Here's a stinky stat: One-third of food in the United States gets wasted.
As someone who counts inefficiency among her top irritants, I go bonkers thinking of all the work and resources that go into growing crops or preparing dishes, only for them to end up in landfills or compost heaps.
I rarely waste food. Yes, pat me on the back. Also, laugh. I've eaten food that was way beyond the pale: arugula turned a sad shade of yellow, crackers that taste like dust, cheddar cheese with mold along its edges. That hasn't happened in years though, thanks to improved planning. Here are tips that'll help you out too.
Food Waste Solutions
1. Be conservative.
“Only buy what you think you can reasonably use,” advises Louisa Shafia, a Nashville-based chef, recipe developer and author of Lucid Food: Cooking for an Eco-Conscious Life. “If you’re trying to integrate kale into your diet, don’t buy several bunches. Just buy one bunch to start, see how you like it and what dishes you can add it to, and then factor in those discoveries the next time you go shopping.”
2. Make use of bulk bins and salad bars.
Bulk bins offer the surest way to buy exact quantities of nuts, seeds, beans, flour—even nutritional yeast. Grocery salad bars are perfect for small hauls of more perishable items. Need just a few water chestnuts or shreds of red cabbage? You've found your source.
3. Think critically about expiration dates.
Expiration dates on many foods are simply guidelines. Most canned, dried and frozen foods are safe to consume for a very long time, with a few caveats. For example, if you defrost something that's frozen and then freeze it again, you could be asking for digestive trouble. But keep it frozen, and it'll be safe “indefinitely,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Also, “best if used by/before” refers to peak quality, not food safety. In sum: Let your nose and your smarts, not a stamped date, be your ultimate guide.
Fresh meat is a different story. “Meats go bad quickly, and when they do it can be dangerous,” Shafia says. “So it’s best to either wait to buy meats until a day or two before you plan to use them, or store them in the freezer and defrost when needed. When cooking meat, I’m big on using meat that comes on the bone. Not only is it tastier and more nutritious than, say, chicken breast, but meat bones can be made into stock, which stretches the life of the meat and is also a wonderful ingredient to have on hand at any given time. Stock is of course great for making soup, but it’s also good for sauces, adding a little liquid to a sautéed dish or even to cook grains in.”
4. Give veggie scraps a second life.
If you've got lots cast-off veggie bits, simmer them in water for a couple hours and then strain. Freeze the broth in ice cube or muffin trays, then pop out and transfer to glass or food-grade silicone containers. If you juice, save the solid remains to make veggie burgers.
5. Embrace leftovers.
“Every time I teach a cooking class, people are eager to take home leftovers because in our busy lives it’s always nice to pull out good-quality, delicious food that has been prepared ahead of time,” Shafia says. “Leftovers can be stored in the freezer for longer-term use, but I always end up using mine within a week.”
6. Freeze food.
Too much bread? Freeze it. Freeze fruit that's on the fritz, and then put it in smoothies, clafoutis or muffins. You can also freeze veggies and greens. “Cut up your kale and sauté, steam or blanch it,” Shafia suggests. “Then let it cool, and store in an airtight container in the freezer. The next time you need kale, just pull out what you froze, and throw it into whatever you’re cooking.”
7. Store herbs, greens and veggies with these tricks.
“Herbs and delicate lettuces go bad quickly,” says Shafia. “If I need to keep my herbs looking perfect, I wrap them in damp paper towels and store them in the refrigerator inside of a reusable produce bag.”
Or create your own humidifiers: Cut the stems of cilantro, parsley and broccoli, and place in water, then loosely cover their tops with plastic produce bags. Gently secure the bags around the containers holding the water (drinking glasses work great). As an alternative, wash the items and shake off excess water, then place in mesh colanders nestled loosely inside mixing bowls (the remaining moisture will drip beneath the colander to the bowl, keeping your goodies perfectly crisp). Cover with a loose-fitting plate. This also works for kale, collard greens, romaine lettuce, brussels sprouts and more. Finally, carrots stay crisp if submerged in water.
Mitra Malek’s reporting and writing have appeared in The Washington Post and USA Today, and she is a contributing editor for Yoga Journal. Connect at www.mitramalek.com.
Editor’s note: For more tips and tricks for reducing food waste (and creative ways to use fruit and veg that are "on the edge"), check out our Zero Hunger, Zero Waste initiative.