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To minimize waste, buy wisely, prep fresh foods, use the freezer

By Nina Shen Rastogi
Tuesday, July 6, 2010; HE03

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.

Create -- and then stick to -- a shopping list. Plan 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, or you'll still wind up with unused ingredients. Lantern 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 such as pasta (so if you decide to order takeout one night, you don't have to worry about anything spoiling).

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 to 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, do your shopping on the way home from work or while running other errands so you don't increase your road miles, and gasoline usage, too much.

Stick to a single cuisine, to maximize efficiency. "I used to cook Indian on Monday, Thai on Tuesday, Italian on a Wednesday," says Jennifer Coogan. But that often left 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.

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."

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.

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 darn things. Stephanie Hershinow advises that you limit your experimental purchases, such as ramps and rhubarb, to dishes you plan to prepare that same weekend. "Once you know how to use something, it can be considered a workweek ingredient."

Wash and prep fruit and vegetables right away. This helps combat workweek weariness. Dry everything thoroughly before you put it in the fridge, because surface moisture provides a nice environment for decay-causing bacteria and fungi. Adel Kader, a post-harvest produce expert from the University of California at 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 at http://postharvest.ucdavis.edu/datastorefiles/234-13.pdf.

Keep track of what's in your fridge and pantry, including expiration dates. An up-to-date inventory not only prevents you from accidentally buying items you already have at home, but it can also alert you to what's teetering on the edge of spoilage. Some readers use a simple notepad and pencil; others have developed more elaborate systems: "We put a white board on the fridge and everything that goes into the fridge gets written down on the board," says one commenter. "We write down perishable stuff in red ink, stable stuff in green, one section for ingredients and another for leftovers."

Use the freezer -- and use it wisely. A handful of readers extolled the virtues of the vacuum sealer and those green plastic produce bags for keeping food fresh. But the most popular suggestion by far was the humble freezer. Keep a container in there for chicken carcasses, freezer-burned drumsticks, onion tops and carrot peelings; when it's full, simmer all the contents to make stock. Ann Dorough blanches and freezes on-the-verge produce for later use. A reader named Jenna roasts vegetables (except for cucumbers and leafy stuff) before they go bad and then tosses them into a freezer bag; the constantly evolving mix goes into lasagna, soup, pizza or casseroles. Fruit that's about to go bad can be frozen for smoothies, and at least four of you sang the praises of banana bread made from frozen, mushy Chiquitas.

Meanwhile, Kristin Dzugan uses her freezer as soon as she gets home from the store, parsing out six-serving jars of pasta sauce into two-serving cups. ("This also keeps us from overeating," she notes.) Other readers suggest freezing individual portions of prepared food for later consumption.

Schedule in your leftovers. After 46 years of marriage, John and Willie Wright have hit upon a winning system: "We eat 'new' food on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights, then on Thursday we have 'smorgasbord' with the leftovers from those three nights."

A popular variation on smorgasbord night was "back-of-the-fridge night," when you challenge yourself to prepare a meal out of nothing but end-of-the-shopping-week ingredients. To do this, bone up on a handful of what reader Venkatesh Rao calls "meta recipes": flexible dishes such as quiches, stir-fries, stews and dals that can easily accommodate a wide variety of ingredients. The Lantern loves using Mark Bittman's "Food Matters" cookbook for just this purpose. Several of you also recommended Allrecipes.com, where you can search for dishes that incorporate up to four different ingredients.

Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com. Read previous Green Lantern columns here.

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