Updated: May 15, 2020
By Esther Chew
Even before WHO announced the coronavirus pandemic and the government declared a Movement Control Order, I saw and read about people going all out to stock up on essentials and panic buying. Being a practicing zero waster, I was concerned about how this would impact the environment.
When we overbuy or overstock on something, very often we end up with more waste due to an abundance mentality. For example, when there is water rationing, we fill tubs and buckets with water and once water supplies are back, all the water that we saved up will be thrown away. When we have an overstocked pantry, we tend to forget or underuse some items and many of them will end up expired or spoiled.
It’s natural to want to stock up on additional items so that we don’t have to go out so much, so if that’s unavoidable for your family, here are some tips to prevent and reduce food waste during this time:
Preplan your meals
Yes, planning always helps in reducing any waste. Think about what you want to eat or cook, write down all the ingredients and quantities that you need, see if there are any ingredients or food that can be used in various dishes and head to the shops with your list. When you already know what you need, you will not resort to unnecessary purchases.
For my family of 4, 2 adults and 2 children, I make about 10 meals for the week. A friend of mine is a single parent and she only cooks 1 meal a day and the leftovers stretch to the rest of the meals that week.
Use proper storage
When food is stored properly, the quality of food can be preserved. Do ensure that cleanliness is maintained at all times. Wash your hands before and after handling the food to prevent bacteria from growing. Keep food like meat, fish, and poultry away from other food so that their juices will not leak and contaminate other food. Use the right type of containers to store the food. Glass containers are recommended but if you do not have them, plastic is fine too. Just remember that not all plastic is good for health and avoid plastic that’s not BPA free.
Prep work before storing
When I arrive home after grocery shopping, I like to wash my meat before storing them. It helps shorten defrosting and cooking time. I also like to pre-marinate it with whatever marinate I fancy like, bbq sauce, honey soy sauce, lemon pesto, sweet & sour, curry, etc. It helps when I’ve already pre-planned the meals. If I’m not sure what to do with them, I’ll just marinate them with salt and pepper. Did you know that marinated meat can last up to 9 months in the freezer?
Store your produce unwashed
Unwashed produce can be stored for a longer period of time compared to a washed produce. This is because the original protective layer helps keep them fresher for a longer period of time. However, with the current virus going around, we have no choice but to wash everything. So, here’s a simple guide if you MUST wash your produce.
Fruits and veggies with a hard peel like oranges, banana, pumpkin, avocado, mango can be washed immediately.
For produce with a soft but tough skin like grapes, apples, broccoli, carrots, tomatoes, wash them but do consume them within 3-4 days.
For leafy produce and soft skin fruits like strawberries and blueberries, wash them before eating.
Whenever possible, I avoid washing my produce. I reuse old paper bags from food delivery to store my vegetables separately. The paper helps to absorb any moisture and keeps my veggies fresh for a longer period of time.
If you’re worried about bacteria or virus, here’s another option: place them in a container to prevent them from touching and contaminating other food.
Another point to remember is that cold temperature does not kill bacteria, but heat does, so if you’re afraid, just cook them.
Moisture is also not good for your vegetables as they allow bacteria, yeast and mold to grow. So do remember to dry your vegetables and fruits and keep moisture away from your produce!
Freeze, freeze, freeze
Freezing is one of the best ways to prolong the life of produce. We use our freezer to store meat, frozen food, ice creams and others. But did you know that there are lots of fruits and vegetables that can be frozen?
For some fruits and vegetables, freezing even helps keep the nutrients in the produce. I usually just wash the fruits and vegetables clean, air dry or pat them dry and depending on what I want to do to them, I will either chop them up into smaller pieces or store them into smaller portions before putting them into the freezer.
Do keep in mind that frozen items stick together so if you like your fruits to look aesthetically pleasing, freeze them individually on a tray before putting them into the container.
For most vegetables, blanching them helps to prolong their lives and stops them from turning mushy. Not all fruits and veggies freeze well. The higher the water content the more mushy they'll be when they're defrosted. We could write an entire post about how to freeze fruit and vegetables but generally speaking, I freeze most fruits and use them frozen.
Use oil or water as a protective layer
To maintain the shelf life of herbs, you can either place them in a jar of water or freeze them. Here’s what I like to do. Chop or blend the herbs, take an empty ice cube tray and fill them with the herbs. Then I fill each cube with either oil or water. Some herbs do well with water, and some in oil. I then stick them into the freezer and when they are frozen, I will just pop them into a bag or a container.
For my garlic and onions, I like to chop them up and soak them in oil. They last much longer and whenever I need to cook something, I just scoop up a spoonful of garlic or onion infused oil or just drop a cube into the pot. Yums….
Cook large portion and freeze the extra
Being an Asian, my mom will freak out if she hears me say this but I’ve learned from experience that it really does help both in saving time and in reducing waste. I like cooking a big pot of soup, or a dish and then store smaller portions for future meals in the freezer. It means I don’t worry about my veggies going bad or the food spoiling.
A cooked dish in the freezer can last 2-3 months. Please also ensure that your freezer is kept at least 0F or -18C and remember not to push them to the back of your fridge or else you will forget about them.
Not all expired food is inedible and not all food that looks like it’s going bad means you have to throw it away. There are creative ways to use food that is almost reaching the end of its life.
For example, if your veggies are going bad, here are some ideas:
You can freeze them (as mentioned above)
You can boil them together to make a veggie broth and then freeze the broth for future use
You can chop them up, mix them with flour and eggs and fry them into yummy fritters
You can even scramble them with your eggs, stir fry them in your rice or just toss them on a pizza
For fruits that are going bad:
You can turn them into a smoothie or a puree for popsicles
You can bake them with your muffin or add them into your oatmeal/ yoghurt
You can juice them and freeze them into ice creams or for flavoured water
I am sure there are more ways we can reduce and keep our food waste to a minimum. However, as a zero waste mom, I’ve found that these simple methods work well for me to manage my household food, reduce my waste impact and be kind to mother earth.
I hope that this will help you or even inspire you to take a step back and reassess your food arrangements. Happy eating folks!
Esther is mom to a 2 kids and has been volunteering with ibu for the past year. She's passionate about the zero waste movement (as you can tell) and always has a positive vibe to share with others. You can follow her zero waste journey with her kids over on instagram @theestherchew.