According to the Environmental Protection Agency, over 34 million tons of food was discarded in 2010. Given that the 2010 census indicated a US population of 308, 745, 538, that amounts to .11 tons, or about 220 lbs, of waste per person. Yikes! Food waste is the second-largest contributor to the total municipal solid waste stream, trumped only by paper/paperboard. Since so little of it gets recycled, it is also the largest component of the municipal solid waste stream that actually makes it to the landfills. As it rots, food waste generates large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas.
In addition to its harmful environmental effects, food waste can also be a hazard to a tight budget. The first time I had to pour sour milk down the sink this semester, a little voice in my head (which sounded uncannily like my mother's) reminded me that throwing away food is like throwing away money. As I watched my hard-earned dollars literally disappear down the drain, I vowed to be much more careful in the future in regards to food purchasing, storage, and consumption.
In the months since then, I've developed a few strategies to keep wasted food to a minimum. I still have to throw things out here and there, but based on how infrequently I have to empty my kitchen trash can, I know I've improved.
1. "Stagger" it. Since I grocery shop weekly, I tend to buy one type of fruit that goes bad fairly quickly (e.g., berries) for the beginning of the week, a few very green bananas that will be perfectly ripe by the middle of the week, and then some heartier fruits (e.g., apples or oranges) for the end of the week. For vegetables, I make sure to prepare the recipes that use the most perishable veggies (e.g., eggplants or tomatoes) first.
2. Store it (properly). Keep milk in the furthest corner of the fridge instead of in the door and you'll likely be amazed at how much longer it stays fresh. For unwashed and uncut produce, I highly recommend investing in a pack of Debbie Meyer Green Bags. There's controversy over whether the bags truly work, and while I certainly agree that some of the claims are a bit exaggerated (strawberries good for 21 days?!), I have found them to perform well for many fruits and veggies--the key is not allowing moisture to accumulate inside the bag. I purchased a pack of 20 for about $10 from Bed, Bath, and Beyond, but I've seen them at grocery stores as well (sometimes even in the produce section). This may seem kind of expensive, but consider that each bag can also be rinsed, dried, and re-used 8-10 times. For someone like me, who loves fresh foods but often struggles to consume them before they spoil, Green Bags have been well worth the investment.
3. Stretch it. For some reason, I've always found restaurant leftovers to be a little unappetizing. However, now that I know how far $10 or $15 dollars can go at the grocery store, I can hardly justify dropping that much money on a dinner out with friends without getting at least 2 meals out of it. So I've started making sure that I a) order something that will still be tasty leftover, b) leave enough on my plate to constitute a second meal (which sometimes involves taking advantage of the free bread or tortilla chips offered by many restaurants!), and c) present it in an appetizing fashion the following day. For example, when I went out for Mexican food and ended up with a bunch of leftover quesadilla veggies, I jazzed them up for lunch the next day with my own whole-grain chips, salsa, shredded cheese, and plain Greek yogurt for a sort of makeshift nacho platter. Yum!
4. Freeze it. Freezing leftovers isn't just for soup anymore! I've successfully frozen everything from pumpkin puree to orange juice to shredded cheese. Just know that you may have to utilize the thawed versions a little differently than you usually would--for instance, using OJ "ice cubes" in smoothies and using thawed shredded cheese in hot dishes but not on salads.
5. Label it. I keep a roll of masking tape and a Sharpie handy and use them to mark the name and date of just about everything that enters my fridge or freezer. It's helped me to avoid a lot of those "How long has this been opened?" and "What in the name of Sam Hill is that?" moments.
6. Tweak it. Don't want to buy an entire quart of buttermilk just so you have 1/4 c for a recipe? Substitute! Have some spinach that needs to be eaten? Add it to your soup! This makes cooking not only frugal but also waaay more fun.
7. Check it. When in doubt, visit StillTasty.com, where you can enter virtually any food and see how long it's still safe to consume when opened, unopened, refrigerated, or frozen. There's also great tips for how to best store the items in its database.
Do you have a hard time eating things before they go bad? I've found this to be one of the biggest challenges of cooking for one. What are your best tips for avoiding food waste?