallons of irrigation water, according to the researchers’ analysis (3).
How Does Food Waste Relate to Diet Quality?
Healthier diets are commonly associated with better environmental sustainability. However, the results of this study revealed a relationship between better diet quality and greater amounts of food waste that had not been accounted for in previous research (3).
A high-quality diet is rich in fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables generally require less cropland compared to other foods but greater agricultural inputs per unit of land, such as more water or fertilizer. Unfortunately, fruits and vegetables are the foods most commonly wasted by consumers (3).
One of the key messages of this study is that those who choose healthy diets can also have the greatest positive impact on environmental sustainability by taking small steps to reduce food waste.
Simple Steps, Big Impact
There’s a lot you can do in your own kitchen to reduce food waste and your environmental footprint. Here are four simple steps to help you get started.
1. Take Stock
Shop in your own cupboards and refrigerator before you head out to the store. By taking a mental inventory of the foods you have at home, you will be able to buy only what you need and use up what you already have on hand.
2. Make a Plan
Making a meal plan is one of the simplest ways to prevent waste. When you decide what will be on your menu ahead of time, you’ll know exactly what ingredients you need. You’ll also save time trying to figure out what’s for dinner every night or rushing to the store for last-minute ingredients.
3. Shop With a List
Research suggests that many people buy much more food than they need (2). This is one reason that such a large proportion of the waste that occurs in our food system happens at home. Make a shopping list based on your meal plan, and stick to your list.
4. Prep Like a Pro
When it comes to your refrigerator, what’s out of sight is out of mind. Cleaning, preparing, and storing fresh produce so it’s easy to see and ready to use is one way to keep fruits and vegetables from being forgotten at the bottom of your crisper drawer. This can also help you eat more fruits and vegetables every day.
A surprising amount of food goes to waste each year, unnecessarily depleting water, land, and other resources. If you eat a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables, you can make an important contribution to environmental sustainability by reducing food waste in your own home.
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Global food losses and food waste – Extent, causes and prevention. Rome. 2011.
- De Laurentiis V, Corrado S, Sala S. Quantifying household waste of fresh fruit and vegetables in the EU. Waste Manag. 2018 Jul;77:238-251. doi:10.1016/j.wasman.2018.04.001.
- Conrad Z, Niles MT, Neher DA, Roy ED, Tichenor NE, Jahns L. Relationship between food waste, diet quality, and environmental sustainability. Marelli B, ed. PLoS ONE. 2018;13(4):e0195405. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0195405.