Each year Americans throw away $165 billion due to food waste. A large portion of this waste is the result of food spoilage, but there are a lot of things that the average consumer can do to extend the shelf life of their foods. Knowing how to preserve food can not only prevent food waste, but it also allows families to take advantage of significant savings by stocking up on foods when they are cheapest. For example, every year around. . .
Christmas time I stock up on cranberries because I can get them for free or cheap by combining store sales with coupons. I use some of them to make canned cranberry sauce; I dehydrate some for salads and snacks, and then freeze the rest to use year round for muffins and stuffing.
In order to prevent food waste it’s important to first know how food spoilage occurs. Mold, bacteria, and naturally occurring gasses cause food to rot or become stale. Protecting food from these culprits can be done in many of the following ways:
- Pasteurizing-Process of heating food, usually a liquid, to a specific temperature for a specific amount of time and then immediately cooling it once it’s removed from the heat. This process kills bacteria.
- Canning– Uses salt, sugar, acidic substances, heat, and pressure to kill bacteria and create a toxic environment for them. Canning has limitations. Not everything should be canned at home. Commercial food companies can obtain much higher canning pressures than a home canner which allows them to can a wider variety of foods. For specific instructions on food canning procedures visit the USDA website
- Pickling– Uses salt and vinegar to create an environment that is toxic to bacteria. The pickling brine makes the food environment anaerobic and acidic.
- Dehydration-Removes moisture from the food environment thereby inhibiting the growth of bacteria and mold. To extend the life of dehydrated foods first treat foods by blanching them or bathing them in lemon juice. Adding sugar or salt aids in preventing bacterial growth as well. Dehydrated foods should be stored in an airtight container with specialized packets which absorb residual moisture from the food environment. Make sure that you are using the correct packets as some types are not intended for food storage. Food that has been properly dehydrated and packaged can last anywhere from 5-25 years!
- Freezing– Halts bacterial growth. Be sure to store foods in containers that are meant for freezing. This will prevent food from becoming freezer burned. Frozen foods have an indefinite shelf life as far food safety is concerned, but the quality of frozen foods can diminish over time. Generally frozen foods should be consumed within a year. On our one year anniversary, my husband and I ate the top of our wedding cake which we had frozen for the occasion. It tasted just as good as the day it was made!
- Vacuum sealing– 1) Removes oxygen from the food environment which slows down the growth and activity of bacteria and mold naturally present in foods. 2) Protects food from ripening gasses given off by some fruits and vegetables
*Vacuum sealers can be used with bags, glass jars, specialized plastic containers and regular mason jars.
- Blanching– A process by which produce is plunged into boiling water briefly and is then immediately transferred into iced water or placed under cold running water. Blanching helps slow or stop enzyme activity which can cause undesirable changes in flavor and texture during storage. It also destroys harmful bacteria. Blanched produce is often dipped in citric acid or lemon juice as an added safety measure against bacteria. Blanching and citric acid treatment are often used before dehydrating or freezing produce.
- Fermenting– Using yeast to produce alcohol which kills bacteria. Fermented products like wine do not require refrigeration.
The shelf life of food is often determined by its storage location, and how it is packaged. For instance some vegetables and fruits will rot more quickly if stored in the fridge. Fruits, such as apples, peaches, and bananas, release ethylene gas as they age. Other fruits and vegetables, such as carrots, berries, and leafy greens, absorb the ethylene which causes fruits to ripen and can lead to early spoilage. This is why ethylene emitting foods shouldn’t be stored with ethylene absorbing foods unless you are purposely trying to accelerate the ripening process.
How to Store Foods:
Cereal– If your household doesn’t each much cereal or everyone in the house eats a different type of cereal it can go stale before it gets used. To keep cereals fresh place them in plastic containers or into single serve plastic Ziploc bags right after opening. Visit cereal companies’ websites for creative recipes that will allow you to use up cereal before it goes bad. Did you know that corn flakes can be used to make crispy fried chicken, and who hasn’t eaten chex mix or rice crispy treats?
Shelf foods– Using a first in first out system will ensure that all of your canned and dry goods are used before their expiration. This is especially important if you keep a stock pile of goods. Lazy Susan and can rotation units can be purchased to help make this endeavor easier. There are lots of websites with instructions on how to make your own can rotation units as well. These units make accessing the oldest can easy; there is no need to dig through your cupboard or waste time reorganizing goods.
Bread– Store in the fridge or freezer. You can separate your bread into two sections and freeze half for later. Never store bread on top of the fridge or near a heat source as mold thrives in these warm moist conditions. Use up stale bread by making it into croutons!
Meat– Unless I’m using the meat that night or the next day, I generally freeze meat as soon as I come home from the grocery store. Splitting meat up into single portions when freezing is a good idea. This means you can easily control portion sizes without thawing out extra meat that you don’t need. If your significant other works late and has already eaten at work you can take out one less chicken breast, or quickly and easily add portions for dinner guests.
Dairy– Storing dairy products on fridge shelves instead of the door keeps them fresh longer. Cheese and butter freezes well. Creams tend to clump when they have been frozen causing most people to believe that they have gone bad. However creams can usually be returned to their normal consistency through vigorous shaking or heat. I often buy heavy cream for soups when they are on clearance due to an approaching expiration date and freeze them for later use. I add the frozen block of cream to my pot of soup. The cream blends well as it melts and it cools down the soup!
Apples, avocados, cantaloupes, honeydews, apples, bananas, tomatoes, nectarines, peaches, and plums emit ethylene. Separate these gas emitting foods from gas absorbing foods by placing them in separate crisper drawers or by putting them in vacuum sealed bags.
- Belongs in the Fridge–
A) apples, apricots, artichokes, asparagus B) berries, beets, Brussel sprouts C) cantaloupe, cabbage, celery, cherries G) grapes, green beans H) honeydews K) kale L) lima beans, leeks P) plums S) spinach, sprouts Z) zucchini
- Belongs in the Fridge in a Plastic Bag–
B) broccoli , C) carrots, cauliflower, corn (with husks removed) G) green onions L) lettuce P) peas R) radishes
- Belongs in the Fridge in a Paper Bag–
- Store on the Counter–
B) Bananas C) cucumbers E) eggplant G) garlic, ginger, grapefruit L) lemons, limes M) mangoes O) oranges P) papaya, peppers, pineapple, pomegranates T) tomatoes
- Store on the Counter and Transfer to the Fridge at Peek Ripeness–
A) avocado N) nectarines P) peaches, pears, plums K) kiwis
- Store in a Cool Dry Place–
O) onions P) potatoes, pumpkins S) Squash
Potatoes-Storing potatoes with an apple can extend their shelf life by up to 5 weeks. If you have a lot of potatoes that are about to go bad you can cut them into fries and freeze them or make them into crispy potato chips. Store the chips in vacuum sealed containers.
Berries–Wash berries in a vinegar-water mixture (one part vinegar to three parts water) or lemon juice. This kills mold spores, but doesn’t affect the berries’ taste. Pat berries dry with a paper towel and store them in a container lined with paper towels. You can also store them in a vacuum sealed glass jar. This will prevent oxygen from making them rot and won’t squish the berries. I’m not sure why but I have also noticed that organic berries tend to have a longer shelf life than commercially farmed berries. My favorite thing to do to use up berries before they expire is to make smoothies, canned jams, and fruit leathers with them. Smoothies can be frozen in to go cups. Grab one from the freezer before work and by lunch time your healthy concoction should be thawed enough to drink.
Other Fruits– My favorite ways to preserve fruits are by freezing them in pies, making fruit chips, or turning them into canned jams, jellies, and fruit butters.
Vegetables– I have a large secondary freezer so I tend to freeze most of my surplus vegetables, but dehydration is another great way to preserve them. It gives vegetables a much longer shelf life than freezing and you never have to worry about dehydrated vegetables going bad if the power goes out. You can make quick and easy soup mixes with dried vegetables. You don’t have to have a food dehydrator either since produce can be dried with an oven set to its lowest temp. Pickling is a great way to preserve cucumbers, onions, and peppers.
What are some of your favorite ways to reduce food waste in your home?
© Can Stock Photo Inc. / ftlaudgirl