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One common concern when we purchase food is the issue of waste. So many households in the US face food waste with the most recent USDA estimates (as of 2010) being at 30-40% of the food supply. When it comes to household food loss, the USDA cites research stating over purchasing as one main reason. This means that many of us bite off more than we can chew (pun intended) in terms of shopping with our eyes and not our stomachs. This has been a common complaint to me in my practice as well, and more so when my clients are purchasing new foods. Think of the money we could save! I am here to tell you, however, that you can not only easily cut down on your own food waste, but you can do it in a way that allows you to save on beauty products (see my post on making face masks with meal ingredient “leftovers”), save you time for busy weeknights, and increases the variety of foods you and your family has access to at any given time. Additionally, purchasing so much food your fridge and pantry are literally overflowing can lead to us overeating. When our eyes see, our stomachs want!
Now, practically speaking, in order to cut down on food waste you will need some kind of freezer storage space. This will allow you to store meals and snacks for future use, in individual or family-sized portions. I was lucky enough to get our deep freezer from the local Animal Humane Thrift Shop for $60! I’ve had friends purchase small apartment-sized deep freezers from Target during the dorm sales season. And, of course, there is always Amazon. Don’t forget to make your life easier with some sort of freezing system that includes organizing racks and a way to freeze multiple bags at once (this is also great for freezing breastmilk). Make sure you have some freezer bags/containers, a place to put them in your freezer, and a marker to record the date and item you have made. This will make it easier for you to identify at a later date and stay organized. It is also not a bad idea to keep a freezer inventory to cut down on repurchasing of items you already have, for which many printables exist online. This cuts down waste further, by allowing you to do inventory before meal planning so you know what you already have available.
The following are the main reasons my clients have identified that contribute to their home’s food waste:
- Making recipes for a family (4-6 servings) but only needing to cook for themselves or 2 (mother and child, for example).
- Making a meal (especially when using new recipes that are a so-so hit with the family; you’d eat them again but not necessarily the next day) and not wanting to eat that same recipe several days in a row.
- Shopping at places like Costco and Sam’s Club to save money, but needing to then make large quantities of food in a short amount of time (say, over a 3-5 day period).
- Waiting too long to use the ingredients and finding them deep in your refrigerator when they are almost ready for the rubbish bin.
On to my recommendations…
The good news is that these same reasons for waste can be the reasons we increase our freezer stores of ready-to-go meal ingredients or ready-to-heat meals! For example, let’s take each reason for food waste above, and turn it into an idea for meal storage:
- Making family sized recipes, especially when the serving sizes just happen to be 2-3 times what we need, can actually be a great way to use up those bulk purchased ingredients and store meals for ease at a later time. For example, casserole dishes often have 8-12 servings and can easily be cut into single portions and frozen for later meals you only need to microwave. Homemade meals will also have MUCH LESS fat, sodium, and unnecessary preservatives than store bought; they also tend to have significantly less calories than frozen or restaurant meals.
- When we make new recipes we find completely satisfactory but do not necessarily want to take for lunch the next day, we should definitely store them for later use! Or, share them with family and friends in a meal exchange you set up! For these new recipes you are just introducing I’d recommend freezing in single servings the same day you make them. This allows you to turn them into new meals when you reuse them later and possibly find a new even better version of the meal. So immediately cool and package them for the freezer.
- When I shop at Costco I can easily save $100 in organic produce compared to the other local health food stores we frequent (Whole Foods, Natural Grocers, our local Co-Op). However, I am always faced with the dilemma of getting it all to fit in my house! I have found that I will consume all or just nearly all of what I buy if I put in the time upfront to wash and store it immediately. I also end up actually following the recommendations of 9-11 servings of fruits and vegetables a day when I do. I really believe this is the reason I never go hungry and also keep losing weight.
- See below for the ideas on produce prep and storage. It will take you about 2-4 hours, depending on how much food you have purchased, to wash, cut, package and freeze enough ingredients for 15-30 days of meal ingredients from the fresh produce. I like to spend half a Sunday every 1-2 weeks focusing on this. Sometimes, I spend an entire Sunday not only prepping the produce but also making 2-3 meals I can immediately package for work meals and freeze for later use; I do this less frequently, about once per month. I can get through some serious amounts of audiobooks this way!
- Waiting too long to use or make produce is the #1 reason for food waste! Many fruits can easily be cooked down and kept refrigerated or frozen in ice cube trays (1 oz portions) for future use. Cooked berries over muffins, pancakes, and waffles are delicious and help us cut down on added sugars while chopped greens, onions, potatoes, celery, carrots, etc. can be easy additions to soups, stews, and even salad and pasta bowls. One note here, when you buy bulk make sure you are purchasing those foods you know you will eat in this quantity. If it is your first time trying a new ingredient or recipe, buying smaller quantities may be more likely to save you money in the end.
Some specific ideas for reducing food waste:
- First, clean and chop all food as soon as you get home from the store! Believe me, trust the science here and use it to your advantage. Time and time again, studies have shown that when we see food, well, we want it! It doesn’t matter if we are hungry or not (think: a candy bowl at work or the sucker jar at the local bank). The problem arises when what we see is junk food and not healthy food. Have fruits and veggies ready to go for snacks. To make your own produce wash, check out NutritionFacts.Org for tips.
- I use this time to listen to audiobooks and/or music to make it enjoyable and easy to take time out of my day for, because I am also doing other things I love, especially listening to books which, as a mom, I never have enough time to do now!
- Fruits: allow to ripen at room temperature before refrigerating fruits. Some fruits lose their taste when refrigerated (tomatoes, avocados, pineapples and mangos) or can leave their flavor on other foods such as bananas (even in a freezer! I ate banana pizza once, and I wasn’t thrilled). Once fruits have ripened, you can peel (if needed), chop, and cover with a small amount of lemon juice before freezing them for later use. I like to freeze initially on a cookie sheet (covered) and then transfer to a bag so all individual pieces do not stick. This is a great way to have a smoothie store ready to go. I even freeze juices in 1 oz ice cube trays for smoothies, such as orange juice, or pureed fruits like mangos that have gotten too ripe. Additional ideas are below,
- One of my favorite things to do with berries is to cook them over medium heat with a small amount of maple syrup until the mixture reduces by half (for a topping on pancakes, waffles, scones, breads and cakes, or yogurt) or by 3/4 (for a jam) to use with other meals (topping on toast, scones, and thumbprint cookies). Often times, my son and I will just eat this mixture straight out of the fridge as a dessert. Warning, this may stain your teeth temporarily so drink and swish with water like you would/should do after drinking coffee and tea.
- You can use ripe fruit to make ALL kinds of fruit only ice creams! In fact, purchasing an ice cream maker was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It supplies us with endless desserts I do NOT have to feel guilty about. I keep the bowl in my deep freezer all the time so I can make a treat on a whim. I love it!
- If you have a food dehydrator (another MUST HAVE in my opinion, for making a plant-based diet just wonderful–see my recommendations for veggie chips below), you can make fruit snacks and fruit rolls! You can also use your oven and a cookie sheet to do this, however, it takes a very long time and means you need to make the kitchen off limits for safety reasons, which may not be practical for everyone. Having a dehydrator, on the other hand, means you can literally make some fruit or veggie snack item all day every day if you need to. Check out the link above for a square shaped one. I have used a circular hand-me-down that can make the fruit snacks hard to remove, so I’d recommend a square or rectangular one. If you want the Gucci of dehydrators for a large family, see this one.
- Vegetables: like fruits, vegetables should be at their peak ripe stage before you refrigerate them. Some need very cold temperatures (think greens, which are a winter crop), and some do not need any refrigeration (potatoes, onions, garlic; these do best in a cool and dry dark place). For many vegetables, you can clean them then quickly steam or blanch them before cooling them in an ice bath before freezing. This process actually removes enzymes that can degrade the food. Ideally, you will eat a diet that is a mix of both fresh and raw fruits and veggies and frozen or canned.
- A note on broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables, broccoli has some compounds that are responsible for it’s amazing cancer-fighting properties and these can be destroyed during cooking. The trick is to bring these compounds together which requires the food to be chopped or chewed. If you are eating frozen broccoli, add a pinch of mustard powder to it to bring back its cancer-fighting properties.
- You can cook and then puree squashes you like to use in soups and freeze them in bags horizontally before storing them. This link is to the freezer cube I purchased and I use it all the time. It is great for soups, stews, baby food, and freezing breastmilk. Think veggies such as pumpkin, butternut squash, acorn squash, kombacha squash (my FAVORITE squash for fall and winter soups; it is also amazing just baked), or others you enjoy. The same thing goes for tomato and pepper puree soups you make ahead and freeze for later use.
- To increase the taste of these, freeze only the squash or tomato product ahead of time, and on the day you want to make the soup, cook fresh garlic, onions and other additions then use an immersion blender to mix.
- Meal starter packs. I always have chopped onion, celery, carrots, potatoes, and greens in my fridge for quick meal starts (especially soups and stews) or for additions to premade foods. For example, I often take a can of soup my son and I both love, such as Amy’s Lentil Soup, and make it more healthy with the addition of cooked vegetables. This is also a good technique for a quick soup that serves 4-5 instead of 1-2 by just adding your own vegetables and even water! Canned soups have SO much sodium that you will not likely have to add more, but they also taste great because all the foods have been living happily married in the can. Not everyone consumes foods that come in cans, but if you still do I recommend this quick weeknight meal hack (or purchase soups in other containers). It has that homemade feel when you add your own sautéed veggies (to keep it low-fat, use a steam-fry method, it still tastes great!).
- Chips!!! As promised, I want to share my chip habit and ideas. When you purchase at bulk stores, like Costco, you can easily get 4 times the produce for the same price as other smaller stores. However, you may find you cannot cook that amount of food. Additionally, you may love crispy and crunchy tasty treats! Enter: the veggie chip (I will write a blog post with recipes in the near future to link here! So stay tuned). You will be surprised at just how many vegetables you can turn into crunchy delicious low-calorie chips. My favorite are zucchini chips which you make by simply slicing thinly (get a mandoline to make your life easier; use caution when using the slicer and NEVER let your little one use it, this is definitely a teenager and above kitchen tool) and topping with whatever flavors you want. Going for a beef jerky substitute? Slice the zucchini thicker and coat it in soy sauce. I kid you not, if you dehydrate only until this is a chewy texture, you may even fool your favorite rifle wielding uncle.
- [Update: 9/20/2020] OK, I CANNOT believe I forgot to include making stocks and broths (see this post to learn the difference) here people! In short, you can use many portions of the vegetables you purchase to make a variety of tasty concoctions to use as the base for soups, stews, and sauces. Additionally, this liquid adds a wonderful flavor when cooking grains (replace the water with stock when cooking rice, for example, and add a hearty flavor to your favorite rice dishes without tons of salt), and can be used in the stem-fry method of cooking. You can use the greens from many vegetables you’d usually throw away (think carrot greens( as well as any pieces of onions or garlic you cut off. When pressed for time, all you have to do is wash and dry any dirty portions and throw all of these odds and ends into a freezer bag and freeze it for later use. You can cook stocks for 4-6 hours, so it is a good thing to get on the stove early in the day while you do other activities! Just don’t forget it (set a timer!). Lastly, you can pour into ice cube trays and freeze in small 1 oz portions for later use.
Other simple ideas include freezing slices of breads you make or buy, freezing muffins you make to reheat later, freezing extra coffee (to make iced coffee later, OR, to use as a plant food), freezing extra cake icing you make, and putting used tea bags in your refrigerator for an eye mask to use the following day! See my blog post on how to use food as quick homemade beauty products like face or body masks and body scrubs!
To be honest everyone, I have SO MANY MORE tips, tricks, and hacks to reduce and reuse food waste and I will be sure to add them in as the blog develops. Thanks for reading! Follow me if you like what you are reading so far.