Nobody wants to waste food, but most of us do it — in fact, quite a lot. The average American wastes 20 pounds of food per month, according to the United Nations. If you’re like me, you’d like to get that number down. But how? There are actually quite a few ways, and implementing any one of them will help.
1. Plan around what you already have. First, shop smart by considering what you already have before making your shopping list. Try to come up with one or two meals based around ingredients already in your pantry. This way, you’ll use what’s in your stores well before it expires.
Tip: If you’re struggling for recipe ideas, online sites can be so helpful: There are many where you can enter a few ingredients and get recipes that incorporate them.
2. Specify quantities. Once you know what you’ll still need to buy, write the items down with specific quantities, like “enough for three lunches.” It’s also helpful to think about whether you’ll be eating out during the coming week and, if so, how many times. We’ve all planned meals only to have the ingredients go bad when we’re suddenly too busy to cook. So be realistic about your schedule for the week as you’re doing your planning, and cut down accordingly on the amount you buy.
3. Store realistically. After you’ve brought your groceries home, take a little time to store your items carefully. How much are you going to eat in the next two to three days? Keep that much in the fridge and put the rest in the freezer for later.
Tip: Produce is less likely to get moldy if kept dry, so wait to rinse your fruits and vegetables until you’re ready to use them.
4. Use this fail-proof produce storage method. Keep produce dry by taking it out of any plastic wrapping or bags it may have come in. But you don’t want to leave it exposed in the crisper, as it will tend to dry out. Instead, remove items like cauliflower from the plastic it comes in right away, and wrap it in a cloth towel before putting it in the crisper. This will prevent overdrying while still keeping mold at bay. (You can use paper towels as well, though of course that produces more waste, of the landfill sort.) Try this method and you’ll be amazed how much longer it lasts.
5. Shop more often. Buy produce, fish and other more perishable foods fresh, as you need them. This practice is second nature to most Europeans, but those of us in North America tend to shop for groceries less frequently and buy more when we do. With spring and summer just around the corner, we can look forward to buying fresh produce at local stands and farmers markets. I, for one, can’t wait to bite into juicy nectarines again!
Tip: If shopping more frequently feels like too much of a burden, buy more precooked and frozen items than fresh.
6. Understand expiration dates. Did you know those dates and phrases printed on our packaged foods are not standardized or regulated? That’s why you see so many different types on the food you buy. Here’s a quick primer from the U.S. Department of Agriculture:
“Best if used by/before” indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date. The “sell by” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It is not a safety date. The “use by” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product at peak quality. It is not a safety date except when used on infant formula. The USDA says if the date passes during home storage, “a product should still be safe and wholesome if handled properly until the time spoilage is evident.”
In other words, none of these labels have to do with safety! So don’t be too quick to throw away food that is probably still perfectly good. (Of course, your nose and eyeballs are your best tools in determining whether food is still good. Don’t override them if something seems off.)
That said, just this month, two major food groups — the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association — suggested some standardization in labeling that further clarifies these terms. It may take some time for these voluntary labels to be adopted, and again, they are voluntary. But the groups have proposed that food producers use the terms in this way:
“Best if used by” will be used to communicate peak quality, but the product will still be safe to consume after the date. “Use by“ will be used to communicate that a product is highly perishable or has food safety concerns over time. For now, follow the first guidelines I laid out. But watch for a shift in the way the labels are used going forward.
Tip: For more information, check out the USDA’s guidelines and the announcement from the Natural Resource Defense Council summarizing the position of the food industry groups.
7. Share your bounty. Do you have fruit trees you can’t keep up with during their peak production? Not to worry. There are gleaning services by which volunteers will come and pick the fruit for you, then deliver it to local food banks. You won’t have a big mess on the ground, and you won’t feel like a bad apple.
8. Become a compost maven. No matter how careful you are, you’ll always have a few vegetable trimmings, apple cores and eggshells. A great way to reduce food waste impact is to compost items instead of throwing them in the trash. Even organic matter breaks down very slowly in a modern landfill and will do so anaerobically, meaning without oxygen. The result is a whole lot of methane, which warms the earth even more than carbon dioxide, according to scientists. In fact, landfills are the No. 1 source of this powerful greenhouse gas. A home composting system turns all that organic material into a rich soil amendment, a material that helps improve the permeability and water retention of soil. Your garden will thank you.
Tip: If you’re new to composting, you can find lots of guidance online, including in the Houzz GardenWeb forums.
9. Use your city’s organics bins. If your city has a curbside program that accepts food scraps along with yard trimmings, be sure the organics cart — not the trash can— becomes your last resort. Those scraps will be turned into compost at an industrial-scale facility and still be put to good use. Some jurisdictions even provide food scrap pails to make separating this material right in your kitchen easy and tidy. Ask your garbage hauler or recycler if they can provide you with one. If not, you can purchase one online quite inexpensively.
Tip: If you’re not sure what can go into your organics cart, check with your local garbage hauler or public works department. The number is usually hot-stamped on the cart.