Each person loses about $18 a week in food we throw out, according to statistics from the National Institutes of Health.That’s $936 a year per person, on average.
A few simple steps can put more of that money in your pocket and keep food from going to waste (and filling up area landfills.)
We talked to two Lehigh Valley experts on the issues of food safety and nutrition: Bethlehem Health Bureau’s Beth Somishka, sanitarian, and Sherri Penchishen, manager of chronic disease and injury prevention, to get some tips on how to maximize what we buy at the supermarket.
Plan it out
It seems pretty obvious that thorough planning before going to the grocery store would help control what food we bring home, but so many of us don’t do it. We feel rushed and because we didn’t shop thoughtfully, we find ourselves at the supermarket multiple times a week, buying food and ultimately wasting much of it.
“Menu planning is one of my big things,” Penchishen says. “You eat better when you have a planned menu and the ingredients to make it and that does help with food waste. Your aren’t buying stuff you don’t need.”
Penchishen says we should limit our supermarket trips to once a week. Then you aren’t overbuying.
Figure out what you’ll make for your meals and all the ingredients (and amounts) you’ll need.
You may be saying to yourself “I don’t have time to plan it all out.”
“It does take time,” Penchishen says. “But it’s worth it.”
Use up those leftovers
Ideally, we all cook our meals to cover multiple days. But how long is it safe to keep leftovers?
In general, you have 5 to 7 days to eat those leftovers. BUT: There are a few things you need to do first to ensure food safety.
- Ensure your refrigerator is at or below 40 degrees as recommended by the Food and Drug Administration. Somishka recommends getting a separate thermometer and have it in the front of the fridge or in the door, which are the warmest parts of the fridge.
- Put those leftovers in air-tight containers or wrap carefully and label with the date. (Don’t rely on your memory).
- If you can’t use those leftovers, stash them in the freezer. But keep in mind, the freezer stops the clock but doesn’t rewind time. If you had those leftovers in the fridge for 3 days and you freeze, you should eat those in 2 to 4 days.
Keep it un-cluttered
Designate a prominent spot in your fridge for leftovers. This process then helps you avoid having the containers of leftovers shoved to the back of the refrigerator (and forgotten, only to turn moldy).
By keeping a shelf just for leftovers, you can also better track when you’ve used them up.
Garbage night check
Going with the idea of weekly food shopping on a Sunday, a mid-week check of the fridge will help you focus on what stock you have. Most of us have our local garbage collection mid-week; use that as your reminder.
The idea: Your freshness clock runs out by about Friday for many of the foods you’ve bought or prepared Sunday.
“Garbage night is a good night to do something with the food that’s sitting in your fridge,” Penchishen says.
If you have food you don’t think you’ll be able to use by the end of the work week, put it in the freezer or pack it up for lunches.
Chill out on produce purchases
Of the food we buy at the supermarket, fresh produce is what we waste the most, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
It’s helpful to understand a few things about the produce you buy. What you get at the supermarket is typically picked before its ripe, so you generally have more time to use it. What you purchase at your local farmers market, however, will likely be at the peak of freshness, so you will need to use those items immediately.
If you need to use it immediately, you’ll want to think carefully about much you’re buying and what you really need.
If you see your fruits or vegetables start to get squishy or turn brown, really consider ways you can still use it. A smoothie? Vegetable soup?
Otherwise, freeze them, the experts say.
Blanching then freezing is the best way to preserve most vegetables, including peppers, broccoli and carrots. Blanching isn’t complicated — plunge your vegetables in boiling water for 3 minutes, then into ice water for 3 minutes. Dry completely then store in freezer-safe bags or containers (and label).
Most fruit can be frozen too. Keep in mind though, you’ll lose a lot of texture and some of the nutrition once you freeze.
Higher-water content vegetables and fruits don’t take well to the freezer, so even more thought should be put in before purchasing.
Give it the sniff test
According to a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture study, dairy products make up about 17 percent of wasted foods. Misunderstanding how food is labeled for our consumption contributes to food waste, and dairy may be where we fail the most.
Let’s take milk for example. Milk is dated in Pennsylvania with a “sell-by” date, after which the milk cannot be sold.
In general, you have up to 5 days after that date to use the milk. BUT: Keep in mind when you opened the milk. Once it’s been opened, you should use it within 7 days. And don’t keep dairy in the door of your refrigerator, which is the warmest part of the refrigerator.
For dairy, there’s a low-tech way to ensure what you’re about to drink or eat is fresh.
“The odor is the red flag,” Somishka says.
Give that milk or other dairy a good sniff. If it’s off, no matter what the date is, it’s not safe and you should toss.
If you have milk that’s getting elderly, find a way to use it up. Again, that’s where planning can help. Make a smoothie, a milkshake or make a dessert that requires milk.
When it comes to fresh chicken, ground beef or any other meat, you’ll want to use some of the same rules that apply to milk.
How does it look, smell?
You should do your best to use the meat by the date on the package, but you’re fine 1 or 2 days beyond that date as long as you don’t notice any odor or off-appearance.
Buying meat when it’s on sale or in bulk is fine, but make sure you’re portioning out what you’ll really need, and freezing what you won’t use immediately.