A few weeks ago, after serving up some sobering statistics about food waste in America, the Lantern put out a call for your best tips on how to avoid refrigerator rot. Nearly 200 of you responded, with some big suggestions (move to a place within walking distance of a grocery store) and small ones (grow your own herbs). Here are 10 key lessons that emerged from your letters and comments.
1. Create—and then stick to—a shopping list. Plan out your meals for the week (including snacks and side dishes) and then shop for just the ingredients you need—no more, no less. Be honest about your cooking and eating habits, though, or you'll still wind up with unused ingredients. Reader Heather Rhodes recommends a weekly menu that includes at least a few easy dishes (for nights when you're too tired to make something elaborate) and one meal that uses nonperishable pantry staples (so if you decide to order takeout one night, you don't have to worry about anything spoiling).
2. Shop a few times a week. If you lack the discipline to plan your meals seven days in advance, do as the Europeans do and opt for small, frequent purchases. Check to see what you have at home that's in danger of going bad, then shop for ingredients so you can make use of those items. If you've got pork chops in your fridge that are about to turn ugly and half a bag of rice in your pantry, maybe all you need is a vegetable for the side. If you have to drive to your grocery store, shop on the way home from work or while running other errands so you don't increase your road miles too much.
3. Stick to a single cuisine, to maximize efficiency. "I used to cook Indian on Monday, Thai on Tuesday, Italian on a Wednesday," says reader Jennifer Coogan. That would leave her with a fridge full of disparate foods—many of which would go bad before she had cause to use them again. Now she'll designate a "Chinese week" and wait until she's finished all the bok choy, tofu, and guilin sauce in the kitchen before she allows herself to buy Mediterranean ingredients.
4. Buy food with cash. It's hard, writes Graham Murtaugh, but it works. "The less we use debit/credit, the more conscious we are of what we spend and so we tend not to grab items that just look good."
5. Hit the supermarket salad bar. Produce shopping can be a real conundrum for singles and couples. (Someone please tell me: How does one person finish an entire bunch of celery without resorting to ants on a log for every meal?) Allison Breyer Everett avoids excess by buying precise amounts of pre-chopped veggies from the grocery store salad bar.
6. Rein it in at the farmers market. Many of you, it seems, have the same problem as the Lantern: You fall in love with exotic produce over the weekend, but during the workweek you're too tired to learn how to cook the damn things. Stephanie Hershinow advises that you limit your experimental purchases, like ramps and rhubarb, to things you plan to prepare that same weekend."Once you know how to use something, it can be considered a workweek ingredient."
7. Wash and prep fruit and vegetables right away. This helps combat workweek weariness. Dry everything thoroughly before you put it in the fridge—surface moisture provides a nice environment for decay-causing bacteria and fungi. Adel Kader, a postharvest produce expert from the University of California-Davis, suggests using a spinner and then keeping the ingredients in plastic bags or containers. Note that cutting fruits and veggies can double the rate of deterioration; Kader suggests using any cut produce within two days. (More produce storage tips can be found here [PDF].)