A recent study by the UK-based Institution of Mechanical Engineers revealed that 30-50 percent or 1.2-2 billion metric tonnes (that's about 2.6-4.4 trillion pounds for those of us not on the metric system) of all food produced on the planet is lost before reaching a human stomach. There are plenty of factors at play -- including large portions of edible crops being rejected because they're not physically attractive enough, problems in the supply chain and inefficient harvesting - but perhaps it's time to consider that your own kitchen might be part of the problem.
The next time you're heading out on a grocery run, try one or more of these simple tricks for minimizing food waste. Not only will they help you do your part to take it easy on the environment, but you may even save a few bucks in the bargain.
1. Shop more, buy less
While it might seem like a great deal to buy 24 cartons of yogurt, 20 pounds of potatoes and a crate of English muffins on sale, ask yourself if there's a real likelihood of your using them before they spoil, sprout eyes or go stale and moldy. If not, you're throwing money away. While we're all busy people as short on time as we are on funds, in the long run it will probably save you a few bucks to hit the store more often, and buy only the perishable meat, dairy, bread and produce that you'll use in the next few days.
If possible, opt for loose vegetables and bulk bin dry goods, rather than pre-measured amounts, so you can buy just what you need. Your food will be fresher, you'll waste less packaging and food, and you'll spend less time wandering around your kitchen searching for the cause of the mystery smell.
2. Get past the prep
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Healthy People 2010 data, only 4 percent of men and 6 percent of women eat enough vegetables. We polled our readers and found that a sizable chunk of them find that produce goes bad too quickly and that they don't have time to peel, chop and prep the items they bring home from the market.
What's worked for me is setting up an assembly line as soon as I get home from shopping. I fill up the sink with cold water, lob in a couple of strainers as needed and get all the washing done at once, and then drain or pat it dry with paper towels to prevent it from molding or rotting more quickly. If I know I'm going to use sturdy vegetables like carrots, squash and potatoes within the next few days, I'll do all my peeling then, and possibly even some chopping.
Once everything is squeaky clean, I'll separate it into clear containers or reusable Debbie Meyer GreenBags (really -- they work) and make sure they stay at the front of the fridge and at the top of my mind. While it might be a bit of a chore right then, later in the week, I can just grab and get cooking.
3. Store smartly
Speaking of keeping abreast of your fruits and vegetables, keep a roll of tape and a Sharpie in easy reach and write the date on each container or bag to remind you when you bought it. If you're feeling extra left-brained, jot the same info onto a dry-erase board on the refrigerator door to act as countdown clock and inspiration for your next meal. As a bonus, it will cut down on opening the fridge door and allowing the contents to warm up. Make sure to include meat, dairy and baked good purchases as well.
The different drawers, by the way, are there for a reason. Store fruit separately from vegetables as it releases ethylene gas that will cause vegetables to spoil more quickly. Meat and seafood should go in the bottom drawer to cut down on the risk of dripping and cross-contamination. Eggs should stay in their original carton, as should milk and creamy dairy (don't put poured-out sour cream, milk and the like back into the original container, though - keep it separate), and once cheese is opened, wrap it in wax paper.
Leftovers should find their way into individual, date-labeled, airtight containers within two hours of cooking and consumed or frozen within the time parameters that the good folks at the USDA have decreed to be safe.
4. Use every last scrap
I've learned a lot of things from gardening on my roof deck, chief of which is that I've been wasting perfectly edible vegetables for most of my life. I'd chucked stems, peels, and greens of all sorts into my trash bin just because I didn't know any better. Now I do -- and I'm learning all the time. With each new piece of produce I buy, I study up to find if the stems, leaves, tops and peels are edible or usable and I'll figure out a way to incorporate them into dishes.
Radish leaves rival schmancy, pricey salad standards like arugula, escarole and mache for crunch and distinctive flavor. Sturdy cauliflower and broccoli stems can be shaved thin to saute, roast or add raw crunch to salads and slaws. I'll take every last bit of zest from a citrus peel to add flavor to dressings and baked goods, and I've even made some funky wine from corncobs.
Vegetables that have begun to wilt (but don't show any signs of mold or rot) will likely find their way into a hearty vegetable stock, stew or soup, and what can't be salvaged goes into the compost bin to fertilize next year's crop of vegetables.