Like most of the world, we have been cooking at home A LOT over the past six months. As we (reluctantly) embrace our new normal, the upside is that we are experimenting with new recipes and honing our cooking skills. However, the need to cook most meals at home—plus the initial scare that stores would run out of food (and the desire to limit our trips out)—has created the tendency for us (Cindy*) to buy groceries in abundance. Which leads us to the downside: we often can’t eat the food we buy fast enough and are left with wilting arugula, brown bananas, meat on the edge, and unopened 3-pound bags of oatmeal. 

It gets worse.

Recently, a friend told us to watch the documentary, Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story. We were horrified at how much waste is caused by the premium placed on how food looks. Producers are forced to discard truckloads—anywhere from 20-70%—of their product that does not meet cosmetic and retail standards. And that’s BEFORE it gets into our fridge. 

According to RTS, a waste collection company trying to do things better, “The United States is the global leader in food waste, with Americans discarding nearly 40 million tons of food every year. That's 80 billion pounds of food and equates to more than $161 billion2, approximately 219 pounds3 of waste per person and 30-40 percent4 of the US food supply.”

219 pounds???!!! And we won’t even get into the fact that there are countless people in our own country who are not getting enough to eat on a daily basis.

So, what to do with food that isn’t perfect or perfectly fresh?

First up: a reexamination of sell-by, best-by, or use-by dates.

  • Sell-By: determines how long retailers should display a product. 
  • Best-By: when the product should reach its peak flavor and quality. 
  • Use-By: the last date of peak quality for the product. 

Did you know that these are not safety dates? Instead, they are guidelines created to serve retailer and consumer purposes. So, just don’t toss it if it has reached its best-by or use-by date.

But food does go bad. Here are some ideas for what to do with food “on the edge”:

  • Test it. Check out this helpful article from Business Insider about how to tell if food has gone bad.
  • Share it. Ask a neighbor if they can use it. We all do this when we go out of town and need to clear out our refrigerators. Why not do it on a regular basis?
  • Cook it and eat it. You might not want to use wilted arugula in a salad, but it tastes great tossed into some scrambled eggs or blended up into a pesto with some herbs, nuts and oil. Same goes for other veggies you intended to eat raw. 
  • Cook it and freeze it. Most cooked food that is frozen properly is good for at least 6 months if not more.
  • Freeze it as is. If you have a pack of chicken breasts about to hit the use-by date, freeze them to save for another time. Brown bananas? Peel them, cut them into chunks, toss in a reusable container (or a ziplock freezer bag if that’s all you can fit in your freezer) to use them in smoothies. Same goes for other fruits!
  • Cut your losses. I am thinking about the 3-pound bag of oatmeal we (Cindy) bought at the start of the shutdown. BEFORE food goes past its best-by date, offer it to friends or (if it’s unopened like the oatmeal is), donate it to a food pantry.
  • Compost it. If you have access to composting through your city or can create one in your backyard, this is a great way to “use” natural matter (spoiled food) for good.

Finally, when at the grocery store, consider buying that apple with a little bruise on it. Because if you don’t, it may end up in a dumpster where it will do no one any good.

Of course, as a spice company, we are always curious about the history and origins of spice. In the case of food, spices and seasonings have been used throughout history to naturally preserve food and prevent food spoilage. As far back as 1551 BC, the Ancient Egyptians used spices for both culinary and medicinal purposes. They classified coriander, cumin, fennel, juniper, garlic, and thyme as health-promoting spices and regularly used these spices to preserve foods, adding flavors and masking smells. These food preservation traditions by use of spices spread throughout the world from Mesopotamia to China to India to Ancient Greece and Rome. 

In this day and age, you may not be forced to use spice to mask the flavor of spoiling meat, but spice can be a great way to create flavor-filled meals with food you may not eat otherwise. Got a bunch of veggies you were going to use for a salad but are now looking a little sad? Try making a minestrone soup spiced up with some Masi Masa Ras El Hanout. A soggy eggplant? Roast it up and make some baba ganoush and sprinkle a little cumin or smoked paprika on top.

As inhabitants of this planet, we believe it’s our responsibility to be aware of, and limit, how much we waste. As a couple on a budget, we are also trying our best to get the most out of the food we buy. And while we may never get to the point where all our trash will fit in a mason jar, we’re educating ourselves, shopping better, and coming up with creative ways to cook so we can do our part. 

We’d love to hear your ideas for minimizing food waste! 

*Eric is a really good and responsible shopper. He lived in Europe for a time and got in the habit of only buying what he needed for a day or two. Cindy has a tendency towards wild ideas of gourmet meals on a weeknight while running two businesses or becoming a daily oatmeal eater during the pandemic...hence the unopened 3-pound bag of oatmeal.

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