Monday, February 14, 2011

Eliminating Food Waste

Waste not, want not, right?  According to research, the average family of 4 throws away 14% of their food purchases, or an estimated $590 worth of food a year!  I don't know who these people are, but I know I certainly don't have that kind of money (or even worse, the $786.67 it would be if you adjusted it for my family's size!) just to throw away.  In my house, darn little food goes to waste, so today, I'm going to share some tips on how to prevent a lot of this atrocious waste!
A pantry arranged so everything can be seen at once and everything is kept in its place

The first step is to make a list before you go to the grocery store of exactly what you need and make sure you really need it.  To figure out what you really need, figure out a meal plan for the week and look at what you have on hand to use in those meal plans before adding to your grocery list, so you only add the items you actually need.  This most easily done if your food storage areas are organized in such a way that you can see exactly what you have.  Organize your pantry area, so everything has a place and all labels are facing forward so you can see what you have at a glance.  For many things, like rice, flour, or cereal, I like to store them in airtight storage containers so I can see exactly how much I have left of that item.  Out of all the storage systems I've seen for this kind of thing, I've discovered I like the Lock & Lock brand square storage containers, since they stack nicely for easy organizing, have an extremely tight seal for freshness, and they come in a variety of sizes so you can use the size you need to maximize your space.
Keep an eye on when you need to restock things like sugar, flour, rice, and cereal by keeping them in clear storage containers.

When figuring out meal plans, you also want to take into consideration when things need to be used up.  For example, if you have fresh produce you bought the previous week, you will want to plan to use that up before eating something else.  Or, if you cooked up a chicken as talked about in a previous post, you'll want to make sure to use up that chicken before it goes bad.  Incorporate you leftovers into your meal plans as well, either by cooking up the leftovers into a new dish (like mentioned in the "Dealing with Leftovers" post) or having one day be a designated "leftovers night".

So now you have your shiny grocery shopping list in hand, ready to go shopping.  Before you go, eat.  Don't go grocery shopping hungry.  It makes it a lot harder to stick to your list.  And that is key:  stick to your list.  If it isn't on the list, don't buy it.  Period.  And double check your list before getting into the checkout line to make sure you got everything on the list.  It would be bad if you went to make one of your carefully thought out meals and discovered last minute that you were missing a key ingredient.  You may have to run out to the store last minute to get it, thereby spending more in gas and probably impulse buying at least a couple items, since you were at the store anyway.  If you discover you have problems sticking to your list, start calculating how much just the items on your list would be and just take enough cash to cover them to the store with you, leaving any other forms of payment at home, so you have to stay within your budget.

When you get home, rotate your stock.  If you've ever worked in any sort of food service or food retail business, you know what this term means, because it is crucial in that sort of business.  It is crucial at home too.  When you bring something new home, or have fresh leftovers, put them behind the older stuff on the shelf, so you use the older product up first.  This makes it much more likely that you will use everything before it is expired.  Do this in your pantry, freezer, refrigerator, and any other cabinets or shelves you might keep your food.

You also want to make sure you store your food for optimal freshness.  You probably already know to keep bananas on the counter and potatoes in a cool, dark place, but make sure you know how to keep everything you use, so it keeps as long as you need it to.  Things like snack crackers, cereal, and chips can also be kept a lot fresher depending on how you store them.  That's another reason I love those Lock & Lock storage containers--they keep things as fresh as when I initially open the package!  I actually tested this a couple weeks ago by just using a chip clip to close a bag of tortilla chips on one package and keeping another package stored in the container designated for tortilla chips (this wasn't actually on purpose; my husband opened a second bag of tortilla chips, not realizing there were already some in the storage container).  I then tasted both and was amazed at the difference.  The ones still in the bag (which was actually the more recent package) didn't really taste stale, but the taste and crispness paled in comparison to those in the storage container!  They may seem kind of pricey, but they are well worth the price in the long run, since they ultimately will save you a fortune in food freshness, and if you get them as gifts like I did, they are an especially good deal!
Opened packages of chips and snack crackers stay much fresher when sealed in a storage container