Community Environment Health & Wellness

Jennifer Preston: You say tomato, I say tomorrow

Posted on October 4th, 2023 By:

In my last article, From Wanton Waste to Good Taste, we discussed how 40% of our harvest is thrown in the garbage. When edible, healthy food is tossed in the trash, it becomes food waste.

Now let’s focus on tips for reducing food waste by properly planning, purchasing, storing and cooking it. By doing this, we rescue healthy food from the garbage and save money.

But first, a few food safety tips.

Don’t label me!

The Journal of Agriculture and Food Research reports that confusion over expiration labels is a huge contributor to food waste at home. Their survey revealed some astonishing results — 75% of respondents indicate they “are confused about the date labeling and associate it with food safety and feel unsafe to consume foods beyond the date indicated on the labels.”

The report says that over 90% of Americans may be tossing food out that is still good to eat because they don’t understand safety labels. This misunderstanding results in 4 tons of edible food tossed in the trash. It wastes all the energy, labor and water required to grow it, while adding greenhouse gas when the rejected food rots in landfills, and makes our current food insecurity situation even worse.

A “sell by” date is a store inventory management tool.

Terms like: “Use By”, “Best Before”, Best if Used By”, “Sell By” and “Expired By” are only the beginning. JAFR points out there are currently about 50 different types of labels used in the U.S., and they are not regulated.

It is no wonder we’re so confused!

Below are the current USDA guidelines on product dating that most of us are familiar with. Keep in mind, product dating is generally not required by federal regulations except for baby formula. Instead, it is up to individual manufacturers to select dates for their products.

  • “Best If Used By/Before” date indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • “Sell By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It is not a safety date. 
  •  “Use By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the product’s manufacturer. It is not a safety date, except when used on infant formula.
  • “Expires By” means the products may be safe if consumed after this date, generally up to a week afterwards, but their usefulness and quality may be reduced. Infant formula, baby food, and over-the-counter drugs should never be consumed after the expiration date because they may not function like they are supposed to. Rising agents like yeast will not be as effective.
  •  “Freeze By” date indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.

Graphic by Jennifer Preston

Interesting to note, the USDA doesn’t list any of these as a “safety date.” Washington state law requires a “sell by” or “pull date” on certain foods that spoil within 30 days, like milk, cottage cheese and eggs. According to Washington State University Extension: “This sell by date represents the last day to sell the product so you will have time to store and use it at home safely.”

Example: “Sell By January 25”

Foods that use this date: milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, cream, eggs, lunchmeats, packaged salad mixes.

What does the date mean? Stores must remove these products by the date listed. The food will be safe to eat after this date if it has been refrigerated continually. Milk will usually be edible at least one week longer. Other foods like yogurt or eggs will keep more than one week beyond the date listed. If the food smells or tastes bad (‘off ”) or the seal has been broken, do not use it. (WSU Extension)

So, whose fault is this and how do we fix it? If the USDA were to tackle this one issue by creating consistent, simplified labeling, there would be less confusion, reduced food waste and increased savings for farms and consumers.

When good food goes bad

While the objective of this article is reducing food waste, don’t get sick sampling a questionable week-old oyster frittata!

Common signs of food spoilage include air bubbles (gas), leaking jars, foaming, foul odor, unnatural colors, sliminess, and mold growth on top of the food or under the lid.

Even if food passes the “sniff test” it may still give you food poisoning because you often can’t see, taste or smell food that contains harmful bacteria. Some of the most common food-borne illnesses are listed below:

  • Clostridium botulinum– This organism produces a toxin which causes botulism, a life-threatening illness. Sources: improperly prepared home-canned foods; honey should not be fed to children less than 12 months old.
  • e.coli – A bacterium that can produce a deadly toxin and causes approximately 73,000 cases of foodborne illness each year in the U.S. Sources: beef, especially undercooked or raw hamburger; produce; raw milk; and unpasteurized juices and ciders.
  • Listeria monocytogenes– Causes listeriosis, a serious disease for pregnant women, newborns and adults with a weakened immune system. Sources: unpasteurized dairy products, including soft cheeses; sliced deli meats; smoked fish; hot dogs; paté; and deli-prepared salads (i.e. egg, ham, seafood, and chicken salads).
  • Salmonella– The most common cause of foodborne deaths. Sources: raw and undercooked eggs, undercooked poultry and meat, fresh fruits and vegetables, and unpasteurized dairy products.
  • Vibrio vulnificus– Causes gastroenteritis, wound infection, and severe bloodstream infections. Sources: raw or undercooked seafood, particularly shellfish.

Many of these food borne illnesses can be avoided by proper food storage and handling, like using separate cutting boards and utensils for raw and cooked food and cooking foods to the proper temperature. Discover more tips on the WSU Extension’s Consumer Food Safety site.

With all this contradictory information and advice, it is hard knowing what to do. To be on the safe side, always discard cans that are dented, rusty or swollen and do not eat the following foods after their “use by” date:

  • Infant formula and other types of baby food
  • Egg products and egg substitute
  • Fresh meat (including ground meat and ground poultry)
  • Berries
  • Sprouts
  • Shellfish
  • Soft cheeses (e.g., cream cheese, blue cheese, and brie)

As my grandma used to say, “When in doubt, throw it out.”

A foodie scavenger hunt

Now that we have that covered, let’s focus on preparing food that is safe and tastes great! Here are a few creative ideas for leftovers and food scraps to whet your appetite.

  • Create a “Clean Out the Crisper Stir fry” with assorted veggies and add a protein.
  • Dry bread? Make panzanella, which is a delicious bread salad with veggies.
  • Use Parmesan cheese rinds to flavor soup.
  • Make Quickle – a quick pickle using veggie scraps.
  • Infuse vodka with lemon zest.
  • Adopt a “What’s in the Fridge?” approach to meal planning. (This is how I roll.)
  • Repurpose protein by using leftovers in salads or wraps.
  • Stir last night’s roasted vegetables into pasta dishes.
  • Make bone broth or Garbaj Soup with leftover bits and bobs.
  • Make a grain or rice bowl using leftover protein and veggies, add sauce.
  • Make carrot top pesto or chimichurri.
  • Toss leftover pot stickers or gyoza into broth for soup.
  • Blend overripe, unspoiled fruit into smoothies.
  • Not in a smoothie mood? Freeze up those sweet, brown bananas for another time.
  • Turn pot roast into chili- chop the beef, add a can of tomatoes, kidney beans, chopped garlic, onion, jalapeno and a dash of cumin. Taste it and if necessary, power up the SPOG (Salt, Pepper, Onion, Garlic). (My apologies to the no-bean-chili purists.)

Photo by Vecteezy

Taking stock and making it

While I’m not getting into the Broth vs. Stock debate, just know that stock is made with bones and cooked longer. It can be spendy at the supermarket, but you can easily make it at home with leftover chicken bones and veggie scraps. You will appreciate the deliciously rich, healthy homemade version. If you have a large stockpot, crockpot or electric pressure cooker, you’re halfway there.

All you have to do is place chicken bones, like a rotisserie chicken carcass, rough chopped celery, onions, garlic and carrots into a pot with enough water to cover, simmer for the suggested time based on the type of pot you’re using, then strain.

You can make it even easier and reduce food waste by collecting leftover bones and vegetable trimmings, like the tops and bottoms of celery, carrots and onions, throughout the week and freezing them. When the freezer bag is full, it is time to make stock!

A stockpot on simmer takes approximately 3-6 hours, a crockpot needs 8-10 hours on low or 4-6 hours on high, and an electric pressure cooker needs about 1 hour to create the golden brew. For more ideas, check out Bowl of Delicious.

A few years ago I bought a knock-off “Instant Pot” from Costco. It took me a while to get on the electric pressure cooker bandwagon because I couldn’t justify another machine taking up valuable kitchen space. Besides, I had my trusty, old crockpot, right? Wrong. So very wrong.

My electric pressure cooker quickly became my favorite appliance. It’s incredibly versatile, reliable, safe and FAST.

Being fast is important because I’m a seat-of-the-pants type of cook. Wait. That sounds wrong. A what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSWYG) cook?

Regardless, I figure out dining options last minute, which means that most of the time my main protein is frozen solid. But my pressure cooker doesn’t judge. I simply add 5 minutes or so to the cooking time.

It has saved me time, energy and money, while helping me create dozens of meals from odds and ends that would otherwise have been tossed. If you don’t already own one and can swing it, get one.

The garbage gourmet

This year, Chef Gordon Ramsey hosted a Hell’s Kitchen episode called, Garbage to Gourmet – Best of the Leftover Challenge. He must be sensing the coming trend, too.

I like to make what I call, Garbage Soup, which is a delicious stew of leftover ingredients and veggie scraps. Some folks don’t like the name, so if you have a better one, let me know! (By the way, when making and serving Garbage Soup, you must pronounce it gar-baj, because that makes it fancy and your guests deserve fancy.)

Here’s the recipe, but know there’s no such thing as a garbage soup recipe. It’s all about rummaging through fridge leftovers and the crisper bin, giving it all a good chop and simmering the ingredients in broth. It’s like a trashy treasure hunt.

I like sautéing raw veggies first in a bit of butter, olive oil and seasonings to enhance flavor. If you’ve got it, start with a base of chopped carrots, celery and onions – what the French call mirepoix, except you’re not going to dice or cook them down, but keep it chunky.

In Cajun/Creole cooking they have the “holy trinity,” which is onions, celery and bell peppers. (Carrots wouldn’t thrive in local soil.) Adding garlic to the holy trinity is sometimes referred to as adding “the pope.” (Garlic should be highly revered!)

Whatever you decide to call your veggie blend, I recommend dicing several plump garlic cloves and adding them to the mix. Then get creative. Cooked zucchini and squash from the night before? Steamed broccoli? Toss ‘em in the broth and bring it all up to a simmer. Since the veggies are cooked, you don’t have to wait long to enjoy your Garbaj Soup.

Dive deeper with The Everlasting Meal Cookbook: Leftovers A-Z by Tamar Adler. It’s a great reference tool when you have a specific ingredient you’re trying to reimagine. It’s available to order at Gig Harbor’s Invitation Bookshop.

Photo by Vecteezy

Turnip the beet!

Want to save the planet AND money? Here’s a few tips to push things further. 

  • Buy in bulk and share with neighbors, i.e. those bags of Costco lemons!
  • Choose “imperfect” fruits and veggies that others may overlook because of appearance. (DO NOT eat rotten food.)
  • Learn how to interpret (or ignore) food product dating, i.e. “Best by” versus “Use by.”
  • Take extra, unspoiled food to a food bank. Be sure to call ahead to make sure they’re open and ask what their needs are.
  • Set up a home compost bin or take food waste to a local compost center instead of tossing it in the garbage.

For more, check out Stop Food Waste Day for a free digital cookbook loaded with inspiring ideas.

Food ‘flaws’

Many food items don’t even make it to the produce aisle because they are considered ugly or imperfect. Before you scoff, know that 10 million pounds of cosmetically imperfect food is thrown away each year. This edible food doesn’t measure up to the strict beauty standards of U.S. grocery stores. For example, the USDA has specific guidelines for proper apple size. Those that are either too large or too small don’t make the cut and won’t make it to market. This is an astonishing tragedy given millions of people across the world wake up and go to bed hungry.

Companies like Imperfect Foods and Misfits Market, which just consolidated, and Full Harvest have stepped up to keep good food from being tossed and created unique systems to redistribute this “flawed” food.

Imperfect Foods says that they partner with farmers to “save ugly produce, surplus items, and more from being wasted” and that they source “based on flavor not perfection.” However, the “flawed food” marketplace can be complicated.

The Berkeley Economic Review reveals conflicts within the ugly produce business models. Some accuse them of stealing food away from nonprofits that are actually reducing food insecurity.

The Review writes: “Most ugly produce consumers are higher income because of the larger costs of delivery and buying in bulk. Although they may feel that they are helping the environment, they may be raising the prices on goods which could otherwise be free.”

Rather than sell directly to consumers, Full Harvest focuses on the B2B (Business to Business) marketplace. They created an online platform for farmers to sell their entire harvest, including off-grade and surplus crops, to produce buyers that don’t mind scuffed apples.

Their CEO Christine Moseley told Changing America that the goal is to “use our marketplace to send product that we don’t sell to food banks or food deserts to help marginalized communities have access to fresh food.”

Moseley had worked for a company making healthy vegetable juice, but was frustrated that the end product was so costly. This was partly due to the fact they were purchasing expensive, perfect looking food just to process it. She figured there had to be a way. Her epiphany arrived during a farm visit as she watched a romaine lettuce harvest.

“I found myself stepping calf-deep on beautiful, edible romaine leaves that were about to be churned under back into the ground. Up to 75% of the romaine head was being wasted in order to pack the perfect-looking center romaine heart for grocery stores — more was being wasted than was being consumed. Yet, the wasted edible outside leaves would have been perfect for the green juices we had just been making. I was shocked to find out that more than 25 percent of all edible produce globally does not even leave the farm level. Meanwhile, climate change is escalating and people are going hungry. This is unacceptable wasting so much precious food, all while running out of land, water and healthy soil. I vowed to not stop until this problem is solved. Humanity depends on it.”

Their goals couldn’t be more timely as food insecurity continues to rise in the U.S. According to an article in The Hill, Census data revealed that in August more than 26 million people didn’t have enough food to eat during the week because they couldn’t afford it. Recent cuts to programs like SNAP, the child tax credit and free school lunches have added pressure to an already stressed system in need of a major overhaul.

Jennifer Preston Chushcoff of Gig Harbor is a writer, designer, former Master Gardener and self-described “eco-advocate.”