Change your shopping habits to reduce food waste

old man carrying grocery bags
CC BY 2.0 Sergio Pani

Shoppers need to think about food waste before they go to the store, rather than figuring out what to do with it at home.

Much discussion revolves around how we’re going to feed the planet’s burgeoning population, and yet Americans continue to throw away 30 to 40 percent of food they’ve purchased on a daily basis. Addressing this serious issue would free up tremendous amounts of food and go a long ways toward resolving the greater question of how to feed the world’s billions.

Consumers often think of reducing their personal food waste in terms of what to do with food once it comes home from the store, i.e. trying new recipes, focusing on eating at home, eating food in order of perishability. But researcher Victoria Ligon, from the University of Arizona, says consumers need to think about food waste before they’ve even gone to the store.

In a qualitative investigation that Ligon conducted, she tracked shopping and food preparation patterns, interviewed participants, and followed food diaries in order to “understand how people acquire, prepare, consume, and discard food."

She concluded: “The problem is that people are not shopping frequently enough, which sounds counterintuitive. It seems that people in this country are very price sensitive at the grocery store, but tend to overlook the cost of discarded and unused food at home.”

The tendency of American shoppers to over-buy food, often shopping for bulk quantities of high-quality ingredients in warehouse-style stores such as Costco, Sam’s Club, and Wal-Mart, is costing us more in terms of waste than what we save by buying in bulk.

Shoppers also visit, on average, four to seven stores in order to get all the items on their grocery list and to stock up for several days at a time. Ligon says, “You’ll find that a person will get their bread at Trader Joe’s, their paper goods at Safeway, their milk at Wal-Mart. People are looking for the places that offer the best product, the best brands, and the best prices.”

This practice of shopping around for the best deal is wasteful in terms of the fuel used, and because shoppers (I’m guilty of this, too!) come out with far more items than they originally intended to buy, especially if they know they won’t be back for a few days. And those extra things don’t always get eaten, particularly if the schedule changes and you end up eating out, ordering in, or simply not cooking the meal that you’d originally planned.

Says Anita Bhappu, an associate professor at the University of Arizona who works as Ligon’s adviser and collaborator:

“We believe it’s cheaper if we buy more now, but we rarely take into account how much we throw out in the end. And if you factor in the cost of what you are throwing away, it is very unlikely that you are saving anything.”

Fellow TreeHugger Lloyd has often written about this subject of food waste, arguing that “small fridges make good cities,” and that shopping for only a day’s worth of ingredients at a time ensures that everything is eaten before it gets lost in the deep, dark depths of a gigantic refrigerator and goes bad.

Unless you’re a diligent home cook, who sticks faithfully to the meal plan and then creates meals based on what’s in the fridge, it’s a good idea to buy less food more frequently. Limit your planning to the next several meals, in order to accommodate unforeseen schedule changes, and then watch your trash output shrink along with your total grocery expenses.

Tags: Food Security | Fruits & Vegetables | Shopping | Waste

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