The Leftovers We Toss

Wasted groceries are a big, expensive problem. Here are the items Americans are most likely to throw away.

No matter how fond we are of turkey Monte Cristo sandwiches or even turkey tamales, there comes a time when even the most beloved Thanksgiving leftovers—yes, even grandma's cornbread stuffing—must make their way into the garbage. For most Americans, that time will come sometime this week, if it hasn't already.

Thanksgiving remnants are just one drop in the American food-waste bucket, though. The amount of food we throw away year-round is adding up to be a bit of a problem. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, food scraps make up 20 percent of our landfills, and each year Americans toss 35 million tons of uneaten groceries. That's nearly enough to feed the population of California.

Restaurants and businesses are responsible for about half of food waste, and consumers for the other half, according to the EPA. All that garbage costs American households $124 billion each year.

So what are we most likely to dispose of? Fresh fruits and vegetables, which tend to give up the ghost rather quickly, are one major culprit. Americans throw away 31 percent of all tomatoes they buy, for example, or 21 tomatoes per year per person.

Here's a more detailed breakdown, via the USDA's food-loss estimates among consumers for 2010:

Percent of Various Food Items Wasted by Households
Percent of various food items, in pounds, thrown out by consumers (Olga Khazan/Atlantic)

Fish is the most likely food item to end up in the trash, followed by added sugars and sweeteners—likely because they're in a lot of the treats that we're casting off.

Economically, it's meat, fish, and poultry that costs the most when you add up food waste from restaurants and households combined, as the USDA did in 2012:

Value of Wasted Food, in Billions of Dollars
Value of food wasted by both consumers and businesses, in billions of dollars (USDA)

The EPA recommends a number of strategies for reducing waste, like making shopping lists, eating older groceries first, and learning the proper way to store fruits and vegetables.

The agency recently designed a program called "Food: Too Good to Waste," that aims to get consumers to buy what they need and eat what they buy.

One reason that food-waste advocates' message of "Just eat it" hasn't quite taken off, though, might be that nutritionists are simultaneously putting out warning messages about the dangers of past-their-prime groceries.

Jill Roberts, a professor at the University of South Florida College of Public Health, recently told Tampa's Fox 13 that people should even be wary of milk and eggs left out sweating on the counter while the coffee brews. And don't even think about that Wednesday-after-Thanksgiving turkey tetrazzini:

"Five days after Thanksgiving," she said, "you should not be eating that turkey."