Imagine the 90,000-seat Rose Bowl stadium filled to the brim with food—that’s about the amount that goes to waste every day in the U.S. And while food is often squandered by restaurants and grocery stores, most of us are equally responsible for discarding too much grub, letting leftovers linger, or allowing fresh vegetables to go bad. And considering that clean foods are often the priciest, wasting food is almost like giving money away. Plus, it places a big burden on the environment.
You may pitch food because you want to eat only the freshest and safest items, and that’s understandable. But surprisingly, dates on many foods have nothing to do with safety. Here are simple ways to keep food appetizing, curb food costs, and help protect the planet.
SEE ALSO: The Eat Clean, Get Lean Meal Plan
1. STOCK UP, NOT OVER.
Cook what you already have on hand before buying more. If you aren’t planning on eating it all in the next few days, freeze what you have for later. Just label containers with the date and the name of the food so you know what you have waiting for you. “Shop” your kitchen before heading to the store so you don’t buy extra food, and plan out your meals for the days ahead. Having the right amount of food on hand can not only help prevent food waste, it’ll also help keep you from overeating. When you do shop, eat the most perishable items first (like berries and baby lettuce).
2. STORE SMART.
Set your refrigerator between 35 ̊F and 40 ̊F, and your freezer at 0 ̊F or below, to keep food fresher for longer. Resist the urge to buy too many at once, since stuffing the refrigerator hinders the airflow around food, reducing efficiency so perishables may go bad faster.
After grocery shopping, get perishables into the fridge or freezer ASAP. If you’re making stops before heading home from the super market, bring a cooler bag with you in the car for dairy, meat, and produce.
At home, avoid resealing fresh fruits and vegetables in airtight plastic storage bags or containers; they trap moisture that promotes faster decay. Purchase perforated plastic bags for produce or make your own by poking tiny holes in resealable plastic bags. Store fruits and veggies in separate crisper drawers, and don’t refrigerate bananas, tomatoes, potatoes, or onions, since they generally don’t like the humidity.
3. BEFRIEND THE FREEZER.
Purchase plain frozen fruits and vegetables for smoothies, soups, and side dishes. You may prefer fresh, but with frozen, you use only what you need and leave the rest for later, so there’s no waste. Freeze fresh ripe fruit that’s about to go bad, such as berries, peaches (pit and slice first), and sliced bananas to use in smoothies, smoothie bowls, and frozen fruit desserts. Use ice cube trays to preserve leftover wine, remaining tomato paste, and 100% fruit or vegetable juice to use in recipes.
FACT: Soft fruits lose their nutrients faster in the refrigerator than in the freezer. Source: 2013 University of Chester (U.K.) study.
4. UNDERSTAND PACKAGE DATES.
You may be pitching perfectly good food because the dates on food packages are confusing. The “Sell By” date is the last possible day the store can sell the product, and it’s one you should take seriously. This label is typically found on fresh, highly perishable items. If you’re purchasing meat or poultry close to the “Sell By” date, cook and eat it right away or freeze it. You should never freeze, cook, or eat any food that smells funny or off. Properly wrapped meat and poultry maintain their quality in the freezer for up to a year.
The “Use By” and “Best If Used By” dates have more wiggle room. These refer to perceived food quality, not safety. To see how long food is still good past these dates, visit stilltasty.com.
SEE ALSO: 5 Nutritious Ways To Eat Your Leftovers
5. MAKE FOOD FEEL FRESHER.
Perk up wilted kale, swiss chard, spinach, or other greens by placing them in ice water for 30 minutes. Cook and eat, or freeze. To freshen up nuts, toast them on a baking sheet in a 350 ̊F oven for 10 minutes. (Note: It’s a good idea to pitch nuts stored at room temperature for more than a few months.) Nuts retain their quality for about a year in the refrigerator and up to two years in the freezer. Embrace imperfection. Purchase fresh fruits and vegetables with odd shapes, sizes, or colors. They taste the same, but so-called ugly fruits and vegetables often get tossed by grocery stores because they don’t sell. Slightly bruised produce is OK to eat if you cut away the damaged area, but don’t buy produce with any cuts.
6. LEARN TO LOVE LEFTOVERS.
You may not want the same dinner two nights in a row, but leftovers don’t always mean a second supper: You can also have lunch or snacks with the remaining food you have on hand. Cut your prep time by using up small amounts of vegetables, meat, and poultry in soups, salads, omelets, and frittatas. And keep your doggie bags safer by refrigerating them within two hours of dining out and eating them within three to four days. Reheat leftovers to 165 ̊F.
THROW IT OUT
You can’t eat every food in the name of frugality. For safety’s sake, throw out the following:
- Meat, poultry, seafood, or other raw animal food that’s past the “Sell By” date
- Odd-smelling food
- Food left out for more than two hours, or one hour if the air temperature is 90 ̊F or above
- If the power has been out for at least four hours and you haven’t opened the refrigerator or freezer; sooner if you have (raw animal foods, dairy, and leftovers should all be tossed)
- If cans have rusted or they’re leaking, deeply dented, or bulging
- Moldy food (except for cheese; you can cut that part away