Despite the best laid plans, most of us end up throwing away food and feeling bad about it. That gorgeous bunch of lettuce you got at the farmer’s market? Liquefied in the produce drawer. The mango you intended for a new salsa recipe? Unspeakably smelly and buzzing with fruit flies—an innocent bystander that missed its moment of glory as the perfect complement on Taco Tuesday.

A new report from the National Resources Defense Council shows that a staggering 40% of food in America—more than 20 pounds per person each month—is thrown away. In terms of dollars and other resources, the report estimates, discarded food is equivalent to $165 billion per year plus 25% of the water used to irrigate and grow the food. Throw in 10% of all energy used in the U.S. plus the chemicals and land used to grow the food and to put the waste in landfills, and you have untenable losses.

Here are five simple ways you can reduce your food waste footprint.

  1. Plan ahead. Buy only what you need. Okay, so the bok choy looks good this week and it’s on sale, but have a game plan for it and stick to plan. Everything you buy should have a purpose.
  2. If you can’t eat it, freeze it. Most foods can be frozen. Access the comprehensive guide at the National Center for Home Food Preservation for the best cheat sheets available on general freezing guidelines, what containers work best and an alphabetized list of foods with freezing/preserving tips for each: http://nchfp.uga.edu/how/freeze.html.
  3. Cook it, juice it or blend it. Stay on top of your inventory by using it creatively. If you can’t put it in a smoothie or make a sauce from it, use it to make soup or a flavorful stock, or juice it.
  4. Compost. Save all of your scraps and compost them. Your garden beds will love it when you feed them your homemade “black gold:” http://www.howtocompost.org
  5. Read past expiration dates. Just because the date says “Best by November 1” doesn’t mean you have to throw it away if you miss the date. Use common sense . . . and test with your nose and eyes. If it smells bad or looks bad, then dispose of it. According to the USDA, “Except for ‘use-by’ dates, product dates don’t always pertain to home storage and use after purchase. ‘Use-by’ dates usually refer to best quality and are not safety dates. Even if the date expires during home storage, a product should be safe, wholesome and of good quality if handled properly.”

PHOTOGRAPHY: U.S. Department of Agriculture