Picture leaving the grocery store, pushing a cart filled with five bags of groceries. As you’re loading up your car, one of the bags falls on the ground. You shrug and drive off without picking anything up. Who would do that?
Lots of us, as it turns out. That’s basically what we’re doing when we throw out food we bought before we had a chance to use it or toss leftovers that we never finished. Food waste is a major problem in the US. Roughly 20% of the food we buy never gets eaten, according to the USDA. The average family of four wastes $1,800 worth of food every year, according to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
And besides the money we throw away, we’re hurting the planet. Consider the resources needed to grow and produce the food…and the packaging that ends up in landfills. Example: Producing one egg requires the same amount of water that’s used in an 11-minute shower. And one pound of beef requires the equivalent of a six-hour shower!
In case that’s not enough motivation to cut back on food waste, consider that food is the biggest component of solid waste in landfills, where it releases methane, a greenhouse gas that has an even greater impact on the environment than carbon dioxide and contributes to climate change.
In order to minimize your food waste, it helps to pay attention to your routine for a few weeks to see what you throw away. The most common reasons in any given week…
You bought more than you needed. You had no choice but to buy more than you needed. Example: You bought an entire bunch of basil when you needed only a few leaves.
Your schedule changed, and you didn’t have time to cook.
You cooked more than you needed.
You didn’t store the food properly.
You didn’t like it once you made it.
The good news is that once you become mindful of how you use (or don’t use) food, you can cut back on waste. It’s not hard to do. Here are other tips…
1. Visit the market more often, even daily, instead of doing a big weekly buy. Yes, it’s a little inconvenient, but you’ll not only buy less, your produce will be fresher than if it had sat in your fridge all week.
2. Only shop with a list. It may sound simplistic, but it works—people who map out their meals and have a shopping list are least likely to stray from their purchases and buy food that gets tossed later. If you want to buy something because it is on sale, cross off a comparable item from your list.
3. Shop with a handheld basket instead of a cart. You can’t buy what you can’t carry.
4. Pay cash, and bring only the amount that you want to spend, instead of using your debit or credit card.
5. Work with your butcher. Instead of grabbing packaged meat, go to the butcher department. Ask for a smaller amount than what was prepackaged, or ask him/her to prep your meat in a way that helps you use it all. Example: If you buy a large roast, ask the butcher to remove the bone and give it to you so that you can use it for soup.
6. Master your crisper drawers. Many people just shove all their produce in those compartments, with no understanding of their function. Why that matters: Food that isn’t stored properly spoils faster. Crispers actually serve two purposes—they create a different humidity zone from the rest of your refrigerator, and they allow more airflow for the items that need it. If your drawers have levers, set one drawer to high (closed, less air coming in) and the other to low (open, more air coming in). Otherwise set up a high-humidity drawer for most veggies, especially those likely to wilt. (The water in veggies gives them their structure—if they dry out, they’ll shrivel and droop.) Put your fruits in the low-humidity drawer. Many fruits give off the gas ethylene as they ripen, which causes all the fruit around them to ripen faster. (In the low-humidity drawer, the gas can escape through the vent.) If you have more produce than what will fit in the drawers, the main refrigerator is a low-humidity area.
7. Use what’s in your freezer faster. Keep an inventory on a whiteboard in your kitchen so that you don’t end up finding unused foods in the freezer months later. Have a “freezer night” every two weeks so that nothing gets overlooked. You’ll definitely want to do this before you host parties and holiday meals, so you’ll have plenty of room for leftovers. Note: Although it affects how it tastes, freezer-burned food is completely safe to eat—it’s simply a sign that the food wasn’t sealed well and was exposed to air and temperature fluctuation. You can disguise the taste by using these foods in stews and soups (use a bit more seasoning and sauce than usual) and for pot pies, chili and tacos. Note: Virtually anything can be frozen except meat, poultry, seafood and dairy that has been out of the fridge for more than two hours.
8. Don’t get too hung up on expiration dates for packaged foods. For the most part, these are not federally regulated (except for infant formula) and are merely the manufacturer’s suggestions for when food is freshest or at peak quality. In other words, a food that’s past its expiration date is not necessarily dangerous. This even goes for items such as yogurt. Use your judgment. If a food smells off or feels off and certainly if it tastes off, steer clear. Otherwise you can consider Best By/Sell By/Use By dates arbitrary. Major exception: Deli meats, unpasteurized cheeses and smoked seafood, all of which carry a higher risk from listeria.
9. Always have rice on hand. It’s the perfect base for meat, veggies and herbs that have seen fresher days, and you’ll end up with a filling meal. Just add a little broth and spices to taste. When cooked, rice lasts up to one week in the fridge in an airtight container.
10. Transform wilted herbs into a gourmet condiment. How many times have you bought a bunch of herbs, only to need a fraction of it for your recipe? For days after, you stare wistfully at it in the fridge, until it’s time to throw the slimy clump out. Solution: Make one-quarter-cup batches of herb butter, and use it on bread, pasta and grilled meat. Combine four tablespoons of room-temperature butter with two to three tablespoons of chopped herbs. For pungent herbs such as rosemary, use the smaller amount. For leafy herbs such as basil or parsley, use the larger. If you have lots of herbs to use up, double or triple the recipe and spoon it into an ice-cube tray. Once frozen, transfer the cubes to a zip-top bag. Store them tightly wrapped in the fridge for up to one week…frozen, they last for up to two months.
Of course, you can simply freeze herbs, too—wash, drain and pat them dry with a cloth…wrap in freezer paper…and put in an airtight container. For basil, you might make it into a pesto and then freeze.
11. Freeze fresh bread right away. You likely already know that fresh bread such as baguettes freezes well, but you may not be freezing it right. A lot of people buy bread, eat half and save the rest until it starts to get hard before they remember to toss it in the freezer. Instead, set aside only what you intend to eat the first day, then slice and freeze the rest. Then you can toast or heat the bread as you need it.