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We’ve all seen the chaotic images of people panic buying groceries and empty shelves. With our fridges and pantries full, it’s important to be mindful of an increase in food waste. To reduce the amount of food you throw away during this period of isolation, while you’re likely doing more cooking at home, think of your home kitchen as a restaurant kitchen. 

Restaurants determine the food they buy carefully and we should too. It’s human nature to stock up when it looks like we need to, so planning out meals and basic necessary pantry items ahead will help prevent over-purchasing — especially when it comes to perishable foods. With that in mind, it’s time to rethink your food habits! The pandemic provides a good opportunity to make the most of our food since we want to avoid frequent trips to the grocery store. Here are some tips to help you reduce food waste in your home.

Write down and track everything

Before you head to the grocery store, do an inventory of what food you have, and try and cook something with it. Then before heading to the grocery store – since we’re trying to limit how often we are going – try to write out menus and the ingredients you’ll need to ensure you are only buying what you need.

Keep your grocery and food receipts as a record of your purchases and costs. If you end up throwing out food because it’s gone bad, or you keep running short of something, having your receipts can help with understanding what worked and what didn’t, as well as what it cost. On top of helping you figure out if you’re purchasing the right amount of food, it’s a good reminder of how you’re spending your money!

Being able to identify the food in your fridge is key to helping reduce waste. Items like carrots and onions that are shoved in the back of fridge drawers and leftovers put in opaque containers are often forgotten about. Try making a list of the perishable food items in your refrigerator and tape it to the door as a daily reminder to help you consciously ensure to use those ingredients before they go bad.

Try labeling your food (all you need is some tape and a strong marker pen!) and organizing them in your fridge by putting the older ingredients near the front to make sure you use them first. To help reduce your food waste, date the containers too so you know when they went in the fridge and you’re more mindful of when you need to use them by. 

One more thing to keep in mind when being mindful about reducing food waste is to consider substitutes before going grocery shopping. If you really want to bake something and the recipe calls for apple cider vinegar and you don’t have any, before going out and buying a whole container (that you may not use up), try using a substitute instead, like lemon juice. Now is a great time to get creative with your pantry. Here’s a list of food substitutes that can help you get started.

Store food like they do in grocery stores

Make sure you are refrigerating and freezing items properly. Think of your kitchen similar to the produce section at the grocery store to provide a guide for how to store food to avoid waste. What they display in a cooler area (think lettuce and herbs), you should put in your fridge. What is not refrigerated at the store, you generally don’t need to refrigerate immediately — depending on how long it will be until you use the item. 

  • Ripe tomatoes should still be kept at on your counter, uncovered if you are going to enjoy the tomato in the next day or two. But any longer than that – the recommendation is to refrigerate.
  • Leafy greens should be refrigerated and used within the first week of purchase.
  • Onions, garlic and root vegetables should be stored in a cool, dark place. Peeled onions can be stored in the fridge for 10–14 days, while sliced or cut onions can be refrigerated for 7–10 days
  • Cherries and grapes should be kept unwashed and stored in a plastic bag in the fridge.
  • Citrus is best stored in a breathable bag in the fridge.  
  • Bananas can be stored on the counter.

While you may find that the items you’re throwing out often – like fruits and spinach – don’t cost a lot, not only can they be frozen to use later, but those dollars add up and so does the food waste.

Understand food labels

Food date labels can be really confusing for consumers, as there are a ton of different phrases that all mean something different.

Below is a break down of terms you’ve probably encountered:

  • Best if used by/before: This label tells you when the durable life period of a prepackaged food ends. This indicates when a product will be of its best flavor, quality, and nutritional value. However, it doesn’t necessarily tell the consumer when they should buy it or eat it.
  • Sell by: This tells the grocery store how long to display the food for sale – but it doesn’t mean you have to eat it by that date. 
  • Freeze by: This indicates when food should be frozen to maintain its highest quality.
  • Use by: This indicates the last recommended date to use the food while it’s at its peak quality but it doesn’t need to be consumed by that date (except for infant formula).
  • Expiration date: An expiration date is not the same as a best-before date. Expiration dates are required only on certain foods that have strict compositional and nutritional specifications which might not be met after the expiration date.

If any of that sounds confusing, it’s not just you! Many times, food can go bad before it’s listed date, or last beyond the date depending on how it’s packed and stored. Signs of spoiled food includes; off odor, flavor, or texture. However don’t just rely on your sight, smell, or taste to judge the safety of food. Use your judgment – when in doubt, throw it out.

There are tons of tricks online too if you need help determining if a perishable food item is safe to eat after its expiration date. If you have eggs with a recently expired date, drop the egg in a glass of water. If the egg sinks, it’s still safe to eat. If the egg floats, you’ll want to pass on using it. For milk, a simple sniff test can tell you if it has started to spoil.

Use refrigerators and freezers wisely

There are a few things you can do with your refrigerator and freezer to cut down on food waste. First, ensure your refrigerator and freezer are at their recommended temperatures; make sure your refrigerator is set at 4 °C (40 °F) or lower and your freezer at -18 °C (0 °F) or lower. Refer to your user’s manual to find steps to maintain that temperature. 

Secondly, experts say the back of the fridge tends to be cooler, which makes sense since every time you open the fridge door, cold air is escaping from the front. With this in mind, you want to keep items like milk and meat towards the back of the fridge to perverse them longer. Less-perishable items – like condiments and juice – can be placed on the door. 

As mentioned, many times we waste food and throw it out, not realizing we could have frozen the item instead. Apples, peppers, broccoli, spring onions – basically most fruits and vegetables – can be frozen. Next time you see an item in your fridge nearing the end of its life, do a quick Google search on how to freeze that item. Take advantage of your freezer! If you find you keep throwing out the same fresh produce, why not true buying frozen vegetables and fruit instead.

You can also reduce waste by freezing leftovers as well as cooking a lot of food at once and freezing it in portions (soups, stews, pastas, anything!) Freeze meals in smaller amounts that are easier to use over many meals. Another tip is when you’re heating up meals, portion out the plate or bowl size you want, before heating, in order to save the excess that might end up being binned. Often we end up wasting food because we aren’t aware of how they can be stored.

Repurpose food when you can

If you haven’t picked up on the theme here, there’s a ton of ways to repurpose your food before you throw it out, to reduce your food waste. Here are some suggestions:

  • Brown bananas? Banana bread, cupcakes, muffins, cookies… Here are 22 recipes to consider.
  • Soft strawberries? Make a jam or a smoothie. 
  • Zucchini a bit too ripe? Throw into vegetable soup or freeze them to add to your smoothies (they make them creamier!).
  • Before you throw out the ends of your celery sticks and spring onions, stand them in a jar of water and you can grow your own at home! You can also do this with carrots, broccoli, asparagus, and some herbs.
  • Kale stems can be used in fried rice, stir-fries, soups, and more. 
  • Unused cabbage can be turned into sauerkraut (it’s easier than you think).
  • Shock lettuce and spinach back to life in a bowl of ice water. 
  • Before you throw our stale bread, consider turning it into bread crumbs or croutons. You can also tear up the bread and toss it in a soup. 
  • Before you throw out leftovers (homemade and take-out), determine if there’s a way you can repurpose it. Got some old rice? Put it into a stir fry with some veggies and eggs. Leftover roasted veggies? Put them in an omelet the next morning.

Learn more ways to make your produce last longer, here.

The bottom line:

Cooking is a great way to keep your family busy, distract your mind from everything going on, and release some stress. So get cooking and stay mindful of your food waste!

If you have any other tips you’d like to share, tweet us at @paytmcanada

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