How Much Food Do You Waste?
by Linda Resnik

Americans are a wasteful lot. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that Americans throw out over 11 billion pounds of fruit and vegetables every year. According to a survey reported by the Texas Cooperative Extension Agency, 25% of edible food in the United States goes to waste. Another study, “The Mystery of the Cabinet Castaway: Why We Buy Products We Never Use,” focuses on consumers and shows that 12% of all food bought for home use is eventually discarded.

Brian Wansink, co-investigator on the cabinet castaway study, says much of the consumer food waste is by people who are buying for a specific recipe. They either purchase the wrong amounts, or they decide not to make the recipe, often because other needed ingredients aren’t available. Just how many consumer dollars does this waste represent? Are you one of the wasteful ones?
I used to be one of the wasteful ones. And when the waste was the result of my uncertainty about what the right amount was, I was also one of the frustrated ones. Those are among the reasons that Dee Brock and I wrote Food FAQs: Substitutions, Yields & Equivalents. We knew from our own experiences that people often find themselves throwing away bits of food. You’re probably the same. Whether it’s because you chop more onion than you need or because you misjudge how big a chunk of gingerroot is required for 1 tablespoon minced, little bits of waste are common. But the little bits do add up.

Though I was well aware of the problem, I had never made any attempt to quantify it until March 2004 when I conducted a test of the value of wasted food for individual families. My interest was not so much in a scientific study as in anecdotal evidence that would hit home for any audience who read about it. And when I concluded from my test that random shoppers average an extra expense of $14 on what should be a $42 grocery bill, I knew people would want to hear it.

For the test, I theorized that if people select recipes for a small dinner party (eight servings of each recipe was the basis of my study), whatever they purchase over the amount needed is likely to go to waste. Of course, that’s not necessarily true in all cases, but often people select party dishes that call for ingredients not regularly used in their homes.

I conducted the test in two supermarkets in Tyler, Texas. I stopped shoppers at random as they entered the stores. I gave each shopper who agreed to participate a list of ingredients needed for the recipes. Each shopper was to buy exactly what the list required. On the first day of the test, I visited both stores and bought the correct amounts of each item on the list in each store; the average of the total bills from both shopping trips served as the benchmark for the participants.

 Though I told all the participating shoppers that I would pay for their groceries, I asked them to approach their task as though it were their money. The rules: shoppers were free to use the scales in the produce department and to consult product labels for guidance; they were to shop as they normally do – frantic hurry, leisurely stroll, whatever; in purchasing produce, if they could separate the necessary amount from the bunch (for example, 3 carrots from a 1-pound bag) they should do so (though the entire bag would be purchased).

A total of 12 shoppers participated in the test over a 4-day period in March. Each of the total bills was calculated and compared to the benchmark. While some shoppers bought too little of some items, as well as too much of others, only the total bill was considered. When the results were tallied, all shoppers had exceeded the benchmark, though two of them were within 10% of the correct dollar value. Three of the shoppers were high by 50% or more. The others ranged from 13-47% above the benchmark. Overall, the average waste in the study was 33.4%, which was an average of just over $14 per person for this shopping trip.

I wasn’t particularly surprised that everyone was over the mark, but how much waste was involved was unexpected. It is particularly noteworthy that the waste was so high when many of the shoppers actually bought too little of many items. Had we run the calculations strictly on the extra amounts people bought, the waste number would be even greater.

But what I find really instructive is that the more unusual the ingredient, the greater the amount of waste. For instance, though eggplant and sun-dried tomatoes are not exotic, they are relatively expensive products that don’t appear regularly on everybody’s shopping list. All but one shopper bought at least twice as much eggplant as needed; all but four bought two to four times as much sun-dried tomato as the recipes required.

In return for their participation, the shoppers, who were promised anonymity, were invited to keep the groceries they selected and they were asked to comment on their own results. Several of them noted that they were surprised that they did not buy enough of some items they use regularly, like fresh tomatoes, potatoes and onions. But for most, it was the excess that surprised them.

One woman, who identified herself as a “penny-pinching coupon clipper,” said only, “At least my family isn’t here to see how wasteful I am.” One of three men who participated excused his failings by saying he doesn’t normally do the shopping or the cooking. “When I tell my wife about this experience, she’ll never want me to shop again.”

This experiment is not intended to suggest that the exact amount is always required for a recipe. In fact, there are very few instances where the specified amount is an absolute. My point is just to show how easy it is throw away money – something most of us don’t really enjoy doing – and encourage people to take advantage of available information to minimize food waste in our society.

Food FAQs: Substitutions, Yields & Equivalents is one source of information that can help in the fight against wasted food. With yields and equivalents for more than 500 food items, this inexpensive book allows shoppers to determine in advance just how much of each item to buy to have only what is needed – no more and no less.

Do You Know How Much Food to Buy?
Shopping List-------------------- Correct

Amount to Buy
Garlic cloves, 14 teaspoons, minced-------------------- 14 cloves; 1 large head
Green onion, 2 cups chopped-------------------- 4 average bunches; 1 pound
Celery, 1 cup chopped-------------------- 3 stalks
Red bell pepper, 3½ cups chopped-------------------- 3 average
Green bell pepper, ¾ cups chopped-------------------- 1 small
Onion, red, 1½ cups diced-------------------- 1 large; about 9 ounces
Tomatoes, fresh, 5 cups chopped, seeded & peeled-------------------- 7 medium; about 2½ pounds
Tomatoes, sun-dried, ½ cup chopped-------------------- about 30 halves; 2 ounces
Spinach, fresh, 12 cups torn leaves-------------------- 1-pound bunch; or 10-oz package
Zucchini, 3½ cups sliced-------------------- 8 small; 1 pound
Eggplant, 8 cups diced-------------------- 1 large; 1½ pounds
Basil, fresh, 5 tablespoons finely chopped-------------------- 1 average bunch; 2½ -3 ounces
Oregano, fresh, 3½ tablespoons finely chopped-------------------- less than 1 ounce
Parsley, Italian, 3 tablespoons finely chopped-------------------- ¼ of average bunch; 1 ounce
Potatoes, large red, 12 cups cubed-------------------- 32 potatoes; 4 pounds
Chicken, boneless breasts, 2 cups cubed-------------------- 1 pound
Anchovy fillets, 8 fillets-------------------- 1 can
Lime juice, freshly squeezed, 8 tablespoons-------------------- 4 medium limes; about 3 ounces each
Lemon juice, freshly squeezed, 4 teaspoons-------------------- 1 (use ½)
Orange juice, freshly squeezed, ¾ cup-------------------- 1 large; ½ pound
Apples, fresh, 4 cups cubed-------------------- 4 medium; 1.3 pounds
Papaya, fresh, 1 cup peeled & cubed-------------------- 1 medium; ¾ pound
Roquefort cheese, ½ cup crumbled-------------------- 2 ounces
Parmesan cheese, 4 tablespoons grated-------------------- 1 ounce
Chicken broth, 4 cups 2 cans= 3½ cups; make up difference with bouillon, water or wine
Olives, green stuffed, ½ cup sliced + 8 whole-------------------- 36 olives; about 4 ounces

All equivalents and yields for the test and this chart were taken from Food FAQs: Substitutions, Yields & Equivalents (FAQs Press, $12.95); order copies at online booksellers, through your local bookstores, and from the publisher at Good Cooking's Cook Book review of Food FAQs
Recipes Used in “Food Waste” Study

These recipes, taken from the personal favorites recipe library of the author, were scaled for 8 servings. This is not a menu for a single party; rather, these are recipes suitable for parties.
Some recipes for parties (not a menu for a single party)
All recipes adjusted for 8 servings.


 12 cups washed and trimmed fresh spinach
4 cups cubed unpeeled Granny Smith apple
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar, divided
1 cup peeled, cubed ripe papaya
½ cup unsweetened orange juice
2 tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
½ cup crumbled Roquefort cheese
Remove stems from spinach. Tear into bite-size pieces and place in a large bowl; set aside. Combine apple and 1 tablespoon vinegar in a bowl. Toss gently; set aside.
Combine remaining 2 tablespoons vinegar, papaya and next 3 ingredients in a small saucepan; stir well. Bring to a boil; remove from heat, and immediately pour over spinach, tossing to coat. Top with apple mixture and cheese, tossing gently. Serve immediately.


4 teaspoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon garlic, minced
2 cups boneless, skinless chicken breasts, trimmed and cut into 1" chunks
1 cup green onion, white & light green, trimmed and chopped
1 cup celery, chopped
2 cups red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
¾ cup green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1¾ cups long-grain rice, uncooked
4 cups chicken broth
2 cups canned tomatoes, chopped, with juice
4 teaspoons chili powder
2 teaspoons hot pepper sauce (such as Tabasco)
2 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh oregano, chopped
¾ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¾ teaspoon ground cumin
1 cup frozen peas
salt to taste

Heat oil in a 4-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Add garlic and sauté for 30 seconds. Add chicken and sauté for 3-5 minutes, or until done. Transfer chicken to a plate and set aside.
Add green onions, celery and red and green peppers and sauté for 2 minutes or until softened. Add rice and stir for 1 minute. Add chicken stock, tomatoes and their juice, chili powder, hot pepper sauce, basil, oregano, cayenne and cumin. Bring to a boil, stirring. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 25 minutes. Add the frozen peas and chicken and cook for 1 minute or until heated through. Season with salt.


 1 1/3 tablespoons olive oil or safflower oil
1 cup green onions, white and light green, chopped
3½ cups zucchini, thinly sliced
4 teaspoons garlic, minced
Pepper to taste
8 cups eggplant, diced
1½ cups red bell pepper, chopped
2 cups tomatoes, peeled and chopped
3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil or 1 tablespoon dried basil
1½ tablespoons chopped fresh oregano or 2 teaspoons dried oregano
3 tablespoons Italian parsley, chopped

Heat oil in a Dutch oven or flameproof casserole and add green onions, zucchini, garlic and pepper. Sauté for 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add eggplant, red bell pepper, tomatoes, basil and oregano. Cover and simmer 10 minutes. Remove cover and simmer until juices are reduced and thickened. Sprinkle with parsley. Serve hot or cold.


8 tablespoons lime juice
3 pounds cod or red snapper filets (or other white filet)
4 teaspoons oil
4 teaspoons olive oil
1 cup diced red onion
4 teaspoons garlic, minced
3 cups tomatoes, skinned, seeded & diced
4 teaspoons lemon juice
¼ cup fresh orange juice
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons cinnamon
4 pickled jalapenos, diced
2 tablespoons capers, rinsed
½ cup sliced stuffed green olives
lime slices for garnish
8 olives for garnish
2 pickled jalapenos for garnish

Drizzle lime juice over the fish, then rub with the oil just to coat. Set aside to marinate while you prepare the sauce. Heat the olive oil in heavy nonstick skillet. Add the onions and garlic and sauté until softened. Add the diced tomatoes, lemon juice, orange juice, sugar, salt and cinnamon. Simmer for 5 minutes. Then stir in the chiles, capers and olives and simmer 1 or 2 minutes to blend flavors. Set sauce aside while you cook fish.
Either broil or grill fish. To broil, place filets in oiled flat pan. Broil about 6 inches from heat for about 4-5 minutes per side. Check with fork for doneness. (Should be opaque and flake easily.)
(To grill, place filets in oiled, hinged grill. Grill 8 to 10 minutes, turning after 7 to 8 minutes.)
To serve, cut fish into 4 pieces and cover each with sauce. Garnish with slice of lime, whole stuffed olive and halved pickled jalapeno. Serve with rice for best enjoyment of sauce!

Italian-style Potato Salad

12 cups red potatoes, unpeeled and cubed
2½ teaspoons garlic, finely chopped
4 tablespoons olive oil
¾ cup red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons whole grain or Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons salt
Freshly ground black pepper
8 anchovy fillets, or 2 tablespoons anchovy paste
½ cup sun-dried tomatoes, diced (reconstitute in warm water first)
½ cup diced red onion
4 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Drop potatoes into saucepan of boiling water and cook for 8 minutes or until tender; drain well and cool slightly. Whisk garlic, oil, vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper in a large bowl until blended. Add potatoes, anchovies, sun-dried tomatoes, red onion, and cheese; stir gently to combine thoroughly. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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