Save for Food!
There’s more than one green angle, seeing as how we spend billions of dollars each year on food that gets thrown out. Here’s how to keep your cash out of the trash.
That stinky plastic bag in the back of your fridge—you know, the one every family member can see but studiously avoids? Inside is a pricey package of boneless chicken thighs you bought at the grocery store two (or, wait, was it three?) weeks ago. You were going to marinate them. You were going to serve them with that broccoli that’s now looking a tad yellow in your crisper and that fresh bread that’s now hard as a rock in its white-paper-bag sarcophagus. But then life got in the way. And now there they sit, rotten and destined for the trash.
Scenes like that play out in kitchens (and trash cans) all over the U.S.: The average American family of four throws away about $1,800 worth of food each year, which amounts to more than 20% of the food and beverages each household buys each month.
Of course, the idea of putting cash in the trash is most arresting, but that’s not the only impact of wasted food, says JoAnne Berkenkamp, senior advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council. What was required to grow, produce and transport all that wasted food has a cost to our planet as well: enough gas to drive around the world 5.8 million times, 1.8 billion pounds of fertilizer, 4.2 trillion gallons of water and 780 million pounds of pesticides!
The irony here is that most of this waste is the result of our best intentions to keep our families healthy and well fed. “We try to buy all sorts of healthy fruits and vegetables, but, unfortunately, those are the foods that are wasted more than anything else,” says Anne-Marie Bonneau, author of the popular blog The Zero-Waste Chef.
We also overshop. “Half of our grocery store purchases are impulse buys,” Berkenkamp says. “We can’t remember what’s in the refrigerator or freezer, so we can easily overbuy and overspend.” When we get the stuff home, we often don’t store it properly, or we rely on recipes that call for only a small portion of the ingredients we buy. Thankfully, there are dozens of ways to tackle this problem and get the food into your stomach and the money back into your wallet.
Get Real About Your Habits
The first thing you want to do is a little detective work in your fridge and pantry. Determine what often goes bad before you get a chance to eat it and—perhaps more important—why. If you don’t know this off the top of your head (how many times have you chucked the last quarter pound of deli ham because it’s too slimy for even the dog?), Berkenkamp recommends that for a couple of weeks you take a moment to look at food before throwing it in the trash. You’ll be shocked by the results. Whenever you put something in there, ask yourself why you bought it, why you’re throwing it out, and what you could do differently next time.
Consider the Fridge Itself
It’s not as if you’re living in Attack of the Killer Robots, but it is possible that a machine (your fridge) is at least partly to blame for rotten food. Maybe the back is as cold as your freezer or the top shelf has a more tropical climate. Check the settings and aim to keep the temperature between 38 and 40 (use a Taylor Digital Fridge/Freezer Thermometer, $12). If things are a little haywire, you might need to call a repair person—and in the meantime, at least use the cold spots strategically. For instance, don’t put leafy greens where they’ll turn into icicles; use the area to store things that won’t be damaged by a little slushiness, like canned drinks or beer.
Pretend You’re on Chopped
“Our grandmothers were masters of using the food they had and making sure nothing went to waste,” Berkenkamp says. The modern spin on that concept is treating dinner planning like an episode of Chopped, using your fridge and pantry as “mystery baskets” to see what you can come up with. (When you bill it this way, don’t be surprised that even your teens have a vested interest in dinner—and in how you plan to zhuzh that leftover taco meat!) “I call it freestyle cooking,”
Bonneau says. “Just look at what you have and try to imagine what you can make with it.” Too tired for games? Then try to use up old veggies and frozen meats for a pizza night, or have your kids dig through the fridge for anything that might work in a soup or an omelet. For more ideas, visit SaveTheFood.com, which provides recipes that help use up past-their-prime ingredients.
- ALSO SEE: How to Allergy-Proof Your Home
At the Store
Question Those “Great Deals”
Quick gut check: Is your family really going to eat that value pack of 24 chicken thighs? (Who are you, the Duggars?) A low price can be hard to pass up, but as Berkenkamp says, “if you end up throwing half of them away, they’re not so cheap anymore.” When you do buy perishable food in bulk, have a plan on how you’ll use it. As soon as you get home, remove the portions you plan on cooking soon, then freeze the rest by wrapping in a tight layer of plastic wrap and foil before placing in a freezer bag or container. (Yes, everything in your freezer will look the same—so bust out the masking tape or small mailing labels and a Sharpie to identify and date every single thing.)
Stick to the List
Whether you store it in an app (like OurGroceries, which can be shared among family members) or scribble it on the back of an envelope, never shop without a list. Before heading out, do a quick survey of your fridge, freezer and pantry to see if you already have some of the things on that list. (If you’re in a rush, snap a picture now and zoom later.) It’s also a good time to migrate things from the freezer to the fridge—so you can plan on having, say, that leftover chili tomorrow night. Think ahead when shopping for a specific recipe, keeping in mind what you’ll do with any leftover ingredients. Making coleslaw as a side? Find the smallest cabbage in the produce aisle. Shopping for specific recipes can be especially perilous, since they often require exact ingredients...but only in tiny amounts (maybe that’s why you have two almost-full jars of fig preserves). When shopping for a holiday feast or dinner party, use SaveTheFood.com’s Guest-Imator feature, which lets you plug in the number of guests you’ll have (and which ones are light, average or heavy eaters) to determine exactly how much food to buy. And remember: No impulse buys! Those last-minute additions may get eaten—but at the expense (literally and figuratively) of the foods on your list.
Prolong Your Salad Days
When buying bagged salad mixes, don’t be afraid to dig deep for the freshest ones available—look for the most far-off “use by” date. At home, transfer bagged greens to a glass or plastic airtight container lined with paper towels (and make sure they aren’t packed too tightly—room to breathe!), then place another paper towel on top. The hard containers protect greens from bruising, and paper towels absorb moisture, keeping them fresh for up to 10 days. If you’re buying greens in a box, give the container the same towel treatment while giving the greens a little fluff to prevent sliminess.
Keep It Fresh
Extend the life of your produce and reduce waste in the kitchen with five simple solutions.
Progressive Produce Keepers, crateandbarrel.com, $40 for a set of 2
OXO Good Grips Reusable Lids, oxo.com, $25 for a 3-piece set
Joseph Joseph QuickSnap Plus Quick Release Ice Cube Tray, target.com, $12
Pyrex Ultimate 10-Piece Glass Storage Set, williams-sonoma.com, $50
Rubbermaid FreshWorks 6-Piece Produce Saver, bedbathandbeyond.com, $25