Reducing food waste at home
Edible food that is thrown away or becomes spoiled, along with food scraps such as banana peels and watermelon rinds, make up the largest amount of waste sent to Wisconsin landfills. Making small changes to how food is handled at home can significantly impact this amount, save valuable resources and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Prevention has the most impact
In addition to saving landfill space and generating fewer greenhouse gasses, preventing food waste also keeps the land, water, energy and labor that went into producing the food from going to waste.
Your household can benefit economically when you take action to prevent food waste. A 2020 study conducted by Penn State estimated households lose $1,866 a year on food that's thrown out. Check out the following actions to reduce food waste at home.
- Shopping with a plan and preparing for gatherings
Tips for routine meal planning
Purchasing more food than what is needed often leads to more food waste.
- Take inventory: Determine what food you already have at home, what needs to be used soon and how much space you have for new items.
- Plan meals: Use online tools to calculate how much of each ingredient to buy based on how many servings you need.
- Make a list: Save time and reduce impulse buys by skipping aisles with unwanted items.
- Eat before shopping: Hungry shoppers are more likely to make extra purchases. This goes for the kids, too!
- Deal-breaker: Buying in bulk is worth it only if you can use all the food in a timely manner.
- Track the excess: After a few grocery trips, take note of what goes uneaten and cut back on buying those items.
Tips for gatherings
- Get a headcount: Use online calculators to determine how much food you need based on your number of guests. Create a menu that accommodates dietary restrictions rather than making extra alternatives. Save the Food's Guest-Imator can help.
- Build a buffet: Let guests dish their own plates to avoid overserving. Making pre-cut foods mini can also help guests grab the right portion.
- Fill when empty: Open extra packaged food only if the first round has run out.
- Potluck partnership: If guests are contributing to the meal, fill them in on how they can help reduce waste, too.
- Store and share: Put leftovers in containers to eat later or send home with guests who want them. If you have lots of extras, consider sharing with the neighborhood or office or donating the leftovers.
- Storing food to extend its life
Storing food in the best manner for that food type can go a long way to reducing food waste and saving the time and money associated with additional grocery store runs. Save the Food's Store It guide is an excellent tool for learning the detailed recommendations for food items you buy the most or have the most challenging time keeping fresh.
Below are some more general rules to keep in mind. Remember to hold off on washing produce before you store it.
Location Food items A cool, dry place Garlic, onions, potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash The countertop until ripe; once ripe, place in refrigerator Avocados, bananas, mangos, kiwis, peaches, pears, melons, oranges, tomatoes The refrigerator in a container with vents that allows moisture to escape Berries, cherries, grapes The refrigerator in a paper bag to absorb moisture Mushrooms The refrigerator in a high-humidity crisper drawer to slow wilting Beans, beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, celery, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, peas, peppers, zucchini The refrigerator in a drawer away from other produce to contain ethylene gas given off that speeds ripening Apples, counter fruits moved to the refrigerator The refrigerator in an airtight container with damp towels Asparagus, herbs, leafy greens The freezer Nuts, seeds, and any produce, meat, seafood, tempeh, tofu, seitan, breads, baked goods and herbs you do not plan to use quickly
Additional tips for opened items
- Store cupboard items in an airtight container if they typically turn stale before you can finish them. Clear containers and labels will help you keep track of the repackaged items.
- Keep cheese blocks and other tightly wrapped items in their packaging and place the entire item in an airtight container once opened to extend its life.
- Freeze what you can't use immediately. Once opened, you can freeze many items such as tomato sauce, pizza sauce, pesto, curry paste, tomato paste, broth, buns and baked goods.
- Dairy products and alternatives can be frozen with no food safety concerns but may result in some changes in texture. Consider freezing leftover buttermilk, yogurt, coconut milk, nut milk and more for when they will be cooked, baked or blended.
- Color or color changes are not always an indication that meat is unsafe. Check for an off odor or change in texture to indicate spoilage. Using a meat thermometer is the best way to determine if food has been heated to a safe temperature. For more information, visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) The Color of Meat and Poultry webpage.
- Using recipe generators and ingredient substitution tools
Finding recipes to use up food
Recipe generators can be a big help when faced with leftovers, an abundance of garden goods or food that's about to spoil. Simply enter your ingredients (one or many) and it will generate recipes to help you use those items. Search "recipe generator based on ingredients" to find some options.
Here are a few examples of free recipe generator websites and smartphone apps:
- Foodcombo website [exit DNR]
- MyFridgeFood website and app [exit DNR]
- SuperCook website and app [exit DNR]
- Magic Fridge app [exit DNR]
- Allrecipes Dinner Spinner app [exit DNR]
- Tasty website [exit DNR]
There are also several go-to recipes that help use up foods before they go bad.
- Soups, stews or chili
- Hot dishes or casseroles
Ingredient substitution tools
Ingredient swapping is a great way to repurpose food odds and ends and avoid being unable to finish a recipe due to missing a key ingredient. Search "ingredient swap" to find suitable substitutions. Allrecipes has compiled a comprehensive list of common ingredient substitutions.
A few commons ingredient swaps include:
- Broth or apple cider vinegar for wine
- Milk and butter for heavy cream
- Lemon or lime juice for vinegar
- Applesauce for vegetable oil (in baking)
- Yogurt for sour cream (and vice versa)
Another swapping option is tweaking a recipe for your flavor preferences or with what you have on hand. You can swap various extracts when baking (vanilla, almond, orange, etc.), grains when coating or topping foods (breadcrumbs, crushed cereals, crackers or chips) or mix-ins when baking (dried fruit, nuts, candies and baking chips).
- Understanding date labels and when food items are actually unsafe
Confused by date labels on foods? What does it all mean?
Not as much as you may think. Date labels are NOT regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or any other federal agency. Manufacturers apply date labels at their own discretion.
The one exception is infant formula products, which are required to have a "Use By" date up to which the manufacturer guarantees the nutritional value stated on the product label. However, for all other products, the manufacturer selects the date label based on an estimate of best quality and not based on food safety.
The FDA advises consumers to examine foods to determine if the quality is sufficient for use. Given that nothing substantial occurs on that date, relying on your eyes and an old-fashioned sniff test is a better indicator of the suitability of food for your use and could help you avoid disposing of healthy and safe food.
The USDA's FoodKeeper app also offers specific storage timelines for the refrigerator, freezer and pantry for many opened and unopened food items.
Diverting food waste from landfills
When waste prevention isn't possible, diverting food waste from landfills is the next best option. Landfills emit greenhouse gasses as waste breaks down. In 2020, an estimated 615,500 tons of wasted food and 238,500 tons of food scraps were disposed of in Wisconsin landfills. Keeping this amount out of landfills saves the equivalent in greenhouse gas emissions as taking 592,035 passenger vehicles off the road for a year.
Composting at home or through a subscription service
Consider home composting for food materials such as peels and rinds, eggshells and coffee grounds. If home composting isn't possible for you, subscription services could be your solution. Wisconsin has several services that pick up compostable food waste and food scraps for a fee.
Donating food for those in need is a great way to keep edible food out of the garbage. Be sure to check with your county health department and nearby food banks to get local information about how to donate food safely and what is accepted.
Both state and federal laws protect food donors from liability. The federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act encourages the donation of food and grocery products to nonprofit organizations for distribution to needy individuals. The law protects donors from civil and criminal liability should a fit and wholesome product donated in good faith later cause harm to a recipient.
Wisconsin law, s. 895.51, Wis. Stats., also provides protection to any person engaged in the processing, distribution or sale of food products, for-profit or not-for-profit, who donates or sells qualified food to a charitable organization or food distribution service. They would be immune from civil liability for the death of or injury to any individual caused by the qualified food donated or sold by the person.
The DNR periodically commissions studies to assess what is being landfilled across the state. The most recent study, conducted in 2020-2021, found that food waste and food scraps dominated what was being disposed of in Wisconsin landfills. The DNR created an infographic of the results, which describes several findings related to food waste.
- 2020-2021 Waste Characterization Study reports and images
- What Ends Up in Wisconsin Landfills? infographic
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has published several webpages and resources related to residential food waste.