Eliminating Waste in Your Refrigerator

— Written By and last updated by Meghan Lassiter
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A lot of good food gets wasted. It’s estimated that Americans throw away about 80 billion pounds of food each year. Approximately 30% – 35% of the food produced in the world is wasted and a lot of that happens in our homes. The average person wastes about 20 pounds a month or 21% of the food they buy. The cost of this waste adds up to about $370 per person per year.

Most people don’t think they waste that much or really don’t know how much they do waste. A 2019 study measured the expectations of food waste compared to what people actually wasted. In all cases, the survey participants expected to eat more food than they actually did. Here’s an example: the participants expected to eat 97% of the meat in the refrigerators. In reality, they only ate about half. They also expected to consume 94% of their vegetables and the actual consumption was 44%. The lead author of this study was Brian Roe, Professor in Agricultural, Environmental and Developmental Economics at The Ohio State University. This research found that the most common reasons for discarding food were concerns about food safety relating to odor, appearances, and unclear dates on labels. There are ways to lessen that food waste. One of the first places you can do this is in your home refrigerator.

Here are some tips on how to optimize your fridge and fresh food storage:

  • Set aside time each week to clean and take an inventory of your fridge and freezer. Keep track of what you have and what needs to be used. Eat or freeze foods before they need to be thrown away.
  • Wipe up refrigerator spills immediately. This not only reduces the growth of Listeria bacteria (which can grow at refrigerator temperatures) but cleaning up spills — especially drips from thawing meats — will help prevent cross-contamination; where bacteria from one food spread to another.
  • Plan meals and use shopping lists. Take stock of what’s in the fridge and what needs to be used and plan accordingly. Think about what you’re buying and when it will be eaten.
  • Check the temperature of your fridge and freezer. Your refrigerator should be at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The freezer temperature should be set at 0 degrees. Checking these temperatures regularly can help ensure that your food stays fresh longer.
  • Consider using recycled glass or mason jars for food storage. These are great to keep food fresh and are easy to see what is inside. Glass jars are easy to clean, and their airtight seal will keep foods fresh.
  • Wrapping fresh broccoli or cauliflower in a slightly damp towel will keep it crisp. Storing spinach or lettuce in a glass container with a dry towel on top will help it stay crisp and fresh.
  • Don’t over-shop. You might get excited about a good deal, but if you don’t have a plan to use a large amount of something on sale, that good deal might become food waste. Try to keep in mind how much of an item you will use and avoid buying more than you need.

A food safety tip: the dates on food packages can be confusing. A “sell-by” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires. But a “best if used by (or before)” date is a recommendation for the best flavor or quality.

Many people throw out products after the “best if used by” date expires, thinking they’re not safe to eat anymore. But that isn’t necessarily so. Assuming you have stored foods properly and the “use by” date occurred a relatively short time ago, you can still eat those foods.

The Ohio State University; Alisha Barton at Ohio State University Extension; The University of Minnesota Extension; and the US Food and Drug Association

Cheryle Syracuse wrote this article and more similar ones for the Family and Consumer Sciences Column in the Brunswick Beacon. Syracuse is an FCS team member and can be reached at N.C. Cooperative Extension, Brunswick County Center, 910.253.2610 or by email at cheryle_syracuse@ncsu.edu.