The healthy cook can and should cut down on food waste—here's how.
Dana Gunders, a food waste expert at NRDC and author of the Waste Free Kitchen Handbook, gives us her tips on how to reduce waste in our own home.
KB: What are the most important things for the home cook to focus on when reducing food waste?
DG: It varies for different people. For people who hate leftovers, be very careful with the amount you’re cooking. Some overarching things that I like to recommend: I think meal planning is very important, but it’s also very challenging for people. One of the most important things is to work what I call “lazy nights” into your meal planning. That could be a dish you make every week or a frozen pizza—just something that’s super easy. Planning not to cook on a certain night counts as meal planning.
KB: As far as keeping perishables fresh longer, any strategies?
DG: People underutilize their freezers. It’s such an easy thing to do to just stick what you haven’t gotten around to eating in your freezer and pull it out a couple days later. It doesn’t have to be for a long time, but it can add life when you’re not going to get around to using something before it turns.
KB: I love this idea of short-term freezing. You don’t have to worry about protecting it perfectly—it’s more about adding a couple of days of life.
DG: Yeah, exactly. Of course, if you’re not going to use something within a few days, you should be more careful about how you freeze it so you don’t get freezer burn and it has good quality when you’re defrosting it.
KB: What’s your favorite thing to put in the freezer?
DG: Bread does better in the freezer than it does in the refrigerator. They key is freezing in the right portions. Freeze sliced bread. And that’s true with freezing in general—portions are really important so you can defrost only as much as you need. I like to freeze leftovers in muffin tins for single serving portions.
KB: Any tips for best practices with the fridge?
DG: In the book, we have a whole diagram about how to use your crisper drawers. I feel like nobody knows how to use [them]. They’re just drawers. So we suggest making one drawer high humidity/low airflow and one lower humidity/more airflow. Less airflow keeps more humidity inside the drawer, and that’s good for things that wilt like lettuce, broccoli, [and] carrots. Things you want to stay stiff go in that drawer. The other drawer [is] sealed less tightly, so it has a little more airflow. It allows the ethylene that’s building up to come out of the drawer, but you still get some of the humidity benefits from having it in a drawer versus having it out in the fridge. You still want some aeration, so it doesn’t produce too much ethylene and make everything else around it rot. Those would be things like ripe peaches, avocados, and apples.
KB: Any tricks for berries? I feel like they grow mold overnight sometimes.
DG: Yeah, berries have a really short life. I found that they are best stored in a single layer on a tray. Basically, you don’t want them to touch each other. If you don’t have space for that in your fridge, put a paper towel in between layers of berries; that actually helps extend their life pretty significantly.
KB: What can you tell me about expiration dates?
DG: If you want more information about expiration dates than you ever thought you needed, we have a whole report out called “The Dating Game.” I like to summarize by basically saying that expiration dates are not meant to indicate anything about the food’s safety. They really are just manufacturer estimates of when the product is at its peak quality or at its freshest. Manufacturers come up with these dates in different ways. It’s up to them how they come up with them. It’s really a date that they’re using to stand by their brand and indicate its freshness.
KB: Right. Because they want people to eat their product when it’s at it’s absolute best, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not safe.
DG: Exactly. This varies tremendously by product in terms of what it means. They might be looking at staleness for tortilla chips whereas for something like deli meat you want to be more adherent to the date, because they may have actually used lab tests and are trying to tell you that its at its freshest but also ensuring that it is safe.
One product I think more people throw out than any other because of the dates are dairy products, and that’s interesting because actually dairy products are very unlikely to get you sick. It’s a place really where the sniff test is very effective. In my book, I have a recipe for sour milk pancakes. If you let your milk go a little too long and it’s too sour for your liking, you can actually use it for baking. It’s amazing how you don’t taste any level of sour or bitter—it actually makes for really rich pancakes.
KB: When people do the sniff test, what are they smelling for?
DG: Well with milk, because it’s pasteurized, it’s a very safe product. It’s really just about palatability for you. It’s not gonna make you sick. If it’s three days, four days, five days, [or] even a week after the date and it tastes fine to you, it’s fine. There’s not like some mystery thing in the milk that the date knew about that you don’t that’s gonna make you sick.
Most products are pretty safe. What I tell people is the products to be careful with…are basically the ones they tell pregnant women not to eat. That’s how I like to sum it up. So deli meat, raw fish, and anything that might have deli meats with it, like a ready-to-eat sandwich that you eat half of and put in the fridge.