I got back from college just over a month ago, and, of course, one of the things I was most excited for was my kitchen. Having lived in a dorm room that just had a mini fridge and microwave, in a hall with a communal kitchen down that was almost always filthy, and on an over-generous meal plan that encouraged me to buy meals rather than prepare them myself, I couldn’t wait to cook in a decent kitchen with a full fridge and pantry at my disposal. However, the full fridge and pantry weren’t as idyllic as I had hoped. Fact is, they were simply too full. I knew that, once I went through the contents, I would find several things that had gone stale or lost their flavor, if not seriously gone bad (i.e. grown mold, rotted, etc.).
Compared to many, my family is pretty non-wasteful. We love eating leftovers and freeze things for long-term storage, and I’ve never seen something substantial, like a full loaf of bread or a pound of meat, go bad. However, it’s the smaller things that often suffer due to negligence. I immediately found two open tubs of flavored cream cheese that had been untouched since I visited in March and an open box of crackers from 2012 that had gone very stale. Fortunately, the majority of our food was still good, but the sheer quantity of open perishables was still frustrating. Things like two open jars of Alfredo sauce, pesto, and almond butter and a 32-oz. package of sandwich cheese slices (for reference, that’s about the weight of a platter). I encouraged my mom to incorporate the sauces into dinners as soon as possible and breakfasted on almond butter toast for several days until one of the jars had been emptied. However, even though my mom and I both used the cheese to make our workday lunches for about two weeks, I finally had to throw out the last ten slices as they started to grow white fuzz. The simple fact is this: more isn’t always better.
This experience – which is sort of ongoing – illustrates two of the biggest sources of food waste: carelessness and overabundance. When I’m home, I act as the food-watchdog, reminding the others of open containers or items approaching expiration if not eating them myself; but no one else seems to pay the same amount of attention when I’m away. Once things are pushed to the back of the fridge, they tend to get forgotten and replaced. It’s a waste of perfectly good food and, obviously, money. Speaking of being economical: don’t let bulk food stores and “two for one” deals fool you! Buying a large quantity of something like pasta for a low price is a good deal, but the same does not apply to perishables. Unless you have a large family of regular ham-and-Swiss sandwich eaters, chances are you won’t finish a giant pack of meat or cheese before some of the slices start going bad. The same logic can be applied to leafy greens and other produce. Either have a plan to finish perishables within their shelf-life (here’s a good reference, since the package dates are often unreliable); freeze, pickle, or otherwise preserve them; or buy them in smaller quantities. If you also have trouble keeping track of what food you already have, try keeping an inventory on your fridge door or using bright sticky notes to label containers with the dates that they were opened.
My family gets a little frustrated with me when I point out these kinds of things, but I think it’s because they don’t like having to admit their mistakes. Their reaction is reassuring, though, because it shows that they recognize food waste as something shameful. As I’ve said time and time again: some waste is inevitable, but we should all make every effort to avoid it.