Americans are tossing out at least $75 billion in food each year.
The average American family throws away 14 percent of their food.
At the retail level, the least wasteful businesses are small, mom and pop restaurants, and grocery stores. Fast food chains are the most wasteful.
Simply learning to buy, store and use food more wisely could solve the problem.
Americans are tossing out at least $75 billion in food each year, according to an extensive study that follows foods from farms through retailers and into the mouths and waste bins of consumers.
The eight-year study reveals that restaurants, convenience stores and most families could help their bottom lines if they just learned to buy, store and use food more wisely.
"If we wanted to stimulate the economy all we'd have to do is cut food losses," said Timothy W. Jones, an anthropologist at the University of Arizona's Bureau of Applied Research Anthropology.
Jones and his colleagues started their USDA-funded study by looking at vegetable and fruit growers. Much of the fresh vegetables in the United States are grown in the Salinas Valley, Calif., where boom and bust commodity markets drive some growers to plow under crops if prices drop. Losses due to markets cause 18 to 20 percent waste, Jones said.
Apple growers, on the other hand, have a more cooperative and conservative approach to business, said Jones, and their priority is feeding people. Careful storing and different uses of apples at different stages of ripeness bring apple losses down to about 12 percent.
At the retail level, the least wasteful businesses are small, mom and pop restaurants, and grocery stores, says Jones.
Supermarkets keep their waste to just one percent by almost giving away ripe fruit and produce on sales tables -- which makes customers happy and saves the retailer garbage costs. Small restaurants also waste little food because they are usually tightly managed, said Jones.
The opposite is true of some fast food chains with fewer managers and little training for workers. Their food waste can reach as high as 40 percent, said Jones.
At home, the average American family throws away 14 percent of their food, Jones said. In terms of money, that's almost $600 every year in meats, fruit, vegetables and grain products.
The best ways to cut the losses is for families to honestly examine what they actually eat, draw up menus and freeze leftovers so they donate spoil before you can eat them, Jones says.
But do it carefully, says Christine Bruhn, director of the Center for Consumer Research at the University of California at Davis.
"What we don't want people to do is start consuming products beyond their sell-by dates," Bruhn said.
As for all those Thanksgiving leftovers, she says the best thing to do is store them within two hours in small containers in the refrigerator or freezer, leaving space between them so they can cool off quickly. That will not only cut your family's holiday food waste, Bruhn said, but avoid post holiday food poisoning -- what people commonly mistake for "stomach flu" this time of year.