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)LifeWhere to store
Asparagus3 daysfridge
Bok choy3 daysfridge
Chard3 daysfridge
Escarole3 daysfridge
Kale3 daysfridge
Okra3 daysfridge
Spinach, bunch3 daysfridge
Tomatoes3 dayscountertop
Basil3 daysfridge
Cilantro3 daysfridge
Chives3 daysfridge
Onions (cut)4 daysfridge
Radicchio4 daysfridge
Snow peas4 daysfridge
Arugula5 daysfridge
Bell peppers (red, yellow, orange)5 daysfridge
Eggplant5 daysfridge
Endive5 daysfridge
Lettuce5 daysfridge
Potatoes (new and fingerling)5 dayscool, dark place (away from onions)
Scallions5 daysfridge
Squash, summer5 daysfridge
Squash, winter (pre-cut)5 daysfridge
Zucchini5 daysfridge
Parsley5 daysfridge
Mint5 daysfridge
Artichokes1 weekfridge
Bell peppers (green)1 weekfridge
Broccoli1 weekfridge
Broccoli rabe1 weekfridge
Brussels sprouts1 weekfridge
Cabbage (savoy, napa)1 weekfridge
Cauliflower1 weekfridge
Fennel1 weekfridge
Green beans1 weekfridge
Jicama1 weekfridge
Leeks1 weekfridge
Mushrooms1 weekpaper bag
Radishes1 weekfridge
Cabbage (green, red)2 weeksfridge
Carrots2 weeksfridge
Celery2 weeksfridge
Sweet potatoes / yams2 weekspantry
Turnips2 weeksfridge
Rosemary2 weeksfridge
Thyme2 weeksfridge
Beets3 weeksfridge
Ginger3 weeksfridge
Lemons3 weeksfridge
Limes3 weeksfridge
Potatoes (larger ones)3 weekscool, dark place (away from onions)
Parnips4 weeksfridge
Onions, whole2 monthscool, dark place
Squash, winter3 monthscountertop

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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