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6 Simple Ways to Curb Food Waste at Home

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Photo by Linda Ly
Photo by Linda Ly

It seems that every year, a new study comes out about how much food we waste in this country. And while it's tempting to wave off the staggering statistics because it's hard to put those kinds of numbers (141 trillion calories?) into the context of our personal lives, the fact remains: We Americans waste a lot of food, and oftentimes not on purpose. A little saving here and there might not solve the country's food waste problem, but it will help you to be more mindful of food and to make better choices when it comes to feeding yourself and your family.

Take a few simple steps to curb food waste in your household, and you might just find yourself eating better in the process.

#1 Don't go grocery shopping when you're hungry.
When you're famished, your eyes tend to be as a big as your appetite and you're more likely to buy groceries you normally wouldn't eat. A few days after you've stocked your pantry with all those delectable things you thought you'd immediately tear into, you start to wonder why you even got them in the first place. The easiest way to avoid buying unnecessary food on a hungry impulse is to shop on a full stomach, when you're more focused on buying pantry staples and everything else doesn't seem as appealing.

#2 Resist the urge to buy in bulk or buy with coupons.
Unless you're throwing a party or feeding a family of eight, there's no reason why Costco should be your main grocery run. It's all too easy to get sucked into good deals, and when we get a good deal on something, the thought of throwing it out doesn't have as much of an impact on us, emotionally or financially. If you must buy in bulk, buy only non-perishables that come packaged together in standard-use sizes, such as a dozen 14-ounce cans of tomato sauce. Don't buy the restaurant-size bottle of ketchup that you'll struggle to find space for in the fridge, or the giant can of olive oil that could go rancid before you actually use it all. Even if you justify the purchase by thinking you'll simply freeze it, will you really remember that party pack of drumsticks you tucked way back in the freezer six months from now? In the same vein, don't buy something just because it's on sale or you have a coupon for it. It's fun to try something new, but be honest and ask yourself whether you'll really end up eating it. A good deal isn't a deal at all when you eventually waste most of it.

#3 Spend more money on better food.
This one's a little hard to practice, especially if your shopping options are limited in your neighborhood. But the results here are twofold: 1) You're less likely to waste food you spent good money on (and more likely to cook it well, rather than just zapping it in the microwave), and 2) Food that costs a little more tends to be of higher quality, have denser nutrition, and often support a local producer or a more sustainable producer. Sure, you can buy beef in bulk for cheap and gawk at the grass-fed beef going for $10/pound, but if you're going to spend your hard-earned money on food, make sure it's food that feeds you well. "Splurging" on grass-fed beef (or pastured chicken or organic eggs) also means you end up buying less of it, and (hopefully) end up buying more fresh fruits and vegetables, which we all could eat more of.

#4 Be mindful of so-called expiration dates and learn what all of them mean.
Before you throw out that carton of sour cream just because it's three days past the "sell by" date, open it to inspect whether it's really expired. I go by the "see and sniff" method — if it looks moldy or smells off, then it's past its prime (even if the date says otherwise). If it doesn't have any of the telltale signs of food gone bad, you can keep using it. "Sell by," "use by," and "best by" all have different meanings to different food producers, and many of them are simply cues for the store to know when to move merchandise off their shelves, not when consumers should throw them out. Here's a quick guide on how to decipher those dates and ensure you're not throwing out perfectly good food.

#5 Don't sign up for a CSA delivery just because everyone is doing it.
CSAs stand for everything good: fresh, local food supported by the very community it's grown in or near. Living in Southern California means we're lucky to have our pick of CSAs, even ones that exclusively deliver Asian produce. But, if you're a picky eater, you're not a very adventurous eater, or you don't like to try new recipes that often accompany CSA boxes and their sometimes exotic assortment of kohlrabi or komatsuna, a CSA probably isn't for you. All it makes is some expensive compost when you end up throwing half of it out. Instead, shop your weekly farmers' market for fresh produce and try just one or two new vegetables at a time; you can ask the farmers and other shoppers for preparation ideas until you become familiar with what's in season. If you don't have the time to browse one in person, shop an e-grocery service that will deliver farm-fresh food to your door.

#6 Make your food go the extra mile.
A lot of food waste at home happens in the form of spoiled (or close to spoiling) food and leftover food that no one wants to eat. Instead of instinctively dumping those mushy tomatoes that are no longer good in salad, put them in a soup or stew. Carrots that have lost their crunch are halfway to perfect tenderness if you roast them in the oven with a few herbs. Wilted greens are great in braises and sautés, overripe bananas are exactly what you need for making the best banana bread, and wrinkly potatoes sprouting eyes may no longer be ideal for whole baked potatoes, but they're just as delicious in a mash. If everyone's sick of eating the same rotisserie chicken two nights in a row, turn the leftovers into chicken tacos for the next day. Worried that you won't be able to get through your entire CSA box before it spoils? Cook up all the vegetables in the beginning of the week (a simple sauté or roast works for most things) and use them in various sandwiches, wraps, fajitas, rice bowls, and noodle bowls throughout the week. To keep your food from prematurely spoiling, make sure you store them properly in the fridge.

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