Reducing waste also means not wasting resources, and particularly food.
I probably don’t need to explain why we shouldn’t waste food, but I will anyway. The harm is upstream, rather than downstream: Because only part of the food reaches our plates, production needs to be much higher than necessary, and that means industrial agriculture and factory farming, with all their attendant horrors. On the level of the household, it also means wasted money — and even if the amount is “not worth bothering about”, it is money that could instead go to a worthy cause, or simply towards buying local organic foodstuffs (since they’re supposedly more expensive – not as expensive as careless waste).
Cutting out food waste requires slipping into a different set of habits when it comes to buying, storing and preparing food.
1. Shopping Wisely
- Here’s what NOT to do: shop so that your fridge and pantry are always full of all the things you think should be in there. I watched my mother (bless her) do this all my childhood, and so much produce spoiled before we even noticed it was there. Even canned goods past their expiry date unopened, because the shopping was based on a concept of what should be in the house rather than on the reality of our eating habits. Which brings me to the next point:
- Be aware of your (or your household’s) eating habits when you shop. Buy what will get eaten. If something just lies around forever, stop buying it. Avoid picking up unusual items unless you’re specifically trying a new recipe — or at least think carefully about it (leave it there, finish your shop and come back to it at the very end if you’re still tempted.) I only allow myself to pick up one new product per shop, and if it takes ages for me to cook or finish it, I don’t buy it again. Eating habits are habits: “something new” is tempting in the shop, but once you bring it home it can be remarkably difficult to fit into the general pattern or even to remember it’s there. And that’s normal: whatever foodtainment may claim, we don’t need our food to be an ever-changing voyage of discovery (unless we want it to be). Food habits make life much simpler: you find your balanced way of eating and you stick to it. Then your shopping list and your cooking take on the effortlessness of a well-drilled routine instead of being something you have to puzzle over constantly (this is coming from someone who loves food and cooking, but also has bigger things to do in the world!)
- Have a plan when you do want to try something new (say, a new spice, or an exotic vegetable): pick a recipe, and buy the quantities you need for it. This way you already know what you’re going to do with it and you’ll have all you need.
- Don’t buy ready-made dressings, spice mixes, or similar unless you know they are a staple in your house. The more specialised a food item, the less likely you are to use it, and the more likely it is to spoil before you finish it. Instead, keep a store of essential basics and spices so that you can mix your own as needed. Basics get used all the time for various things and therefore have a quick turnover; all you need to do is to identify your own. Mine, for instance, are: olive oil, lemon, garlic, tehini, honey, chopped tomatoes and a few spices and herbs (cumin, oregano, basil, chilli powder and of course salt/black pepper). With these I can make various salad dressings, as well as tarator (“tehini sauce”), marinades, and sauces for pasta and pizza. (I have other things in my pantry but these are my “primary colours”, if you will.)
- Be aware of the shelf life of what you’re buying, and adjust quantities accordingly. It’s ok to buy and stock large amounts of dried goods as they last indefinitely, but produce is best purchased in small amounts as needed. Tins are questionable for health reasons: some are known to leech toxins into the food, so the longer the food has been tinned, the less healthy it is (more details under Stainless Steel in Plastic and Other Packaging). Fresh milk is one of the shortest-lived items you can buy, but it freezes really well, so it’s actually a good idea to buy a whole gallon (to cut down on packaging), decant it into smaller containers (1 week’s worth each), and freeze all but one.
- Beware gimmicky rip-offs. For instance: grated cheese. First, it costs a lot more per weight than a block of the same cheese; second, it’s inevitably packed in plastic; third, it spoils very quickly and without appeal. In contrast, a block of parmesan, which you can have wrapped only in waxed paper or beeswrap, will last for many weeks in the fridge, and if a spot of mould appears on the outside, you can cut off the spoiled part of the rind and rewrap the rest. It takes less than a minute to grate a meal’s worth when you need to, so please.
- Do a good deed and pick up the stuff that nobody else will want. If you’re buying veg for soup or a curry, pick up the overripe or ugly ones that will otherwise not survive the day. If you need a pint of milk for immediate use, pick up one that is near expiry date. And so on, rescuing food from the bin.
- Don’t forget to select plastic-free or unpackaged groceries!
2. Storing Wisely
When you remember that all of humanity once knew how to store food for long periods without electricity, it’s gobsmacking that we manage to let so much of it spoil despite our fridges and freezers. Here is some food storage wisdom from yesterday and today, and it doesn’t all require electricity.
- Keep your fridge clean to discourage spoilage.
- Keep your fridge uncluttered so that the cool air can circulate freely; tightly packed items can create warm pockets with the result you can imagine.
- Set temperature to 5ºC (40ºF) or lower so harmful bacteria can’t grow.
- Don’t grate, slice or cut food in advance. Everything lasts much longer when it’s whole. If you need to do this, freeze the lot.
- Containers: Plastic tupperwares are okay for short-term storage (a few days) and lighter/safer to carry around, but glass jars are far healthier for long term needs, as they neither leech into the contents nor absorb anything from it. The best things about jars is they come free with a lot of groceries… I thoroughly wash and de-tag every jar that comes through my kitchen. I use them to store my bulk-bought foods as well as anything homemade (including personal care products); they are also great when I’m making edible gifts, and I always take one along when I go foraging, just in case. Tins (new, clean, rust-free) work very well for dry goods such as pasta, rice, grains and sugar, as long as the climate is not too humid.
- Bananas: Take them apart to slow down ripening and keep them on the counter, away from other fruits (they produce a lot of ethylene gas, which accelerates ripening – good if you have underripe fruits, but will spoil ripe fruits quickly)
- To increase the fridge life of berries, wash them in a mixture of 2.5C water + 1/4C vinegar, drain and rinse before refrigerating. The vinegar will not leave a taste, but will discourage mould.
- Broccoli: in an open container on the fridge shelf. Same with all kinds of peppers, snap peas, spinach, and Brussels sprouts if they’re on the stalk; put a damp towel over them if they’re loose.
- Carrots: Cut off their tops and store in a closed container with a little water. The same for fennel (minus cutting the tops) if you need to keep it more than a few days.
- Citrus can stay on the counter for a week (assuming the weather is not too hot), or in the fridge for a month, but don’t crowd them together.
- Fresh herbs like parsley, coriander and mint do well if you put the bunch, unwashed, in a glass of water (like cut flowers), in a cool spot, and change the water daily (this also works for asparagus, fennel for a couple of days, and celery). Wash the amount you need as you use it. You can do the same with basil and chives, and other herbs that need to be used fresh, but they’re more delicate. (Better to keep them potted, if possible)
- Oregano, thyme, rosemary, sage and other oily herbs, that are good when dried, can be hung upside down, so they dry slowly. Another way to keep oily herbs is to place single-dose amounts of the leaves in an ice cube tray, top up with olive oil and freeze. Pop one out into a hot pan at need to use as a recipe base.
- Greens, lettuce, rhubarb, leeks, cucumbers: Don’t wash until they are ready to use, because it’s the excess moisture that makes them wilt. Wrap them in a damp towel and refrigerate. Same with courgettes if you need to keep them more than a few days.
- Mushrooms: in the fridge in a paper bag. Can fungi grow mould? Ironically enough, yes they can.
- Potatoes should be kept somewhere cool, dry and dark (either in the pantry or simply in a paper bag) as light makes them sprout. The sprouts are toxic – never eat them – but you can just scrape them off while peeling and the rest of the potato is fine. Same treatment for garlic, onions (don’t stack these, they need good air circulation), winter squash, all of which keep even longer.
- Avocados, courgettes, summer squash and cabbage can stay on the counter up to a week.
- Tomatoes should never be refrigerated, it kills off their flavour. Keep them on the counter in a cool place and they’ll be good up to two weeks, depending on ripeness. Same for eggplant, cucumber (if you’re eating it within a couple of days), courgettes, summer squash and cabbage (up to a week).
- Fruits in general taste better and stay juicier if you don’t refrigerate them, but instead keep at room temperature and consume fairly quickly.
- Oil prevents mould. If you have a half-jar of tomato paste left, pour a thin layer of olive oil on top (enough to cover the surface fully) and it will stop it spoiling. You can do this with anything similar that is compatible with oil (including savoury yogurt).
- Bread should not be kept in the fridge. The cold affects the gluten and makes the bread dry out faster. But if it’s fresh, it can be frozen for a long time, and then heated a few minutes in the oven (straight from the freezer) for immediate consumption.
- Eggs have a porous shell: waterproof but not air-proof, and bacteria can penetrate and spoil them. So they need to be refrigerated, in which case they will last several weeks. A no-fridge solution is to store them covered in coarse salt.
- Milk and other short-life items should not be stored in the fridge door, as the temperature fluctuates there every time you open it. If you know you can’t finish the milk before it spoils, divide it up into two or more containers and freeze all but one (leave space for it to expand as it freezes!) Just before the first one runs out, take out the next so it can thaw gently in the fridge.
- Nuts do spoil in time as the oils they contain go rancid. Keep them dry and in a cool place (or even the fridge); you can also roast them first to extend their life and enhance their flavour (single layer on a baking sheet, for 15 min at 175ºC/350ºF). Ground nuts last less than whole nuts, so either use quickly or grind at the last minute.
3. Cooking Wisely
- Don’t cook more food than can be consumed before it spoils, unless you’re going to freeze some of it, and especially if it’s a dish that can’t be reheated. Remember that even if you’re determined to eat the same thing at every meal until you finish it, few things hold up past a couple of days. Unless you…
- … prepare food that holds up well for several days. For instance, a jar of homemade pesto will last a couple of weeks thanks to the oil and salt mixed into it. All you have to do is prepare the pasta fresh before eating, and mix it in. In contrast, a whole pasta dish will be very uninviting if you have to reheat it two days later.
- Don’t throw away wilted veg. As long as they’re not moldy, they’re still perfectly edible. Just throw them in a soup or a curry, rather than in a salad, if they’ve lost their freshness.
- Planning meals reduces food waste but also expense and headache, among other benefits. To this end, the Zero-Waste Chef offers some strategies for planning meals, including a printable pdf of her menu planner.
- Keep an eye on your perishable goods and make sure to consume them before they spoil. Here’s a brilliant little site where you can tick off what you have lying around, and it will suggest recipes to use them up: MyFridgeFood.
- Use everything that can be used. This shows respect, and it’s also common sense. You can go so far as to save your vegetable peelings to make weekly stock (that can then be frozen if not used at once), or apple skins for scrap vinegar (wow!) but it’s often simply about being aware of what you’re doing. For instance, juicing, fashionable as it is, discards most of the fruit and what could be nourishment. It takes a scandalous amount of fruit to make one glass of juice, a very dubious use of resources. Similarly, I recently saw a recipe using chard that called for using the leaves and discarding the stem – what? But that’s food!
- If you can’t use it, compost it. By this process, what is waste to you becomes food for the soil. Some councils collect kitchen waste for municipal composting, and where that’s not the case, there are composting bins and wormeries one can keep in the garden (or kitchen) to accelerate this process. But it doesn’t actually require any equipment, just sunlight and a patch of earth. If you have a garden, here’s the simplest method:
- Collect your fruit and veg scraps, old cut flowers, tea bags and coffee grounds (all these referred to as “greens”) in a dedicated bin or covered bucket. (Avoid cooked food.)
- Add a roughly equal amount of “browns”: egg shells, torn cardboard, newspaper.
- When your bin is full, empty it at the bottom of your garden in a sunny patch. In 9 to 12 months, it becomes dark and crumbly: it’s then ready to feed your soil.
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