Being a good cook is about more than mastering recipes. It's about making the most of the food you have on hand. Unfortunately, many of us fail in that department. The USDA estimates that 30 to 40% of the food supply in the United States goes to waste. We toss out perfectly good food that isn't aesthetically pleasing, stock our refrigerators with the best intentions but order in because we're too busy to cook, and err on the side of caution when it comes to using food that's past its prime.
But even the busiest of us can do plenty at home to use more of the food we buy. Here are five practical tips for reducing food waste and saving money.
Freeze Out Food Waste
Many foods can be frozen just before their expiration date to extend them past their prime. These include:
- Flour. Store it in the freezer in an airtight container to keep it from going rancid. Warm it up on the counter before you use it.
- Fresh herbs. Strip leaves off the stems. Freeze them on a cookie sheet before transferring to a freezer bag or airtight container. You can also chop them up and freeze them in olive oil in an ice cube tray. Either way, they can be added to recipes.
- Eggs. Remove eggs from their shells and whip them up for future scrambled eggs. Thaw them overnight in the refrigerator when you're ready to use them.
- Onions. Dice up onions and freeze on a cookie sheet before transferring to a freezer bag. They can be added to most recipes that call for a diced onion with little or no thawing.
- Buttermilk. Freeze by the tablespoon in ice cube trays, then transfer to a freezer bag once frozen. Thaw in the fridge when ready to use. The consistency will change once thawed, but it's still fine for use in recipes.
Love Your Leftovers
If you're like most people, your refrigerator slowly fills with leftovers before those containers are emptied into the garbage can at the end of the week. But with a little effort, you can enjoy the extra time and money that comes from eating food you've already cooked.
- Portion it out. Rather than storing leftovers in one large container, stash them in portion-sized containers. They'll be easy to grab and go for lunch the next day.
- Designate space. Have a dedicated area or shelf in your refrigerator for leftovers and store them in clear containers. It will help you remember to use them before they go bad and prevent moldy surprises later.
- Give leftovers their own night. Dedicate one night a week to eating leftovers. If reheating last night's dinner just seems too boring, plan meals with leftovers in mind. Last night's roasted chicken can be tonight's chicken salad. Wednesday night's baked potatoes and broccoli can be Thursday's frittata.
Give Fruits and Vegetables New Life
In America, wasted produce alone costs a family of four $1,600 per year. Don't let your crisper drawer turn into a graveyard. Give your fruits and vegetables a new lease on life.
- Avocado, bananas, and fruit. Peel and cut into small chunks for use in a blended protein shake or smoothie. If you can't use them right away, freeze them on a cookie sheet before transferring to a freezer bag. Frozen bananas will give your smoothie a richer, creamier texture.
- Tomatoes. Chop them up and use them to make a pasta sauce, which can be used right away or stored in the freezer for up to six months.
- Lettuce and other leafy greens. Revive them by placing in a bowl of cold water, disposing of any leaves that look too slimy. Cooking greens like broccoli rabe, chard, and kale can be used in a quiche. Lettuce, which is 96% H2O, may perk up enough to use it in a salad.
- Apples. Make applesauce by cooking the apples until they are soft and mashing them into a sauce, which can be used immediately or frozen.
- Potatoes. Shred them in your food processor and freeze them. They'll make delicious hashbrowns later.
- Grapes. Freeze them for a yummy snack on a hot day or use in place of ice in your sangria.
Store Food in the Right Place
If you stick all produce in the refrigerator as soon as it comes home from the store, you may be surprised to know that some fruit and vegetables last longer when stored at room temperature. Likewise, certain areas of your refrigerator are better for certain foods.
- Bananas, apples, and tomatoes give off natural gases as they ripen, making other nearby produce spoil faster. Store these items by themselves and store fruits and vegetables in different drawers.
- Produce that is refrigerated at a grocery store should generally be refrigerated at home. Potatoes and onions should be kept in a cool, dry place, but not in the refrigerator.
- The door is the warmest part of the refrigerator. Put your least perishable items, such as condiments and orange juice, on the door. Even if your refrigerator has a compartment for butter or eggs, it's best to keep them elsewhere.
- Your refrigerator's top shelf has the most consistent temperature. Use this for dairy, ready-to-eat foods, and leftovers.
- Cold air sinks, so the bottom shelf is the coldest area of the fridge. Store eggs, deli meats and fish here.
Get High-Tech Help
How often do you look at a refrigerator or pantry brimming with food and think there's nothing to cook? Well, there are apps to help inspire new meals.
- Fridge Check. Choose the ingredients you have on hand, the type of meal you'd like to make, and how much time you have to prepare your meal. Fridge Check will give you a list of recipes you can make with what you've got. You can even tell it to avoid ingredients you don't like or are allergic to.
- SuperCook. Type in your ingredients or choose from the available categories. The site will show you applicable recipes from some of the most popular cooking websites. You can also narrow down your results by meal type and cuisine.
Curbing food waste isn't just about saving money. Wasted food is the single biggest occupant in American landfills, where it produces a large amount of methane gas. It's also a huge waste of the water and other resources that went into growing the food in the first place. Incorporate a few of these tips to reduce food waste in your home. If you keep more food out of the trash, you can feel good about saving money and the planet.