8 Tactics to Reduce Food Waste at Home

Updated 10/29/18

Food waste is a huge—but edible—problem. These eight tips will help you reduce food waste at home and save money.

1. Buy less food more frequently

If you shop a couple of times a week and buy only what you need, you will enjoy fresher food and waste less of it.

Yes, I realize some people find buying two weeks’ worth of processed food at Costco convenient. But let’s put aside for a moment the wasteful over-packaging of processed food, its dubious ingredients and the insatiable corporate greed of, oh, I’ll pick on Nestlé again because it’s just so easy and I feel lazy tonight. Even if I could somehow magically make these unpalatable aspects of processed food disappear, one truth remains: the stuff tastes bad.

The most sustainable food—locally sourced ingredients from small organic family farms—also happens to taste the best. Now that’s what I call convenient!


adjective con·ve·nient \kən-ˈvēn-yənt\

: allowing you to do something easily or without trouble

: located in a place that is nearby and easy to get to

: giving you a reason to do something that you want to do

2. Ditch the recipes

This may sound like heresy to some. Although I do love my cookbooks, I do not choose a different recipe from them every night for dinner. My refrigerator would soon overflow with little bits of ingredients I didn’t use and all sorts of leftovers my diners may turn their noses up at. Instead, I get creative and use what I have on hand.

Here’s a quick example: For a presentation at the Sunnyvale Library on food waste, I looked in the refrigerator to see what I had on hand. I found cooked black beans we hadn’t eaten and some sweet potatoes in the cupboard. Those taste great together, so I quickly made some black bean and sweet potato soup to feed the audience after my demo. Even small children asked for a second helping.

Oh, and another example: I had a couple of tablespoons of lemon zest in the freezer and needed to bottle my kombucha. I tossed the zest into the bottles—delicious! I used to let my whims dictate dinner. Now my pantry does. I just love cooking this way.

3. Re-evaluate what you consider trash

sourdough cracker class
Sourdough crackers made with discarded starter

So I just told you to throw out the recipes and will now list a pile of recipes. Consider most of these techniques rather than strict instructions. I make the following recipes out of what many people would throw out:

4. Take care of produce as soon as you get it home

I mentioned some of this in a post last week about the drought here in California. This step makes my week much less chaotic and ensures that we’ll eat what I take. On Sunday, for example, I came home from the farmer’s market with the goodies pictured below, a slightly smaller haul than usual.

20150412_123924 (1)

I filled a bowl with water, washed the cleanest produce first (strawberries), ended with the dirtiest (radishes) and watered a plant outside with the resulting dirty water. Next, I halved some of the strawberries and froze them on a cookie sheet in the freezer before transferring them to a jar. (These would have been great for smoothies had we not eaten them all.) I packed the spinach, basil, radishes and carrots into separate containers in the refrigerator for easy access. All of this makes preparing lunches and cooking more convenient.

5. Store food in clear glass jars and containers

If you store leftover lasagna in an opaque container, you may forget about it until you stumble upon its slimy, decomposing remains a couple of months later. Store food in glass in your refrigerator, your freezer and your cupboards, and you can see what’s in there at a glance.

Some of my glass jars and bottles

6. Don’t stash everything in the refrigerator

Keep tomatoes in the refrigerator only if you want to render them flavorless. Store potatoes and onions in a cool place other than the refrigerator and separate from each other as they don’t get along well in close quarters. Bread dries out in the refrigerator so keep it at room temperature. (If you make real sourdough bread, it stays fresh for a week!) Click here for more tips on storing produce without plastic.

7. Buy a smaller refrigerator

I have had this fantasy since my early twenties of abandoning my refrigerator (obviously I would starve if I wrote erotica). Maybe one day. I’m not suggesting you put your refrigerator out on the curb but when you do shop for a new one, consider downsizing. A small one may improve your health. It has less room, so you’ll buy less food and waste less. I certainly could live with a smaller one. Typically my refrigerator contains pastured eggs and dairy, ferments, leftovers and all those prepped vegetables I mentioned earlier. Unbathed eggs will keep at room temperature. I could leave my ferments out too—they would merely ferment faster and develop stronger flavors.

8. Learn to preserve food

The Western diet, consisting of pre-packaged, highly processed convenience foods, does not require cooking skills. For this reason—at least in part—you can practically fit an American-size car into an American-size fridge. People used to preserve food through fermentation, salting and smoking. They would put up food when it was plentiful to prepare for when it would not be. If you find you have extra food on your hands, you can preserve it before it goes bad. Today, we rely on our refrigerators to preserve food for us. I am completely obsessed with fermentation as some of you know and I teach online and in-person workshops on the topic. You can check out my latest schedule here.

What started out as tips to prevent food waste has morphed into a manifesto against refrigerators and I have by no means exhausted all food-waste-prevention tips. Of course you should also take inventory before you shop, make a shopping list, serve smaller portions and question those confusing expiration dates on packaged food before throwing out food. Better yet, avoid packaged food and cook whole foods.

41 Replies to “8 Tactics to Reduce Food Waste at Home”

  1. Manifesto against the refrigerator… I love it! I can see the Soviet style posters already, or maybe a wartime “Dig for Victory” type one.

    You know, the most powerful thing about your blog is not the wonderfully accessible information about food and food preparation but your joy in the simple tasks associated with our survival! That comes across so clearly, even in these mini-rants. I hope it is as infectious for others as it is for me because if more people would take delight in these things, care for the planet and each other would quickly follow. Corporate profits would trail off, of course, which is why you are definitely an Artist & Troublemaker (as @Jackiemania calls folks like us)!

    1. Thank you, Meg. I will work on that poster. I’m glad to hear joy comes across in my rants. That’s a relief 🙂 I love the title of Artist & Troublemaker!

  2. Some great tips here and makes me feel good to know I do all of these things apart from the last one. Something to work towards I guess! 🙂 I will have to keen an eye out for your schedule for when I am in your neck of the wood early next year so I can learn from an expert! Thanks for sharing x

    1. Thanks so much. That would be great to meet in person 🙂 Keep me posted.

  3. Anne Marie, I hope your blog goes viral — you provide such healing information. I am going to share this on Aggie’s Farm.

    Nourishing foods and reduced waste do take time. In my urban incarnation, I used to visit the farmer’s market and wash produce on Saturday, then cook a week’s worth of food on Sunday. A friend makes a week’s worth of layered salads in a jar — heavy veggies toward the bottom, lettuce and sprouts on top. I have seen one and coveted it!

    I can’t wait to try sourdough crackers and scrap vinegar! My wine vinegar has been delicious, but we don’t drink wine. Do you suppose that vinegar could be made from any fruit, such as berries on the verge of spoiling? I hope to experiment and report back.

    1. Thank you, Aggie 🙂 I included your pancake recipe in here. I use it all the time.

      Well, cooking does take time but I don’t see what other choice we have where our health and the health of the planet is concerned. One of my students told me the other day that she knew a monk who cooked a lot and she said to him one day, “I notice you do a lot of cooking. You must like to cook.” He said, “I like to eat.”

      I think berries would well work for scrap vinegar too. Any fruit should work. It all has both the lactic acid bacteria on it for fermenting and the sugar to fuel the bacteria so they can do their work.

      1. Looking forward to berry season here!

      2. We’ve had strawberries early this year. They’re so good!

      3. Yum! Ours are flowering.

  4. These are great hints, but it takes time and knowledge to do some of these things. Assuming people who look for convenient outs like buying in bulk at Costco have time to sit and watch cooking shows is slightly condescending – I know many a hard working parent who simply does not have oodles of time to spend cooking or surfing the internet. People often need concrete ideas on how to reuse those leftovers, because being creative in the kitchen is not intuitive to everyone – I know plenty of good cooks that are hard pressed to cook without a recipe.

    1. Sorry, I wasn’t trying to be condescending, I was attempting to make a joke. Instagram is ALL about food and I am on there too much…

      Well it does takes time to cook and I know it is really hard for parents who work full-time and commute and have a ton of other obligations. I think a lot of things have to change in our society and not just around food issues. A living wage, better and more affordable child care, the end of subsidies for bad food and cooking classes in every elementary school would all certainly help! And I probably should have chosen a better picture than my crackers as those do take time and for sure not everyone will make their own crackers.

      1. There definitely needs to be some culture shifts in order to change our food system. I am involved with it somewhat on the local level here and there are many, many challenges.
        The idea of elementary school cooking classes sounds good, but the reality is, that age is a bit young for cooking classes. In teaching kid’s cooking classes, I find middle to high schoolers are a bit more capable and require less adults to assist with classes.

      2. Changing our food system is a huge challenge and I think the problems with it touch upon all the other problems we face (obesity, climate change, food security, even national security). I have read some of your posts about the work you’re doing and it sounds wonderful. It has to start with grassroots efforts, as you’ve said before.

        I wish my daughter’s middle school taught cooking. When I was looking for a commercial kitchen to rent, in my naiveté, I called the local middle and high schools, thinking they would have kitchens but most don’t. Some of the people I spoke with thought I was crazy asking about kitchens (which I may be…but not because of these inquiries). I wish the middle and high schools would bring back home ec, maybe change the name if they really feel the need to.

      3. One of the classes I teach is in the school kitchen – it’s so cool to use it. The other is in the ‘life skills’ classroom, otherwise known as the old home ec room. I agree, if we’re going to put all this pressure on our kids to get into college, we should also teach them how to fend for themselves once they get there.

      4. Oooh, that’s a good name, “life skills”! My older daughter does cook and that has certainly helped her away at college.

      5. My son’s K-8 school does not have a kitchen because the school lunches are prepared at a central facility and sealed in plastic foam trays, which are then heated in warmers at the school. :-p My son does not eat the school lunch and feels sorry for the kids who do.

        However, the school also has an Edible Schoolyard, and that program includes “cooking” lessons. Either they prepare food that’s actually eaten raw, or they cook in a portable appliance such as an electric skillet, or the teacher pre-cooks some ingredients and the kids combine them into the finished food. It works out.

        I was a Girl Scout leader for several years, working with girls 5-12 years old. Yes, the older ones could do more in the kitchen, but even the youngest could learn some cooking skills, and I found them pretty easy to teach because they were so interested. About half of them came from homes where “real cooking” was an exotic activity. When they bridged to the next level of Scouts, part of the ceremony was sharing favorite memories of their old level; I heard, “I learned to use a sharp knife!” several times, as well as happy memories of cooking large amounts for camping weekends of 15-40 people, and my favorite, the wide-eyed, “We learned what okra is and we made fried okra FROM SCRATCH!” 🙂

      6. My god, those lunches sound awful! That’s great there’s an edible schoolyard though. Thanks for the link. I’m going to check out some of the lesson plans listed there. I love those quotes. Kids are natural gardeners and cooks 🙂

  5. In line with buy a smaller fridge, buy a bigger freezer! When bananas get old, we freeze them, when anything gets near expiration, just freeze it! This also helps with buying cheap. We always scan the meat section for sales. Buy on sale, partition, then freeze to save money in the long haul. This also helps with buying bulk at Costco 🙂

    1. You’re right, freezers help stop food waste too. That’s a really good idea to freeze stuff before it can turn. I follow a dumpster diver on Instagram who brings home HUGE hauls of food (it’s wonderful and obscene at the same time–grocery stores throw out so much perfectly edible food) and she freezes a lot of it. I am going to write a post about her one day soon. Good Costco tip too 😉

  6. Thanks Zero Waste Chef, I have only been following you a few weeks but you have already changed the way I think about food and nourishing myself. I am nowhere near being zero waste yet but I am making small steps in the right direction and I’m noticing how my thought processes are changing (especially when I’m buying food items). You’re toothpaste recipe was the first thing I tried and I am totally hooked on it, next I’m going to try making my own herbal mouthwash and I’m keen to start fermenting foods! I would love it if you could do a tour of your kitchen in a future blog post. I would love to see which tools you find most useful and an annotated photograph of your store shelves and fridge/freezer would be much appreciated! Thanks for all the incredibly useful information, I find it bonkers that this is stuff that nearly every person knew and now we have progressed to a point where the most of us can barely feed ourselves!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Courte and for the great idea for a post! I did recently write a post “Key Ingredients for a Zero-Waste Kitchen” but that included food only. I love this idea of a kitchen tour. My kitchen is tiny and I can show people that you don’t need a huge kitchen, fancy equipment or all sorts of appliances to cook good food.

      I totally agree this is bonkers! I am giving a presentation for Earth Day about making a zero-waste meal. We would not have called it a zero-waste meal 50 years ago though. We would have called it dinner. And back then, no one would have invited me to get on stage and demonstrate how to make it. When else in history can we say that people lacked the knowledge to meet their basic needs?!

    2. It seems to me that this kitchen wisdom actually is stuff that nearly every WOMAN knew in past eras. Most men, aside from those who cooked in the Army and such, were completely clueless about cooking. (My father, for example, was never allowed to help cook as a boy in the 1950s because his parents feared his being a “sissy”, so between college and marriage he “had to” live in a boarding house where meals were provided.) In the 20th century, food processors and appliance manufacturers worked hard at making cooking seem like drudgery that nobody would want to do–which was easier, I think, because of sexism: If a task is being done by women, it must be demeaning drudgery rather than skilled wisdom, right?–and then as women started working outside the home more, convenience foods were seen as a more efficient and plausible solution than men doing more at home. By the 1970s, even feminists were very anti-housework; there’s a truly nasty poem in Free To Be You And Me about how housework is loathsome and anyone who appears to be enjoying it is lying. While not everyone views cooking as part of “housework” exactly, everyday frugal cooking for the family (as opposed to being a chef) was a very low-status thing until just recently.

      I mentioned above teaching cooking to Girl Scouts whose families weren’t cooking at home. A couple of times I got snark from mothers who felt that teaching girls to cook (and sew) was oppressive and disempowering. The logic basically is that cooking was traditionally women’s work, therefore females who cook are doomed to oppression, and girls should be encouraged ONLY in traditionally male fields because those are the areas in which success truly matters. These were mothers who were succeeding in their careers but feeling very stressed and feeding their families heat-and-eat foods and cold cereal, and they needed to feel validated. I did feel some empathy (being a mom with a job outside the home, myself) but I also feel that basic life skills are in fact empowering, for everyone. The kids I happened to be working with were girls; I would have taught cooking and sewing to boys, too, along with money management and science and all the other things we were learning. The reason my family doesn’t eat crap all the time is that we have TWO adults who know how to cook and don’t think it’s beneath us. I’m relieved that my male partner learned kitchen skills (from his mom and his K-8 school which did have a kitchen and home ec) but if he did and I didn’t, we wouldn’t be any better off than the other way around.

      Anyway, my point is that it’s true “we have progressed to a point where most of us can barely feed ourselves,” but we were not starting from a point where all adults knew their way around a kitchen; we were starting from a society in which women cooked for men who grew the food or earned the money to buy the food. We then went through a phase in which that kind of interdependence was frowned upon and both sexes were supposed to be “independent” by doing career-type work and depending on consumer products to take care of us. I think that’s finally beginning to change as people (both sexes) get more into making our own food again.

      1. I think you’re right, women did know all of this stuff, men not so much. I wrote a post a couple of months ago “5 things I do that were once considered normal.” My grandmothers, if they were alive today, would scratch their heads at why I write posts on things like “how to shop” or “how to make sauerkraut.” I sometimes get flak when I suggest people should cook so I have started responding with “You only need to know how to cook if you eat.” I don’t see any way around cooking unless you get a servant. And I don’t understand the “it’s beneath me” mentality or how teaching girls how to take care of their basic needs is disempowering. (Boys need to learn it too of course.) Food is culture, it is central to everything and it deserves respect. I think you’re right that our attitudes to cooking and food are slowly changing as people become more aware of what they’re eating and where it comes from.

  7. Anne Marie, Your posts are quickly becoming a favorite of mine. Your words are rubbing off on me when I’m in the kitchen. I am more aware of how much waste is going on in my kitchen. Thanks for enlightening me. Now all I have to do is get started on a composter 😉

    1. Thanks Shamim! I’m glad you’re finding my posts useful. Once you go down the zero-waste road, you get hooked. But it’s fun! And compositing is a beautiful thing!

  8. Thanks as always. I still love my fridge, I will admit it. But canning, preserving and pickling are definitely a lost art, as is fermenting. Your #1 tip is still, simply, use what you have. And I would add, when you DO try one of those recipes, figure out how to use any of the new/different/special stuff you have to buy…it’s a creativity challenge!

    1. Thank you for the comment 🙂 I think that is tip #1, just use it up! Using it all is a fun creativity challenge and I think that challenge has really improved my cooking skills.

  9. Hi Anne Marie,

    this post has thrown me into a spin! I’ve been thinking about a smaller (below bench) fridge for a while now, as a solution to my very small kitchen with no above bench storage. The reason I’m in a spin is because I have a large vegetable garden for much of the year, and a smaller fridge would mean I have to process big harvests immediately (eg putting up a big batch of tomato sauce). As anyone with kids and a business knows, our good intentions to get things done can go out the window due to something as simple as getting a cold at the wrong time!

    I’ve decided to try living with just using half the fridge and seeing if we can manage. I imagine this will also prevent little bits of uneaten food getting lost at the back of the fridge.

    I loved the video link of Oprah looking at the small fridge, and i then looked online and found the complete video of her visit to Copenhagen. It talks about why these people are regarded as the happiest on earth, in spite of living in small homes and paying high taxes – interesting and inspiring! I loved the words from one of the home owners she interviewed – ‘less space,less stuff, more life’.


    1. Hi Madeleine. Oooh, below bench sounds so nice. I understand your dilemma. If you don’t take care of that harvest immediately, you lose it. After I bring my small, weekly haul home from the farmer’s market, if I don’t clean and prep it immediately, some of it (like strawberries) will have shriveled up by the next morning. I keep telling my neighbors we need to have a tomato canning party in July/August and maybe we will finally do it this year…

      That’s brilliant to try to live with just half the fridge to test it out. I love this idea! I can see it now on social media: #HalfTheFridgeChallenge

      “Less space, less stuff, more life” is a great mantra. I had no idea when I started reducing my waste that it would improve my life so much! Thanks for the comment 🙂

  10. Great tips! I have a tiny fridge in a tiny kitchen and it definitely forces me to buy only what I need. I shop every Saturday at the farmers’ market and by the Friday night I make sure all the fresh produce is used up. I’d love a proper freezer for stock etc but you can’t have everything in life!

    1. Thank you 🙂 I really think small forces you to be more creative. I have a tiny kitchen too and a theory (with no actual data to back me up) that people with tiny kitchens cook more.

      1. Ha, I know a couple who don’t cook and eat off paper plates (don’t get me started…) who had their kitchen remodeled and continued to eat the same way…

    2. I did a faculty exchange to the Netherlands about 5 years ago and immediately saw why my exchange partner was always exclaiming about how huge everything is in the US (she didn’t say people, but if you want to feel short and fat, go to the Netherlands…). They have smaller cars, water bottles and refrigerators too!

  11. I really like your line of thinking! I recently read a post with some similar tips – that also reminded us that we can’t be perfect, but we can continue to take steps toward being better at this. Many people are intimidated by the massive problems and can’t see that making small steps toward being better is helpful. If something is slightly inconvenient, it’s easy to chalk it up to a waste of time. BUT, you can involve your children in some of these, make some of them quirky family habits, take the opportunity to discuss why you do it. If they don’t see that it’s a priority, it won’t be theirs either.
    I like my cookbooks, but usually use them as inspiration for ways to use up a certain item instead of finding a recipe and then adding ingredients to my shelves. I’d encourage people to be brave when using recipes (unless you’re canning!). I’ll often swap ingredients based on what I have…just this week, we made muffins that called for applesauce – but we used apple butter. They were delicious and we skipped the added cinnamon and the sweet topping b/c of the extra flavor and moistness in the apple butter.
    I love your tip of freezing some of the fruits right away! When they’re not in season locally, we do get berries at Costco – and b/c of the flavor compromise with not being as fresh, there are always a handful that remain just don’t look as appetizing – I’d certainly use them later if I throw them in the freezer!
    So glad I found your site – while I was doing some research for our business – Fillmore Container. Looking forward to reading more and will certainly be sharing!

    1. Thanks so much, Lisa. I think aiming for perfection induces paralysis. Better to just forge ahead and do what you can. The massive problems are intimidating but if I focused only on those, I would become very depressed and once again, paralyzed. The thing I think a lot of people miss is that living more simply and sustainably is actually more fun! I don’t feel that I deny myself anything. Rather, I’ve cut out all the unpleasant stuff! And I eat really good food. (That’s priority no. 1.) Involving kids is so important. They are natural gardeners and cooks and when they learn this skills, they will use them for their entire lives.

      I like my cookbooks too and refer to them often but I don’t strictly follow the recipes. I haven’t canned in a while, but that sounds about right to me to stick to those recipes. One of my favorite “cook books” is The Art of Fermentation, not really a cook book per se, but a fermentation bible, with lots and lots of guidelines, information, ideas and methods rather than rigid recipes. Those muffins sound great. That’s just what I’m taking about. Use up what you have in creative ways.

      I just checked out your website. Omg it’s jar heaven! I’m glad you found me too! Thanks for checking out my post 🙂

  12. Reblogged this on Jeepers and commented:
    Excellent advice. I love going through my kitchen and making dinner on the fly–you can do it! Unless you have no food. 😉

    1. Thank you so much for the reblog. I agree it would be hard to make dinner without food!

  13. Making chicken broth with leftover veggies/scraps and used up chicken carcass is my favorite thing to do. So many people just buy chicken breast (which is okay sometimes!!), but you really get such a large benefit from having the whole chicken.

    Also, a note on small refrigerators: when my husband and I went on our honeymoon to Ireland two years ago, we stayed in plenty of B&Bs, and EVERYONE had what we here in America would consider a “college-sized” refrigerator.

    1. I love it too. I made some yesterday and it’s so delicious (and free!). I can’t believe I used to buy broth. I like chicken with bone-in. It has a lot of flavor.

      I showed my English friend my refrigerator during one of my webinars. It’s not even that big by US standards, but she said it was big compared to what they have over there. My office is getting rid of a college-size one. I should probably take it. I do freeze a lot of food though…

      That must have been a wonderful trip to Ireland! I’d love to stay in B&Bs there (or AirBnBs) and see people’s homes up close.

  14. […] post by the zerowastechef recently reaffirmed many of the practices I have been incorporating into my life. A lot of my […]

  15. […] “Although I do love my cookbooks, I do not choose a different recipe from them every night for dinner. My refrigerator would soon overflow with little bits of ingredients I didn’t use and all sorts of leftovers my diners may turn their noses up at. Instead, I get creative and use what I have on hand.”–– Bea Johnson, Zero Waste Chef […]

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