Our obsession with freshness runs deep, but it’s time to embrace the bruised and wilted if we’re going to cut down on food waste.
The statistics are getting repetitive, but they bear repeating ad nauseum: 40 percent of food in the United States today goes uneaten, equaling on average more than 20 pounds of food waste per person every month. Americans throw out the equivalent of $165 billion each year; the impact is staggering.
Much of it has to do with a wildly inefficient food system, but we consumers are to blame as well. The average American consumer wastes 10 times as much food as someone in Southeast Asia; we waste more than half of that we did in the 1970s. We’re spoiled, we need to pay more attention. And one of the things we can do is not be so squeamish about imperfect food.
Dana Gunders, a scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council and author of the report from which the above figures were gathered, wrote a great book called Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook. In it, she outlines how to tell if food is safe to eat – the following tips were built upon her advice.
If apples, bananas, potatoes, avocados, artichokes, and others become brown
Skin on produce protects the inside, but when the flesh of some items is exposed to air, it oxidizes and turns brown. It may not be pretty, but there is no harm in eating it and taste will not be affected. Douse the exposed surface immediately in lemon juice to slow down browning if the look of it turns you off.
If fruits or vegetables are bruised
Something gets bumped or jostled, it gets bruised – cell structure is damaged and softening and browning set in. Light bruising does not make food inedible; just remove the bruised section as the texture may be affected and more importantly, they may create an entry point for microbes.
If milk is sour or curdled
As long as the milk is pasteurized, sour or curdled milk will likely not sicken you – in fact, as milk ages and becomes more acidic, it creates an environment that is not welcoming to the microbes that cause illness. That said, you may not like the flavor … and most people don’t exactly savor curds floating in their coffee. But not to fear, there is a surprising array of ways to put old milk to good use See: Got sour milk? Don't throw it out!
Important note: Unpasteurized milk and milk with mold are a different story, proceed with extreme caution in those scenarios.
If lettuce has brown or pink spots
It may be unsettling to see lettuce with brown ends, brown stains, or a pink center – but this doesn’t mean the greens are diseased. Leaves can become brown from growing conditions or exposure to oxygen. And pink lettuce? This can occur when the middle rib is exposed to higher temperatures. It’s all perfectly safe to eat. You may not want to showcase it in a centerpiece salad, but tossed in chopped salads and tucked into sandwiches will hide a multitude of sins. Some heartier lettuces are great sautéed, too – romaine hearts can even be put straight on the grill for a charred Caesar salad that goes far in camouflaging imperfections.
If meat fades or darkens
It may be disconcerting to see meat that is bright fleshy red in the middle and dull brown on the exterior – but it’s not a safety issue. Meat’s color pigments naturally change upon exposure to light and air – it is not a sign of spoilage. Proceed as normal. That said, if the meat smells off or exhibits a slimy or sticky surface, don’t eat it. Bonus: If you have removed meat from the freezer to thaw, it can be frozen again. Follow these guidelines: Can you refreeze thawed food?
If your vegetables are rotting
Human instinct will likely nudge you away from wanting to eat rotting vegetables, but Gunders explains that vegetables get “soft rot,” which is the result of bacteria attacking their tissue. “While rotted vegetables are not something you’ll want to eat, the bacteria involved are not the same ones as those that lead to food poisoning,” she says. “Rotted portions should be removed, and parts that are not affected can still be eaten. Fruits, however, tend to be attacked more by yeasts and mold, which can be more toxic.”
If your baked goods are stale
The pleasure factor in eating baked goods, chips, and crackers is deeply diminished when said items are stale – so much about these things is in the texture. But that doesn’t mean they are a risk to eat or that they're without remedy. Most of these items can be fixed by a brief toasting in the oven. And you can prevent staleness from happening in the first place by storing baked goods in the freezer – once thawed, they are virtually exactly the same as the minute you froze them.
When produce and fruit suffer wilting or wrinkling
Wilted greens, limp carrots, wrinkled peppers or tomatoes – these are all signs that the product has lost moisture and can’t keep its structure. (I know the feeling.) But there is no safety issue with these items, and a 10-minute ice water bath can do wonders to revitalize them.
If your eggs have passed the date on the carton
Eggs are famous for delivering salmonella, so people are understandably squeamish about them – but in terms of age, they are hardier than we imagine. Illinois Department of Agriculture explains that "sell by" or expiration codes indicate freshness, not necessarily wholesomeness. Since egg quality deteriorates over time, "sell by" dates are used to ensure the grade specified on the label is accurate. If stored properly, eggs may be safely consumed several weeks beyond the expiration date.
Most sources say that eggs are good up to five weeks from the sell by date. The trick to knowing if your egg is ok? Crack it open, take a whiff – your nose will tell you.
If your honey has crystalized
To see honey’s golden ooziness transformed into rough crystals is sad, but it’s what honey does and it is not a sign of spoilage – in fact honey is famous for its mind-boggling durability. To make your honey flow again, follow these instructions from White Lake Farms:
• Heat a pan of water with low heat.
• Remove the pan from the stove and place your honey jar (with lid removed) inside.
• Let the honey sit until it softens.
• Once the honey has come to a liquid state, put the lid back on and shake the jar.
• It’s just as important to cool your honey slowly as it is to heat it slowly, so place the honey back in the warm water.
• Let the water and the honey cool together.
If you brown sugar is hard as a rock
It’s inevitable. Unless you are a master of the air-tight container, your brown sugar will eventually become a hardened rock. But this does not mean that it can’t be saved. Most suggestions recommend placing a slice of bread or apple slices in the container for a day or two; the moisture from the added item is absorbed by the sugar and returns it to a supple crumble. But then you have a slice of bread or apple to throw away, and the whole point of this whole shebang is to avoid food waste. So, use something you’d throw away anyway, like a citrus peel. Place a three-inch long sliver of orange or lemon peel right in there with your brown sugar and the world will be right again.
Read more from Gunders book at Lucky Peach.