Value Your Food! Food Saving Tips for Reducing Food Waste

As Extension Master Gardeners, we help educate our local communities about the benefits of growing our own tasty, nutritious vegetables, herbs, and fruits. There are almost as many reasons for gardening as there are gardeners: flavor, freshness, pesticide-free produce, control over source and variety, health benefits and learning new skills. If we don’t grow our own produce, we satisfy this urge by shopping at our local farmer’s markets or CSA’s.

Photo Credit: USDA

With summer’s abundance, it is easy to grow or buy more healthy fresh food than we can eat. Food waste is an emerging global issue that spans the food supply chain, from farm and garden to fork. Taking the U.S. as an example, statistics show that approximately 40% of our food supply is never eaten. It begins in the home kitchen. An average American throws away about 300 pounds of food each year. ReFed’s research shows that 42% of food wasted by weight—or 27 million tons annually—occurs at home.

Although food is wasted throughout the food supply system, consumers are responsible for most of the wasted food that winds up in landfills in the U.S. According to the EPA, more food reaches landfill and combustion facilities than any other single type of trash, amounting to 22% of the waste stream. This food waste also depletes the valuable resources (such as water, cropland) used to produce that food. We can do better than that, both collectively and individually.

Most food producers, processors and retailers are working on various initiatives to reduce the volume of surplus food produced, or to redirect it to secondary markets or food donation sites. As gardeners, we can support the efforts of the commercial food sector and share our produce with the food-insecure in the local community. For example, Piedmont Master Gardeners are about to launch a new “Share Your Harvest” project to help local gardeners donate their extra fresh fruits and vegetables to local food banks and pantries. Check back on our website for the new pages!

Let’s review some easy and practical strategies to reduce our household food waste for the benefit of our local communities, our pocketbooks, and the environment.

Store it right; make it last longer

  • Milk: Put it in the coldest parts of your refrigerator, not in the warmer refrigerator door.
  • Bread: Freeze what you won’t eat within a few days.
  • Fruits and veggies: Don’t wash them until shortly before you eat them.
  • Onions/potatoes: Store in a dry, cool room-temperature spot and store separately, or onions will cause the potatoes to sprout.
  • Carrots/beets: Keep them in the moist and cold refrigerator; in general, the goal with storage crops is to convince the root to remain dormant, reacting as if they are still in the ground.
  • Put foods that need to be eaten soon on an easy-to-reach shelf in the front of the refrigerator.
  • Separate high ethylene-producing foods away from those that aren’t. Keep bananas, avocados, peaches, pears and cantaloupes away from apples, leafy greens, berries and peppers to prevent premature spoilage.

Check out these great resources for more information: Save the Food, How to Keep Produce Fresher Longer – Infographic, Foodkeeper App.

Don’t toss food before it spoils
It’s important to know your labels: 9 out of 10 Americans are confused by date labels. “Best if used by” indicates when food may not taste or perform as expected but is still safe to consume. “Use by” refers to food products that are highly perishable and/or might not be safe to eat after the date on the label. Always follow the storage instructions on food packages. Here are some other good tips to save food about to be thrown away:

  • A quick soak in ice water will revive carrots, celery, broccoli, salad greens and herbs. If that doesn’t work, they can still be used in cooked dishes.
  • Use a toaster or toaster oven to make toast or breadcrumbs from stale bread or to crisp up crackers or chips.
  • Use carrot peels, celery leaves, parsley stems, mushroom stems, onion skins or other scraps to make a flavorful stock.
  • Add fruits that are beginning to spoil to smoothies or baked goods.

Learn to preserve
Food preservation extends shelf life and prevents spoilage when you have more than you can use right away. Consider freezing, canning, drying, pickling and fermentation. Follow directions closely, and you will learn preservation skills easily through practice.

Freeze it
Most foods can be frozen and retain good color, flavor, texture, and nutritive value. Freezing reduces food temperature, which prevents microorganisms from growing and slows food-degrading enzyme activity.

  • Blanch vegetables before freezing to inactivate enzymes; this involves boiling vegetables until they are just cooked then immediately transferring to an ice bath to stop the cooking process. Lay them out to dry once cooled, then freeze.
  • Freeze in meal-size portions. Leftovers then become highly anticipated, time-saving future meals!
  • Put foods to be frozen in an airtight container to preserve flavor and food quality. Use freezer bags that are self-sealing instead of rigid containers or regular storage bags. Allow for headspace to allow liquids to expand in the freezer.
  • Avoid freezing foods with high water content (lettuce, celery), which may result in low food quality, taste, and texture.
  • Juice and freeze old lemons or limes in ice cube trays overnight and then pop them in a freezer container next day.
  • Freeze small portions of leftover sauces, stock or chopped herbs so they are ready for the next tasty recipe.

Dehydrate it
One of the oldest, simplest, and safest methods of preserving food, dehydration removes moisture so bacteria, yeasts and molds cannot grow and spoil food. It also slows down enzyme activity.

  • The optimum temperature for drying food is 140 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Low humidity and a good air flow speed up the process.
  • An electric dehydrator with the above features is a good option.

Just think of the possibilities for your next outdoor activity! Meat jerky, dried nuts, fruit chips, fruit leathers, tomatoes, peppers all provide tasty snacks and quick energy.

Can it
Canning preserves food by heating the food to destroy microorganisms and enzymes and then removing the air to vacuum seal the jar. It is the most technical and time-consuming food preservation method, but with practice, it is well worth the time and effort! The most important things to remember:

  • With high-acid foods, such as tomatoes, spores won’t germinate at pH less than 4.6 and can be processed or “canned” in boiling water.
  • Low-acid vegetables and meats must be processed in a pressure canner at 240 degrees F. at 10 pounds pressure at sea level.
  • Follow USDA safety guidelines and researched recipes to prevent the chance of botulism.

Think of canning jams, jellies and marmalades, along with any vegetables you grow.

Ferment it
Bacteria are allowed to digest the sugars in vegetables such as cabbage or radishes, controlled somewhat by a salty brine, and the resulting fermented vegetables can be stored in the refrigerator for months.

Check out these great food saving resources to learn more about the above food preservation methods:

Make a plan and Get Smart

  1. Cook from your pantry and fridge before heading to the grocery store. Make a list before you go with meals in mind—to eat better, waste less, and save time and money.
  2. Stick to that list and avoid impulse buying.
  3. Have staple ingredients (beans, pasta, rice) stocked in your kitchen and ready to use with freshly harvested produce.
  4. Use The Get Smart: Take the Challenge tool to help track wasted food and build awareness.
  5. Remember, some waste is still inevitable. Composting food waste is beneficial to the environment and will keep it out of landfills. (For more info on composting, see Backyard Composting With Practical Tips From the Pros and the City of Charlottesville’s composting site.)
  6. If composting at home isn’t possible, the Rivanna Solid Waste Authority (RSWA) and Black Bear Composting both offer composting programs in the Charlottesville-Albemarle County area. RSWA offers separate programs for food scraps and yard waste; Black Bear processes both together. RSWA accepts household food waste for composting at both its Ivy and McIntire recycling sites.
  7. Compostable food scraps can be bagged and stored in the freezer until you are ready to recycle them. Use compostable bags purchased from grocery stores or complimentary bags available at the composting kiosks at the recycling sites.

By making small shifts in how we shop, store, prepare and preserve food, we can toss less, eat well, simplify our lives, save money, and keep the valuable resources used to produce and distribute food from going to waste.