In many cultures around the world, tables overflowing with more food than necessary are associated with celebrations – such as Thanksgiving in the US – and are symbolic of success and freedom from fear of food scarcity, researchers from Cornell Food and Brand Lab, Embrapa and the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Brazil explain in a recently published study in the Journal of Food Products Marketing.
In addition, while a bit outdated, bountiful meals prepared by women also instill a sense of being a “good mother,” the researchers found after interviewing 20 lower-middle income families in Upstate New York about their approach to buying and preparing food, and comparing their results to similar research conducted in Brazil.
The families also told the researchers that they tend to over-prepare food because they want to provide a variety of choices, including healthy options to compensate for treats they give their children as rewards or less healthy, but much-loved foods that they also prepare.
In addition, some of the mothers interviewed said they over-buy food because they believe that bulk purchasing saves them money and time that they can then spend in other ways with their families.
Unfortunately, these positive intentions promote food waste, and in turn waste money, the researchers say. They also argue it can promote overconsumption and obesity – all negative consequences that outweigh misguided good intentions.
The extent of the problem
In the US, about a third of the $607 billion of available food supply at the retail and consumer levels goes uneaten, and 21% of this comes from household waste – the vast majority of which is considered avoidable, according to the study.
This translates to about $371 per capita of food wasted in US household each year, the researchers add.
The most common source of food waste in homes, accounting for 65%, is unused leftovers, according to the study.
“Most families … tend to have a problematic relation with leftovers, which are often stored for too long in the refrigerator for reasons that go beyond not remember that they had it in there,” such as believing the leftovers will be a convenient meal later or not having a plan for when to eat the leftovers, according to the researchers.
“Interestingly,” they add, “it was mentioned that even knowing that the food might not be consumed, it is important for them to store in the back of the refrigerator until it spoils,” most likely so they don’t feel wasteful or because they are fearful of food insecurity.
Another common source of food waste is raw vegetables, which 35% of the study subjects reported throwing away in the previous week.
The authors suggest this may be related to consumers not having clear meal plans when they buy food or not knowing how to prepare or store produce properly. This is particularly a problem for families who buy farm shares at the beginning of a harvest season and during the peak receive vegetables they have never heard of or too many to eat before they spoil.
Refrigerated products, bread and greens all were wasted in the previous week by 20% of the respondents, followed by fruits and uncooked chicken legs by 10% of the respondents.
Other common items that were wasted include prepared pancake mix, salad in bags, snack crackers and uncooked sausages, the study revealed.
Create positive change with positive messages
Rather than blaming consumers for wasting food, the researchers suggest the best way to mitigate household food waste could be to frame messages toward the potential benefits of saving food for the family budget.
“Additionally, given that the non-use of leftovers was the most frequent type of food waste identified, positive messages can also be applied to show that the consumption of foods prepared on previous days can actually be both tasty and safe if stored appropriately,” the authors add.
Finally, they encourage retailers to leverage their brand images to communicate sustainability messages, which in turn could elevate consumers’ perceptions of the stores by tapping into shoppers’ growing concerns about environmental stewardship and health and wellbeing.