If you’re like the average American, you waste more than 20 pounds of food every month. This is because 40 percent of the food in the US goes uneaten1 – that’s almost half.
While some of this food is lost during production and processing (such as produce that goes bad before it’s harvested), a significant amount is wasted in people’s homes simply because it goes bad before it’s eaten.
Wasted Food Costs US Families Thousands of Dollars a Year…
Not only does this amount to more than $2,000 in annual losses for the average US household of four, but all of that wasted food uses up precious stores of freshwater – about 25 percent of freshwater use is wasted on food that’s not even eaten!
Plus, this “throw-away” food takes up land space to grow it (which is then doused with chemicals) and generates increased methane gas emissions in landfills when it sits and starts rotting… it’s a massive unnecessary waste on all fronts.
Of course, you probably don’t set out to waste food. But if you purchase fresh produce in larger quantities — a must if you like to eat healthily but don’t have time to run to the market every day — it can be difficult to use it up before it goes bad.
Not surprisingly, these types of healthy fresh foods are the foods most likely to be wasted. For instance, more fruits and vegetables are wasted in the U.S. food system than are actually consumed (52% are wasted versus 48% consumed).2
The good news is that there are many tricks you can use to extend the “shelf-life” of your fresh foods; you don’t need to resign yourself to frozen or canned alternatives!
How to Make Your Groceries Last Longer: 27 Tips
When you invest the time and money into a trip to the grocery store, you want to be sure the foods you purchase last as long as possible. The featured article has compiled more than two-dozen tricks to keep up your sleeve to do just that:
- Store onions in old pantyhose to keep them fresh for up to eight months (tie a knot in between each one to keep them separate).
- Chop dry green onions and store them in an empty plastic water bottle. Put the bottle in the freezer and sprinkle out what you need when you’re cooking.
- When storing potatoes, keep them away from onions (this will make them spoil faster). Storing them with apples will help keep the potatoes from sprouting.
- Asparagus should be stored in your fridge upright in a glass of water (like cut flowers, cut the asparagus bottoms off first), and covered with a plastic bag.
- Store salad greens in a bowl covered with plastic wrap, and add a paper towel to help absorb moisture. A salad spinner will also help remove excess moisture — a key culprit in wilting leaves — from your greens.
- Mushrooms should be stored in a paper bag in a cool dry place, or in the fridge. Avoid storing mushrooms in plastic, as any trapped moisture will cause them to spoil.
- Swirl berries in a mixture of one part vinegar (white or apple cider) to 10 parts water. You won’t taste the vinegar but the solution will help keep your berries from getting moldy and soft.
- When storing chopped avocado or guacamole, leave the pit in, spritz it with some lemon juice or olive oil, cover with plastic wrap, and put it in the fridge. This will help keep it from turning brown.
- If you spot a rotten apple, remove it right away, as one rotten apple really can spoil the whole bunch.
- Put plastic wrap around the crown of a bunch of bananas to keep them fresh for days longer (and be sure to store them away from other fruits, as they emit a lot of ethylene gas which accelerates ripening).
- Store tomatoes at room temperature away from sunlight, in a single layer with the stem side up (don’t put them in plastic bags, which will cause them to spoil faster).
- Store delicate herbs like parsley, basil, cilantro and chives upright in a glass of water (like you would arrange cut flowers) in your fridge. Put a plastic bag over the top and secure it around the glass with a rubber band for optimal freshness.
- Bunch oily herbs like thyme loosely together, secure them with a string around the base and hang them in your kitchen for storage.
- Fill an ice cube tray with olive oil, then add chopped herbs (rosemary, sage, thyme or oregano) to each cube. Pop one out when you’re cooking for instant herb-infused oil.
- Store fresh ginger root in the freezer. You can grate it frozen (peel and all) when cooking.
Dairy and Nuts
- Rub the cut side of a block of cheese with butter to keep it from drying out.
- Cheese should be wrapped in cheese paper or wax paper, not plastic wrap, then put in a plastic baggie.
- Store cheese in the warmest part of your fridge, such as the vegetable or cheese drawer.
- Nuts can be stored in the freezer to keep them fresh longer. Ideally put them in Mason jars that have the air vacuumed out with a Food Saver and attachment.
Organization, Gadgets and Other Tips
- Keep milk and other highly perishable items on the middle shelf in your fridge, NOT in the door where temperatures fluctuate.
- Avoid mixing produce and meats in the same drawer, as cross contamination can lead to food waste.
- Avoid over-stocking your fridge, as a crowded fridge will keep air from circulating properly leading to warm spots that can cause spoilage.
- Avoid chopping up your fruits, veggies and meats before storage, as this will make them spoil faster.
- Glass mason jars make a great food-storage option, and you can seal them with an automatic vacuum sealer like Food Saver for even more freshness.
- Remove spoiled food from your fridge promptly to keep mold from transferring to fresh food.
- Get an ethylene gas absorber for your fridge; they’re available online and can keep your produce fresh up to three times longer than normal. There are many types of bags that can do this. They are typically called “green bags.” One example would be Debbie Meyer Green Bags.
- A gadget called the Herb Savor, which has a well for water and a plastic cover to keep herbs fresh, claims to make herbs last for up to three weeks.
Vacuum Packing: One of My Favorite Food-Storage Tips
One of my all-time favorite tricks, which works for most produce, is to create a “vacuum pack” to help protect it from oxygen and airborne microbes that will accelerate its decay. Leave the produce in the bag it came in from the grocery store, place it against your chest and use your arm to squeeze the excess air out of the bag.
Once the air is removed you can seal it with a twist tie and thus minimize exposure to oxygen. This simple technique can easily double or triple the normal shelf life of your vegetables by keeping air away from them. Alternatively, you can use an automatic vacuum sealer, like the FoodSaver available on Amazon, to do this automatically and create an even tighter, airtight seal.
However, I nearly always store my food in quart or pint glass Ball jars. The FoodSaver brand also has a wide-mouth jar sealer attachment, which is ideal for sealing your leftovers, fermented veggies, sauces and other liquids stored in a wide-mouth jar, and can keep your food fresh up to five times longer. I regularly use it for extending the life of my vegetable juice and making my juicing more efficient so I don’t have to juice every day.
Food Loss and Waste is a Global Problem
Curbing food loss and waste is something that should be a priority on both global food system and individual (consumption and behavioral) levels. As the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations reported:3
“In developing countries the problem is chiefly one of inadequate harvest techniques, poor post-harvest management and logistics, lack of suitable infrastructure, processing and packaging, and lack of marketing information which would allow production to better match demand. The advice is therefore to strengthen the food supply chain by assisting small farmers to link directly to buyers. The private and public sectors should also invest more in infrastructure, transportation and in processing and packaging.
In middle- and high-income countries food losses and waste stem largely from consumer behavior but also from lack of communication between different actors in the supply chain.
At retail level, large quantities of food are also wasted due to quality standards that over-emphasize appearance. Surveys show that consumers are willing to buy produce not meeting appearance standards as long as it is safe and tastes good. Customers thus have the power to influence quality standards and should do so, the report said.
Selling farm produce closer to consumers, without having to conform to supermarkets’ quality standards, is another suggestion. This could be achieved through farmers’ markets and farm shops. Good use for food that would otherwise be thrown away should be found. Commercial and charity organizations could work with retailers to collect, and then sell or use products that have been disposed of but are still good in terms of safety, taste and nutritional value.”
Planning Your Meals Can Cut Down on Food Waste in Your Home
The FAO report found that people in rich countries generally buy more food than they need, then end up throwing away the excess. They noted that “generally speaking, consumers fail to plan their food purchases properly … that means they often throw food away when ‘best-before’ dates expired.” I’ve long stated that planning your meals is important for a number of reasons, one of which is reducing the amount of food that will go to waste, since you’ll only buy what you need each time you visit the store, and you’ll have a plan in place to use it all up once you get home.
I also recommend buying your food locally, preferably from a small organic farming operation you can visit and inspect for yourself. This guarantees that you get the freshest foods right from the start, giving you a few extra days of leeway before they spoil.
Finally, for the packaged foods you do buy, they are often good beyond their expiration date. Unbeknownst to many, “best by” dates on many food packages are typically a measure of peak quality, not an indication of food safety. Typically, it is still safe to eat a food after the “best by” or “best before” date (the exception is infant formula, which has safety-based “use by” dates).