Last month I made a case for the reduction of food waste. If you missed it, here are the shocking facts in a nutshell:
America wastes 40 percent of its food supply. This waste happens both at the production end, where it is known as food loss, and in our homes, where it is known as food waste. Loss is when food is thrown out or somehow damaged due to processing. Once it reaches the market, this happens because of improper storage, slow transportation or overproduction. Most food sellers will not offer items that are past their peak, even if they are still edible. Food waste happens when food reaches the end of the food chain but is not consumed. That happens in our homes and restaurants.
Food waste is the largest component of our landfills and creates billions of tons of greenhouse gases — a major component of climate change. This means we are needlessly using up precious land and water resources for no good reason. (It takes 1,000 gallons of water to produce 1 gallon of milk — not something a dry state like California likes to hear.) If the water loss doesn’t make you think, how about $165 billion worth of usable food tossed in the trash every year, as the National Resources Defense Council reported? (I thought the dollar sign might get your attention.)
Now, to tug at your heartstrings: Worldwide, 870 million people do not have enough food to eat. And by 2050 we will need 70 percent more food to feed the still- growing population.
So as promised last month, I am continuing this horrifying mini-series with a list of the things you can and should be doing to eliminate food waste.
Buy only what you need. If you need two carrots, buy two, not a whole bag. If you buy too many, you know at least four of them will end up shriveled in the back of the fridge like a creepy old lady finger.
Don’t buy on impulse. Wait until you have a plan for using that amazing-looking cherimoya.
Buy wonky-looking produce. If you don’t buy that oddly shaped tomato, no one will, even though it is perfectly good. Remember that produce is sorted, priced and sold by its appearance. The highest grades look beautiful and uniform in size and shape. But the low-grade stuff is cheaper and just as good. No one cares that the tomato was misshapen when it ends up in sauce. Don’t sentence it to a future in the dumpster. Take pity on the market misfits.
Buy local produce, which lasts longer for a couple of reasons: It is younger, because it hasn’t had to travel across the globe. Also, many food transporters use ethylene gas to artificially ripen produce on the road. This means it will not last long in the store, or on your shelves. So buying locally sourced food is not just something we should do to be cool. (Talking to you hipsters.)
Use up your perishables before you head to the store for more. Don’t be a slave to habit. Just because you shop every Sunday afternoon doesn’t mean you need the same stuff every time.
Plan your menus and make a list. If you are organizationally challenged, “there’s an app for that.”
When You’re Eating Out
Chefs often over-portion, but that doesn’t mean you have to waste it. If you know this is going to happen, order one dish to share. (But still tip your waiter as if you ordered two plates. You took up two seats in his section, after all.)
Take leftovers home. Eat them for lunch the next day, or use them in a recipe. Take everything you were served and didn’t eat, including the bread in the basket. I promise you they will just throw it away. See below for ideas to use up bread bits.
If you find you often cook too much food, stage a Leftovers Night once a week. Make a soup, salad or casserole from the week’s leftovers, or offer your family a smorgasbord of the week’s great dishes. I like to line up everything on the counter like a cafeteria. Sometimes I even wear a hairnet, just to be authentic.
Perhaps the easiest foods to save and reuse, fruits freeze so well many people buy them that way in the first place. In our house, the last few berries that are mushy and a little fuzzy go into the freezer, where they await a new life in a delicious smoothie or a new batch of berry vinegar, jam or homemade fruit cordials. (No, the fuzz will not hurt you, nor will anyone be able to taste it. FYI, pastry chefs routinely jam up their ugly berries.) I freeze all kinds of fruits, including citrus. After grating off the zest for later use in everything from muffins to salad dressing, I freeze it and the juice in pint-size plastic tubs (which I also rescue from the trash) or ice-cube trays.
Both cooked and raw, I add veggie scraps — carrot peels, zucchini ends — to a freezer bin that I keep and slowly fill with scraps for use in stock. Larger quantities are stored in zipper bags and are destined for pesto, salsa, chili or to be puréed into soups.
Surprisingly sturdy, dairy freezes great and can be used in any number of terrific recipes. Imagine the incredible mac ’n’ cheese you can make with all that fancy stuff you bought to impress your date. Milk, sour cream, yogurt and buttermilk grains can easily be defrosted and stirred into cake batters, sauces and shakes.
Meat and Fish
Leftover meats, both raw and cooked, are great additions to meatloaf, meatballs, soups, stews, chili, curry or Bolognese sauce. An assortment of fish leftovers makes incredible chowder, bouillabaisse, cioppino or fishcakes. Don’t turn up your nose at frozen fish. It was probably frozen before it started its life with you.
Leftover baked goods are a no-brainer. Heels from your sandwich loaf or baguette are perfect for breadcrumbs, croutons or meatloaf filler. Donuts, cake, cookies and croissants make incredible bread pudding, as do those extra few pancakes or waffles. And leftover bread has a long history of use, in dishes such as the French pain perdu (literally “lost bread,” a.k.a. French toast), the Tuscan bread salad panzanella or as a thickener for soups and stews.
I am always saving half a can of beans or corn to add to salads, soups or stews, or to use in some very interesting hummus-style dip. It makes as much sense to hold back your quantities while cooking as it does to use up leftovers of the completed recipe.
Leftover rice is another classic ingredient, destined for fried rice, soup or veggie patties. But any leftover grain (including quinoa, barley, spelt or millet, which will all freeze beautifully) can make a delicious and healthful addition to a salad or stew.
Be sure your fridge and freezer are at the right temperature. They should be set between 37° and 40° and 0° and 2°, respectively.
Practice FIFO. For those of you who are not food service veterans, that means “first in, first out.” It describes how items should be stocked on shelves. Bring the oldest products up to the front, and put the new stuff in the back. That way, everything gets used in a timely manner, before it goes bad.
Use the crisper drawer. Everyone uses their crisper drawers, but not always in the right way. (For instance, it’s not for beer.) For maximum shelf life, leafy greens should have high humidity, while roots need it low.
Untie and unwrap produce to help the air flow through it. Get rid of plastic wrapping. Leafy greens and herbs will keep longer wrapped loosely in a moist paper towel. (Some people like to keep their herbs in a jar of water, like a bouquet of flowers.) Wrap mushrooms in a paper towel, or put them in a paper bag. This will prevent sliminess.
Remove the green tops from root vegetables to keep them from turning slimy. But use these greens; beet greens are especially yummy.
Black, bruised, and wilted greens will maintain their flavor and nutrients for a day or two. So add them to your soups and sauces for flavor before you toss them.
Beware of ethylene. This gas, emitted by bananas, apples, citrus and tomatoes, causes produce to ripen fast. It’s great if you need to hurry things along, but for longer storage, keep other foods at a distance.
One bad apple does spoil the whole bunch, girl. Once you see an apple or citrus start to turn, get it away from the rest. It’s a bad influence.
When food starts to go bad, do not automatically throw the whole thing away! Mold can be trimmed off and discarded. Soggy or limp produce still has nutrients that would work well in soups or sauces. Sprouted onions and potatoes are perfectly fine; just trim off the sprouts and proceed as intended. The same is true for green potatoes. The sprouts and green spots on potatoes are caused by glycoalkaloids, which can have an adverse effect on your nervous system. But you’d have to eat many, many pounds of green potatoes for any toxic effect, so relax and just trim it off.
Store unused grains and nuts in the fridge and freezer to prolong their shelf life. They are expensive and can turn rancid fairly quickly because they are full of oils.
Bread stays fresher longer if you freeze it, because freezing stops the staling process. Slices defrost quickly on the counter, or in the toaster.
Meat and fish freeze well if they are stored properly. Don’t waste your good intentions with lazy wrapping. Keep it airtight.
Monitor what you’re throwing out — and make a note so you’ll know what not to buy for the next shopping trip.
And By the Way…
If you’re not already doing it, now’s the time to start composting. It’s not as complicated as you might think, and the rules are negotiable. Specific ratios of brown and green vegetation are important if you’re composting commercially. But for a home garden, just add what you have.
With a little forethought and a small investment in zipper bags and time, you can help reduce America’s 33 million tons of landfill, which in turn will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help reduce the waste of water, energy and chemicals that go into producing, packaging and transporting food that just gets thrown out. Your kids, grandkids and great-great-grandkids will thank you.
Leslie Bilderback, a certified master baker, chef and author of Mug Cakes: 100 Speedy Microwave Treats to Satisfy your Sweet Tooth (St. Martin’s Press), lives in South Pasadena and teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.