In an effort to do away with food waste in our home over the past two years, I've been logging onto various websites to see how I can use what I have...and sometimes to see how I can salvage what I have on hand. Do you know how to tell if food is actually spoiled? Do you know what you can salvage? Have you ever wondered if you might refreeze raw meat? What are the guidelines for using leftovers?
First let us study storage. How and when you store food is everything when it comes to saving food. I've shared my tips for keeping produce fresh here and here. Those tips work very well, and it has paid off to take time to study how to properly store fruits and vegetables.
Let's begin with the appliances where you're likely storing cold items. A freezer should have a reading of 0F in order to be perfectly safe for keeping foods frozen solid. A refrigerator should have a temperature reading of about 40F or slightly below.
Foods going into the either appliance should be well wrapped or stored in clean containers with tight fitting lids. You can wrap in foil and plastic, or you can use freezer paper, the type with a coating that makes it impervious to damp.
If you are using containers, glass or plastic will both work. They can be recycled items, or they can be bought specifically for storage. If you are using glass in the freezer, make sure that it is freezer safe. I find its best to use wide mouth canning jars for any storage that involves freezing liquids, but I've also had success with cottage cheese and yogurt containers. The glass jars are very handy for the fridge as well. You can use zippered plastic bags but those alone are not generally enough to keep items at premium quality in a freezer. I've found in most instances that double bagging, or wrapping and then bagging, is far better than using one single bag. Personally, I prefer to freeze any type of liquid in something besides a bag.
In the refrigerator, I reuse wide mouth pickle or salsa jars. I like to be able to SEE what I have stored. If I can't see it, odds are it will be pushed to the back of the fridge, and I'll forget it. I seldom reuse a sour cream, cottage cheese or yogurt carton in the fridge because I generally have those items on hand with said product inside and I'll confuse myself. In the freezer, they work just fine and can easily be labeled with what is stored inside.
I find glass works best. It's easily recycled into storage after the original contents are finished up. The ability to make sure it is clean and sterile is a bonus in my opinion. I have a few glass containers with snap on lids bought specifically for use in my refrigerator but most items I use are recycled.
Plastic luncheon meat containers are a help. They are the exact same quality as the items bought specifically for storage so why pay for them if you can reuse? Again, just make sure they are clean.
To store dry goods, a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid works well. A zippered bag will also work for some items. If we open crackers or chips, we keep them in the original packaging, but make sure to tightly twist or fold and clip the tops of the package. Cookies go into an airtight jar. Some jars are NOT airtight. You'll find out quickly when your cookies go dry and stale if the jar isn't airtight! If you do have cookies get hard, put a slice of bread in with them and they should soften up nicely.
Now let's talk about leftover cooked foods.
First, do you have a plan for how you'll be using your leftovers? Are you going to use them for lunches? Then portion them into lunch-sized portions right away. Do you plan to use part for sandwich fillings but haven't yet made a plan for how to use the rest? Portion out what you want for sandwiches and freeze the rest.
You want to portion those items because repeatedly removing any food from the fridge, opening the container multiples of times, offer opportunities to introduce bacteria. Limit the number of times you'll need to open a container and you reduce your chances of having food spoil.
Make sure any cooked food has cooled enough to go into the refrigerator or freezer. You should never put boiling hot foods right into either appliance. You risk running the temperatures of either above the optimal degree and that may cause other foods to spoil. Ideally, you would cool at least an hour. Most sites recommend that food sit no longer than 2 hours at room temperature. If you can place your hand comfortably on the item, then it's quite safe to go into the fridge or the freezer. The shallower the dish you're storing food in the quicker it will cool. I hate to do extra dishes but when it comes to safely storing it, I'll certainly dirty another dish to make sure I don't risk spoilage.
How long will leftovers keep in the fridge? General rules are four to five days. I have had some items in my fridge up to seven days, but I never go beyond that. I try to plan how I will use it, before it goes into the fridge. If I have doubts, it goes into the freezer, as long as all the components will freeze well. If I fail to do so, then we'll eat it for lunch or it will show up in a salad or somehow end being served with a dinner. I keep track of foods by checking my fridge every three days and assessing what we have and making a plan to use it right then.
Now let's discuss mold. Some foods are perfectly safe to eat, even if they have a spot of mold on them. Hard Cheese for instance, can be trimmed. Soft cheeses, especially cream cheeses should be tossed. Bell peppers can be trimmed, as well as apples or other hard produce items. Cucumbers or 'wet' vegetables and fruits with mold should be tossed right away. Compost is the very best use you can make of them at that point.
Bread and baked goods are NEVER safe to eat if you see mold on them. Toss them right away!
What if you have an item in the fridge that is past it's best by date? I suggest first that you consider how far past the date it is. I'm going to try to make it a habit to put a label with the date first opened on containers of cream cheese, sour cream, cottage cheese, as well as seldom used sauces or dressings, etc. If you happen to freeze milk and then thaw to use, you might want to label that as well, just so you know what your use by window is. Ditto for frozen shredded cheese.
A lot of avoiding food waste is about using your senses. Does it look good? Do you see visible signs of mold or spoilage? In my experience, spoiled dairy products generally have a pinkish discoloration around the edges of the container and that signals that food is no longer any good. It can happen to foods well within the best by date. Don't just assume because it's within date it can't be spoiled. Contamination of any sort can turn any food bad.
By the same token, you can have something a month or more out of date that looks just fine. That's where you're going to use another sense...How does it smell? If it looks fine and it smells fine, odds are it's going to be just fine to use. If you have any doubt at all, then dump it and forget it. You don't get a gold star for eating things you're unsure of and you don't get demerit marks for choosing to toss something instead of trying to save it.
I've focused on mostly produce and leftovers here but what about items on the pantry shelf that might have expired?
But again, you're going to use your senses to ensure that you keep your family safe. Examine the container. Is a can dented, rusted, leaking? How does the food look? Is there mold? Does it look bubbly when it oughtn't be bubbly? How does it smell? Does it smell like mold? You know not all mold is visible but you can definitely smell it. Does it smell off, not the way it ought to smell? Then throw it away.
If you don't feel confident in your own sense of what's safe, then look it up. There is a guideline out there online. It's easy enough to discover that someone else has likely asked and been answered at some point.
There is a comprehensive guideline that I printed out and keep in my recipe notebook. I can't find that website on the papers I printed but it has information similar to this one and this one at Still Tasty. Or you can look up 'When do household items expire?' That was what I looked up when I found the copy I printed out. You'll be pretty surprised by how long it takes for things to actually 'expire'. It's not necessarily that sell by or best by date you see printed on the top. For instance, did you know that Chocolate syrup can be used for up to 3 years past it's best by date if it's never been opened? Or that it's good for up to 2 years AFTER it's been opened and refrigerated? Most canned foods, as long as the integrity of the can is intact, will last up to five years past their use by date. The food within might not be the optimal color or taste, but it's probably still safe. It pays to know these things!
Good rotation in the pantry and freezer should prevent your finding things that far out of date though. I think really that organization and rotation are the two key things to keep in mind when working with pantry items. Do as the grocery stores do. New stock goes to the back but check those dates. I've bought items that expired sooner than what I already had in the pantry and they weren't sale items, just a different lot of goods than what I purchased previously.
I hope you find these tips helpful in reducing food waste at home. I can assure you they have saved us money!