Karen Ensle Ed.D., RDN, FAND, CFCS
Family & Community Health Sciences Educator
Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Union County
Want to earn back those dollars you're throwing in the garbage? Fortunately, the food waste dilemma is solvable. And while the problem must be addressed at every sector of the food system — from farm to retailer to restaurant to municipality and your home, there are plenty of ways that families can reduce their home waste. It's simple! Here are some easy small steps to get you started:
Plan Ahead: Before grocery shopping, make a plan. Think about the meals you'll be cooking this week, the ingredients you'll need to buy and what you already have in your kitchen. Pro tip: Cook down your pantry. Start your menu planning by looking at the ingredients you already have and creating meals around these. Tech-savvy cooks may enjoy the many useful meal planning websites and apps.
Make a List: Use an app like Grocery IQ to help build your shopping list, or go retro and make a list with old-school pen and paper. Either way, you'll be less likely to pick up random items that may go to waste. Cross check your list with your pantry to make sure you're only buying what you need. Keep your shopping list near the fridge so you can add items as you run out.
Be Realistic: Don't buy more than you can eat. While cooking a whole bag of rice sounds like a good way to use it up, ask yourself, can you eat all those grains in a week? And be smart about sales. Will you actually eat all five watermelons on sale for the price of one? It's not a bargain if you won't be able eat it.
Shop Small: If possible, avoid big monthly shopping trips and only buy ingredients for a few days. Combining trips to the grocery store with visits to the farmer's market is an easy way to add in a second produce pick-up each week. Not only will this decrease your likelihood of wasting food, but you'll also be eating fresher food.
Prioritize: When creating your menu plan, think about which ingredients spoil quickly — raw meat, fish, leafy greens — and use them first. Don't let that moldy cheese lurk in the back! Use a system like "First In, First Out" to arrange your food in order of freshness, keeping older items near the front, and newer, fresher products in the back.
Stock the Essentials: Keep your kitchen stocked with staple ingredients — things like canned beans, pasta, rice and other grains — so you'll always be able to make use of fresh foods you have on hand.
Don't Over Prepare: A dinner party for four cannot eat 2 1/2 gallons of coleslaw. Leftovers are great, but only if you're willing and able to eat them. Avoid making too much food by adjusting recipes to match the number of servings you need.
Take Leftovers Home: Ask for a doggie bag. If you don't finish your meal, bring it home. Even if you can't eat the leftovers, you can add them to your compost bin to keep the food out of landfills, which many restaurants don't do.
Use Up Leftovers: Eating leftovers can save time, effort and serious cash if you eat them for lunch instead of ordering out. Turn old rice into fried rice, extra pasta into a frittata and last night's roasted vegetables into a breakfast hash.
Keep Food Fresh: Learn to store foods properly to keep them fresh as long as possible. In general, don't wash vegetables before storing; store dairy items in a cool part of the fridge like the back of the top shelf; and cut off the tops of root vegetables to extend shelf life (but use the greens in salads, pesto and smoothies!). And, remember to store foods that emit ethylene gas — like apples, bananas, citrus and tomatoes — by themselves as the gas makes other foods spoil faster.
Don't Toss Food Before It Spoils: Sometimes — as in the case of the fuzzy mystery food decomposing in the back of the fridge — it's clear that food needs to be discarded. But often, perfectly edible food is thrown away due to confusion about expiration dates and/or unjustified fear of spoilage. Labels such as Best By, Use By, Sell By and Expiration (EXP) are not food safety dates — they're established by food manufacturers to provide an indication of "peak quality." "Use By" dates on infant formula are regulated by the FDA, and "pack dates,"are required on USDA-graded eggs.
Preserve It: If you have just too much of something to use up before it goes bad, preserve it. Turn a garden full of basil into pesto, extra vegetables into pickles and a bumper crop of stone fruit into jam. Keep peels and scraps from onions, carrots and other vegetables in the freezer and turn them into stock when you have a full bag with leftover chicken or meat bones. Canning, pickling, dehydrating and fermenting are all good ways to preserve your food.
Make the Freezer Your Best Friend: The easiest preservation method is the freezer, and it works with most foods. Store leftovers in airtight containers with as much air removed as possible, and be sure to label and date before you freeze it to avoid the guessing game when you thaw. You can freeze bananas (remove peel first), hard cheese (grate first), vegetables (blanch first), bread (best if pre-sliced), yogurt (give it a good stir after thawing), milk (low fat or skim freezes better and give a hearty shake after thawing).
Share It: Share extra food with family, friends or coworkers, or donate it to a food bank, food pantry or shelter. If your garden yields surplus produce, find a local food pantry that can give the food to those who need it most.
Compost It: Whatever you do, keep that food out of the landfill! Whether you collect food scraps to bring to a composting center or compost at home, composting transforms food waste into a valuable soil additive. Check out this Food Keeper app for updates on foods to get started.