How can I prevent food from going bad?

Dear Cook Smarts,

I go grocery shopping just once a week and find that towards the latter half of the week a lot of the food I’ve purchased has already gone bad. I end up having to toss the spoiled ingredients, which screws up my meal plan. What can I do to prevent this from happening?

I’m pretty sure this client is not alone. Actually, I know this client is not alone. The amount of food that American families waste is pretty alarming. Some studies say that each family of four throws away $500 to $2,000 worth of food a year, with vegetables being the most common waste landing in our trash cans. If the median household income is right around $50K, this means some families are literally throwing away 1% to 4% of their income into the trash. Scary, eh? But does this mean we should stop buying vegetables? Well, if we did, then we’d have other problems. The best way to avoid vegetable food waste is to understand the shelf lives of the food you’re buying. If you loaded up your grocery cart with all highly-perishable items, some of it will inevitably go to waste. The keys are:

  • Purchase vegetables with a variety of refrigerator / shelf lives (use the table below to help you out)
  • Meal plan so that you cook ingredients with shorter fridge / shelf lives earlier in the week. Save the less perishable items for later in the week
  • Buy fewer ingredients with short fridge / shelf lives. Worried that you won’t have anything to cook by the end of the week? That’s why it’s important to keep a well-stocked pantry and a few bags of frozen vegetables in the freezer.
  • Force yourself to be flexible. If you see that something is about to spoil, use it first (even if it means deviating from plan). Most likely, one of our cooking formulas (e.g., stir-fry, curry, blanch and saute, hand-chopped pesto / salsa) will turn it from something about to spoil to something about to be delicious on your dinner plate

The table below orders vegetables from most perishable to least perishable (thanks Real Simple for the info). If you’re in the corporate world, you’ve probably made or seen a heat map before. Consider this the fridge / shelf life heat map. Those coded in red are things you should buy less of and use first. Yellow gives you more breathing room. Green means you got plenty of time! Use it as your guide in the grocery store and at home when you’re meal planning. Print two out. Keep one in your wallet. Put one on your fridge. Shop smarter. Cook smarter. Challenge yourself to not throw anything out this week. You can do it!

Vegetable (and some fruit) Life Where to store
Asparagus 3 days fridge
Bok choy 3 days fridge
Chard 3 days fridge
Escarole 3 days fridge
Kale 3 days fridge
Okra 3 days fridge
Spinach, bunch 3 days fridge
Tomatoes 3 days countertop
Basil 3 days fridge
Cilantro 3 days fridge
Chives 3 days fridge
Onions (cut) 4 days fridge
Radicchio 4 days fridge
Snow peas 4 days fridge
Arugula 5 days fridge
Bell peppers (red, yellow, orange) 5 days fridge
Eggplant 5 days fridge
Endive 5 days fridge
Lettuce 5 days fridge
Potatoes (new and fingerling) 5 days cool, dark place (away from onions)
Scallions 5 days fridge
Squash, summer 5 days fridge
Squash, winter (pre-cut) 5 days fridge
Zucchini 5 days fridge
Parsley 5 days fridge
Mint 5 days fridge
Artichokes 1 week fridge
Bell peppers (green) 1 week fridge
Broccoli 1 week fridge
Broccoli rabe 1 week fridge
Brussels sprouts 1 week fridge
Cabbage (savoy, napa) 1 week fridge
Cauliflower 1 week fridge
Fennel 1 week fridge
Green beans 1 week fridge
Jicama 1 week fridge
Leeks 1 week fridge
Mushrooms 1 week paper bag
Radishes 1 week fridge
Cabbage (green, red) 2 weeks fridge
Carrots 2 weeks fridge
Celery 2 weeks fridge
Sweet potatoes / yams 2 weeks pantry
Turnips 2 weeks fridge
Rosemary 2 weeks fridge
Thyme 2 weeks fridge
Beets 3 weeks fridge
Ginger 3 weeks fridge
Lemons 3 weeks fridge
Limes 3 weeks fridge
Potatoes (larger ones) 3 weeks cool, dark place (away from onions)
Parnips 4 weeks fridge
Onions, whole 2 months cool, dark place
Squash, winter 3 months countertop

And I promise to make this into a cool mobile app . . . just need to learn how to code a mobile app now.

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