Sustainable. Eco-friendly. Green. What do these words conjure up for you? If you’re like many of us, it’s probably reduce-reuse-recycle, the famous three R’s that have been burned into your brain since pre-school. Fast forward to present day and you know now that there is more to sustainability than simply reduce, reuse, and recycle. A dizzying array of daily decisions have environmental consequences – the distance of your commute, how you travel, the appliances you purchase, the length of your shower, what you wear, how many children you choose to have, and of course, what you eat, to name a few.
It’s been widely known for quite some time that plant-based eating is one of the choices we can make to lighten our environmental impact. Then, in January 2019 the EAT-Lancet report was published and it catalyzed a cultural shift that catapulted the idea of “plant-based” into mainstream society. Before, eating plant-based was something certain types of people did, and now eating more plant-based is part of the cultural lexicon writ large.
Nowadays, it seems like everyone is trying meat alternatives and figuring how to build meals with smaller portions of animal products. Which is great! Generally, this translates to eating larger portions of fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, and nuts. But what if you end up throwing away food because you didn’t get to it in time, or didn’t know how to use it? Does that negate the sustainability benefits?
This is where proper food storage comes in. Make your food last longer and you’ll have more time to use it before it goes bad. Check out these top tips to maximize shelf life and keep your groceries tasting fresh:
1. Use common sense with expiration dates. Use-by, sell-by, and best-by…
These are approximate guidelines and there is variation in what they indicate. Trust your nose and eyes. For example, best-by dates on canned fruits and veggies refer to quality and can be safe to eat long after the printed date.
2. Inspect your produce drawers often.
So often, we simply forget what we have and just seeing something can inspire you to use it up. For an added bonus, while you’re in there, take a look at the produce and throw away things that are starting to turn, like a few fronds of slimy cilantro or a couple mushy raspberries in the box. Moldy bits cause the food around it to spoil faster. Discard what’s starting to turn and you’ll notice your food lasts longer.
3. Keep ripe fruits separate.
They emit ethylene gas which speeds up the ripening and rotting process of foods nearby. Give them their own space and be sure to refrigerate once they are ripe to slow down the spoiling process.
4. Keep herbs moist.
Whenever you buy fresh herbs like parsley, green onion, or cilantro know that they are delicate. At home, remove any rubber bands (this is where the rotting begins). Moisten a paper towel and wrap it around the grow ends of the herbs. Keep it from drying out by wrapping everything with a little bit of plastic wrap. This will keep herbs crisp and fresh, but not so wet they begin to rot.
5. Give leafy greens a breath of fresh air.
I think pre-washed greens may be one of the most frustrating foods. They seem to spoil as soon as you bring them home! Prevent this by opening the lid and giving them a little “fluff.” Let some air get between the leaves. Place a paper towel in the container, replace the lid and give it a little shake. Moisture trapped between leaves causes the dreaded, smelly green sludge. Each time you use some of the greens, give the whole container a shake to let more air circulate.
With whole bunches of greens, you want a happy medium between moisture and drying out. If you leave them out in the open fridge, they will wilt and shrivel. Instead, keep them in a plastic bag with a paper towel. The towel will absorb excess moisture from the leaves, but the slight dampness will keep the leaves from drying out.
6. Freeze breads, English muffins, and other baked goods.
If these foods go moldy in your home, throw them in the freezer securely wrapped in plastic. When needed, pull what you need out and let thaw on the counter. Sliced breads thaw surprisingly quickly if you separate the slices. Once toasted or loaded up with toppings, it will taste as fresh as the day it was baked.
7. Nuts, seeds, and whole grains prefer cool, dark storage.
The freezer is a great place for these items if you have the space. Just be sure to seal tightly before freezing. Oxygen and heat cause oils in these foods to turn, so keeping them cool will extend their life. You should always have a taste before using stored nuts or grains in a recipe. Ruining an entire batch of brownies with rancid walnuts is a sad day (I write this from experience).
8. Use the right size container when storing leftovers.
Less surface area exposed to oxygen means longer shelf life. Store leftovers in appropriately sized containers to keep your hard work tasting fresh. Not to mention, you will save space in the fridge! Generally speaking, most leftovers can be safely kept for 4 days in the fridge. Bonus tip: Square containers are space saving relative to round. Consider this when purchasing new containers.
If avoiding rotten food in the fridge isn’t enough of a reason, consider these storage tips for the environmentally-friendly aspect of reducing food waste. A little extra time and thought can go a long way in increasing shelf life and sustainability of your diet.