Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Leon Kaye headshot

Americans Eating Fewer Leftovers, Food Waste on the Rise

By Leon Kaye

We’ve all done it: we ordered that massive bowl of pasta or a few too many dishes at the local Chinese or Indian restaurant. No problem, we just have the leftovers boxed up as we look forward to nuking them tomorrow for lunch or even adding a fried egg on top for breakfast. Then as we hop the train or into the car home, we realized: that darned box of leftovers was forgotten on the table.

But according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), now we are often not eating those leftovers, period. As a result, the average American wastes 3.5 pounds of food a week - 2.5 pounds of which is still edible.

All of us are guilty - the NRDC’s recent study found that food waste did not vary much by income level, how often we eat in or out, what language we speak at home, or ethnicity. And awareness or ignorance of America’s food waste problem - up to 40 percent of it is wasted, suggests many studies - proved not to be much of a factor, either.

NRDC researchers worked with families in Denver, Memphis and New York City to get accurate results to the study. Participating households agreed to log kitchen diaries for a week, in which they monitored food wasted by type, weight, the reason why it was tossed out, and its final destination (as in the trash, down the garbage disposal, or to the family dog.)

The over 1,000 households that the NRDC surveyed also agreed to have the NGO’s researchers check their trash cans during the project.

In following up with these families, most of them told NRDC researchers that the reasons why the tossed out food is that they believed it was no longer edible, or in the case of leftovers, did not care to eat them after all. NRDC further crunched the numbers and found that after the retailer and commercial food sales industry, restaurants and caterers were the second largest contributors to municipal food waste - accounting for anywhere from one-fifth to one-third of the food waste from city to city.

So how can consumers, the food industry and cities tackle food waste? Every city will have to calibrate their plans based on local realities. New Yorkers living in small kitchens, for example, do not have the space for multiple recycling bins - a single-stream system operating in cities such as San Francisco would be more realistic. Streamlined donations laws would also help food reach those at at risk to food insecurity. More families would be willing to compost if it were convenient - and if they did not live in a building susceptible to ants or cockroaches. Restaurants could also do their part and slim down those portions (which could help with confronting America's obesity problem, too).

Finally, a cultural shift is needed. Americans spend far less of their income on food now than in previous generations, so many consumers do not think twice about ditching leftovers knowing tomorrow’s lunch will be a relatively cheap option. Equating conservation with patriotism, as in the victory gardens of our great-grandparents’ time during World War II, will not happen anytime soon. But popular media could play a role, especially during this time when Instagram food pics and cable TV’s Food Network have made photogenic food trendy. The reality show Chopped, for example, has had leftovers as the mainstays of cooking competition in the past.

Image credit: Wally Gobetz/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye