The scenario is all too common: tucked away in the far corner of a refrigerator or a pantry shelf is a container whose contents are past their prime, waiting to be tossed. As the nearly moldy leftovers fall into the trash, there are thoughts about the money and cooking time wasted.

Food waste has long been associated with guilt. Parents nag, “There are starving children everywhere,” as children stubbornly pushed peas and carrots off the plate. Many overlook that food waste can be harmful to health. If frustration builds, people are less likely to purchase foods with a shorter shelf-life on the next shopping trip, including the fresh fruits and vegetables bodies need.

What can people do to end the food-waste cycle? Here are tips to start.

Make a list

Like anything, preparation is key to success. Buying random foods can test creativity, but when busy schedules consume people, it can also result in wasted ingredients. Plan exactly what to prepare and make a list. Save the experiments and new recipes for a leisurely weekend.

Purchase a variety of fresh and frozen vegetables

Frozen vegetables can keep for 8 to 10 months. Buying a variety means a focus on eating the fresh first, easing anxiety that food will soon expire. Plus, vegetables will be available for meals planned for later in the week.

Check the temperature of your refrigerator and freezer

People should set refrigerators to 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below to keep foods safe from food borne illness, while setting freezers to 0 degrees Fahrenheit. This will help avoid premature spoiling. Use freezers as an advantage! If people can’t eat foods and leftovers in time, they can freeze them and enjoy later. Check out this chart from the FDA about how long foods keep in fridge and freezer, including what foods don’t freeze well. People can mark freezer meals with the date they prepared the item to avoid the “When did we make this?” confusion later.

Clean the clutter

Out of sight, out of mind. When rotting leftovers are among a mess of other rotting leftovers, seal their fate. Routinely check expiration dates. Keep foods with a shorter shelf life within arm’s reach in the refrigerator and pantry. Make a habit of doing a quick scan each week before garbage pick-up day to know what to eat before having to toss it. If the window for eating passed, discard it right away.

Get creative!

Take a nod from the popular cooking shows where contestants combine odd items to create a tasty meal. There are various sites online that can give recipe ideas after typing in the ingredients you have on hand.

For more tips, Veterans can ask their Primary Care team about meeting with a VA dietitian. Together, Veterans and dietitians can create a meal plan that fits lifestyle and goals. Making a list will be much easier with a plan in place.

To learn more, visit the VA Nutrition and Food Services page.

Bethany Oxender, MS, RD, CSOWM, is a MOVE! Clinical Dietitian at the Ann Arbor VA Medical Center who specializes in weight management.

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