Why aren’t Americans eating their leftovers?

November 7, 2017

Once the go-to meal for school lunches and thrifty home cooks, leftovers today constitute the single largest source of edible food waste in U.S. homes, according to a new study by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental group.

In the report, Wasted: How American Is Losing Up to 40% of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill, published last week, the NRDC sought to measure how much food Americans squander and what types of foods hit the trash first. The study analyzed the food-waste habits of more than 1,151 households in Nashville, Denver and New York, whose members agreed to keep diaries of the items they tossed and allow researchers to check their trash cans afterward.

The researchers were stunned: The average person wasted 3.5 pounds of food per week. Of that, only 33% consisted of inedible parts, such as chicken bones or banana peels. Fully 23% consisted of prepared leftovers, from any source — followed by fruits and vegetables, baked goods, and liquids and oils.

Indeed, the study found that many consumers appear to stash containers in their refrigerators and then forget to excavate them before the food goes bad. Other times, consumers are not in the mood to eat the same food on multiple occasions.

This is not a newly minted American behavior, although it has come under scrutiny with increased attention to food waste. The food historian Helen Veit of Michigan State University has observed that regard for leftovers plummeted in the 1960s, when refrigeration and cheap food became plentiful. Although saving food had been patriotic during the World Wars, and economically necessary in the century leading up to them, rising incomes and agricultural productivity pushed thrift out of favor.

“By the 1960s, people were able to say, ‘I’d rather not eat that leftover pot roast,’” Veit told  Maine’s Bangor Daily News for a recent report. “They could say, ‘Let’s drive to a restaurant or go to the grocery store or get something out of the freezer.’”

How can Americans be persuaded now to love their leftovers? If Americans are truly to embrace the doggy bag again, they may need a very good reason, Veit said. She sees one possible model in the government propaganda campaigns that got Americans to embrace leftovers during World War I and World War II.

“They succeeded,” she said, “by pushing this idea that it was morally wrong to waste food.”

Research contact: nrdcinfo@nrdc.org