Eating lots of fresh foods has great nutritional benefits—but there is a downside. Higher-quality diets are associated with greater amounts of food waste, according to a study published last year in the journal PLOS One.
To investigate, researchers rated diets on a quality scale from 0 to 100. Those Americans who were in the bottom 20 percent of healthful diets wasted 295 grams of food per day, while those in the top 20 percent wasted an average of 535 grams of food per day.
All combined, Americans waste nearly a pound of food a day, or about 800 calories. Fruits and vegetables are the biggest offenders in wasted food, followed by dairy, meat and grains. But a whole lot of water goes down the drain, too. Every year, more than four trillion gallons of water are used to grow the food we never eat. Worldwide, enough food is wasted every year to feed nearly two billion people a 2,100-calorie-a-day diet.
Those statistics may be discouraging, but they’re not a reason to trade in the parsnips and pears for processed food. Instead, follow these tips to waste less while still incorporating plenty of fresh food into your meals.
1. Shop with an ingredients list.
It’s all too easy to browse the aisles of the grocery store, grabbing whatever catches your eye. Instead, sit down and prepare a list of meals you want to eat in a given week. Buy only the ingredients for those meals, and be realistic about what you can consume. Take into account any days when you’ll be eating out.
2. Don’t let food get “out of sight, out of mind.”
If you’re not in the habit of opening your crisper drawer regularly, don’t place foods in there only to waste away. Or you could try keeping a list on the fridge of what’s inside, so you always know what’s left to eat. You can also set out a bowl of veggies for snacking—when those broccoli florets are right in front of you, you’re much more likely to reach for them.
3. Rethink produce that’s past its prime.
Have tomatoes that are too mushy to be sliced and added to a salad? Cook them down into a pasta sauce. Bread too stiff for a sandwich? Make croutons instead. Greens getting a little soft? Throw them in a smoothie. Apples can become applesauce, cucumbers can be pickled, and overripe bananas are made for banana bread.
4. Consider the freezer your friend.
When you realize you won’t be able to eat something in time, most food can be frozen—just don’t forget about it, or else you’ll simply be delaying the waste by a few months. You can even freeze some herbs—including rosemary, oregano and sage—by placing them in an ice cube tray with butter or olive oil. Also, don’t be afraid to buy frozen fruits or vegetables in the first place. Fresh is great, but if you’re routinely throwing a certain type of produce away, consider switching to frozen.
5. Learn to can.
Making your own jams, jellies and preserves is a great way to rescue in-season produce from spoiling—and it’ll give you the opportunity to taste some of your favorite flavors throughout the year. Apples, pears, plums, peaches, nectarines, blueberries and strawberries are all good candidates for the simple process of water-bath canning.
6. Only buy in bulk when it makes sense.
The deals that come with buying in bulk can be irresistible, but if you live alone and can’t possibly finish a 2.5-pound bag of spinach before it wilts, pass on the bargain and buy in a smaller quantity instead—unless, of course, you have big plans for freezing or canning.
7. Understand food labels.
Lots of food is thrown out every year because people think it’s expired based on labels like “sell by” and “best if used by.” Those labels are inconsistent, and they’re just guesses by the manufacturer. That said, consuming food that has spoiled can make someone very sick, so if you notice any change in color, texture or smell, you should toss it. Some items, such as chicken or fish, grow harmful bacteria quickly, so it’s better to err on the side of caution with them. But if it’s three days past the “best by” label on your lettuce and it still looks and smells the way it normally does, don’t feel like you need to chuck it just because of the date given.
8. Store food smartly.
There are many tricks to make food last longer just by the way you store it. For example, don’t keep fruits and vegetables together, as many fruits release a gas that causes neighboring items to ripen more quickly. Don’t wash produce before putting it in the fridge—that will make it go bad faster. Mushrooms do best in a brown paper bag, while eggplant should be stored on the counter. Wrap celery in tinfoil to help it stay crisp longer. These are just a few examples—do some research to see how your favorite ingredients prefer to be stored.