Poor meal planning and a susceptibility to buying in bulk are among the reasons Canadians end up dumping so much edible food in their garbage.
"I would say that, in general, people are buying more than they need and not being creative in using excess food," says Cara Rosenbloom, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for Words to Eat By, a Toronto-based nutrition communications company.
According to a draft report by the Ontario-based Value Chain Management Centre, 51 per cent of the estimated $27 billion of food wasted in Canada is actually leftovers thrown into household trash bins. Here's a look at some of the ways you can reduce the amount of edible food that ends up in your garbage or green bin.
1. Take stock before you shop
Experts agree that the best way to halt household food waste is to become a savvier grocery shopper. One way to achieve this is to take stock of what you have on hand in order to avoid duplication and waste.
"You need to do an inventory of what you have in the fridge, in the freezer, in the pantry," says Andrea D'Ambrosio, a registered dietitian in Waterloo, Ont.
The idea, says D'Ambrosio, is simply "to use what we know we have first before buying new food."
2. Plan your meals
Now that you've made an inventory, the next step is to think about what you're going to eat in the coming week. This not only removes a good deal of the stress from meal preparation, but it also keeps you focused at the grocery store.
The key is making a grocery list to help you "avoid impulse purchases while shopping," says D'Ambrosio.
3. Be smart about expiration dates
Many people assume that the expiration date on perishable items such as chicken and dairy products indicates the day the product becomes unsafe to eat. While that may be true for meat products, many other items remain entirely edible.
"Consumers have to understand that expiration dates are not a date after which the food is not good anymore," says Pascal Theriault, an agricultural economist based in Montreal.
Best-before labels on food products in Canada reflect the date after which the nutritional content on the item is no longer reliable. But that doesn't mean the product in question has turned bad.
"If consumers were to understand that, it would probably help to reduce food waste quite a bit," says Theriault.
In France, food products carry two dates: the optimal consumption date, i.e. the date before which the product is guaranteed to be freshest; and the expiration date, i.e. the date after which the product is no longer safe to eat.
What appears on foods in Canada is actually the optimal consumption date, but we treat it like the expiration date, Theriault says.
4. Don't assume you need to buy in bulk
Grocery chains like Costco and Sam's Club have enjoyed great success by convincing consumers that they will save money if they buy in mass quantities. But some experts warn against this purchasing strategy.
"People buy in bulk to make an effort to save money, but what they're not realizing is that if they buy more than they need and throw away food that's rotten, they haven't saved money. They've actually wasted food and wasted money," says Rosenbloom of Words to Eat By.
5. Learn the art of pre-portioning
Many grocery stores sell in quantities that exceed what you might need for a single meal.
"I certainly noticed it with herbs and spices. You just want a few sprigs of basil or something like that, and you get this little flat pack that has six or eight sprigs in it," says John Williams, a partner at the retail consultancy JC Williams Group.
"You wind up paying a lot for over-packaging, and throwing away what you don't want."
One way to deal with such overabundance is to remember that the freezer is your friend. Whether it's herbs, bread or meat, it can all be frozen. The key is to figure out how much you need at any one time and stash the rest.
When you get home from the grocery store, rather than simply stuffing everything into the fridge, take a few minutes to bundle items such as meat and herbs into smaller portions with an eye to what you and your family can actually consume at any one time.
"If you're buying bulk pork tenderloin, when you come home, you need to separate it into single servings, freeze them individually and then defrost them as needed," says D'Ambrosio.
6. Use more of your fruits and veggies
A considerable portion of the waste that accumulates in our green bins is made up of the undesirable parts of fruits and vegetables, like stalks and peels. Rosenbloom is a big proponent of using these typically discarded food parts in everyday cooking.
"Broccoli is a great example. Most people only cook the top part, the little green trees on top. But the broccoli stems are totally edible and totally delicious," she says.
"Watermelon rinds can be used in stir-fry – there's a lot of stuff that gets wasted that's actually edible."
7. Think twice before tossing overripe fruits and veggies
Whenever we rummage through our fridge and encounter a spongy apple or a limp carrot, our reflex is to jettison it to the green bin. But D'Ambrosio implores Canadians to consider a second life for overripe fruits and veggies.
A squishy banana, for example, may not be appetizing on its own, but it's ideal for banana bread.
"Overripe fruits – you can use those for smoothies, you can use those for baking, and [wilted] vegetables you can throw in a soup," she says.