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Tips for better home food management
Do you ever have a full pantry and a full fridge — and yet feel like you don’t have what you need to make a meal? With “shelter-in-place” restrictions resulting in less frequent and larger trips to the grocery store, in addition to some “panic” buying, the potential for food waste goes up.
We asked Rosalyne Tu, MS, RD, a dietitian and BeWell Biometrics Manager and Coach, for tips on better management of the perishable and non-perishable foods in our homes.
Buy what you need in addition to some back up items.
Start with what you already have and think about the meals you want to make to determine what you need.
Take a look at your pantry and refrigerator and find things that you have had for a while that need to be used. (For a reference on how long food maintains its quality, download the free app Is My Food Safe.) What can you make with those items that sound appealing to you, and what else do you want to buy new to cook? You can use your creativity, ask family or a friend for inspiration, consult a cookbook/recipe collection, or just Google recipes to answer these questions. You can do this for as many meals as you plan to prepare before the next grocery trip.
To keep things simple and nutritionally balanced, you can also identify what the starch, protein, and vegetable will be for a meal. That way you can focus on simple preparations of each food item (e.g., bread, rice, tortilla for the starch; roasted broccoli or carrot sticks for the vegetable; roasted store bought chicken, warmed up can of beans, or baked fish for the protein). Give yourself permission to work in some “rest” or lighter cooking days; a frozen bean burrito and a store-bought salad is a balanced meal!
Plan your stockpiling by figuring out how much non-perishable food your household will need for at least three days.
Three days is the minimum recommendation from the Department of Homeland Security, while FEMA recommends a 14-day supply of food in case of an emergency or disaster. You can keep these foods rotating into your meal plans so that you use them and re-buy before too many years pass. Also, if there are frequently used items, like the staple foods in your household, that can be frozen or stored in the pantry, it is a good idea to have 1-2 extras of those so that when the item is out, you can pull one out from the pantry or freezer and then add the item to the grocery list (so that you always have 1-2 extras available). This is especially useful now since grocery stores are not as well stocked as usual. Examples of items you might rotate this way: loaves of bread which can be frozen, boxes of pasta, bags of dried beans, canned goods, and condiments like ketchup and mayonnaise.
Store your foods thoughtfully.
There are reasons why refrigerators have specific areas for fruits, vegetables, and other items. Air circulation, humidity, and temperature all play a part in keeping produce fresh. Most fruits prefer low humidity while most vegetables prefer high humidity; and most fruits produce ethylene gas which promotes ripening and should be stored in a separate drawer from your vegetables. Eggplant, winter squash, tomatoes, potatoes, bananas, and fruit that needs to ripen can all sit on the counter away from sunlight.
Not all vegetables and fruits will look good by the end of a week. If you are one to map out which days to cook which meals, you can incorporate the produce items higher on the list below, earlier in the week. If you are not one to do that, you can keep an inventory of your produce and other perishables on a list outside of your fridge to reference (so that you don’t spend minutes with the refrigerator doors open pondering what you have to cook and unintentionally warming the internal temperature of the fridge). If a vegetable does start to wilt, it can be placed in an ice bath, or rinsed and placed back in the fridge to perk it back up.
Storing Pantry Items
A common custom of restaurants and other food service institutions is a practice called “First In, First Out” (FIFO). The rule is to first use what you have stored the longest. For example, if you already have three cans of tomato sauce in your pantry purchased at different times, you should use the item with the oldest date first. You can organize your pantry so the oldest items are in front and the newly purchased items towards the back. It helps if similar items like breakfast foods, canned goods, grains, baking ingredients, etc. are in their own sections. This practice can be applied to the refrigerator, as well; e.g., for items like individual servings of yogurt.
Know when to throw food out.
Foods with packaging and labels (e.g., pantry items, canned goods, frozen meals)
Contrary to what most people think about date labels on food products, the dates are set by the food producer and mainly indicate when the food item loses its quality (texture, appearance, flavor). It does not mean the food is unsafe to eat after the date. The USDA states, “If the date passes during home storage, a product should still be safe and wholesome if handled properly until the time spoilage is evident.” Spoiled foods will develop an off-odor, flavor or texture due to naturally occurring spoilage bacteria. Do not consume food from a can that is bulging, rusted, or severely dented. Higher acid foods like tomatoes and fruit in cans will maintain their quality for 1 to 1 1/2 years; lower acid foods like soups and vegetables will maintain their quality for up to five years. If in doubt about the safety of a product, it is safest to throw it out. See more on the shelf life of canned foods.
Leftovers and other cooked food can keep for 3-4 days in the refrigerator or 3-4 months in the freezer until the quality changes or the food starts to spoil. When batch cooking a large volume of food, like a pot of soup, it is best to divide the soup into shallow containers so that the soup will cool faster in the refrigerator. You can even freeze the soup in serving-size amounts so you can have easy access to the soup a few weeks later.
Most cooked food should be thrown out if it has been sitting out for more than two hours (one hour for hot days when the temperature is >90 degrees).
Mold, spotting, bruising, color and texture changes are all signs that the food should be thrown out and preferably composted.
With health and safety in the forefront of our minds right now, what else can we do to prevent sickness?
The FDA currently states, “There is no evidence of food packaging being associated with the transmission of COVID-19 … but if you wish, you can wipe down product packaging and allow it to air dry, as an extra precaution. Before eating, rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under running tap water, including those with skins and rinds that are not eaten.”
A food thermometer is also a useful item to keep us healthy and safe. Checking the internal temperature of a chicken breast not only prevents you from getting sick from accidentally eating uncooked meat, it prevents you from overcooking and ending up with a dry product. When cooking poultry, fish and meats, remove the items from heat when they reach the appropriate temperatures. For poultry and frozen meals, the temperature goal is 165 degrees. With pork, beef and fish, aim to hit at least 145 degrees.
Other helpful resources
More specifics on storing produce:
More on food safety: