I barely brushed the surface of combating food waste in a recent article, but the comments added so much to the article that I thought I could stop at just one. And then I found some more statistics.
In the U.S.:
- We waste 40 percent of edible food
- It costs $750 million just to dispose of the food we waste
- And when you consider the extra costs of packaging, transporting, and storing wasted food, the overall cost of wasting food goes up to $165 billion.
But there's more — 33 percent of purchased meat is wasted, followed by 25 percent of seafood. Even 15 percent of purchased fruit is wasted. That's not good, especially when you consider that meat is so expensive, not to mention all food.
But what matters most is what happens in your household. And according to the same statistics, each U.S. household wastes between $28-43 per month on food. I've seen other statistics that put that number closer to $600 annually per household. That's not a huge amount of money, but wasting money on food doesn't make sense any way you slice (or dice or julienne or…) it.
Food storage has changed a lot since my grandparents were growing up in the 30s. They preserved their meat by smoking it. They killed a chicken after lunch and dressed it for dinner. They say that they ate bad apples all winter. They started out eating the not-so-good apples first, but by the time they got to the good apples, they weren't very good, either. (But I don't know. This comes from the same grandfather who walked up hill to school both ways. And I think he was barefoot in the winter, too.)
Without question, freezers and refrigerators have extended the life of produce and other foods, but I still waste food. I am getting better as using up the produce, but I am also trying to learn the best ways to store produce so it lasts as long as possible.
This winter, I noticed that my onions were getting moldy more quickly than they ever had before. After throwing out a handful of onions three times, I looked at how and where I was storing the onions. In a plastic bag, in a warm cabinet, next to a heat register. Well, according to the National Onion Association (doesn't that make you want to cry?), there was nothing right about that. Onions should be not be stored in plastic bags; they need to breathe and prefer a cool, dry, well-ventilated environment.
Potatoes also prefer a cool and dark, ventilated environment. A refrigerator, kept slightly warmer than normal, was recommended as a good place to store pounds of potatoes through the winter.
If you have produce drawers in your refrigerator that have different humidity settings, in general, vegetables should be at a high humidity setting. This keeps the water vapor inside the drawer which prevents vegetables from wilting.
On the other hand, fruits usually emit more ethylene gas and need low humidity settings. Some vegetables, like peppers and mushrooms, prefer low humidity. In general, foods that emit more gas usually have a shorter shelf life.
If you don't store your greens in the high humidity drawer, you can wash the greens and wrap them in damp paper towels. That makes them last much longer.
Tomatoes get mealy when placed in the refridgerator. So when we have a garden, I leave the tomatoes on the plant as long as possible. When we don't have a garden, I let the supermarket be my storage unit for tomatoes. But if I must store them at my house, I do my best to eat them quickly. If not, I may store them in the refrigerator.
Consider the temperatures of different parts of the refrigerator. The door is warmest, so foods with lots of sugar, salt, or vinegar are fine on the door. Milk can be kept on one of the middle shelves. Since the bottom of the fridge is coldest, keep meat there.
My leftovers get stored in a selection of containers, but my favorite ones are clear glass. Why? I waste much less food when I can see what's in each container when I open the refrigerator door.
Along with all these other tips, one more method of food storage extension is to not wash your produce until you're ready to use it (with the possible exception of greens).
Products to extend produce life
Other than storing items properly, using up produce quickly, and selecting quality produce in the first place, there are also other ways to extend the life of produce.
The BluApple absorbs ethylene gas which hastens ripening. When used in fruit bowls, dark areas where you store potatoes and onions, and produce drawers in the fridge, it triples the life of the produce — at least, that's the claim. I haven't used this product, so I can't say for sure. It costs $19.90 for two BluApples and a 12-month refill kit.
Tupperware sells another option. The FridgeSmart containers regulate airflow and have ridges on the bottom to prevent the fruits and veggies from sitting in condensation. I have used these. Not only do they keep my fridge organized, but things like celery seem to last much longer. A four piece set is $84, though you can purchase different sizes individually for less than $20.
Some people choose to fight food waste by allowing the supermarkets to store the produce for them. I think that's a great idea, but I live 15-20 minutes from a decent-sized grocery store. Also, we're going to be growing more of our own food this year which means I will probably (hopefully!) have lots of produce life to extend.
Many factors increase food waste which means there are many factors to improve to decrease food waste. Which methods do you use? Do you think you waste as much food as these statistics say you do?
Lisa Aberle is a college professor by day and a freelance writer by night. Always an aspiring writer with an interest in money, she once ironically misspelled “mortgage” during a spelling bee. Most of her current adventures take place on the four-acre mini-farm she shares with her husband in the rural Midwest (where she writes with gel pens whenever possible).