It takes dedication and commitment to be a more sustainable and environmentally-friendly consumer. This is especially true when it comes to reducing our food waste and improving our grocery shopping habits.
Many of us shop for 2-for-1 deals but let the second item spoil because we never needed it in the first place.
How can we (as consumers) lessen our impact on the planet when it comes to food waste? Here are 7 steps to make your grocery shopping and eating habits more sustainable when it comes to reducing personal food waste.
Tackling food waste: 7 sustainable grocery shopping and eating habits
1. Do a quick kitchen audit
Before you go to the grocery store, take a good look in your fridge, freezer, pantry, cupboards and drawers. Any perishable items such as fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry and dairy should be eaten first. Write them down on a list. Even non-perishable goods and frozen foods don’t last forever. Perhaps you have some frozen meats and canned beans or soups that should be eaten soon.
Tip #1: While you’re doing an audit of the foods in your kitchen, throw out items that have clearly gone bad. This will not only give you a clean slate to work with but also remind you of how much you’re throwing away and show you what you’re not eating (and don’t need to buy more of).
Tip #2: Keep a running list of items such as high-use condiments or spices that need replacing. This way, you won’t impulse buy them when you don’t actually need more.
2. Research recipes with items that need to be eaten
Eating the items at the back of your cabinet or freezer shouldn’t be a chore, so don’t make it one. Find a great recipe (foodgawker is an excellent resource) and make a plan to celebrate the ingredients. For example, if you have squash and frozen broth that need eating, why not make a squash soup? Write down any extra ingredients that you may need—and double-check first that you don’t already have them.
3. Make a meal plan
By now, you should have a list of what food items you have, what needs to be eaten and a couple of recipes that you’d like to try along with ingredients that may be missing.
Depending on how many meals you plan to make at home per day and per week, make a little grid of breakfast, lunch and dinner for the week. Add in the recipes that feature foods that need to get eaten first and fill out your meal plan from there. Don’t forget that some meals could be made from leftovers and spruced up with a delicious salad, vegetables or soup.
Tip: Rotation in our daily and weekly meal plans is key to a well-balanced diet. Throw in a couple of your easy, staple recipes but research some new ones (and ingredients) too. This will ensure that you’re getting a wide variety of essential nutrients.
4. Write a missing items grocery list
Make a shopping list based on your meal plan and kitchen audit. Some items such as milk, bread and eggs, for example, may be staple items on your grocery list and can be added to every list.
5. Eat before you shop
It might sound silly, but part of establishing more sustainable grocery shopping and eating habits is to buy only what you need. Just like going to an all-you-can-eat buffet on an empty stomach, you’re more likely to over-consume at the grocery store if you’re hungry. Eat breakfast, lunch or a snack before you go and then stick to your list. If an item looks delicious or is on sale, before you buy it, consider what you could replace in your meal plan (and grocery list) first.
6. Stick to your meal plan but be flexible
Congratulate yourself for thinking sustainably about how you grocery shop and consume foods.
You’ve done all the hard work of doing a kitchen audit, writing out what needs to be eaten, recipes and missing ingredients and making a meal plan—so honour the time spent by sticking to it.
Of course, if your kale is yellowing or a bunch of herbs are browning, having the flexibility in your meal plan will help you reduce your food waste. Make a quick kale caesar salad on the side or throw some herbs into your roast to save them (and add flavour to a dish).
7. Save your leftovers
Work your leftovers into your meal plans if you can. If you know that you’re making lasagna, for example, with noodles, canned tomatoes and carrots that all needed to be eaten, there’s a good chance that you’ll have leftovers. Reheat it for lunch with a salad and a piece of fruit for lunch or make another dinner of it a couple of nights later (to give yourself a break from it).
Bonus step: Thank yourself for practicing sustainable shopping and eating habits
As you can see, it takes time and effort—and diligence—to shop and eat sustainably. But it pays off both for your health, wellness and personal finances and for the health of the planet.
The next time that you’re making a homecooked meal with food that might have otherwise gone to waste, take pride in the fact that you’re doing your part. Sometimes, it’s the little things that make a big difference (especially when it comes to our home).
#WasteWise: A note about water. And what you can do
Second Harvest has partnered with Loblaw’s to help Canadians become #WasteWise. Did you know that food loss and waste accounts for close to 60% of the food industry’s blue water? Please sign our Waste Wise Pledge
The first thing that you need to know is that best before dates are about quality, not safety. It quite literally means that the food was best, or in its finest form, before said date. After that date means that it’s beginning its slow decline in quality.
In Canada, only five types of food have true expiry dates: baby formula, meal replacements or supplement bars, meal supplement drinks, formulated liquid diets and foods used in low-energy diets (the last two both require a prescription). These foods should not be eaten past their expiry date.
This blog post talks about everything else. All of the forgotten canned beans and soups in the back of your cupboard or frozen and packaged pizzas stuck to the back of your freezer.
Canned goods: Last up to one year past the best before date
Dairy (and eggs): Lasts up to two weeks past the best before date
Poultry pieces: Last up to six months in the freezer
Meats (incl. beef, lamb, pork and whole poultry): Last up to one year in the freezer
Dry cereals: Last up to one year past the best before date
Packaged snacks (incl. popcorn, granola bars and bagged snacks): Last up to one year past the best before date
Prepared and frozen meals: Last up to one year past the best before date in the freezer
Unopened, shelf-stable condiments: Last up to one year past the best before date
Unopened drinks (incl. juice or coconut water): Last up to one year past the best before date
Your opened ketchup in the fridge is only safe to eat for up to about six months after the best before date—not six years. Your yellow mustard, one year. Mayonnaise, three months. Only your hot sauce will last an extra three to five years when stored in the fridge (Sriracha only two years).
3 Simple best before date checks for packaging and storage
1. What temperature was the food stored at?
Regardless of the best before date, perishable food items must be stored at the correct temperature. Two to four hours in a bad temperature zone (4-60 degrees celsius) is enough to spoil the food.
For example, if you accidentally left yogurt, milk or meat out of the fridge overnight, it sat in the “danger temperature zone” for too long and is not safe to eat.
2. How does the packaging look, feel and smell?
Check canned goods and food packaging for bulging, tears, rips, water damage or signs of insects. Look for mould, foul smells or discolouration. All of these may be signs that the food has gone bad and is not safe to eat, regardless of what the best before date says.
One exception to the rule, however, comes to mind with hard cheeses and mould. If there’s a little mould on one corner but the packaging wasn’t damaged and it long before the best before date, it’s probably safe to cut it off and eat the rest. This does not apply to soft cheeses, however.
Use your senses and instinct.
3. Was the food frozen properly and how is the packaging?
When meats, fruits and vegetables are safely stored and frozen at the proper temperature (at or below -18 degrees celsius), they can usually be consumed between six months to one year later regardless of the best before date and depending on the food. (See the poultry and meats sections in the list above.)
If the frozen items have freezer burn or icicles formed on them—or if the packaging is ripped—they may not be safe to eat.
Use your senses and instinct, along with this as a general guideline, to help you lessen your food waste impact and make the most of your groceries.
Why is understanding the best before date important?
Too much food goes to waste because of a lack of awareness and education. Consumers throw out or avoid purchasing good food because it was too close to the best before date. Grocers dump milk and dairy products (that we now know are good for another two weeks!) for this very same reason.
But if we all made the commitment to understanding best before dates, think of the food that we could divert from landfills.
Second Harvest has free e-learning modules for you to try, including training on food date labels, like best before and expiry dates. Visit training.secondharvest.ca to create your free account and get started!
Pandemic aside, food insecurity is a daily reality for too many. According to the Community Food Centres Canada (CFCC), 4.5 million Canadians experienced food insecurity before COVID. That’s about 1 in every 8.5 Canadians who are food insecure. They either cannot afford to buy the quantity and quality of food for a well-balanced diet or they struggle to afford to buy food at all.
Despite this, the average Canadian household spends $1,766 annually—nearly $5 a day on food that they will throw out. What’s worse, is that only 40% of food produced in Canada is eaten every year. Nearly 60% or 35.5 million metric tonnes (a small city of skyscrapers in weight)—of food produced in our country goes to the landfill.
Consumers are only a portion of the problem. A vast number of produce never even leaves the farm or manufacturer and every step of the food chain discards more of it. Regardless of where along the food supply chain the loss is happening, there a growing gap in food equality in Canada.
Millions are hungry while millions of tonnes of good surplus food go to waste. Making that connection is part of the solution.
Food inequality in Canada: Food waste and hunger in the millions
Meanwhile, 32% of food wasted and lost in Canada was avoidable and edible good, fresh food that could have gone to communities in need. That’s 11.2 million metric tonnes of food. According to NPR’s The Salt, the average American eats about one tonne of food per year.
We could feed up to 11.2 million Canadians every day for a year with just the avoidable food that we waste every year alone. In other words, if we didn’t waste good, fresh food at every level of the food chain and, instead, it was redirected to the ~five million people who are food insecure, then we can enact real change in Canada.
Closing the gap between food waste and food insecurity
The team at Second Harvest works to close the food inequality gap by bringing good, surplus food from those who have it to those who need it most.
During COVID-19, hunger and food insecurity spiked around the world and at home here in Canada.
Our community members across the country say that food does not last before there is money to buy more. Others go hungry because they lost their jobs and don’t have money to buy food. Some Canadians worry about being able to feed themselves and their children well-balanced or varied meals.
Canadians who are vulnerable to be food insecure during COVID-19
Statistics Canada says that one-in-seven is a conservative estimate. It underrepresents some populations who are more vulnerable to food insecurity. They give the examples of those who are divorced, widowed or separated, renters and those who work in industries where working from home isn’t possible.
Unfortunately, we also know that food insecurity is disproportionately represented in low-income, BIPOC and northern communities in Canada.
Likewise, Canadians living in households with children are more likely (19.2%) to have food insecurity compared to those without (12.2%). Individuals with children are more likely to worry about food running out or being able to afford to eat balanced meals.
Canadians who left work because of COVID (for lay-offs, business closure or personal reasons) were nearly three times more likely to be food insecure than those who worked. Widespread job loss and reduced hours of work triggered financial instability for many Canadians. This, of course, has many repercussions beyond hunger, including physical and mental health risks.
Food insecurity in Canada before the pandemic
While Canada has seen a concerningly significant jump in hunger this year, food insecurity is a reality for many.
According to the Community Food Centres Canada (CFCC), an estimated 4.5 million Canadians experienced food insecurity before COVID. Statistics Canada from 2017-2018 found that 8.8% of Canadian households, or approximately 1.2 million, experiences moderate or severe food insecurity due to financial constraints.
Moderate food insecurity happens when individuals struggle with the quality and quantity of food consumed. They may struggle to feed themselves or their children a well-balanced and varied diet, for example. On the other hand, severe food insecurity takes place when there is a disrupted eating pattern or reduced food intake. Both of these circumstances can cause a wide range of health problems from poor physical health to mental challenges such as depression and distress.
Hunger at home: Bringing good food to Canadians who need it
October 16, 2020, was World Food Day.
We know that people struggle every day to access good, healthy and nourishing food. The pandemic exacerbated the problem but by no means was the cause. Hunger exists around the world and at home—and is only getting worse.
Second Harvest CEO Lori Nikkel was honoured as a Food Hero by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization on World Food Day. “During the first few weeks of COVID-19,” she said in an interview, “where there was nothing in the grocery stores, every Canadian, in that moment, was feeling really food insecure and very scared. Managing the fear was probably the most important part—explaining to people that the supply chain is fine.”
“There’s more than enough food to feed everybody, so it’s just a matter of making that connection.” Second Harvest works hard to make that connection between good surplus food that might otherwise go to waste and food insecure communities across Canada.
We’ve read the stats. One-third of all food produced worldwide goes to waste. If food waste and loss (FWL) were a country, it would be the worst emitter of CO2 after China and the U.S. Americans each toss one pound of food per day, every day. But that’s everyone else.
Canada isn’t adding to the problem, is it? Think again.
Canada’s food waste problem: 8 stats every shopper needs to know
1. Nearly 60% of the food produced in Canada is tossed every year
That’s about 35.5 million metric tonnes—or a small city of skyscrapers in weight. Every. Year.
Of that FWL in Canada alone, 32% was avoidable and edible food that could have helped feed communities in need of good food. That’s equivalent to 11.2 million metric tonnes of waste thrown into landfills.
2. 32% of that FWL was avoidable
To put that into perspective, that’s 95 CN Towers worth of avoidable waste annually.
3. 4 million Canadians—including 1.4 million children—are food insecure
Despite the fact that 11.2 million metric tonnes of food waste were avoidable (ie. fresh, edible, delicious and nutritious but thrown out for cosmetic or market reasons), 4 million Canadians struggle to access healthy food. That’s almost 11% of the population of Canada—and a quarter of them are children.
4. 56.5 million metric tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions annually from FWL in Canada
This isn’t just a hunger relief problem, it’s also damaging our planet. In fact, FWL makes up almost 60% of the food industry’s environmental footprint.
When food ends up in a landfill, it creates a methane gas that is 25 times more damaging to the environment than carbon dioxide.
5. $49.46 billion is the annual cost of FWL in Canada
Based on the consumer value of food, the total avoidable food waste and loss in Canada was a staggering $49.46 billion annually. That represents 51.8% of the money that Canadians spent on food from retail stores in Canada in 2016.
6. The cost of FWL could have fed every Canadian for almost 5 months
That annual cost of FWL in Canada equals 3% of Canada’s 2016 GDP and could feed every person living in Canada for almost five months.
7. 21% of FWL at home was avoidable and creates 2.38 million metric tonnes of waste
Food waste isn’t just a problem for farmers, manufacturers, distributors, grocers and restaurants. It’s a consumer problem too—and happens every day right in our kitchens. If 21% of the food we throw out was avoidable, what does that say about our shopping and purging habits?
8. $1,766 annual cost per Canadian household in avoidable food loss
We’re paying into the broken food system. In fact, we consumers spend an average of $1,766 every year on groceries that we don’t eat (but could have). That’s like buying a $5 coffee every single day and never drinking it or paying a $148 monthly fee for nothing.
One of the biggest causes of food loss and waste in Canada is our culture of accepting waste. We need to rethink what (and how much) we buy and what we put in our landfills (or compost buckets).