This article was originally posted on July 17, 2020 on The Sustainable Student, the student-run blog from the Sustainable Ambassadors at the University of Guelph Sustainability Office.
When it comes to reducing organic waste in my kitchen, I use a combination of creative meal planning and smart food storage. Over the last several years, I’ve discovered a number of tips and tricks to help everything run smoothly – and even save some money. Food habits are highly personal, so there is no best way to run your kitchen.
I encourage you to play around until you find what works for your household!
The most common cause of my personal food waste is that I forget about items until they expire. Out of sight, out of mind, right? I combat this with my two most essential kitchen tools: a sharpie and a roll of masking tape. If you tend to put leftovers into re-used yogurt or sour cream tubs like I do, you’ll want to mark them clearly with name and date on the top or sidewhere it is clearly visible as soon as you open the door of the fridge or freezer. If you can use clear bins, that’s even better.
Pull everything that’s going to expire soon to the front of your fridge, freezer, and cupboards. Some of my friends actually have a dedicated “eat me first” shelf. This way there is no excuse that you didn’t see that little bin of old hummus behind all the juice cartons!
The best way to reduce the food waste that comes out of your kitchen is to control what comes into it. I try never to go to the store without a grocery list, because it’s very difficult to plan a week worth of meals on the spot.
I start my grocery list with the basic essentials (eggs, milk, bread, etc.). My next step is to check the fridge, freezer, and cupboards to see what I already have. Thanks to my labelling system, it’s easy to see what’s about to expire and incorporate those items into the next week’s meals.
When you’re in the store, be aware of how long produce lasts and where you need to store them. It’ll affect what you buy, and in what quantities. For example, I have learned not to buy green onions when the fridge is already going to be extremely full, because they need to be stored in an upright jar with water in order to stay fresh. The same goes for things that aren’t best frozen (like tomatoes – I buy a mixture of fresh and canned) or things that go bad within a quick window (I’m looking at you, avocados – I never buy more than two at a time).
Use that freezer!
I don’t like eating leftovers for more than two meals in a row. Some people can make a huge batch of meals every Sunday and be set for the week, but that’s just not my style. Instead, I buy versatile ingredients than can be used in a variety of recipes, and store them in the freezer ready to use. For vegetables, that means washing, blanching, chopping/mincing, and packing things like carrots, peppers, and celery into freezer safe reusable bins or bags. The stalks or tops go into a special bin reserved for making soup stock.
For other ideas, check out The Sustainable Student’s previous article on how to regrow your kitchen scraps into brand new vegetables.
Prepping meat means portioning ground meat into patty sizes, separating packages of chicken breasts or pre-slicing pork tenderloin. Again, everything gets labelled and stored with the oldest food at the top or front. This process means that I am never scrambling for ingredients and rarely have to resort to eating pre-frozen meals or takeout. I also rarely have to eat (or throw out) super old leftovers. As an added financial bonus, I can buy bigger amounts of items that are on sale and save them for when I’ll need them.
What to do with older (but still edible) food
So, you messed up, and found a bunch of wilted spinach lurking behind the rest of your veggies in the crisper drawer. What do you do?
I love to throw old leafy greens into my fruit smoothies. Honestly, I don’t even taste them. You can also turn older food into soup (broccoli, leeks), dips (sour cream), salad dressings (berries), croutons or breadcrumbs (stale bread), baked goods (bruised apples) and more. This is an extension of the “imperfect produce” idea, which is that just because ingredients are no longer in their prime doesn’t mean they aren’t useful or able to be turned into something delicious.