The sustainable food movement has put power in the hands of consumers. We can now choose grub based on how it’s grown and how buying it affects the local economy. But there’s another critical part of this movement: using more of that food.
“One of the most sustainable choices you can make is to not waste food,” says food sustainabilty researcher and writer Nina F. Ichikawa.
A new study published in PLOS One found that 1.6 trillion litres of water are wasted annually on uneaten food. Meanwhile, the average family spends about $1,600 on food that ends up trashed.
Of course, most of us don’t mean to be wasteful. “Three-quarters of people think they waste less than the average person,” says scientist Dana Gunders. But make some minor changes and you’ll see a major difference.
At the supermarket, you triumphantly put leafy greens, bright citrus fruits, and root vegetables into your cart. You’re feeling healthy, accomplished, and ready to cook nutritious meals. But despite our best intentions, the PLOS One study shows that fruits and vegetables are the foods people waste the most at home.
“We toss away really important nutrients our bodies need,” says dietitian Kristi King. It’s not just produce; we’re also throwing away plenty of other foods, like fish and eggs. Pick up these simple habits to shop savvier and spend 10% less on your grocery bill.
Go with a list
More than half of our purchases at the supermarket are impulse buys, according to industry figures. When food researcher Gustavo Porpino assessed 50 families for a joint study by Cornell University and the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, all but five wasted a significant amount of food. What did those five have in common? “The shoppers kept a list on their fridges of what they needed, planned out the week’s meals before shopping, and bought only from that list,” Porpino says.
Buy food European-style
You’re not the meal-planning type? We hear you. “Another option is to shop more regularly and buy only what you need for the next few days,” says Porpino. “That’s what people in Europe and Latin American tend to do, and they waste less at home.”
Though almost everyone can buy food around the clock these days, our brains still seem to hold on to a fear of not having enough stocked up. In fact, in studies, people consistently overestimate pantry shortages and under-remember extras they have. Live dangerously and fight this urge-you’ll probably find the item in question already stashed in the fridge.
Be picky when bulk shopping
Your favourite roasted chicken recipe calls for two apples, but you spy a 2.5kg bag on sale. Yet that doesn’t mean it’s a steal. In fact, Porpino’s study found that after spoilage is factored in, medium-size packages were the best value for most households. Save bulk buying for items that won’t go bad, like cans of beans.
Plan meals around locally-sourced foods
Generally, the fewer kilometres food travels, the less pollution is generated. Chat up your supermarket manager about what foods are locally sourced, and check out farmers’ markets. You can also join a local group to purchase a “share” of a local farm in exchange for a portion of its produce. Supplement that food with goods from farther away that are important to you-say, avocados or quinoa. “Buying locally doesn’t need to be a hard rule, but can rather be an aspiration to learn about your local farming system,” says Ichikawa.
Stop by the freezers
Fresh items are alluring, but they may stay good for only a day or two, while the frozen versions can last pretty much indefinitely. Plus, the technology of freezing has improved tremendously over the past few decades. The fish in the freezer, for example, may be better quality than the one on ice because it was ash-frozen on the ship within hours of being caught.
Limit new recipes
If you love to follow recipes, don’t stop. But pick just two or three per week and base the rest of your meals on the leftover ingredients. Otherwise, it’s easy to buy a surplus of groceries. “Make cooking less about the dish you make and more about the ingredients you use,” says Ronna Welsh, culinary school director.
Foolproof your fridge
Temps and humidity levels in your fridge vary from spot to spot. Stash items in the proper section, and they’ll last days longer.
Meat: Most fridges have temperature-controlled drawers. Use the lowest setting to keep meat fresher.
Warm leftovers or hot soup: Transfer into small containers and store on the top shelf, since heat rises. Keep away from dairy.
Yoghurt & milk: Stash these on an interior shelf, not in the door (where temps are the highest).
Leafy greens: Keep them in the crisper drawers, making sure they’re closed for plenty of humidity.
Eggs: As with dairy, store on a shelf, not in the door.
Condiments and seltzer: These do fine in door compartments.
Apples and oranges: Store in bins with a low-humidity setting (or keep bins slightly open).
Nail down your cooking strategy
You navigated the supermarket like a pro, resisting the urge to buy that extra-large bag of mandarin oranges. High-five! But how you use the food you bought will determine how much of it gets tossed. Some guidance:
Plan when you’ll eat leftovers
A full 50% of our food gets thrown out after we’ve cooked it. Don’t assume you’ll eat leftovers just because they’re in the fridge; slot them in for one night a week. And switch up how you use leftovers so they don’t get boring. “Have ‘use-it-up’ recipes for your leftovers on standby so you can shop your fridge before you shop the store,” says Gunders. Good options: throw-it-all-in soup, vegetable roasts, and fried rice (sauté leftover rice with veggies and add less-sodium soy sauce).
Give milk the sniff test
Think the “sell by” or “use by” dates are there to prevent illnesses? Nope. “They’re not based on any safety test,” says Emily Broad Leib, director of the Food Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School. “Most are just manufacturers’ suggestions for quality, and they vary widely.” If you regularly pitch things whose dates say they’ve just expired, you’re probably throwing away foods that are perfectly fine to eat.
Cook with veggie tops
Buy fresh vegetables like carrots, turnips, and celery with leafy greens intact. Add the tops to a sauté or use them to make a pesto (puree them with basil, Parmesan, garlic, olive oil, and salt and pepper in a food processor).
Your dinner doesn’t always have to be a main dish with two sides. Use the food you have to create a medley of offerings such as salted avocado, chopped apples with nuts, and leftover roast chicken tossed with extra salad dressing, says Welsh.
Keep your stash fresh
Use these four smart storage tactics to save your food from wasteful (and pretty gross) spoilage.
Freeze, freeze, freeze!
You can put almost any leftover meal, from lasagna to coq au vin, on ice. Portion it into small servings, double-seal each in foil and a freezer bag, and label it. “The smaller the amount, the more quickly it freezes,” says food safety expert Martin Bucknavage. That means large ice crystals won’t form and your food will be more likely to maintain its texture and taste. In two months, when you defrost a serving for dinner, you’ll thank yourself.
You can freeze ingredients too, even milk, cheese, and bread. Or freeze not-so-fresh chopped herbs, covered with olive oil, in an ice cube tray (and then drop the cubes into stews and soups). Ice cube trays are also handy for freezing leftover stock to save for cooking.
Store it wrapped
Your mum might have taught you to wash produce right when you get home, before putting it away. But most experts say not to rinse it until you need it; otherwise the dampness will spur bacteria growth.
Resist over-stuffing the fridge
Packing the shelves creates pockets of hot and cold that can damage your chow, experts say. The overall temperature in your refrigerator should be around 3°C to 4°C.
Reduce the ickiness
For foods that tend to get yucky quickly, use these storage tricks from nutrition expert Joy Bauer.
Bananas: Seal the stems in plastic wrap to keep the fruit fresh longer.
Guacamole: To keep it from turning brown, smooth the top with a wooden spoon and give the bowl a few raps on the counter to force out air pockets. Pour a thin layer of water (half an inch is plenty) on top; this forms a barrier to keep air out. Cover with a lid or plastic wrap and refrigerate. When you’re ready to dig in, pour off the water and give it a quick stir.
Nut butters: Natural nut butters separate; the oil comes to the top, which can leave the butter below dry. To avoid this, store the jar upside down, then flip it before using it so the oil more effectively permeates the butter.
Don’t toss that yet!
Try these tricks for rejuvenating, or just using, fading food:
Brown bananas: Make banana bread or pudding, or peel and pop into a resealable bag to freeze for smoothies.
Stale bread: Tear into 2cm pieces and toss with olive oil and a pinch of salt; toast in the oven until golden brown.
Wilted lettuce: Plunge into an ice bath and watch it get revived.
Leftover wine: Substitute it for vinegar in dressings and stews.
Too-hard cheese: Use in stock to add flavour.
Pickle (almost) anything: Making homemade pickles is a savvy way to preserve veggies. Try our test kitchen’s go-to brine on carrots, green beans, or zucchini.
- In a small pot, mix 1 ¼ cups distilled white vinegar; 1 cup water; 4 cloves garlic, crushed and peeled; 3 Tbsp sugar; and 2 Tbsp kosher salt.
- Heat on medium, stirring, until sugar dissolves.
- Arrange 400g desired vegetables, quartered lengthwise, and 3 sprigs dill in a 1 litre jar; pour warm brine over veggies to cover. Let cool slightly. Replace lid and refrigerate at least 4 hours or up to 2 weeks.
Research by Kelsey Kloss