Most people waste more food than they think—here's how to fix it

In the psychology of food waste, people are often misled by their surroundings. But we can rethink our choices.

Food waste, that scourge that sends more than a third of our food supply to rot and is a major contributor to climate change, seems like it should be easy to address.

Waste less food, advocates cry, and you can save money! You can save time! You can save farmland and fuel, and, since agriculture drives habitat loss, you can even help save the tiger.

And yet, here we are in the thick of Earth Month, on a day designated as “Stop Food Waste Day,” and you probably don’t need to look further than your own kitchen or cafeteria to see edible food dumped. In the U.S. more than 80 percent of food waste has been traced to homes and consumer-facing businesses.

So why is this problem so hard to solve? Because, researchers say, we’re only human. We have some irrational tendencies, some aspirations that don’t match reality, and some major blind spots. Not to mention busy schedules that don’t always align with when the avocado on the counter finally ripens. Here in the U.S., food waste is often invisibly baked into how we shop, cook and entertain.

“I do think awareness is slowly growing,” said Dana Gunders, author of the Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook. “But I think there’s still a disconnect between being aware that this is a global problem and connecting that to what you’re actually doing when you scrape your plate into the garbage.”

Researchers and advocates are hopeful, but here’s some of what we’re up against:

We trust tiny printed numbers more than our own senses

Confusion over “best by,” “sell by,” “use by,” and other date labels leads Americans to throw away an estimated $29 billion of safe food every year. Advocates are trying to educate consumers and standardize the labels, which generally aren’t regulated and are often based on quality, not safety.

To test just how far this blind faith extends, researchers at Ohio State University presented study participants with jugs of milk of varying ages—some with the “sell by” date; others without any dating.

People were more likely to deem older milk acceptable when they didn’t see a date. Interestingly, one of the “younger” test milks wasn’t top quality, likely due to a processing issue. Many participants who saw its “fresh” date stamp deemed it perfectly fine; those who didn’t see the label were more likely to say it wasn’t good to drink.

We don’t see our own waste

While ad campaigns like SaveTheFood have made food waste a more prominent issue, cultivating individual self-awareness is hard. A Natural Resources Defense Council study of food waste in several cities found that 76 percent of people think they throw away less food than the average American. Clearly the math doesn’t add up.

“It’s a pretty universal response to any negative accusation,” said Ohio State Food Waste Collaborative director Brian Roe, who’s gotten similar results in his own work. “Nobody wants to admit or think that they are the problem.”

We‘re quick to congratulate ourselves for composting

Another common finding? When composting is available, people make fewer efforts to reduce the amount of food they pitch.

“Perhaps the interpretation is composting lets them off the hook emotionally from feeling bad about wasting food,” said Roe, a professor of agricultural, environmental, and developmental economics. “Composting is not a bad thing, but you’d prefer to not create the food waste in the first place. It’s going to have a lot more social and environmental benefits.”

We have crafty ways to alleviate our guilt over throwing away leftovers

When the server asks if you want your brussels sprout salad wrapped, you may say “yes” out of guilt, and you may even convince yourself that you’ll make a point of eating it. But if you don’t make it a priority, it will probably spoil. Stink bombs are easier to throw away than edible food.

Laura Moreno, who studies why people waste food at home at the University of California, Berkeley, calls this “delayed disposal.”

“There’s a guilt alleviation process that happens,” said Moreno, a PhD candidate. NRDC’s study of food waste in cities found leftovers to be the second most wasted category of food (behind fruits and vegetables).

The freezer is another stop food often makes on its way to the trash can, said Gunders, who authored NRDC’s seminal report on food waste and now consults on the issue. To make sure food gets eaten and save prep time, she suggests eating frozen leftovers soon, as in the following week.

“I like to think of my freezer as short-term storage, not long-term storage,” she said.

We have our own biases and quirks—and don’t always understand our food

Moreno has spent hours peeking into people’s fridges and chatting with them about their food habits. Everyone seems to have a different sense of what should go in their mouths and what should go in the bin.

Some people consider pizza crust “inedible.” Others only eat the white part of the scallion. One home visit stands out for Moreno: “The person very earnestly looked at me and said ‘I always cut off that string thing on the bottom of the carrot because I’m not sure if it’s safe to eat.”

Moreno and groups like ReFED, a food-waste-focused non-profit, rank increasing food literacy as one of the most effective ways to reduce food waste. (It’s something I’m working on as well. On my website, I post images and scientific explanations of confusing food situations to help consumers make informed choices before throwing food away.)

We turn up our noses at frozen food

While most of us probably don’t worry about the skinny bit at the end of a carrot, biases against frozen food are pervasive. Freezer staples won’t wilt or get moldy and can help add veggies and protein to weeknight meals without constant trips to the store. But groups like NRDC and the World Wildlife Fund are stuck fighting the mushy broccoli stigma.

“You need an advocate in the celebrity chef movement to promote the fact that it's still healthy and you're not sacrificing anything,” said Monica McBride, food waste manager at WWF. (Read about how "ugly" fruits and vegetables can help solve world hunger.)

Our waste is tied up in love and good intentions

“Wasting food is a byproduct of other activities that typically have good intentions around them,” noted Gunders. “Feeding your family healthy food, trying something new, hosting a good party, eating healthier yourself, cooking more. The waste is a somewhat invisible byproduct of that.”

Food waste solutions, said Moreno, need to acknowledge that asking people to waste less food can also mean asking them to sacrifice the feeling that they’re taking good care of their family. For many, a full fridge represents being prepared, which provides a sense of comfort.

One of Moreno’s research subjects, who replaces an item the moment it’s used up, and who professed a desire to feel like she was caring for her family and friends, called it “shopping for Armageddon.”

We’re really into giant piles of food

Speaking of a full fridge, consider the heaping bread basket at dinner. The loaded chafing pan at the buffet. The tall produce pyramid at the grocery store. We find abundant displays appealing and are suspicious of, say, a solo banana or the last salmon fillet.

Hotels, with their breakfast spreads and many catered events, are notorious wasters, so WWF investigated ways to green up the buffet line without sacrificing elegance. One key recommendation was to embrace luxury over abundance. So, instead of that overflowing bread basket, hotels might offer a tray of neatly arranged rolls and post a sign noting that they’re warm and fresh from the oven. To avoid the sad look of a nearly emptied tray, WWF advises putting out smaller pans of food as the event wears on; they still look full, but offer—and waste—less food.

We shop aspirationally

At the farmers’ market, it can be easy to envision a week of healthy, Instagram-able meals of colorful salads and herb-sprinkled veggie roasts. But, life often gets in the way. There are restaurant outings. Spontaneous invitations. Late nights at work. Not feeling like cooking. The produce doesn’t all last.

“You need to match what you’re buying with the cadence of your shopping,” said Elizabeth Balkan, NRDC food waste director. “If you want to be eating fresh, but you’re trying to go the supermarket every two weeks, it’s not going to work.”

As the parent of young children, Balkan says she’s sensitive to this when giving them new foods. Serve the volume of food you’d ideally like your kids to eat and you’ll easily end up feeding the floor.

Our cookware, appliances, and even groceries can encourage excess

Groceries can add to your food waste load when food is packaged in too-big sizes or bags that are hard to seal. At home our fridges are big; our casserole dishes designed for large family meals, and our plates often oversized. Not helpful when we’re trying to cut down on food waste.

“One of the great things we can do to trick ourselves is to make sure our plateware is appropriately sized,” said Gunders.

“There’s also this idea,” said Moreno, “that there’s this magical place called the back of the refrigerator where everything gets lost.”

Short of urging everyone to downsize their fridge, Moreno, who would like to see food waste advocacy collaborate more with other issues, is toying with this idea: what if people were encouraged to stock emergency supplies of water in rows at the back of their fridges? Then more items would be pushed to the front and fewer things would be lost.

We’re social creatures who don’t like to buck norms

Let’s say you’re at a wedding; you’ve filled up on passed horderves and the mashed potato bar and now you can’t finish your roasted chicken entree.

Asking for a box feels rude, right? But when we’re throwing away close to half our food, squandering resources and contributing to climate change along the way, isn’t it more offensive to let the food go to waste?

Certainly. But the taboo remains, said Gunders. With a little nudge though, it can be overcome. She urges caterers to put out to-go containers and signs saying “help yourself.”

“I think it’s up to the host to break the ice, and when they do, people tend to respond.”

Be more mindful, but don’t beat yourself up

When it comes to mitigating climate change, Project Drawdown ranks reducing food waste as the third most impactful action, behind only better management of refrigerants and increased onshore wind power (for context, electric vehicles rank 26th). And while we can’t all install wind turbines on our lunch breaks, we all can make tweaks to our lunches and our lives in general to facilitate less waste.

So, the silver lining of addressing food waste is that everyone can dial up their self awareness and make a big impact. But Moreno, who points out that we don’t need yet another food neurosis, cautions against putting all the onus on the individual consumer. Systemic efforts to do things like improve our food literacy, reimagine our grocery stores and kitchens, reform date labels, and rethink catered events can make it harder for us to mindlessly waste by adjusting our surroundings, and not guilting or shaming us.

“Just because food is wasted in a household doesn't mean it’s caused by that individual person,” Moreno said. “There are a lot of factors at play.”

Rachael Jackson is a research manager for the National Geographic Channel. Outside of her day job she maintains and is obsessed with sour-milk pancakes.

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