Honor Earth Day by cutting food waste

This Earth Day — April 22 — you don’t have to leave your kitchen to start living more sustainably, says an expert with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension.

Consumers can help the environment by taking a closer look at the food they throw away, said Heidi Copeland, family and consumer sciences agent with UF/IFAS Extension Leon County.

“A surprising amount of food produced in the United States — between 30 to 40 percent — goes uneaten. It takes energy, water and farmland to grow, transport and store food, so wasted food translates into wasted natural resources,” Copeland said.

For consumers, wasted food also means wasted dollars, Copeland said.

According to a survey by the UF/IFAS Center for Public Issues Education, 60 percent of Floridians are concerned or extremely concerned about food waste in their home, with fresh fruits, vegetables and dairy products being the most common type of wasted food.

“There are many reasons why we waste food. Spoiled food is a big proportion of what gets thrown out, but food will stay fresher longer if it’s properly stored and handled. Our approach to purchasing food also impacts whether it gets used,” Copeland said.

Copeland recommends a few practical steps to reduce food waste in your home.

  1. Learn how long different foods stay fresh.

Curious about whether that unopened package of cheese is still fresh? The FoodKeeper app developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture can tell you how long food stays fresh under various storage conditions, Copeland said. This app also includes safe cooking instructions for products such as poultry, meat and seafood.

  1. Don’t throw something out just because it’s past the date on the package.

Labels such as “expires,” “best by,” “sell by” or “use by” refer to quality, not safety, Copeland said.

“Manufacturers use these labels to tell consumers and stores when a product is at peak quality. However, food products are safe to consume past the date printed on the item, so long as they don’t show signs of spoilage, such as an off odor, flavor or texture,” Copeland said.

Federal law only mandates that baby food and formula be dated to ensure that these products are used when they are most nutritious, Copeland said.

  1. Plan how you’ll use what you buy.

When you’re grocery shopping, it’s easy to grab what looks appealing without considering how you’ll use it once you get home, Copeland said. “Planning out your meals ahead of time and just buying the ingredients for those meals will help prevent food going to waste,” she said.

  1. Buy local.

Food often travels a long way to get to consumers, but if you buy from local producers, you’ll know that fewer resources probably went into bringing that food to market, Copeland said.

  1. Plan for — and eat — leftovers.

Cooking more food than will be eaten in one sitting is fine so long as you know that the leftovers will be put to good use, Copeland said. In fact, if you plan well, buying and cooking food in bulk can be a great way to save money.

  1. Prepare and consume healthy serving sizes.

“ChooseMyPlate.gov provides a great visual representation of the food groups each of us needs on our plates. Serving just enough can help our wallet and our waistline,” said Copeland.