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In the United States, food waste is estimated at 30 to 40 percent of the food supply. The bulk of this food waste is fruits and vegetables. It isn’t just happening at the farm level. It’s the single biggest source of food waste is in our homes.
For the last few weeks, I’ve been sharing some of the ways my family is working to save our food dollars by reducing waste. This week’s focus is on fruits and vegetables. While we try and grow much of our own food, our short growing season and less than stellar soil still have us relying on the grocery store for fresh produce during the dark days of winter. Ensuring we’re consuming and not wasting our food dollars is a challenge I take seriously.
In this post, I share a few of my favorite methods of reducing the waste of fruits and vegetables.
I use a variety of methods for making sure we eat as much of the produce that enters our house as possible. While some of these are perfect to utilize for not only grocery store purchases but also for garden harvest, I’m focusing this article on what we buy in the store.
I live rurally, with slightly over a half-hour drive to the nearest grocery store. Because of the distance, I shop only on specific days. Most of the time, I’m in town at least one time per week and shop during that time.
If I’m in a season where I’m using my shop the pantry menu plan or day before plan (read more about these meal planning methods in this post), I list all our on-hand produce, planning to weave them into meals. More delicate items, such as asparagus and spinach, are used first while heartier items, like cabbage and carrots, are saved for later.
Once I’ve added vegetables to the meal plan, if there are things leftover, I’ll decide where to use those. Should they become snacks? Can they be weaved into breakfast? Or do they need to be preserved for later use? More on preservation in a later post.
The one-day prep method of meal planning is a fabulous way to help cut down on waste. With this method, all the heartier vegetables are steam-sautéed. These precooked vegetables are then stashed in the fridge ready for a quick heat up at mealtime.
Prep greens such as romaine, kale, and collards by chopping, washing, and sending through the salad spinner. Then store them in a container with a paper towel to make them not only ready to use but increase their storage life. Be sure to check each piece as you wash because a piece that’s beginning to spoil can spread to other pieces. More delicate salad greens, like baby spinach or mesclun, should be washed and prepped when ready to use. I make sure to put these in a prominent location in the fridge in addition to writing them on my menu plan.
I also like to keep vegetables on hand for crudités. These chopped or sliced veggies, things like bell peppers, carrots, celery, broccoli, and radishes, can be washed and cut ahead of time (keep in a container with a paper towel) and then pulled out for a quick side. I’ll mix up a salad dressing of some sort and then we have fresh eats in minutes.
Note: While I love cucumbers and zucchini as part of my veggie tray, they do not hold up very well when prepped in advance. I’ve found it best to use zukes cut in spears and cukes cut in coins within a day or two. If you cut your cucumbers in spears, use them immediately.
What Should I Do With the Prepped Produce?
Sometimes I’ll even make a salad or two. Cucumbers and onions in diluted apple cider vinegar is one of our favorites. Other great make-ahead salads are Traditional Cooking School’s Cucumber-Yogurt (or Kefir) Salad and the Freshy Bowl from Trim Healthy Mama’s Trim Healthy Table cookbook (page 265, and here’s a similar recipe from Oh Sweet Mercy). I’ve also dabbled at making layered salads in a jar. While these were super helpful for quick meals or road trip food, it’s not something I make on a regular basis.
Once I’ve prepped the precooked veggies, crudités, and/or salads, I’ll then put together a meal plan and combine these items with protein and/or “slow” carbohydrates. Sometimes I’ll precook meat and carbs too. (I mention this in my post on meal planning.) We not only enjoy vegetables for lunch and dinner but often for breakfast also. A bed of sautéed spinach served under a couple of fried eggs with grated parmesan makes a hearty breakfast (an S for Trim Healthy Mama fans). (If the spinach is coming from the garden, I don’t do much with this delicate item until ready to use.)
I tend to combine a quick inspection of our fridge every few days with each method. Digging in the drawers and sliding things around I’ll sometimes find something surprising that isn’t on my official list. Finding it allows me to add it to my menu before it spoils, move it to the freezer, ferment, or dehydrate it.
These surprises happen most often during the growing season when someone will gift my husband with something and he’ll forget to tell me. Quite often, these gifts were in the car for several days before finding their way inside.
We aren’t big fruit eaters, which makes fruit both easier and more difficult to stay on top of. To help fruit last longer, it should be stored in the refrigerator. If they need to ripen, leave them on the counter for a few days and then move them to the fridge to slow down the process. Special produce bags, the kind with tiny holes, can help extend their life. These work especially well for grapes and berries.
The vegetable methods (adding them to menus and inspections, daily in the case of the fruit bowl) work well. If a piece of fruit is spoiling, it is important to remove it from the bowl before it contaminates other pieces.
I often stash bananas and apples that are past their prime in the freezer for smoothies or to add to oatmeal while it cooks. I sometimes order cases of apples or other fruit (via Azure standard) for dehydrating or making into jams. We’ve also started our own small orchard and hope to have a small harvest next year.