Today is grocery shopping day. As I prepare by cleaning out the fridge (something I try to do before each shopping trip), I'm saddened by how much food we've wasted.
Mushy broccoli. Moldy hot dog buns. Fuzzy baby food I forgot about.
Worse, we're not alone. According to a University of Arizona study, 40 to 50 percent of ready-to-harvest food grown in the U.S. gets tossed. And the Discovery Channel says the typical American family throws out 14 percent of the food they buy. What a terrible, terrible waste, especially when there are hungry people all over the world - and even in our own cities.
So how can I (and you) waste less food? Here are some ideas:
* Never go to the grocery store (or the farmer's market) without a prepared list. Plan your meals ahead of time, and only buy what you need for those meals, plus appropriate snacks. Don't impulse buy.
* Keep a list of the meals you plan to make (along with page numbers from recipe books, if needed), post it on the fridge, and cross meals off the list as you go.
* If you run across a great sale, go ahead and buy - but only if you can freeze or can the food until you can actually eat it.
* As soon as you get home from the store, freeze freezable items you won't use within a few days.
* Sometimes you have to buy more than you actually need for a recipe. When this is the case, try to plan another meal within a few days that will use the rest of the food. For example, if I make a dish with broccoli in it and don't use an entire "tree," I should prepare another dish with broccoli within two or three days. When you don't can't do this, try to freeze what remains. For example, I could steam all the broccoli, serve one portion, and freeze the rest in serving-size bags that will make cooking another night even easier.
* Remember that "sell by" and "best by" dates aren't the same as "consume by" dates.
* Organize the fridge. Keep vegetables in one drawer, fruits in another (this actually helps them last longer, too), drinks in one area, condiments in another, and so on. Some people also like to put items they use together in a single plastic bin. For example, I might put all the sandwich fixings in one bin.
* Keep the fridge as uncluttered as possible so you can actually see what's in there. (This is admittedly more difficult if you shop less often than once a week.)
* Use up the most perishable items first.
* Understand many foods you avoid eating are actually fine. Cut mold off the end of cheese and it's quite safe to eat. Peel off a few layers of brown lettuce, and it's just as tasty as fresh.
* Keep a list of leftovers on the fridge; a dry erase board or a simple piece of paper work well. Erase or cross off foods as you consume them. You can do this with non-leftover foods, too.
* Don't leave leftovers to chance; either consume them the very next day, or freeze them.
* Make a soup or stew part of every week's meal plan, and throw in leftover vegetables, rice, beans, and meats.
* Keep your fridge at the right temperature. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, refrigerators should be kept at 40° F or lower. Your food will last longer this way. I also find that if I keep foods I know I won't be using for a while toward the back of my refrigerator, they stay colder and last longer.
* If these steps fail, and you still end up with rotten food, compost it. If you have any type of garden, it will benefit from composting. You can toss vegetable and fruit left overs and peelings into the compost (along with things like coffee grounds and yard clippings) and create completely natural fertilizer. The simplest compost is just a pile in a corner of your yard; you can also use an old garbage can with holes drilled all over it. Or try one of the compost bins described at the University of Missouri Extension Office. Or ask a neighbor if they'd like your kitchen scrapes for their own compost bin.