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 may not always save it all, but with a few easy changes, you can waste a lot less food.
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.
Overbuying (Especially Produce)
Americans in general like to have a lot of choices. We like to have a variety of fresh food on hand. That way, we can decide what we're in the mood for and don't have to plan as far ahead: for instance, you might want the option to serve salad, steamed broccoli, or roasted cauliflower.
Having options is great as far as it goes, but you might end up wasting a lot of food this way--especially produce.
Big box stores like Costco make it easy to overbuy, with their huge bags and low prices. If you shop at Costco or another big box store, you have to be really careful not to overbuy.
Here are a few suggestions to solve this problem:
- Don't overbuy produce, especially the kinds that go bad quickly. such as lettuce. Pay attention to how much of a food your family eats in a week, and don't buy more than you need. In fact, buy less, at least until you've recalibrated your purchasing and have a better idea of how much you can use without waste.
- Keep long-lasting veggies on hand for easy meal preps: carrots, cabbage, and kale, for example, will stay good in the fridge for weeks.
- If you must buy pre-prepped produce, keep in mind that washed and pre-shredded cabbage will last much longer than pre-washed lettuce (think weeks instead of days). (Note: You can use shredded cabbage for hundreds of dishes besides coleslaw, e.g., )
- If you must have lettuce around, buy unwashed heads, which will stay fresh the longest. Yes, you can wash them when you get home--and spin them dry with a salad spinner--and they'll still last several days longer than pre-chopped 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 and chard will also last longer than most lettuces. If you waste a lot of greens, consider switching to hardier greens that keep longer.
- Keep frozen vegetables on hand to fill in the gaps. Serving the occasional frozen veg because you underbought is 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, freeze it! 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, stock, or pot pie first and freeze that. All Recipes has a good article on freezing fruits and veggies.
The Krazy Koupon Lady has even more tips on how to make your produce last longer.
Misunderstanding Food Labels and Food Safety Issues
A lot of people throw out food because they're "erring on the side of caution." While we are all for being careful in most walks of life, and certainly all for tossing out spoiled food, we'd like you to consider the fact that:
A lot of food gets thrown out 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 (obvs), the truth is that food-borne illness is quite 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).
So if you're throwing out food based solely on the date on the label, you are definitely throwing out too much food.
Suggestions to solve this problem:
- 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, learn to 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 or stew, fruits can be frozen or made into pie...you get the idea.
Not Knowing How to Use "Old" and "On the Verge" Foods
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 tossing 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 (even soured milk is fine to use in baking). If you've got freezer-burned meat, also use it in soups and stews, or any recipe that doesn't put the meat front-and-center.
- Have a few go-to plans for old produce, meat, and dairy (e.g., soups, stews, stock, baking, etc.).
- Set aside one day every week or every two weeks to "eat the fridge." That is, to use up what you have without buying anything more. This requires some discipline and creativity, but it can be a fun challenge if you choose to see it that way.
- 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.)
- 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, citrus fruits, 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 for increasing your food's shelf life.
- You should wash most herbs (not all!) 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 will last longest at room temperature. Trim the stems and keep it on the countertop in a glass of water, like flowers. Don't put it in the fridge. Don't wash it until you use it.
- Store fresh ginger in the freezer and grate it when you need it. It lasts indefinitely. (Bonus: you don't have to peel it before grating.)
- Store fruits and vegetables separately in the fridge. This article on thekitchn.com explains why (and which produce is the most sensitive) in more detail.
- 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 them easier to use, right?), make sure those greens are bone dry before putting away. A salad spinner is a great tool to get your greens completely dry.
- 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. Wrapping the bunch with plastic wrap will also slow down ripening, but not as much as wrapping each banana separately.
- Don't toss soft bananas! Even if they're black! (The blacker and mushier they are, the better they are for baking.) 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. (A salad spinner can help with drying the berries.)
- 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.
- Don't trust the freshness date on dairy products ever. And this goes both ways: 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 (but you can use them in cooking and baking with excellent results).
- 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, and of course, powdered milk, and evaporated milk, as well as shelf-stable ultra-pasteurized milk (but it usually has a fairly short shelf life of about a year).
- 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!)
Meat and Fish
- Store meat in the bottom of the fridge. It's coldest there so it keeps the longest here, and if packages leak, 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 some 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 it's merely old looking, find a way to use it up.)
- If you don't eat bread up within a few days, store it in the freezer. Do not put it in the refrigerator--this dries it out faster. It thaws out in about ten minutes at room temperature, so it's not a terrible inconvenience.
- 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 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 all 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 spoils in just a few months at room temperature. For flour you don't freeze, keep it in an airtight container away from light and heat. Opaque 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 artificial lights (like in a grocery store)?
That's right: A fair percentage of the time, the stuff you get in a grocery store is already rancid when you buy it.
Always buy olive oil:
- in a dark bottle or tin
- from a reputable source with high turnover.
Also, use it within a few months after opening.
The 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 kit to determine your taste in olive oil, you'll know you're 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. You can use spices indefinitely (they don't "spoil" and become unsafe to ingest), but they 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.
Cereals, Rice, Pasta, Beans: These will stay freshest if you transfer them to airtight containers like these OXO Good Grips storage boxes.
If you're buying in bulk, your best bet is food-grade 5-gallon buckets. They're under $5.00 at Home Depot. You can also get convenient threaded lids so you don't have to pry them off with a crowbar every time you open the bucket. (Here are the removable lids on Amazon at about twice the cost.)
Coffee: Coffee's a little tricky. You should really only buy as much 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 and up to a few years.
However, if condiments contain other items, such as fruits or eggs (like mayonnaise and salad dressing), they should be refrigerated once opened.
Most ketchups can sit out if you use them up within a month; if not, keep 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" or "natural" peanut butter). All pure nut butters (those not containing trans fats) should go in the fridge once opened.
NOTE: Any ingredient with the word "hydrogenated" is a trans-fat.
When it comes to condiments, the best rule is to read the label, and "refrigerate after opening" if it tells you to or if you're not sure.
Buy a Vacuum Sealer!
If you really want to waste less food, a vacuum sealer is one of the best tools you can invest in.
We won't go into a lot of detail because we've got a ton of other articles on the site you can read.
We'll just say that you can spend less than $100 dollars on a sealer. Even a small, inexpensive sealer is going to preserve food better than any other type of storage bag can.
If you want to waste less food, you should:
- Not overbuy
- Understand how to use food "best by" dates
- Learn how to use up "old" and "on the verge" foods.
If you want to increase your food's shelf life:
- Learn proper food storage techniques for every type of food
- Invest in a few inexpensive tools that will vastly improve food storage, such as a salad spinner, produce bags, airtight containers, and ethylene absorbers.
- A vacuum sealer is a bigger investment, but it can save the average family thousands of dollars a year in less food waste.
Do you have any suggestions on how you keep food fresh longer? Please share in the comments below.
Thanks for reading!
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