In my childhood home, there was a right and a wrong way to pack food in the fridge. For example, garlic never went next to the milk (for fear the milk might take on some garlicky flavor), extra bread went in the freezer (so it never had time to mold) and cheese went all the way in the back (to prevent drying out). I grew up in a family of five, so cutting food costs was a priority for my mom and dad, as was avoiding trips to the grocery store. But whether you’re shopping for one or six, it never feels good to throw out the food you paid for.
And we throw out a lot of it: Americans toss $165 billion in food every year, according to Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council. That means almost 40% of food purchased in the United States is wasted, and up to 160 billion pounds of uneaten food fills landfills.
Don’t get me wrong — we’ve all had that moment when we’ve had to dump shriveled strawberries or chuck that bag of fresh spinach when it turned into brown mush. Thankfully there are ways to minimize these sad goodbyes. I actually still use some of my mother’s old tricks, though I’m not sure if they’re wisdom or old wives’ tales. The following seven tips are definitely the real deal.
FAULTS OF A FULL FRIDGE
A full fridge is a wonderful thing to have — just make sure you’re keeping it neat enough so that nothing goes overlooked. (Finding a forgotten bag of cookies in the fridge is always a treat, but keeping your fridge so packed that fresh stuff spoils in hiding). Also, keep items that are likely to spoil the quickest near the front of your fridge, so that they’re always in plain sight and will get eaten first. Experts recommend cleaning out your fridge weekly, and giving it a “deep clean” once a quarter.
DON’T FEEL PRESSURED BY SALES OR 2-FOR-1’S
Not every sale is one you need to take advantage of — as our co-founder Jean Chatzky says, “If it’s half off, it’s still half on.” When it comes to perishable food, sometimes less is more, explains chef and dietician Sanaa Abourezk. Particularly if you’re single, or if you don’t have a lot of room in your freezer, splurging on a sale can backfire. Plus, buying too much of the same type of food may leave you feeling burned out from eating the same thing all week. Pro tip: If you feel compelled to fill your shopping cart to the brim, try a basket that you can carry instead. Turns out when our carts are larger, we buy 40% more, according to a 2018 Retail Wealth Group report.
Keeping food frozen is the best way to prevent spoiling, and many quick-to-spoil items respond well to freezing, including soups, stews, pastas, rice, cheese, and bread. (Items that don’t freeze well include water-based produce like celery or apples, so eat those quickly, or cook them and add them to a dish that will freeze well!) Also, make it a policy to freeze your leftovers whenever you can, in portion-sized containers preferably — you’ll save more than $1,300 per year when you do so, according to one person’s experiment.
HIT PAUSE ON THE PRE-CHOPPED PRODUCE
Buying pre-chopped veggies or fruits may seem like a great way to save time (and it is) but it’s not good for saving money. Plus, pre-chopped items spoil faster, too. “When you break the skin of the fruits or veggies, you begin the decaying process,” explains Abourezk. When you opt to buy whole fruits and veggies and chop what you need, you can end up saving around $100 per month, according to a Vice Money 2018 report.
Dipping your small veggies in boiling water and then putting them in the freezer can keep them fresher longer, explains professional chef and author of The Preservation Kitchen, Paul Virant. You can do this with peas, corn, green beans and other small vegetables. No need to dry them first, just bag them and freeze them. This not only helps the veggies to retain their color, but also kills any bacteria that may be lingering and could cause them to decay quicker.
WAIT TO WASH
When you buy your fruits and veggies don’t wash them all immediately — moisture hastens the decaying process. Simply wash them as you eat them. Virant also recommends keeping them in storage containers (like Tupperware) and separating them from other fruits and veggies — fresh items can emit ethylene gas, which can cause other nearby produce to rot quicker. Also, always keep a paper towel in the container with any fresh lettuce or fresh spinach. The towel will absorb moisture and keep your greens fresher for longer.
Preserving your fruits and veggies isn’t just for fans of “Little House on the Prairie.” If you want to enjoy your veggies and fruits all year, don’t be afraid to break out the mason jars and get to pickling/preserving. Not only will this save you trips to the grocery store, it will help you keep produce in your home longer.
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