America's $165 billion food-waste problem

Americans waste 35 million tons of food a year.

Can you afford to throw away $2,000 a year? If you are the average American, the answer is, apparently, yes—and you may not even be aware of it.

Americans throw away approximately $165 billion worth of food each year, and for the average American family, that can be up to $2,200 per household, according to a recent study by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

That all adds up to 35 million tons of food each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency in its most recent estimate. That's 50 percent more than in 1990 and three times more of what Americans discarded in 1960. That's a sad statistic, considering hunger in America. According to Feeding America, right now 1 in 7 Americans—or 46.5 million people—use food banks.

Money down the drain
Oxford | Getty Images

It's a costly trend. "The amount of food Americans waste has increased over 50 percent in the last four decades, one contributor to the staggering 40 percent of all food which goes to waste in this country," according to an excerpt from the soon-to-be-released book "The Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook" by NRDC staff scientist Dana Gunders.

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The runaway portion sizes in the American food industry exacerbate the waste issue.

"From 1982–2002, the average pizza slice grew 70 percent in calories. The average chicken Caesar salad doubled in calories, and the average chocolate chip cookie quadrupled," revealed the NRDC study.

"This is a cultural phenomenon that needs to change. Before the iconic anti-littering campaigns of the 1970s, littering was a common practice," said JoAnne Berkenkamp, senior advocate for food & agriculture at the NRDC. "Today it isn't acceptable to throw your leftover cheeseburger out the window of your car, but most of us don't think twice about throwing it in the trash."

How to save your $2,000

Much of household waste is due to overpurchasing, food spoilage and not maximizing the way we use the food we purchase.

The NRDC study cites three key ways to tackle consumer waste.

1. Make a shopping list.

This first step might seem relatively simple. However, the average family wastes about 20 percent of their groceries, according to the NRDC. That's because people impulse-buy at the supermarkets, giving in to the psychological tactics stores use to encourage consumers to shop more, such as strategically placing products at the ends of the aisles or offering product samples. But if you stick to your list, the savings can be big.

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2. Don't put too much stock in the expiration date.

There is a great deal of confusion about expiration dates, and contrary to popular belief, most dates aren't statements about food safety.

There are two kinds of dates that commonly appear on food products. A "sell by" date is intended to be a message from the food manufacturer to the retailer so the store knows how long to display an item. It indicates that the product will still have significant shelf life once it reaches a consumer's home. "Best by" dates refer to quality, not safety, and signifies best flavor or peak freshness. A product will still be edible for several days afterward.

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Unfortunately, due to the lack of federal regulation about date labeling and confusion among consumers, many retailers and consumers throw food out on or before the date on the package, no matter what the date was intended to mean. "This contributes to enormous food losses at home and in the store," Berkenkamp said. "The best bet for consumers is to use your own judgment about whether the food in your fridge is still good. And if you think you can't use it up soon enough, pop it in your freezer rather than throwing it out," she said.

3. Learn from the top chefs—they don't waste.

Consumers need to start thinking like chefs. Restaurant chefs try not to waste any food, because they know better than anyone else that food is money. They use every part of the fare, from stalk to stem; no ounce goes to waste.

"Chefs do this every day in their kitchens, using culinary technique to transform 'lowly' ingredients into something delicious because it doesn't make sense—economically or ecologically—to throw them out," said Dan Barber, co-owner and executive chef at Blue Hill Farm and a leader in the sustainable food movement. "That's the real power of good cooking, and it's at the root of the world's great peasant cuisines."

By Lauren Flick, CNBC producer