The prices at big box food stores are seductive and, to be honest, shoppers aren’t entirely rational.

Oh sure, for just a few dollars more you might easily buy two or three times more avocados than you would get at a regular supermarket. But what happens when they ripen all at once?

To paraphrase Cool Hand Luke: A man can’t eat 50 avocados.

The same logic applies to nearly all perishable foods. When half your lettuce ends up in the bin because you can’t eat it before it goes brown or you went out for dinner instead of cooking, you need to ask yourself if the lower price is true economy.

Overlooked in all the recent hand-wringing over the edible-but-imperfect food dumped by grocery stores is that home cooks waste five times more food than grocers. Five times. In fact, home cooks waste more food than grocers, processors, farmers and distributors combined, according to industry figures.

“I’m not surprised by that,” said Emily Wight, an East Vancouver mom and cookbook author. “I think a lot of people aren’t terribly careful about how they shop, they buy what looks good and it creates a lot of food waste.”

The B.C. Food Systems Network reckons 40 per cent of the edible food in this country ends up in the trash, about $31 billion worth. A fuller accounting recommended by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization — including energy, water, labour and capital — puts the figure much higher, more than $100 billion.

How rational is that?

A quick poll of my friends and neighbours elicited several examples of questionable shopping decisions:

  • “I don’t want to eat another pink grapefruit for a long time.”
  • “I have a lifetime supply of cornstarch.”
  • “I had to throw away a lot of cheesy bread sticks.”
  • “I begged people to take my steel-cut oats.”
  • “Twenty-eight packets of miso soup went into the cupboard to die. They were gross.”

“For me, Walmart shopping is coupon-based and it has to be really cheap or I’m not going out of my way,” said Wight. “I will buy organic produce at Costco, but it’s usually more than the amount that you want.”

Wight refuses to buy spices, cheese and multi-loaf packages of bread because the portions are simply too big.

“There is an element of wastefulness to buying like that,” she said.

But many of us do it nonetheless.

New research reveals that people underestimate how much they waste and prefer not to acknowledge it when they do. It’s embarrassing.

Part of the problem is that people don’t shop often enough, preferring to lay in supplies in one big shopping trip once a week or even every two weeks, according to Victoria Ligon, who studies consumer behaviour at the University of Arizona.

People don’t account for the cost of throwing food away when they buy, which leads to over-purchasing. Ligon found that people who shop more often do a better job of purchasing what they can reasonably eat and waste far less food.

In short, we are pretty good at knowing what we want to eat today and tomorrow.

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