Easy Ways to Increase Your Food's Shelf Life (Plus a Few Helpful Gadgets) was first published in March, 2018.
It's true: we Americans waste a lot of food. More than a third of what we buy, according to ReFed, a nonprofit group committed to reducing food waste in the U.S. This amounts to 63,000,000 tons of food and $218 billion dollars per year. This is wastefulness on a colossal scale. And it's terrible for the environment, too.
We've talked about food waste in other articles: Waste Less Food by Stocking Up and The Secret Shelf Life of Food: What Food Freshness Labels and Expiration Dates Really Mean. Here, we're going to look at easy ways to make your food last as long as possible. Whether in your fridge, freezer, or pantry, there are easy ways to improve your food storage techniques and increase your food's shelf life. You can also invest in some products to help your food last longer--particularly a vacuum sealer. But the most important thing is knowing how to increase your food's shelf life by 1) learning a little bit about food waste, and 2) changing a few simple habits.
You can't save it all, but with a few easy changes, you can probably waste a lot less food than you are now.
What Contributes to Food Waste?
There are three major contributors to food waste in the U.S.: 1) overbuying, 2) misunderstanding food labels and food safety issues, and 3) not knowing how to use up "old" and "on the verge" food.
I like to have choices when I cook dinner. So I always like to have a variety of fresh produce on hand. That way, whether I want to serve salad or steamed broccoli or roasted cauliflower, I'm covered. And I really like to get my produce at Costco, because it's waaaay cheaper than most grocery store prices and the quality is usually better.
But I discovered that I was wasting a lot of produce. So first I quit buying the pre-washed boxes of lettuce. They only last a few days, and no matter how much salad we eat, we can't finish off a box before the greens on the bottom turn slimy. It's not cheaper if you have to throw it out!
I still didn't like the amount of lettuce I was wasting, though, not to mention other produce. So I cut back even more. Now I only buy lettuce if I have a specific plan to use it up. And now I keep a lot of cabbage and grated slaw on hand, because it lasts a lot longer than lettuce. And I always, always have a big bag of carrots now--they can last for more than a month in the crisper, and they make a great side veg with just about any meal.
I am not a huge fan of frozen veggies, but some work really well: spinach for smoothies and eggs, diced mixed veggies for soups, and frozen peas for sides, soups, Asian dishes, and more. Now I always have veggies around for a meal, and I almost never have to throw out fresh produce gone bad.
- Don't overbuy produce, especially the kinds that go bad quickly. such as lettuce.
- Keep long-lasting veggies on hand for easy meal preps such as carrots and cabbage, which will stay good in the fridge for several weeks. Shredded slaw will last a few days longer than pre-shredded lettuce.
- If you must have lettuce around (like I do), buy unwashed heads, which will stay fresh the longest. Yes, you can wash them when you get home, and they'll still last several days longer than pre-shredded bags of the same type. Also, more robust lettuces--radicchio, escarole, even iceberg--will last longer than delicate types like romaine, butter lettuce, or even spinach. Kale will also last longer than most lettuces.
- Keep frozen vegetables on hand to fill in the gaps. Serving the occasional frozen veg because you underbought is much better than throwing out rotten produce because you overbought.
- Put together a list of dishes that use up a lot of veg. For example, broccoli, cauliflower, carrot, and potato soups are an excellent way to use up a lot of veggies. Here's a recipe for lettuce soup that's actually quite delicious. If you're willing to get creative, options are endless.
- Once again, if you can't use it up right away, throw it in the freezer. Yes, there are guidelines for freezing vegetables such as blanching first. If you don't want to do all of that, make the soup, stew, or pot pie first and freeze that.
misunderstanding food labels and food safety issues
A lot of Americans throw out food because they're "erring on the side of caution." While I am all for being careful in most walks of life, and certainly all for tossing out spoiled food, a lot of food gets thrown out well before its time.
Did you know that food freshness labels are merely a guideline? They are--and they're also extremely conservative. For more information, see our article on what those freshness labels really mean.
While you definitely want to avoid getting sick from the food you eat, the truth is that food-borne illness is very rare, and it's unlikely that you'll get sick from anything that isn't obviously spoiled (e.g., foul-smelling, slimy, and/or moldy). If you're throwing out food based solely on the date on the label, you are definitely throwing out perfectly good food.
- Understand food freshness labels and know that they are just guidelines, not set-in-stone rules. (Once again, check out our article about food labeling.)
- More importantly, use your own senses to guide your decisions about throwing food out: unless it's foul-smelling, slimy, or moldy, it's probably still good to eat. Yes, it may be a bit past its prime, but this just means that you cook it differently: meat can go in a stew, bread can become bread pudding or croutons, veggies can get tossed in soup, fruits can be made into pies...you get the idea.
- When food is on the verge but not yet spoiled, have a plan to use it up: if you can't cook it right away, freeze it for later use. Be sure to label it with enough detail that you know how you should use it (because believe me, you will not remember).
- As for leftovers, if you're sick of eating them (you made a big pot of soup, for example, and have eaten it three nights in a row for dinner), freeze them. Or get creative and make them over into something else: that soup could become pot pie filling, for example.
not knowing how to use up "old" and "on the verge" food
When you know something's been around for a long time, the inclination to automatically throw it out happens all too often. But instead of doing this without thinking about it, check the food out first! If it's past its prime but not spoiled (examples: soft carrots, celery, and potatoes; wilted-but-not-slimy greens; dairy that's close to or just past its "Use By" date but smells fine; freezer-burned meat), use it up instead of throwing it out.
It's not always easy to use up old food. You have to make it a priority and create a few guidelines for using up this "on the verge" food. For example, if you've got a bunch of wilted produce around, use it in stocks, soups, and stews. If you've got old dairy, use it in baking. If you've got freezer-burned meat, also use it in soups and stews, and any recipe that doesn't put the meat front-and-center.
The solutions here are reiterations of those already given, but here they are anyway:
- Have a few go-to plans for old produce, meat, and dairy (e.g., soups, stews, stock, baking, etc.)
- If you can't use the food right away, toss it in the freezer. (If you want to be super thrifty, save your meat and veggie scraps, as well as bones and carcasses, to make your own stock.)
- Understand the difference between "old" and "spoiled."
- Don't be afraid to use old dairy (and other foods, too) in baking. Even if there is potentially harmful bacteria present (this is very unlikely with today's sterilization techniques), the high heat of baking and cooking will destroy it.
- Cook old fruits down into sauces or jams. This works for berries, apples, pears, tomatoes, and more.
- Make a pie.
- Surprise your family at breakfast with fresh orange or grapefruit juice. (If you want to be really thrifty, save the peels to make dried zest for both cooking and cleaning products.)
How to Increase Your Food's Shelf Life
You'll be amazed at what a difference proper storage techniques can make in the shelf life of your food, whether in the fridge, freezer, or pantry.
Here are some tips, in no particular order, for increasing your food's shelf life.
- You should wash most herbs when you get them home to remove bacteria that will cause them to rot faster. Just be sure to dry them completely and store them in a way that they have some air circulation. For soft herbs like cilantro and parsley, you will never regret investing in one of these. You can also just use a mason jar covered loosely with a plastic storage bag--but herb keepers can keep soft herbs fresh for up to 3 incredible weeks. They are worth every penny you pay for them!
- If you don't want to use an herb keeper (after all, they do take up precious fridge space), wash and dry herbs, then put them in produce bags or wrap in very slightly damp paper towels and put in a zip-loc bag that you don't seal.
- Basil has to be covered if put in the fridge, but in my experience, it lasts longest at room temperature. Many people say to trim the stems and keep it on the countertop in a glass of water, like flowers. This has never worked for me (it begins rotting almost immediately), but I mention it because it works for other people.
- Store fresh ginger in the freezer. It lasts indefinitely. (Bonus: you don't have to peel it before grating.)
- Store fruits and vegetables separately in the fridge.
- Don't wash greens until you're ready to use them unless you have produce bags, mesh bags, or storage containers designed for produce.
- If you do wash greens and produce before storing (makes it easier to use, right?), make sure the produce is bone dry before putting away.
- If you don't want to invest in produce storage containers, use glass containers lined with paper towels, or plastic storage bags lined with paper towels.
- Put ethylene absorbers in your fridge--they absorb ethylene gas put out by some produce that causes other produce to ripen too quickly.
Onions, Potatoes, Tomatoes, and Cucumbers
- Store potatoes, onions, tomatoes, and cucumbers (yes, cucumbers) at room temperature.
- Store potatoes and alliums (onions, garlic, shallots) separately. If you store them together, the gases given off by the onions cause the potatoes to go bad faster.
- Store alliums in paper bags in a dark cupboard (away from potatoes) to prolong life. Exception: scallions and leeks go in the fridge.
- Allow for air circulation around onions, shallots, garlic, and potatoes. You can do this by using bins, mesh baskets, paper bags, or even nylons (in the case of onions).
- Bananas: To keep fresh longest, separate the bunch and wrap each stem with plastic wrap. If you don't have time to separate them, wrap the stems on the bunch. This will slow down ripening too, but not as much as separating them.
- Don't toss soft bananas! Even if they're black! Cut them into sections and toss them in the freezer for smoothies, banana bread, "nice cream," and more.
- Berries: wash berries in a 3:1 water/vinegar solution to kill bacteria. Let them dry completely before putting away.
- You can store citrus fruit up to a week on the counter, but it will last longer in a produce or mesh bag in the crisper.
- You can use a vacuum sealer to store cut fruit like apples and avocados, to prevent browning without using lemon juice. (Works for guacamole and pesto, too.)
- When buying milk products, select cartons from the back of the section. They usually have the furthest-out freshness date.
- Don't store milk in the fridge door. Keep it in back of the fridge where it's colder.
- Don't put cheese in plastic. Use wax paper, so it can breathe, or buy special cheese wrapping paper.
- Never trust the freshness date on dairy products. They can be over or under by a considerable amount. Instead, use your nose to determine if dairy is fresh.
- Did you know you can freeze milk? You can, and it thaws really nicely. You can also freeze half-and-half and cream, but you may have some texture issues after thawing (so you would use them in baked goods or soups.)
- If you like to have cream around but it spoils before you can use it up, consider buying powdered cream. It can last for years in your pantry, and it's healthier than non-dairy creamer in your coffee (no trans-fats). (You can also buy buttermilk powder, which is excellent for making salad dressings and buttermilk pancakes.)
- You can freeze butter, too, and this is better than leaving it in the fridge for long periods, as it can absorb flavors from other foods here. For daily use, you can keep butter out on the counter, preferably in an airtight container. It will stay fresh for a few weeks and after that, it won't be spoiled, but it will start to taste old.
- Store-bought eggs should be kept in the fridge, where they'll stay fresh for several weeks. Farm-bought eggs (those which haven't had an industrial wash) will stay fresh at room temperature for at least two weeks. (Why? Eggs have a natural protective layer that keeps them fresh. This gets washed off in processing for the supermarket. So keep 'em in the fridge!)
- Store meat in the bottom of the fridge. It's coldest there, and if it leaks raw juice, it won't contaminate other foods.
- Better yet, freeze what you're not going to eat in the next couple of days (this is particularly true for fish). With the exception of sliced lunch meats, all meat and seafood can be frozen. Invest in a vacuum sealer to eliminate freezer burn and get the longest freezer life.
- As with dairy, don't trust the freshness date on the package. Meat can go bad before the date or stay fresh for several days past that date. Use your senses to determine if the meat is still edible (again: if it's foul-smelling, slimy, or moldy, toss it).
- If you don't eat bread very fast, freeze it. Do not put it in the refrigerator--this dries it out faster.
- One clever tactic is to cut a loaf in half and freeze half of it. NOTE: Don't use a vacuum sealer on room-temperature bread. Freeze it before vacuum sealing, or the pressure will crush it. You must also open the vacuum bag when thawing, or it can crush as it thaws.
- Buns, sweet rolls, and quick breads also freeze beautifully. So when you're trying to use up bananas, make a big batch of banana bread and throw it in the freezer. It makes a great breakfast or dessert with coffee--it also makes great gifts!
- Use a vacuum sealer to store leftovers. You will be amazed at how much longer leftovers last in the fridge when they're vacuum-sealed.
Flour: You can freeze all flour to prolong its life, but you should absolutely keep whole wheat flour in the freezer because it's more prone to spoilage. For flour you keep out, keep it in an airtight container away from light and heat. Dark containers are best so light can't get at it. These Tupperware containers are spendy, but excellent for keeping dry goods fresh.
Olive Oil: Did you know olive oil can go rancid in less than 24 hours if it's in a clear bottle and the bottle is left in sunlight, or even under bright store lights? A fair percentage of the time, the stuff you get in a grocery store is already rancid when you buy it. Always buy oil in a dark bottle or tin, from a reputable source with high turnover. Use within a few months after opening. This site, oliveoillovers.com, is a bit pricy, but you can be absolutely certain you're getting quality olive oil--and if you buy the sample to determine your taste preference, you're even getting the exact flavor profile you love.
You can keep olive oil in the fridge, too, but it isn't necessary, and can make it hard to get out of the bottle.
Nuts: Store them in the freezer, where they'll keep indefinitely. Most nuts will go rancid within a few weeks if left at room temperature.
Spices: Store red spices in the fridge to prolong life and flavor. (Paprika, cayenne, chili powder) Store other spices in airtight containers away from light and heat. Spices can be used indefinitely but will begin losing their potency after about a year. If you buy spices in bulk, for example at Costco, be sure you can use them up before they lose their flavor.
Coffee: You should buy only as much coffee as you can use within a week or less once open. Once open, store it in an airtight container--preferably opaque--away from heat and light (and of course moisture). Whole beans will stay fresh longer, but you still shouldn't buy more than you'll use within a few weeks. Some people believe you should store coffee beans--whole or ground--in the freezer. This is okay IF you're not using the beans. Once you start using them, don't re-freeze. Repeated thawing and freezing changes the structure of the coffee--especially if whole bean--and thus can alter the flavor.
If vinegar-based or very salty--like most mustards, hot sauces, soy sauce, and fish sauce--condiments can live in a cupboard. They will stay fresh there for several months up to a few years. However, if mustards contain other items, such as fruits, they should probably be refrigerated.
Most ketchups can also sit out if you use up within a month; if not, keep it in the fridge. But be sure to read the label if not a standard brand (like Heinz).
Peanut butter (is this a condiment?) is shelf-stable if it has trans-fats in it (think Skippy and Jif), but must be refrigerated if it contains only peanuts (e.g., "real" peanut butter). Most nut butters should go in the fridge once opened.
When it comes to condiments, the best rule is to read the label, and "refrigerate after opening" if it tells you to.
If you want to increase your food's shelf life, you have to learn proper food storage and use: optimizing the life of the food after you get it home, and having a plan for using it up when it's getting long in the tooth.
If you want to invest in one technology that will help your food stay fresh longer, get a vacuum sealer. It will save you hundreds, maybe even thousands, a year in less food waste. Other good options are airtight canisters, herb keepers, produce bags, and ethylene absorbers for your fridge.
Do you have any suggestions on how you keep food fresh longer? Please share in the comments below.
And thanks for reading!