Reducing food waste begins with small steps

Our Table panelist Jonathan Bloom shares his advice on minimizing food waste at home.

A thought leader, consultant and journalist on the topic of food waste, Jonathan Bloom believes there are small actions we can take to address a complex issue with significant ethical, environmental and economic repercussions, including food insecurity and climate change.

“I’m confident that if we know the consequences of all of the food that’s being wasted, that we as individuals will take the necessary steps to change our own behavior in small, yet important ways,” he said, noting this is more difficult than it sounds given general reluctance to change.

Bloom, who chronicled food waste in America in his book “American Wasteland,” was a panelist at Food@MSU’s March 21 Our Table roundtable discussion on the issue. Here are his everyday tips to tackling food waste:

Connect with your food

Bloom’s overarching bit of advice, connecting with your food, involves doing something to help you understand how special food is, making it harder to waste.

“Connecting with your food means getting closer to it and knowing where it comes from,” he said.

Ideally, you’d have a role in growing or raising the food you eat, Bloom said, but he realizes that’s not possible for everyone.

A more attainable way to connect with food is to know the people who grow and produce it, Bloom notes. This can be achieved by buying locally produced items or purchasing food from a farmers market. Even simpler, stepping into the kitchen and cooking a homemade meal can help you foster a connection with food.

Shop smart

A key to reducing food waste is to make more frequent trips to the grocery store and buy less each time to avoid having that “surplus of perishable food that’s like a ticking time bomb” in your fridge, according to Bloom.

“I try not to buy too much food at one time, so I spend a decent amount of time making little trips to the market and making sure that I have a use in mind for the food I buy so I don’t end up with that glut of refrigerator food,” he said.

Overbuying perishable goods and produce can lead to a situation where you have to choose between your schedule and avoiding food waste.

“Don’t put yourself in that pressured situation of feeling like if you don’t cook one night, then you’re going to have food wasting away in your fridge,” said Bloom.

Speaking of schedules, Bloom said that it’s important to be realistic about your time when you’re out shopping for groceries.

“If you know that you don’t often have time to cook every night, shop with that in mind,” he said. “A lot of times we have the best of intentions, but the busiest of lives, and, as a result, the most wasteful of fridges.”

Store and serve food properly

To make sure food lasts as long as possible, it’s important to store it the right way. That includes getting it in into the refrigerator as quickly as possible after buying it and putting it in the right places in the fridge.

“It seems basic, but a lot of people don’t use the produce drawers for produce or the dairy drawer for cheese,” Bloom said. “The door of the refrigerator is the warmest part because it opens and closes so often, so putting milk in there might not be the best move.”

Bloom uses the “first in, first out” method to organize his fridge, placing the newer items in the back and pushing the older ones to the front.

“I try to make sure that everything’s really visible and seeable in the refrigerator so I don’t lose sight of anything, and sort of have that ‘out of sight, out of mind’ experience, have foods get pushed to the back,” he said.         

Storing nonperishables in airtight containers helps keep them fresh. If there’s food that’s close to going bad, Bloom notes that using the freezer “as a waste avoider, but not just waste delayer” can extend its life – but won’t make it last forever.

“If you have something that’s soon-to-go-bad, you can buy some time by freezing it, but you have to remember to get to it before it looks like an iceberg,” he said.

Once food is out of the fridge or freezer and cooked as part of a meal, serving reasonable portion sizes can help to minimize plate waste at home. Bloom practices this with his family.

“We try to serve reasonable portions and make sure that it’s comfortable for people to take seconds, but they don’t end up with more on their plate than they want,” he said.

Try composting

Instead of tossing food in the trash, Bloom recommends creating a compost pile.

 “Composting is another thing that we can do where we’ll avoid throwing food out,” he said. “We can get the resources embedded in our food back into the soil and essentially recycle the nutrients in our food.”

The smell of compost is a reason why people might be hesitant to use the method, but a freezer can come in handy.

“I do keep my compost in the freezer, which I think helps avoid any unwanted smells, before I take it out to the compost bin,” said Bloom.

Bloom said composting offers an opportunity to think a little deeper about wasting food.

“I like composting because it forces you to see the food you’re not eating and then assess why some of those foods weren’t used,” he said. “Maybe that will lead to behavior change.”

 Our Table is a series of public roundtable discussions in which Michigan State University brings together food experts, agricultural producers, health professionals and community members to listen to each other and foster dialogue. It is part of Food@MSU, a campus-wide initiative led by the colleges of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Arts and Letters, and Communication Arts and Sciences that aims to help consumers make more informed decisions about food, and its impacts on health and the planet.

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