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The big shop can lead to more food waste

Long-term planning and the big shop may be good for the family economy, but often leads to more food waste. Researchers encourage flexible planning.

woman with shopping cart

Around one third of the food produced worldwide is never eaten. Meanwhile, one in seven people go hungry. In the EU, consumers are responsible for about half of the food waste in the value chain. Because of the high resource consumption and negative environmental impact, reducing food waste is much more important than recycling the scraps.

In Norway, many players are dedicated to reducing food waste from production and distribution. However, there has been little research on what happens on the consumer end that makes the food end up in the bin.

‘Consumers know that food waste is a societal problem, but are not particularly aware of how much food they themselves throw away,’ says Marie Hebrok from Consumption Research Norway (SIFO) at Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences (HiOA).

Together with Nina Heidenstrøm, also of SIFO, she is behind one of the first qualitative studies on the subject of food waste in Norway. The fresh report is based on extensive fieldwork carried out among 26 Norwegian households. 

The researchers have conducted in-depth interviews with the families, among other things about how they treat the food they buy, how often and how much they buy and what they do with leftovers. 

Shop more often, throw away less

People in the 25–39 age group throw away the most food. This group includes many families with children, whose everyday lives are often less flexible than others. Children are unpredictable: they get sick, eat little one day and lots the next.

The survey shows that, contrary to the normal advice that you should plan your purchases for the whole week, long-term planning and one big grocery shop per week does not help to reduce food waste.

‘The big shop limits flexibility in everyday life. Shopping for seven dinners at a time can easily lead to food waste, because unexpected things always happen,’ say the researchers.

They recommend flexible planning, which means not buying too many groceries with short expiry dates at once, and to make sure to plan alternative ways of using the groceries if any of the planned meals fall through.

‘In Oslo, where we conducted our study, people may benefit from using the shop as a storage place for their food.’

Ambivalent leftovers

Fruit and vegetables and bread are the types of food we throw away most frequently. We are better at eating more expensive foods such as meat and fish. Lower food prices mean that we throw away more food. The survey shows that many people are good at freezing their leftovers, but that this requires active use of the freezer and knowledge of freezing and defrosting food. And often, the food will not be eaten anyway.

‘When there is no occasion for using the food, people often end up throwing it away,’ says Hebrok.

‘For example, leftovers from dinner must be of the correct type and in the right amount in order to be reused as part of a meal.’

Do not buy food gifts

The findings also challenge the idea that food gifts are much more environmentally friendly than other gifts. Food gifts have become very popular in recent years, and are available in many different shops. Hebrok and Heidenstrøm’s survey shows that such food gifts are often thrown away before they are finished.

‘The biggest challenge is that food gifts are often food people aren’t used to, and that there is no occasion for using them. Giving food as a gift to others is a bad idea,’ says Heidenstrøm.

Drop the ‘best before’ labelling!

One of the important reasons we throw away food is that we are uncertain about what the date labelling means. A previous survey shows that 78% of us say we know the difference before ‘best before’ and ‘use by’, but 42% of us nevertheless throw away food because it has expired. We do not completely trust what our nose tells us and need help from the packaging.

The researchers believe that there is a great potential in using packaging to reduce food waste.

‘Drop the date labelling on foods with a long shelf life where there is no risk of disease,’ is Hebrok's advice.

Cooperation and a change of attitudes

The researchers encourage more cooperation between producers, the grocery industry, designers and researchers to develop more effective measures to combat household food waste.

They mention the date labelling scheme ‘Keep it’, which can be found on some meat and fish products, as a good example of a more accurate indicator of shelf life. These types of indicators have the potential of reducing the widespread uncertainty about one’s own ability to evaluate the quality and safety of food, thereby also reducing unnecessary food waste.

In addition to more flexible planning of purchases and meals, and developing better indicators of shelf life, we still need to work on changing people’s attitudes and increase knowledge of how households can reduce food waste. In their report, Hebrok and Heidenstrøm propose utilising the potential of popular science dissemination and marketing communication to reach more people.

‘People are tired of the environment argument and finger wagging. It can therefore be more efficient to demonstrate how looking after our food is related to positive values such as togetherness, relationships, creativity, quality and efficiency.’ 

‘When the food is perceived as being of so little value that we throw every eighth grocery bag in the bin, it is important to find ways of increasing the perceived value of food,’ says Heidenstrøm.

Three pieces of advice for reducing food waste

The researchers have three main recommendations for how consumers can reduce their food waste:

  • Buy foods with a short shelf life in small quantities.
  • Buy groceries you know well and are able to combine in different ways.
  • Trust your own senses when you assess whether you can still eat foods that are past the ‘best before’ date.

Producers and grocery shops can facilitate this by selling foods with a short shelf life by weight and in small portion packages. They can also provide information about different occasions for use and different ways to combine different foods, and help to teach people how to assess whether food is still good by using their senses.


Marie Hebrok and Nina Heidenstrøm:  Maten vi kaster.  En studie av årsaker til og tiltak mot matsvinn i norske husholdninger. Report no 1-2017

Kjersti Lassen Published: Updated: