3 Easy Ways To Reduce Food Waste

Consumers reduced their food waste 50% during the pandemic: can we keep it up?
Stefan Kalb by Stefan Kalb

For many people, a good portion of 2020 and 2021 felt somewhat wasted. Rather than seeing friends, going into the office, sending kids to school, or traveling, we were largely confined to our homes. While some of that time was spent taking inventory of things like health and family, everyone, it seemed, was taking inventory of food.

Before the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that approximately one pound of food per person was wasted each day in the United States. That’s 81.4 billion pounds of food waste generated in America annually, or between 30-40 percent of the food supply.

But in those “wasted” months, people began to actually waste less. Consumer food waste dropped significantly during the pandemic, with more than 50% of consumers reporting a decrease in their personal food waste.

During the early stages of Covid-19 in the U.S., most households made panic purchases, hoarding toilet paper, canned goods and non-perishables as uncertainty gripped the nation. Yet once people settled into the next normal, they began to alter their traditional routines.

Restaurant sales plummeted more than 19% while food meal kits like Blue Apron and Freshly grew by 18.7% as families began cooking at home more frequently. Baking took off, with sales of baking-related products growing by nearly 25%. Whether the reasons were underpinned by economic, health, or time constraints, consumers became more deliberate with planning what food was needed and how much, instead of haphazardly wandering aisles filling up a cart.

As restrictions started to lift across the U.S., families began to return to their pre-pandemic routines. Restaurant sales skyrocketed in 2021 and in-store shopping went up nearly 30% in the first half of 2021. What happens from here, and how can we collectively reduce food waste moving forward?

How to replace old habits with new intentions

If we’re not careful, we can slip back to our wasteful, pre-pandemic ways without even realizing it’s happening. Doing so would undo the massive gains made in 2020 to help us reduce our individual contributions to the food waste crisis. How can we maintain this awareness that the pandemic highlighted around food waste and sustain our collective diligence to be better at reducing it?

1. Start with a weekly meal plan

While staying almost exclusively at home, most of us became more aware of what was in our pantries and refrigerators. Fewer trips to the grocery store resulted in fewer impulse purchases and more targeted shopping with a specific list. People stocked the necessities and got resourceful with the items they already had on hand.

In a normal year, the average family wastes roughly one-third of the food it buys. Meal planning guides you toward purchasing just what is needed to solve for specific meal occasions. For many consumers, it eliminates the need to buy breakfast and/or lunch ‘on the go,’ which often leads to spoiled food and/or leftovers at home.

In short, having a plan of attack in the grocery aisles for what is needed, why it is needed, and when it is needed can drastically slash your household’s food waste.

2. Trust your food—and your senses

As economic anxiety grew over the course of the pandemic, consumers became more lax about expiration dates. Labels like “sell by” “best by” and “use by” confuse even savvy consumers into throwing away an estimated $29 billion in safe food every year.

The labels are simply there to indicate quality—not safety—of the food. For instance, unopened milk is generally good for up to seven days past its listed date, opened milk typically lasts at least two additional days, and refrigerated eggs maintain their quality for up to three weeks after purchase. Your senses come into play here as well. Changes in aroma or texture may be more reliable indicators that something is past its prime than the printed date on the carton.

Educating yourself on the food you purchase can help limit the amount of safe, nutritious food that gets needlessly wasted.

3. Get to know your grocer

Sometimes where people shop is just as important as what they’re shopping for. Each grocery store is different, so understanding how and when a retailer orders, stocks, and manages its inventory can help ensure you’re getting the best quality groceries that will last at home.

Most grocers stock new inventory behind older inventory—and for good reason! This is actually a critical stocking strategy designed to reduce food waste in grocery retail. Before you reach to the back of the shelf or cooler for the product with the latest date, consider: when will your household likely consume the item by? Knowing your consumption patterns helps you be a waste-saving savvy shopper.

Knowing when the local grocer stocks its fresh food is also important. Produce shipments either arrive at a grocer in the early morning or later in the evening. To snatch up the freshest items, time grocery shopping to coincide with these shipments. Simply ask your grocer when their fresh items are delivered (they’ll probably be happy to tell you!) and sync your shopping schedule accordingly.

How to make more sustainable choices

The pandemic put a spotlight on underlying supply chain and labor challenges that can disrupt grocery operations even in more-normal times. To help minimize their impact, many grocers are opting for inventory management technology like the solutions we build at Shelf Engine. This technology leverages big data and machine learning to ensure grocers always have the freshest food while reducing the staggering amount of waste retailers generate. Learning if your local grocer is one of these stores is one way to help get some of the freshest food possible into your cart that won’t go to waste at home.

You can also do your part simply by spreading the world, as others are doing. In fact, Shelf Engine just announced an investment from Ellen DeGeneres, Portia de Rossi, Shawn White, and Shawn Mendes. These celebrities share a personal commitment to eliminating food insecurity and protecting the environment and we’re excited to have them on board to increase overall awareness of the food waste problem. More consumers recognizing the magnitude of food waste illuminates more opportunities to shift wasteful behaviors—and more motivation to reward retailers and brands proactively solving the problem with more business.

Maintaining our collective awareness about the surprising amount of food wasted at home and adjusting our personal choices accordingly will pay huge dividends during the pandemic and beyond—particularly for the environment. Together we can ensure that the sustainable behaviors we gained during Covid-19 won’t go to waste.

Fresh, delivered.

Get the latest foodservice trends and grocery innovations
from the Shelf Engine team.

    By providing your email, you agree to the Shelf Engine Privacy Policy.

    Let's talk!

    We’ll show you how Shelf Engine boosts sales, simplifies fresh ordering, and strengthens shopper loyalty.

      First name*
      Last name*
      Company email*
      Company name*

      By submitting this form you agree to the Shelf Engine Privacy Policy.