How Your Family Can Reduce Food Waste

Mom and daughter cooking together

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According to a USDA report, 30% to 40% of the food supply is wasted. This alarmingly high number piles up to 161 billion dollars worth of food annually. In 2015, a goal was set to cut the amount of food waste in half by 2030, but there’s undoubtedly a need for families to get started now.

I recently set out to reduce food waste in my house, and the impression it left on my family has been remarkable. Take action in your household by adopting some of these food (and money) saving strategies.

How to Get Started

It’s a normal reflex to buy the same groceries each week, but this can often lead to overbuying things you already have. Before sitting down to make your weekly grocery list, dig through the pantry, fridge, and freezer, and see what you can do with what’s on hand. Clear out foods that are spoiled, stale, and expired, and then take inventory of all the items you should be using but aren’t.

Next comes some meal planning. Instead of scurrying to the store or ordering pizza at the last minute, reducing food waste works best with a little preparation.

Now it is time to make your grocery list! Decide what perishable items you need to help fortify what you have in the house. My list included eggs, milk, bananas, some paper towels, and a 5-pound raw, whole chicken (more on that shortly). For my family of five, this came out to about $80.

Get started with these three simple steps:

  • Step 1: Take inventory of what you have.
  • Step 2: Plan out meals using those foods.
  • Step 3: Make a targeted shopping list to help execute your plan.

What to Eat

I was pretty impressed with our week of meals. Here are some highlights.

  • I dug in the freezer and found pancakes for breakfast and rolls for sandwiches (BLTs with tomatoes from the garden)—bread freezes beautifully—just toast or pop in the oven to defrost.
  • I make pizza every Friday night, and the homemade dough is a big money saver. I used the leftover dough to make mini pizzas for the kids’ lunches and garlic knots for a dinner side dish.
  • If you can stuff it in a quesadilla, my kids will eat it. Another take on this classic finger food is to layer the ingredients in a baking dish. We lovingly call this "quesadilla lasagna."
  • No onions, no problem. Scallions from the CSA worked beautifully in a skillet of sausage and peppers using chicken sausage from the freezer. I made a chopped salad with what—in this case, it was tomatoes, avocado, black beans, bell peppers, lime juice, and olive oil.
  • Pizza Fridays NEVER get old. I look through the fridge and use up whatever veggies I have on hand for toppings.
  • Sunday dinner was the kick-off—a roasted chicken with veggies from my community supported agriculture (CSA). Leftovers turned into chicken stock for soup and sandwiches later in the week.
  • We turned stale bread and a few eggs into breakfast casserole cups (these are also great for brunch). Freeze the leftovers and pop in the microwave for breakfast on a busy weekday morning.

Lessons Learned

The week was much easier than I expected, plus it felt so good knowing we were cutting back on waste. Every week may not look like this one, but I've adopted some reasonable strategies to use going forward. Here are a few:

  • I buy too many salty snacks - My kids survived just fine when the goldfish supply ran dry. We opted for trail mix, hummus, olives, and unopened boxes of whole-grain snacks hiding in the back of the pantry.
  • My freezer game is strong - Chicken, sausage, and pesto came out, overripe bananas went in. Utilizing the freezer is KEY to reducing food waste.
  • Saving food saves money - I knew this already, but it felt so good to stretch my dollar, and I saved more than 300 bucks!
  • Smoothies SAVE breakfast - All kinds of ingredients get new life when a high-speed blender gets involved (pour leftovers into popsicles molds and freeze—an extra waste reduction).
  • Think outside the (cereal) box - When you’ve got a bunch of boxes with scraps of cereal, make my Unicorn Cereal Treats (recipe below).
  • Whole chicken is the way to go - Between soup, salad, and sandwiches, I got more than six different meals for my crew out of a 5-pound bird!

Waste Reducing Recipes

Experiment with these recipes and make them your own. Many can easily be adjusted for the foods you have on hand.

Breakfast Casserole Cups

(Serves 6)

  • 5 slices whole-grain crusty bread, cubed
  • 3 ounces breakfast sausage (I love Applegate brand), thawed and chopped
  • 6 large eggs
  • ½ cup half & half
  • ¼ cup fresh basil leaves
  • ¾ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
  • 1 cup chopped tomato
  1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
  2. Spray a 12-cup muffin pan with non-stick spray.
  3. Evenly distribute bread and sausage in each cup; set aside.
  4. In a blender, combine eggs, half & half, and basil; season with salt and pepper. Blend for 30 seconds.
  5. Pour egg mixture into the muffin pan, filling each cup about two-thirds of the way; sprinkle with cheese and tomato.
  6. Bake for 15 minutes or until eggs are set.
  7. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for at least 15 minutes before serving.

Banana Date Smoothie

(Serves 2)

  • 2 ripe bananas
  • 4 dates, pitted and roughly chopped
  • ¼ cup walnuts
  • 1 cup low-fat milk
  • Ice

Combine banana, dates, walnuts, milk, and ice in a blender and blend until smooth.

Quesadilla Lasagna

(Serves 4)

  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • 1 pound ground turkey breast
  • 1⁄2 red onion, finely chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1 small zucchini, sliced
  • 1 yellow bell pepper, chopped
  • 3 whole wheat flour tortillas
  • 1 cup shredded low-fat cheddar cheese
  • 1/4 cup salsa
  1. Preheat oven to 375 F.
  2. Heat olive oil in a large skillet. Add turkey and sauté for 4 to 5 minutes until browned.
  3. Add onion and garlic and cook for an additional 2 minutes.
  4. Season with salt, cumin, and chili powder; stir to combine.
  5. Add zucchini and bell pepper and cook, stirring until turkey meat is no longer pink and vegetables are slightly tender. Turn off the heat and set the skillet aside.
  6. Spray a 9-inch pie plate or square casserole dish with non-stick spray. Place one flour tortilla on the bottom of the pan and top with half the turkey mixture and 1/4 cup cheese.
  7. Create a second layer with another tortilla, and add the remaining turkey mixture and another 1/4 cup of cheese.
  8. Create a top layer with remaining tortilla, salsa, and the remaining cheese.
  9. Bake until cheese is melted, about 15 to 20 minutes.

Allow to cool for 10 minutes before slicing and serving.

Pizza Pockets

(Serves 4)

  • 12 ounces pizza dough
  • 1 cup shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese
  • ½ cup shredded provolone cheese
  • 2 cups cooked vegetables (such as broccoli, kale, mushrooms, and peppers)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Ranch dressing and Marinara sauce, for serving
  1. Preheat oven to 450 F.
  2. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough into a 16-by-12 inch rectangle. Using a paring knife or pizza cutter, divide into 8 squares.
  3. To assemble: Place a small mound of shredded cheese and vegetables in the center of one piece of dough. Gently fold over the filling, creating a pocket and crimp the edges closed using a fork.
  4. Using a paring knife, poke 2 small holes in the top of the pocket to allow steam to escape when cooking.
  5. Transfer to a baking sheet and repeat with remaining pieces of dough.
  6. Brush each pocket with oil and bake for 10 minutes until golden brown; allow to cool for at least 10 minutes.
  • Serve with ranch dressing and marinara for dipping.

Unicorn Cereal Treats

(Makes 12 pieces)

  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 4 cups marshmallows (about ¾ of 10.5 oz bag)
  • 1/4 tsp kosher salt
  • 6 cups assorted whole-grain cereal
  • 2 tablespoons colored sprinkles (optional)
  • Canola oil cooking spray
  1. Spray a 9 x 13 x 2 pan with cooking spray. Set aside.
  2. Melt butter in a soup pot over medium heat.
  3. Add marshmallows and salt and stir with a wooden spoon until melted.
  4. Add cereal and sprinkles (if using) and gently fold until cereal is well coated.
  5. Transfer mixture to prepared pan and press down to flatten using parchment or wax paper.
  6. Allow to cool; cut into squares to serve.
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  1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Food Waste FAQs.