Why Do We Waste so Much Food?

Cleaning out my refrigerator this week was not pretty.  I found moldy leftovers, celery that had lost its snap, and cucumbers starting to liquify. Not only was it gross, but I felt really guilty for having wasted all of this food – and money! – on things I didn’t remember to eat before they spoiled.

Turns out households account for the largest percent of food waste from farm to landfill, and according to ReFEd, people in the U.S. throw out an average of $450 per person annually, or $1800 a year for a 4-member family! (1) And USDA says that’s over 400 pounds of food per person each year (2) Food waste also accounts for 2.6% of greenhouse gas emissions (3) and 67% of the freshwater use in the U.S. (4)(5)

There is hope, though – the population of the UK grew 4.5% from 2007 to 2012 but the total demand for food did not increase, indicating that food waste decreased over that time!
food wasting

Now that my fridge is clean(er) and I’ve taken a proper inventory, I’m trying some behavioral science on myself to reduce my food waste. Here are the five tips that I am trying out that could help you cut down on your food waste.

1) Stick to the Shopping List

Implementation intentions are really helpful in executing your goal (aka, consuming your food), so if you don’t have a recipe or a specific meal you’re planning to use it for, it better have a long shelf life. My personal produce-impulse-buy is avocados – I love them and always buy a few when they’re on sale without thinking. But they spoil quickly and there’s no salvaging an avocado past its peak. DON’T DO IT!

2) Rearrange Your Fridge

Adjust the position of items in your fridge so that the things that spoil quickly and the leftovers are in your immediate line of sight. Go ahead and put the beer, soda, and eight kinds of mustard that last forever in the “vegetable” drawers, because that drawer is where vegetables go to rot. Changing this choice architecture can be a huge help to remind you what should get eaten quickly. Pro tip – you can also hide junk food from yourself in those bottom drawers!

3) The “Best If Used by” Date Is a Suggestion

Don’t anchor on it too firmly, it won’t hurt to keep it around longer.  “Use by” is for highly perishable foods so pay closer attention to that date (although personally, I’m convinced that that date doesn’t apply to yogurt). Also interesting – the grocery industry has done great work to reduce food waste recently by simplifying the types of date labels on consumer products – there used to be more than 10 terms used, like “Sell by”, “Expires on”, and “Better if Used By”, but now there are just “Best if used by” and “Use by.”(7)

4) Set a Calendar Reminder

Set a reminder or alarm to go off right before you leave for work so you’ll remember to take your leftovers for lunch! Or put a bright sticky not on the door so you’ll see it as you’re leaving. In the rush to get to work, it’s easy to leave lunch behind and then you’re stuck having to go buy something and waste what’s at home.

5) Default – Freeze It!

If it’s getting close to the expiration, I’m going to make my new default/rule of thumb “just freeze it”. I already do this every time I go on a trip – put milk, fruits, veggies, and bread in the freezer –  so now I’ll try to make it my post-dinner ritual, as well. If it didn’t make it into that night’s meal and it’s getting close, my default is to toss it in the freezer.


So go check out your fridge right now and see what you might be neglecting. If you’re anything like me, the beautiful summer produce at the farmers market is already tempting you to buy lots of unnecessary things. Stay vigilant! You can save yourself money, remorse, and major fridge clean-outs.




  1. (ReFED, A Roadmap to Reduce US Food Waste by 20 Percent, (2016), www. refed.com https://www.refed.com/downloads/ReFED_Report_2016.pdf  and NRDC, WASTED: HOW AMERICA IS LOSING UP TO 40 PERCENT OF ITS FOOD FROM FARM TO FORK TO LANDFILL, (August 2017) https://assets.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/wasted-2017-report.pdf ).
  2. (Jean C. Buzby, Hodan F. Wells, and Jeffrey Hyman, The Estimated Amount, Value, and Calories of Postharvest Food Losses at the Retail and Consumer Levels in the United States, https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/43833/43680_eib121.pdf).
  3. (Martin C.Hellerand Gregory A. Keoleian, “Greenhouse Gas Emission Estimates of U.S. Dietary Choices and Food Loss,” Journal of Industrial Ecology, 19:3 doi. 10.1111/jiec.12174. http://www.civ-viande.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Martin_GHGEEstimates-of-USDietary-Choices_20141.pdf)
  4. (Molly A. Maupin, et al., Estimated use of water in the United States in 2010, U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1405 (2014) https://pubs.usgs.gov/circ/1405/pdf/circ1405.pdf)
  5. WASTED: HOW AMERICA IS LOSING UP TO 40 PERCENT OF ITS FOOD FROM FARM TO FORK TO LANDFILL https://assets.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/wasted-2017-report.pdf
  6. (Tom Quested and Liam Murphy, Household Food and Drink Waste: A Product Focus, The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), (June 2014) P. 23).
  7. https://www.gmaonline.org/news-events/newsroom/grocery-industry-launches-new-initiative-to-reduce-consumer-confusion-on-pr/