How to Save $2000/year and help the planet
Updated: Sep 28, 2019
The Slow and Simple Life: Storing Food to Improve its Lifespan in the Kitchen.
One subject I haven’t covered yet is how to store the food we buy. Research suggests that food spoilage is a huge issue for most families. I buy predominantly organic fresh fruit and veggies which is way more expensive than non-organic produce so making my food last the week has been a bit of a quest for me.
Did you know that 1/3 of all human-caused, greenhouse gas emissions are caused by food waste? It’s an un-sexy but true statistic. Yes we must transition to renewable fuel sources to save our planet but we also have to deal with the food waste we create in our own homes. This is because potentially biodegradable waste material like food scraps don’t break down when they are put into landfill (eg. rubbish dumps). Landfill rubbish gets compacted down and covered. This removes oxygen so waste can’t decompose naturally. Unlike a good compost pile that makes great soil, green waste in landfill produces methane - massive farts that have a global warming capacity 21 times that of carbon dioxide. It is a big, smelly problem and here in Australia we are doing a comparatively lousy job of dealing with it. A whopping 40% of our potentially recyclable waste goes to landfill. Germany and 7 other Scandinavian countries put only 3% or less of their waste into landfill each year. Switzerland gets the gold star for having eliminated landfill sites altogether.
The equivalent of 1 in every 5 shopping bags full of groceries bought in Australia each year is tossed out. This is about $2000 worth of food for every Aussie household. But things are slowly changing as people get better informed, reassess their personal habits and advocate for change on a local and national scale. There’s no good reason why we can’t be like these other environmentally responsible countries. Recently Queensland banned single-use plastic bags at cash registers. The small remote aboriginal community of about 1000 people that I lived with in the Northern Territory never has had plastic bags in its little supermarket. Run by a panel of Aboriginal Community Elders it has always packaged people’s groceries in brown paper bags even though most residents carry their food home.
The best way I’ve found to minimize food wastage in the kitchen is to plan well for meals and be careful to buy only the quantity my shopping list suggests. Markets help me do this because fruit and vegetables are less likely to be packaged. I tend to only shop for 4-5 weeknight meals a week because I know pretty much for sure there is probably going to be a day I eat out because I am not home or don’t feel like it. I outsource one meal a week to my daughter and husband. If I find that a piece of food produce is regularly spoiling before I use it I buy less of it in my big weekly shop and pick it up mid-week in small, local pop-up markets.
Another important point for food storage is to ensure that the fridge is an optimal temperature of 3-4 degrees Celsius.
Along with so many aspects of day-to-day life becoming more mindful has helped me become more aware of how much and what kinds of food our household consumes. I tend to prepare meals that store well. My daughter is very talented at using leftovers. She emerges the day after a late night out like a tall, willowy-thin rabbit (there is no justice when I seem to put on weight just sniffing celery) hippity hoppity, munching her way creatively through my fridge.
These days anyone can become a domestic goddess of food storage with time and application because we all have google and YouTube.
Fruit and Vegetables are among the top products wasted in Australian homes. Once either is picked it starts a slow death. They are still alive and respiring. Just like us they are taking in oxygen and breathing out carbon dioxide. Low temperatures slow down respiration and keep bacteria and fungi at bay.
Some vegetables, like salad leaves and other green veggies, respire a lot so they are best stored in the fridge. They prefer a humid environment to stay crisp but if they get too wet they get attacked by microbes and become slimy.
I keep fruit and veggies separate. Modern fridges have a variable chilling setting on the crispers. Veggies are happiest colder than fruit. Fruit and veggies emit different gasses as they age. If you sit them together the foreign gasses spoil both faster. Fruits that go soft and sweet when they ripen need to ripen outside the fridge first. This includes stone fruit, pears, apple, kiwi fruit and avocado. If you put them in the fridge they will not ripen. The cold affects their taste, texture and colour. They will shrivel and go mouldy. Trust me, been there, done that. The ethylene gas that most fruits emit as they ripen turns carrots bitter and causes cucumbers to spoil. Watch out for rotting produce and remove it as soon as you can or the rot will spread.
Tropical fruits prefer a fruit bowl on a bench.
Avocados are actually a fruit. If you can seal off the exposed surface of a cut avocado from air and leave its seed in, it will go brown much slower. Alternatively bathe it in lemon juice. Lemon juice is also good for cut apples and pears to prevent browning.
When shopping it is helpful to think of the purpose for which you are buying a particular fruit and veggie and choose the appropriate size so that you don’t have leftovers. I buy small avocados whenever I can because I only seem to use half of the big ones in one meal and that leaves a storage dilemma.
Tomatoes are a fruit, too, and they are touchy. They do better on a counter, but in a shaded spot. Stored in the fridge their cellular structure begins to collapse and this produces that icky, mushy, mealy texture we all know and hate. Tomatoes need to ripen at room temperature and will then last 2 to 3 days. Once sliced or diced they should be refrigerated.
Lemons and oranges can be cut into wedges and frozen on baking sheets then transferred to a recycled freezer or Stasher bag https://www.stasherbag.com/ .
Potatoes and onions like a cool, dark, dry home so often do better outside the fridge. Onions and garlic like air to circulate around them in order to age well. They shouldn’t be stored in the fridge either. Potatoes and onions like some people bring out the worst in each other as they emit moisture and different gasses that cause them both to ripen faster. Fridges can be a humid environment and left in humidity potatoes, onions and garlic will sprout.
Onions, garlic and shallot bulbs do well stored outside the fridge in a labelled, hole punched paper bag.
Shallots can be chopped up and stored in pieces in a container in the freezer. They will last up to 3 weeks this way.
Root crops in general should be stored in a cool dark cupboard.
If you are that way inclined, you could try growing the produce that is hardest to store like cucumber, leafy greens, beans and herbs. This would cut down on the need for plastic.
Carrots and celery do great as sticks stored in water - just replace water if it gets cloudy. Kale does well soaking its feet in a little water in a vase on the counter in the shade.
I buy loose, mixed salad leaves at the market and store them in a plastic bag that I wash out and reuse each week. Large Pyrex containers are good too but must completely seal. I find mixed salad leaves last a full week this way.
Some vegetables like cucumber, last much better wrapped in cling film. We can recycle the cling film though, or use re-usable silicone wraps like these:
Instead of paper towels we use muslin or old tea towels. Plastic bags can be washed out and reused too.
First I learned to determine if the herb is tender or hard. Tender herbs are those that have soft stems like coriander, parsley, and tarragon. Hard herbs have a woody stem like rosemary, thyme, marjoram and oregano. For tender herbs I trim the ends and remove wilted or browned leaves. I fill a drinking glass with a couple of centimetres of water, loosely cover with a recycled plastic bag or a large mason jar and store in the fridge. This works well with mint and dill too. To store basil, I leave it uncovered and place on the counter where the basil can get some sunlight changing the water if it discolours.
Hard herbs like rosemary, thyme, oregano, marjoram, sage, and chives can be loosely rolled up and and transferred to a resealable, recycled plastic bag or Stasher bag and stored in the fridge.
If they look like they are about to expire I chop them up, add a little water and pour the mixture into ice cubes to freeze. These ice cubes once frozen can be kept in Stasher bags until a recipe calls for them. They can also be stored in olive oil and added to the appropriate salad dressing. Herbs are the easiest food plants to grow. Saves me time, money, and it feels like you’re really living, not just existing, to collect your own herbs fresh from your garden and throw them with a creative flourish of culinary flair into your cooking whilst sipping a glass of wine, vintage French cafe music wafting through the evening air.
The reason we store mushrooms in a paper bag is because the paper absorbs moisture from the mushrooms which stops them getting soggy.
Storing bread in the fridge changes the starches in it and I find it never tastes as good. It also seems to dry out faster. Sourdough breads seem to last the longest without going mouldy stored in the pantry. Bread lasts best in the freezer but I still don’t think it tastes as good as fresh bread so I tend to buy smaller quantities now and often if I am home and we’re out of it I message my husband or kids to pick it up on their way home.
Despite popular belief pasta should not be stored in its box it you want it to last. I have found transferring it again to a mason jar ensures it lasts a long time. It also looks cute on open shelves.
Flours last best in an airtight jar rather than the paper bag they are sold in. Whole grain flours are more delicate. If I am not baking a lot I store them in the freezer for longevity.
Nuts and seeds can go rancid from light and heat exposure so are better stored in clear airtight containers in the fridge or freezer.
I turn tomato paste upside down to store it as this cuts off its exposure to air preventing that annoying, furry mould that grows on top.
Cheese often goes mouldy. This can be avoided by wrapping blocks in a muslin cloth soaked in about 1/4 tsp of cooking white vinegar. This I place it in a recycled plastic bag/Stasher bag/glass container and store in the fridge. Grated cheese can be stored in the freezer if you don’t use it often.
Washed egg shells can be crushed, the pieces put in in glass bottles with a bit of hot water and hand agitated - cleans and polishes the glass. I notice Arnie Schwarzenegger puts whole eggs in his smoothies - one way to get your calcium but you’d want to make damn sure the shell becomes a powder. Egg cartons, by the way, can be torn up and added to compost or worm farm.
Sometimes you can only buy a full celery rather than the half you know you’ll actually eat. Or the first grade strawberries you love come in a large punnet you know your family will not get through. If I have excess it is a wonderful opportunity to share with neighbours, nearby extended family and friends. I get to have a nice chat. And I find sharing creates goodwill and builds a sense of community.
Here is a free printable https://www.realmomnutrition.com/wp-content/uploads/RMN_fruit-vegetable-storage-chart_may2017-2.pdf that you can pin up in your pantry to remind you how to best store your fresh produce.
What environmentally-friendly ways have you found to deal with the waste your kitchen produces? Feel free to comment below.
Next week I blog about my Monday Meal system.