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In Part 1 of this series, we discussed how much food is wasted in this country. F
In Part 1 of this series, we discussed the economic and ecological impacts of food waste, as well as Tip #1: Stay Consistent with your Shopping Lists. Today we’ll cover a couple more strategies to combat food waste: assessing edibility, staying organized, and rotating your stock.
Tip #2: Learn How to Assess Edibility
Pop quiz! How can you tell if a food is fit for human consumption?
A. Check the expiration date
B. Use your senses
C. Swab for bacterial growth
Unfortunately, there is no quick home test for edibility (“C”). If there were, occasional E. Coli outbreaks would be but a distant memory.
Most people give heavy weight to expiration dates (“A” – “ew, this yogurt expired two days ago – time to chuck it!”). But expiration dates are NOT an exact science – more of a rough estimate of when the food is past its “optimal quality”. According to this NRDC & Harvard Law study, ” More than 90 percent of Americans may be prematurely tossing food because they misinterpret food labels as indicators of food safety.” So if you’ve been treating expiration dates as a hard-and-fast measure, you’re in good company.
But if you answered “B”, you’re a winner!
Even though the aim of this series is to reduce food waste, please: if your food is clearly unfit for human consumption, don’t eat it! Instead use that waste as a learning opportunity and resolve to do better next time.
Here are a few telltale signs that food has gone bad. When it doubt, throw it out!
- Visible mold or discoloration
- Normally firm or crisp produce items are soft, slimy, mushy, or wrinkled
- Uncooked meat is slimy or sticky; deli meat’s texture is “off”
- Foul or unpleasant odor
- Canned goods: can is rusted, dented, corroded, or swelling
- Eggs: place in fresh, cold water. If it’s good, it sinks. If it floats, crack it into a separate bowl and smell it.
- Milk: smell, texture, or consistency has changed
- Uncooked seafood has a strong fishy smell
In other words, use your senses. See it, smell it, touch it. If you’re still unsure, take a tiny taste and if your tongue tells you it’s “off”, it probably is. Otherwise, bon appetit!
Tip #3: Get and Stay Organized
This tip applies to all the places you store food, but it’s most important in the fridge, where items are highly perishable. The biggest side-effects of a disorganized fridge:
- Food goes bad. It’s out of sight, out of mind, until it becomes a science experiment.
- You buy something you already have.
- You open a duplicate “Refrigerate After Opening” item from your pantry.
- You spend unnecessary time finding what you want or need.
- You invite in the Electricity Embezzler when chilled air escapes because you’ve kept the door open longer than necessary.
- You limit your cooking skills because you can’t easily access all your ingredients.
By now, you’re probably feeling pretty low about yourself. But it’s never too late to change. That’s why you’re here, right?
First, give yourself a fresh start, both physically and mentally. At least twice a year, discover the joy of a Big Clean. Take EVERYTHING out, discard whatever’s become a health hazard, and clean the inside from top to bottom. Don’t be afraid to combine duplicate items into one container (condiments, dressings, jams, etc.), as long as they’re all still good. Then take a brief moment to step back and admire your sparkly-clean fridge. It’s a beautiful sight to behold.
If you do have to throw something out, either during a Big Clean or on the fly, enter it into a log. Jot down what the food was, how much you discarded, and the date. This will help you identify patterns and either adjust your organizational system or change your buying and eating habits. Taping this log to the inside of your pantry will make it easily accessible, yet discreet. Your bi-annual Big Clean is a great time to start or review your log and see where you need to adjust.
For example, we’re not huge bread eaters, but like to keep it on hand. We realized that we were consistently throwing bread away because it got moldy before we could finish the loaf, especially in the summer when it’s warmer and more humid. Then we decided to always keep bread in the fridge, and since then we haven’t had to discard any.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to make a one-size-fits-all recommendation
where to put things, because there are so many variables. Do you have standard, top-mount, or side-by-side fridge? Do you keep a lot of beverages chilled? Are you a carnivore or vegetarian? Do you need to keep any items separated due to food allergies or other dietary restrictions? Are there young/short people in your house, that need to have certain items within reach (or out of reach)?
One rule of thumb: the more cooking a food requires before it’s consumed, the lower in the fridge it should be stored. For example:
- Top: Leftovers – items you’ve already cooked and just need to reheat
- Middle: Eggs, dairy, fruit, deli
- Uncooked meats, preferably in a drawer, they don’t contaminate the rest of your food if they leak or drip
- Raw veggies in a separate drawer from the meat (so they don’t get contaminated)
That said, the most important practice is to stay consistent! Whenever you need to grab something, you should know exactly where to look for it.
Another good practice is to avoid cramming your fridge too full. Not only does this make finding things more difficult, but it’s also harder to put each type of food in its designated spot. How many times have you thought to yourself, “Hmmm, there’s no room for this here, so I’ll just stick it over… there!”
These tools can really help you stay organized and consistent:
Tip #4: Unpack to the Back
Whenever we come home with groceries, it’s tempting to put items away as quickly as possible. Usually, our grocery trip comes at the end of several hours of other “stuff” – kids’ activities, other errands, work, etc. The last thing we want to do is drag out the process any longer. But we’ve found it’s well worth spending the couple extra minutes to take the existing items out, then put the new purchases into the back and place the old items in front of them. (Pro tip: Organizing food by “age” is one place where expiration dates do help!) This is true for fridge, freezer, and pantry but once again, it’s most crucial for the fridge. If we’re really pressed for time and can only unpack one area the “right” way, we know that the freezer and pantry can get re-organized later without significantly increasing the risk of food going bad.
Once we’ve removed existing items from the fridge and unpacked our newly purchased items into the back, it’s a great time to assess the older items before returning them to the fridge. Have any of them gone bad? Throw them out and jot them down in your log. Do any need to be eaten quickly? Make a plan to do so within the next 24 hours.
Practice Makes Perfect
If you do slip up and have to discard food, don’t beat yourself up. Just resolve to do better next time. By following the tips outlined above and in Part 1, you should be well on your way to dramatically reducing the amount of food thrown away in your household. Try to turn these practices into habits before moving on to Part 3 in this series.
Thanks for reading, and for taking the next step to becoming SuperGreener!
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