By now, you’ve probably seen photos of people panic buying groceries and shelves laid bare. In mid-March, you might have even been one of these panic buyers; I certainly was. But weeks later, as pounds of beans and rice lay unused on shelves, many of us may be thinking “what am I going to do with all this food?”
Panic-buying, like the type that can occur during a pandemic, can prompt people to purchase perishable items that they aren’t able to consume before they go bad, which can ultimately lead to food waste, says Brian Lipinski, a researcher on food waste at the World Resources Institute.
Moreover, many of the country’s largest farms are throwing out fresh food that they’re unable to sell due to restaurant, school, and hotel closures, according to the New York Times.
Even in normal circumstances, it’s easy to waste food. In the U.S. about 30 to 40 percent of our food goes to waste, according to estimates from the USDA’s Economic Research Service. What’s more, Americans waste about one pound of food per person every day, according to a separate study conducted by USDA researchers published in 2018.
“It seems like such an obvious thing, don’t waste food. It’s something we learned growing up. So it seems like it should be a no-brainer to stop it,” explains Lipinski.
It’s not that simple, though. We often don’t realize we’re getting rid of food and it’s easy to dissociate spoiled food from its edible origins.
“Once you take out the moldy piece of bread or the gross, mushy carrot from your fridge and have to throw it away, you’re not thinking of that as something you can eat or really that you were ever going to eat,” explains Lipinski.
With than in mind, it’s time to rethink your food habits. The pandemic provides good opportunity to make the most of our food since we want to avoid frequent trips to the grocery store, says Lipinski. Limiting trips to potentially crowded places like the grocery store can help minimize the spread of coronavirus and reduce food waste.
Mashable spoke with experts to get tips on how we can all put our food to better use.
Track what you waste
Tracking exactly what you throw in the trash and rinse down the sink will help you realize what kind of food and how much of it you waste, says Beth Gingold, the founder of Recycle Leaders LLC, which works with organizations to help them recycle and reduce their waste (including food).
“A lot of waste happens just because we’re not paying attention to it,” explains Gingold.
Once you know your “waste patterns,” you can be more strategic about what you buy. When Gingold did this, she learned she bought too many onions. Ultimately, she was able to change her shopping habits and now wastes less.
All you have to do is record how much food you waste per day for about two weeks (or longer if you can keep that up), says Gingold. This duration is based off of the EPA’s Food: Too Good To Waste Toolkit, which teaches people how to waste less food. Gingold is leading Recycle Leaders’ Team Up on Food Waste @ Home remote competition, which encourages people to reduce their food waste at home.
Recycle Leaders only requires participants to measure their food waste for seven days, which is enough time to get someone in the habit of thinking about what they are throwing away, Gingold wrote in an email. That said, ideally people would collect this data for longer as a seven-day period doesn’t necessarily reflect all the food purchased and discarded during a week, she explains. Additionally, people don’t necessarily throw away food on a daily basis as they may clean out their refrigerator once a month.
The good news is you don’t need any fancy equipment to measure your food waste. Measuring cups, empty food containers or jars work well, says Gingold.
You can also take photos. When Anne-Marie Bonneau, who writes the zero-waste cooking blog Zero-Waste Chef, went plastic-free in 2011, she had her daughter take photos of the plastic they accumulated every week. It made them both more aware of what items they were buying with plastic.
“Keep a diary of what you’re wasting, and then you look at it and you go, ‘oh wow, I had no idea’…and then you can come up with a plan,” says Bonneau.
Lists, lists, and more lists
Before you head to the grocery store, do an inventory of what food you have and try and cook something with it,” suggests Bonneau.
“You’ll not only reduce food waste, you’ll also make fewer trips to the store,” says Bonneau.
You can also make a list of the perishable food items in your refrigerator and tape it to the door.
“That way, we don’t end up shoving some lettuce or carrots to the back of a drawer and forgetting about them,” says Lipinski.
Once that’s done, break out a pen and paper (or your phone) and make a food list before going to the grocery store. It seems like a no-brainer, but not doing so may lead to buying — and ultimately wasting — food you don’t need.
“Hopefully, you’ll avoid some of the temptations of walking through the store and being like, ‘oh, I need 10 packs of ramen, eight apples, and three loaves of bread,'” says Lipinski.
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. People are understandably concerned about eating something past the listed date, even if it’s not an expiration date, says Lipinski.
Below is a break down of terms you’ve probably encountered. We pulled examples of commonly-used food date labels and their definitions from the USDA’s website to help you avoid throwing away something that’s still edible.
Best if used by/before: indicates when a product will be of its best flavor or quality. But it doesn’t tell the consumer when they should buy or eat it.
Sell by: 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: indicates when food should be frozen to maintain its highest quality. But it doesn’t mean you have to buy or use it by that date.
Use by: 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).
If any of that is confusing, don’t worry. You can rely on your senses when it comes to any potentially spoiled food, says Lipinski. Food can go bad before its listed date or last beyond that depending on how the product has been packed and stored. You should look out for signs of spoiled food, such as if there’s an off odor, flavor, or texture, according to the USDA’s website. So don’t be afraid to sniff your milk if you suspect it’s gone bad.
Both Lipinski and Gingold also recommend the website , if you’re unsure if food is safe to eat. About once a week, EatorToss posts a photo of food (such as a ) with a science-based explanation if you should eat or toss it, according to the website.
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 is at its recommended temperature setting to help food stay cold enough, says Lipinski. The FDA recommends setting your refrigerator at or below 40° F. You can refer to your user’s manual to find steps to maintain that temperature.
“The back of the fridge tends to be cooler than the front because every time you open the door more cold air escapes from the front,” explains Lipinski. So place any highly-perishable food like milk and meat toward the back to help it stay fresh for longer. You can place less-perishable foods like condiments on the door. That said, if you have a fridge with ice-making compartments up top, it’ll be coldest there, according to BBC Science Focus.
You should also take advantage of your freezer.
“It’s great to have fresh foods in your life but frozen vegetables and fruit are a great alternative, , and they keep longer,” says Lipinski. Frozen vegetables are usually cheaper too, explains Lipinski. So if you’re on a tight budget due to coronavirus-related layoffs or other reasons, frozen produce might be a better choice.
You can also cook a lot of food at once and freeze it, suggests Bonneau. This can reduce the amount of food you waste as you don’t have to worry about it going bad and makes for a quick meal when you don’t feel like cooking.
Share extra food with neighbors
If you find yourself with excess food that you won’t be able to cook in time before it goes bad, consider giving it to your neighbors, especially those who are elderly or immunocompromised as they’re at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-18, according to the CDC.
But you’ll want to do this in a safe way so you don’t jeopardize their health or yours. To get the word out, you can put up signs in your apartment building or neighborhood along with your phone number so you don’t have to come face-to-face with anyone. You can also try emailing them, if you have that info, says Lipinski. To drop off the food safely, you can leave the food at your neighbor’s door and alert them once you’ve left, he explains.
Put food scraps to use
Anyone who cooks has almost certainly run into the dilemma of having odds and ends they don’t know what to do with or are about to go bad.
There’s a lot you can do with food scraps that you might otherwise throw out. Here are some of Bonneau’s suggestions:
Apple scraps: You can turn apple scraps into vinegar. Bonneau explains how to do this here.
Unused cabbage: Turn it into sauerkraut with just a cutting board, a knife, bowl, and glass jars. Here’s Bonneau’s blog post that details the process. You can actually ferment any vegetables you’re not going to use before they spoil, explains Bonneau.
Kale stems: Chop them up and add to fried rice, stir fry, frittatas, and soup. You can also make them into pesto if you add garlic, nuts, olive oil, salt, and if desired, nutritional yeast or cheese to taste.
Broccoli stems: Instead of tossing them, peel and use them just like florets.
Leek greens: People mostly use the white part and toss the greens. Bonneau cuts them into small pieces and uses them when she wants a strong onion flavor in a dish.
Wilting vegetables: You can try to perk up vegetables like limp celery, carrots, broccoli, asparagus, and some herbs by standing them in a jar of water. And you can shock lettuce and spinach back to life in a bowl of ice water.
Cheese rinds: Save these for tossing into soup or broth as they add umami.
Whey from making yogurt or cheese: If you have leftover whey, use that in pizza dough, bread dough, soup, or quick breads to add flavor.
Citrus peels: Bonneau always keeps some zest in the freezer to add to quick breads and cookies. You can also make an all-purpose cleaner by soaking citrus peels in vinegar for a couple weeks, then straining and diluting the vinegar with water.
Stale bread: Turn stale bread into bread crumbs, croutons, or French toast. You can also tear the bread up and toss it into minestrone soup.
Leftovers (homemade and take-out): If you can fool your diners into thinking that they’re eating a new meal, they’ll be less likely to turn their noses up at your repurposed leftovers, Bonneau said. If you make chili one night, for example, cook it down until it’s thick, make a pastry, fill the pastry with the chili, and bake it. Now you have a hand pie. Or if you roast vegetables one night, put them in an omelette the next morning. If you cook rice as a side dish one night, make fried rice the next with any vegetables that need to be eaten.
“The beauty of leftover food is you don’t have to start from scratch for every meal. You already have something on hand that can be reincarnated into something new,” Bonneau told Mashable.