Part 2: Save Money. Reduce Waste.
Food waste hurts our health, our wallets, our environment, and often our conscience. In part 1 of this series, I shared ways to reduce waste while shopping. So much of food waste we have at home--whether its raw ingredients or prepared food--can be avoided by smarter shopping: only buying what you need based on your schedule and a meal plan. See last week's post for more of those details.
In this post, I want to share some strategies for minimizing food waste at home, from storage tips to organization to better alternatives for nearly spoiled food than the trash. And since one of the main goals of reducing waste is to prevent more dumping into landfills, I'm also sharing ways to reduce all the plastic and packaging that goes along with storing, preparing, and transporting food (and sharing some of my favorite reusables for this.)
As with my first post, I include a lot of links of items that you can buy in this post to clarify what I'm talking about or show you what I use, but certainly the least wasteful option is to use something you already have or to buy an item secondhand so please consider those options too. Some of the links that are included are affiliate links.
KEEP IT FRESH AND ORGANIZED
The #1 thing you can do to prevent food spoilage at home it to keep your food fresh as long as possible and to have it all organized so you can see everything. Here are a few more specific tips to do that:
1. Store produce properly
Fresh and sustainably grown produce like veggies, herbs and fruits are one of the best ways to improve our health and should rightfully be on your grocery list at least every week. But these are also the items that are costly and produce that guilt and aggravation pang when you discover them in the back of the fridge wilted, soupy, or even moldy.
To extend the shelf life of your produce, store it in the produce drawers unwashed. Extra water can potentially breed bacteria which will hasten spoilage. You can also try adding Fresh Paper, a natural spiced paper, to your crisper drawer to help veggies last even longer. I've used it although I haven't conducted a side-by-side study to see what kind of extended shelf life you get. However, it is very well reviewed on Amazon and some reviewers have conducted their own experiments. Also the paper is reusable (at least a few times) and it's compostable and biodegradable unlike bags and containers with similar claims.
On the flip side, if your issue with produce is not that you want it to last 7+ days, but that you never have the time or desire to prepare it when you want to eat it, store your produce washed and chopped. Make rinsing and chopping a part of your unpacking routine when you get home from the grocery store. It shouldn't take you more than 30 minutes if you do it all at once, but might increase your likelihood of actually using your produce. So you'll have a shorter shelf life than storing unwashed, but this might be a better solution for you.
2. Clean out your fridge and pantry regularly.
Another big reason we waste food is that we actually have so much of it, that we can't even see what we have! This is certainly a "first world problem" but you can turn it around, by actually cleaning out your fridge and pantry regularly.
To be honest, I don't love organizing or cleaning OR schedules, but I do get a huge sense of satisfaction looking into a clean and slightly sparse fridge. Try to clean out the fridge every 2 weeks, putting like items together so you don't waste money on duplicating condiments or items that last a long time. And discard or compost spoiled produce! Sometimes I let items sit in the fridge longer than I should because I feel guilty, but if they are blackened, moldy, very mushy, or soupy, throw them out! (If they aren't gross but aren't great, see my suggestions below.)
All that extra clutter will just continue the disorganization cycle. My goal is to keep my fridge only 1/2-3/4 full. That might be easier for my household of 2 than for people with larger families, but it's almost impossible for a packed fridge to be organized, so come up with your own goal.
You can go through the pantry or your cupboards less frequently, but at least every 6 months. You can't use what you can't see or what you forgot that you have! Donate unspoiled and unopened packaged foods that you mostly likely will never use to a local food drive (Chicago area folks, look up an upcoming one via The Greater Chicago Food Depository site.) Make a plan to use any items that have been in the pantry for a while in the next two weeks. I challenge myself to do this on weekends when we are debating ordering takeout. My husband might suggestion a place to order from and I'll say "Let me see if I can make free dinner instead!" Often I can make free dinner with pantry items like chickpeas, pasta, canned tomatoes, and leftover grains and legumes. Then we usually go out for a drink. ;)
3. Label it.
This is an essential tip if you store food in your freezer or if you have a packed fridge or pantry and it can't be avoided. Those of you that follow me on Instagram know I just bought a label maker and that I fell in love with it and we are living happy life together right now. I mainly use the label maker for labeling the top of my spice jars lids so I can easily find what I need (they are alphabetized too) and for the pantry. This is the one I bought--it's cheap and it's worked really well.
I also use these removable labels and a sharpie for food storage container for my clients. They remove easily so I can put the name of the dish and the date if it's going in the freezer. No scrubbing off the label! I don't need to do this for myself, but if you are preparing food for another family member (partner, kids, etc) they are WAY more likely to eat it if it's labeled and they can clearly find it. Non-cooking members of your household are sometimes afraid to eat food if they think it might be old or if they don't know if you are saving it for something else. Simple labels like "Fruit for Snacks" or "Monday dinner: Pasta. Microwave 2 minutes" will help your family get on board enjoying the delicious food you make even if you are not around.
5. Store food in clear glass containers.
If you just cook for yourself or if the members of your household are more involved in the cooking process, you might not need to label things so much. But you can still really benefit from storing chopped produce or cooked food in clear glass storage containers. These are the type that I have used for years. If you can, buy all the same kind because it will visually look more organized and satisfying to your eye. Be sure to buy mostly square or rectangular containers because round ones will take up more space.
Plastic food storage containers are not only wasteful and can leech plastic into your food, but they are rarely truly transparent like glass so you can't see what's inside at a glance. I know that glass containers are more expensive, so upgrade slowly if you have the desire or try mason jars for soups, sauces and even chopped veggies because they usually cost only $1-2 dollars (and can be found at lots of thrift stores). I've gotten mason jars on Amazon in quart, pint, and cup sizes.
Glass will save you money in the long run because plastic eventually stains or warps. Plastic containers are also porous so they can harbor bacteria over time. Glass can easily be sterilized in the dishwasher or in boiling water. Also you can reheat glass containers in the microwave or oven (usually--read the labels) and you can eat right out of them so no need to get more dishes dirty!
6. Upgrade other storage containers and utensils.
Disposable items for eating like plastic silverware, water bottles and coffee cups also up our waste factor daily. Try easy swaps like bringing a real fork from home to the office or drinking coffee at home or the office instead of in transit. Here are a few of my favorite reusable items.
- A glass water bottle. I hate drinking out of anything other than glass so I have this glass water bottle with a silicone sleeve. Since I don't work at an office or at a chair it's nice to have a bottle with me for classes, clients, shoots, etc. And old kombucha bottle works well too! If you don't like glass (it is heavy and breakable) try a lightweight stainless steel bottle like this one.
- Stainless steel coffee mug. I have also used glass mugs for tea on the go, but find that these break more often with hot liquids or because of their construction (I've never broken a water bottle). I've been using the same vacuum seal reusable mug from 10+ years ago that I got as a barista at Starbucks! For the most part, I drink my tea at home before I leave, but this is nice for long car rides. Here is a similar one.
- Real forks, spoons, and knives. I always use real silverware if possible. If I'm already taking my glass container somewhere to eat, it's really not that big of a deal to bring along a fork. We don't have especially nice silverware so I don't really care if one day I lose it. But mismatched silverware is THE easiest thing to pick up at a thrift store if you need a few extras. You can easily pay around $.10 per utensil and it will be stainless steel and in good condition.
- Reusable napkin or compostable paper towel/napkin. This might be a millennial thing, but I don't buy napkins. If you come over for dinner and need a napkin when we sit on the couch to eat, you are definitely getting a paper towel. But I've seen zero waste bloggers like Ashlee Piper post about using cloth napkins when they pack their lunch and it seems like such a good idea! Again, it's something you can pick up at the thrift store (or buy a cute set from World Market) and wash with your regular clothes or with your dish towels. I haven't tried it yet (I rarely pack a lunch as it is) but I use compostable paper towels (if they are natural or recycled, they likely are compostable too).
- Dish towels for clean up. Try to use dish towels instead of paper towels when cleaning up. I run a big load of dish towels every week because of my business, so this one is easy for me at home, but I don't think it would be too hard to try to implement. Just don't use cute or expensive towels. Try old T-shirts and rags for intense cleaning and just simple plain restaurant kitchen style dish towels for cleaning up your kitchen every day. Store in a hamper with holes or in a net bag to makes sure that they don't stay wet all week. Then wash these all in a load together after they've piled up on the highest heat cycle.
Creatively use before you trash it
If you've shopped well and stored your food properly, you'll likely have so much less food and packaging waste! But you are still going to have those moments where your schedule changes, you go out of town, or just get behind on organizing for a few weeks. Here are a few culinary interventions to save any lonely food orphans from ending up in the trash.
1. Cook it!
You'll occasionally end up with extra items even when you meal plan, so here are some no-recipe ideas to cook and enjoy odds and ends.
- Salad. If your produce is still fresh but you don't know what you are going to do with it, almost any veggie can be cleaned and sliced to top a salad. Items like half a pepper, a lone celery root, or extra mint or parsley would all make great additions to a lunch or side salad.
- Frittata. A veggie frittata is my Saturday morning way to use up bagged greens, cooked squash, raw veggies or extra herbs. Saute the veggies in a well-oiled cast-iron or non-stick pan, then top with whisked eggs. Let cook on the stovetop until the bottom is set and then pop under the broiler to fully cook the top. Now you've got brunch for both Saturday and Sunday!
- Fried Rice. This is a great way to use up odds and ends of veggies or leftover grains like rice or quinoa. Plain grains or beans can be unappetizing after the first meal, so I give them new life by sauteing in a skillet with garlic, ginger, veggies and tamari and Sriracha.
2. Freeze it!
Almost anything can be frozen or blended and frozen to extend its shelf life. The ice cube tray will become your best friend. Here are a few of my go-tos:
- Canned coconut milk. Coconut is super high in fat which means that recipes often call for less than half a can. Freeze extra in an ice cube tray and then pop out when frozen and transfer to a freezer container. Use the next time you make a smoothie, soup. or curry.
- Greens. Bagged grees and bunches of greens can be blended to make Green Smoothie Cubes. Like the coconut milk, freeze in trays, pop out and then use in smoothies whenever you want a green burst. Check out my full recipe here.
- Herbs. Like the greens, you can blend with a little water and freeze in trays. Then pop a cube into a soup dish at the end of cooking. I'd keep the herbs in separate cubes so you can customize the flavor. And I'd only use them in soups or saucy dishes, because they won't have that nice fresh herb texture anymore.
- Lemon juice. Lemon and citrus juice can be made it into cubes as well that can easily finish a smoothie, soup or pasta. Don't let these get hard in your fridge!
3. Compost it!
I've mentioned composting a few times because I actually use a composting service at home. The Urban Canopy comes to my house every other week and picks up 5-gallon buckets of food scraps and compostable items (like the paper towels) that I've collected. This service has a cost, so I understand that it's not something that is appealing or possible to everyone but when I started to understand the benefits of composting and how crazy it is that we throw food in the trash, I decided to try it out. This is a great way to divert food from the trash because rotting food is actually BENEFICIAL for soil that's used to grow more food!
If it's not possible for you to do it at home, but you are really interested, see if your workplace, church, conferences you are attending, events you are organizing, etc might be interested in doing composting.
4. Reuse or recycle it!
Reusing and recycling pertains to the packaging from our food. Glass jars can often be reused for storing pantry items as can tins. If you tend to buy a lot of one item (kombucha bottles, coffee tins) see if a local elementary school art teacher could use them in an art project.
Recycling what you can is your next best bet. This varies so widely by city but here's a guide for Chicago recycling rules including options for special items. Sometimes it's a lot of effort to recycle special items so it's often better to see if you can avoid buying heavily packaged items in the first place. Zero Waste Chicago is another great resource for reusing, recycling, and shopping with less waste.