Take a One-Week Zero Food Waste Challenge

Take this one week zero food waste challenge to make a serious impact on your carbon footprint—these practical tips will help you make healthy habits to go green today!

You can truly honor Mother Earth by adopting more green tips in your kitchen and eating a kinder dietary pattern for the planet. In fact, your eating style can be one of the most powerful things you can do to reduce your planetary impacts, from greenhouse gas emissions and pollution to squandering precious resources like water. One big way you can celebrate the earth and make a significant cut to your environmental footprint is by reducing your food waste. You can take a one-week challenge and go zero waste in the kitchen! At first it might sound a little crazy, but adding some sustainable, practical tips into your daily routine is a great way to prevent part of the 125 – 160 billion pounds of food that ends up in landfills, causing more methane gas to be released into the air, not to mention wasted resources in food production. Limiting the amount of food that is wasted in your household can show you how it is possible to live a lower-waste lifestyle and encourage those around you to start the one-week zero food waste challenge as well.

Did you know that the United States wastes about 40% of the food produced? Perfectly edible, healthful food is wasted in restaurants, grocery stores, schools, and in our homes very single day.  Restaurants contribute to food waste by preparing too much food, not storing ingredients properly, and failing to incorporate food scraps into dishes. It is estimated that the US restaurant industry produces 22 – 33 billion pounds of food waste each year. Unfortunately, grocery stores contribute even more to food waste, with an estimated 43 billion pounds of food being wasted annually. Food is wasted in grocery stores due to throwing out imperfect produce, overstocking displays, and purchasing large amounts of unpopular items that don’t sell. Although restaurants and grocery stores may seem like the largest contributors, American households are responsible for the largest amount of food waste—76 billion pounds each year. That is roughly 238 pounds wasted per person yearly. Indeed, most of the waste occurs at your everyday level, in your own kitchens and dining rooms.

One way you can help cut back on food waste is to start new habits in your own home by trying a zero food waste challenge for one week. A zero food waste challenge can help prevent you from throwing out food in your kitchen, as well as using all of the produce items, such as leaves, seeds, and stems in a creative, yet delicious way.  This challenge can help you not only prevent more food from going to the landfills, but live a more sustainable, healthful, balanced life as well. 

Why is Food Wasted at Home?
Some big reasons so much food is wasted at home is because of food spoiling, overcooking for a meal, confusion with “best by” labels on foods, purchasing too much food, and lack of using reusable food storage containers. 
Food spoilage. Food spoils at home because many people don’t know how to prolong the shelf life of produce or store it correctly. Also disorganized fridges, with a ton of food crammed in may prevent you from seeing produce that needs to be used up before it goes bad. Large portions sizes. As the size of food portions continues to increase over the years, more and more households are preparing way too much food for one meal that is not eaten. Sadly, these leftovers spoil or are thrown out, which contributes to about one-third of household food waste. Best-by dates. The “best-by” date on food labels can make you think that a food item is no longer good once that date arrives, but the label just means it will be at its best quality before that date. The food may still be edible even past the date, it just may not be as enjoyable or tasty as it could have been before the date. Food Packaging. Besides the amount of food that is wasted each year, all that food may come in plastic or paper packaging. Over 81,200 pounds of containers and plastic packaging is produced each year, with only 44,330 of those pounds being recycled yearly. Roughly 30,470 pounds are tossed into landfills each year, which leads to the release of more greenhouse gas emissions. One way to prevent more packaging material traveling to landfills, is by purchasing produce at local farmers markets and storing the food items in reusable containers that are made from glass, silicon, or recycled materials.  Implementing these small changes can dramatically reduce the amount of waste that you are generating when purchasing food. 

How to Prepare for Zero Food Waste Living
To prepare for your week of zero waste living, plan the meals you’ll prepare for the week so you’ll be aware of the ingredients and how much of them you’ll need, which can help you cut back on unnecessary food purchases. You can also plan meals that will complement other meals you’ve prepared, so when you have leftovers, these extras can be used for another meal as well. For example, make a big pot of baked beans and use those as a side-dish or in wraps the rest of the week. Buying reusable food storage containers like mason jars, large glass storage containers, and silicon bags are great substitutes for plastic packaging and plastic containers. Another way to reduce waste for the week is to buy a compost bin that can sit on your counter or under the sink to collect produce scraps. The last way to prepare for this week of zero waste is to purchase reusable grocery bags (I enjoy using canvas bags) and produce bags that you can take to the grocery store. Now you’re ready to conquer your week of zero food waste living! For more kitchen gear ideas that are eco-friendly, check out my FREE Eco-Friendly Kitchen Gear Shopping Guide.

11 Tips for Going Zero Waste
1. Store Produce Correctly. Prolong the shelf life of your produce by setting your refrigerator between 35-38 degrees Fahrenheit. Certain fresh fruits and vegetables should be stored in separate fridge containers that either have high or low humidity. Drawers in your refrigerator should have a humidity control scale that you can adjust, by lowering or raising it. One drawer can be set to high humidity to store broccoli, cabbage, carrots, herbs, strawberries, and squash. The other drawer can be put at low humidity, which is the perfect condition to store apples, avocados, mangos, pears, and stone fruit. Also, you can store fresh cut leafy greens from the farmers market in a jar with some water in the fridge to prevent them from wilting.
Borscht with Beet and Beet Greens
2. Use Stems, Leaves, and Seeds. The stems of swiss chard, broccoli, fennel, and kale are often tossed, but these are perfectly edible and filled with fiber. Leaves from beets, radishes, daikon greens, and turnips are delicious as well. You can treat these leaves like any other leafy green vegetable and throw them into your salads. Seeds from pumpkin and squash are great when roasted in the oven, then they can be used in many recipes such as baked goods, sauces, and salads.

3. Boil those Peels & Tops. The peels from carrots and potatoes, plus the tops of vegetables, like carrots and fennel, can be used to make a yummy vegetable stock. Plus, you can throw extra garlic, onion, and herb stems into the pot as well. Not only will you be reusing “unwanted” produce parts, but you can make a healthy stock to be used in chili, soups, and stews.
Green Bean Mushroom Pot Pies with Mashed Potatoes
4. Use Leftovers in Creative Ways. Instead of sticking your leftovers in the back of the fridge to be forgotten in a few days, why not incorporate those leftovers into your next meal? These leftovers could be paired with other leftovers or with new ingredients to whip up a casserole, soup, or salad. For example, use leftover mashed potatoes to top a pot pie, and cooked beans to mash into burritos. Also, the leftovers could be packed as your lunch for school or work the next day. If they don’t fit into the meal plan in the immediate future, go ahead and freeze (always label them) leftovers.

5. Preserve Extra Food. Any extra food that you don’t think you will be able to use in time can always be thrown into the freezer and produce can be pickled. Pickling can give you a tasty food item that will last for a long time, but you must follow proper pickling instructions to prevent bacteria from sneaking into the cans.

6. Store Food in Reusable Containers. Not only can food be wasted, but many people may use plastic zip lock bags to store food as well, which are made up single use plastic that eventually is thrown out. Cut back on your kitchen plastic waste by storing food in reusable glass containers and reusable silicon bags. This type of storage will help keep your food fresher for longer too. 

7. Dehydrate Produce. Purchasing a dehydrator might be a great investment to turn almost wasted food, like chili peppers and herbs, into a spice to sprinkle into soups. A dehydrator is a great way to save wasted food and create a variety of spices, ingredients, and snacks in your own kitchen. For example, dehydrating lemon, ginger, turmeric, onion, or garlic until no moisture remains, then blending it into a fine powder is a great way to have flavorful spices on hand. Also, fruit, like bananas or plantains, can be dehydrated into chips that are delicious to dip in peanut butter or mix together with trail mix.

8. Buy Frozen. Frozen produce is as nutrient-rich as fresh produce and can be stored in your freezer for a long time. Whenever you need some vegetables, just pull out your frozen veggies, throw onto a baking sheet or boil in water. This is a great way to store more produce on hand if you know that you won’t be able to consume those fresh veggies in time.

9. Replace Single Use Plastic. Did you make a smoothie then grab a plastic straw? Why not replace that plastic straw with a metal or silicon straw, which can easily be thrown into your dishwasher. Another way to cut back on plastic in the kitchen is to use food wax wrap to cover up leftovers, instead of plastic wrap. Also, it may be easier to pull out the plastic cutlery when guests come over, but why not opt for stainless steel silverware that can be used again and again? Plus, this will help you save some money from purchasing plastic utensils that will only be used once.

10. Switch to Reusable Dish Clothes. For any messes that may occur on your kitchen counter during the cooking process, wipe those messes up with reusable clothes instead of paper towels. Reusable clothes can easily be thrown into your washing machine to be turned as good as new and will help you not waste a ton of paper towel. Also, dish clothes can replace sponges that are made from wood pulp and plastic.

11. Compost Food Scraps. Keep a compost bin on your kitchen counter to toss away unusable food scraps from fruits and vegetables. Then you can use your compost as fertilizer for your outdoor or windowsill garden.

Are you ready to get started on your one week zero food waste challenge! Practicing all of these tips for one week can help you achieve your goals of cutting your environmental footprint, as well as learn some new habits that are good for you and the planet.

Written by Michelle Naragon, dietetic intern with Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN

For other ways to live and eat sustainably, check out the following:

10 Sustainable Kitchen Swaps
What is a Sustainable Eating Style?
A Climate Friendly Diet


Gallary, C.  (2020).  What to Store in Your Refrigerator Humidity Drawers. Kitchn. https://www.thekitchn.com/what-to-store-in-your-refrigerator-humidity-drawers-tips-from-the-kitchn-178094

N.A.  (2021).  Containers and Packaging: Product Specific Data.  EPA. https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/containers-and-packaging-product-specific-data

N.A.  (2021).  The Problem of Food Waste.  Foodprint.  https://foodprint.org/issues/the-problem-of-food-waste/

Rakes, M.  10 Steps to Reduce Waste in the Kitchen.  Graceful Little Honey Bee. https://www.gracefullittlehoneybee.com/10-steps-to-reduce-waste-in-the-kitchen/

Robbins, O.  (2020).  How to Store Produce: A Guide to Fruit and Vegetables.  Food Revolution Network.  https://foodrevolution.org/blog/how-to-store-produce/w
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