Chuck Newcomb: Avoid wasting food by buying what's needed, storing it properly

September 29, 2012 

Dear Chuck: I am trying to save money on food and thought I should start by not letting it go to waste. What are some things I can do to keep food fresh longer? MC

Dear MC: Americans throw out over two-thirds of all the food they buy, according to a study surveying over 5,000 households. Spoilage is cited as the primary reason.

The first rule for minimizing food waste is to prepare only enough for the meal being served. Beyond that, you must plan on which foods you would want to make for later use. Some prepared foods store better than others. Since fresh foods like lettuce, ripe tomatoes, cucumbers and fresh fruit spoil easily, it is important to think ahead about the amount to be used for the food preparation. Don't buy much more than will be used within a few days.

Prepared mixed dishes can usually be placed in plastic containers or zip-close bags and kept in the refrigerator for a few days or in the freezer for several months. Dividing them up into small portions allows them to be frozen and used for single meals. Individual foods like meats, vegetables, rice or potatoes can be stored and used later as is or as an ingredient in soups, casseroles or other mixed dishes.

Fresh, uncooked foods produce ethylene gas that promotes ripening and eventually causes spoilage. Ethylene gas is odorless and colorless and is not easily detected.

In nature, the largest producers of this gas are plants and plant products like fruits, vegetables and floral products. This gas is made in their tissues and released into the surrounding atmosphere. As a result, the refrigerator, closed bags and refrigerator drawers have higher concentrations of ethylene gas. Removal of ethylene from the storage environment reduces spoilage.

Generally, fruits give off more ethylene and vegetables are more sensitive to the effects of the gas. To extend the life of your produce, try to separate the ethylene producers from the ethylene sensitive. Ideally, two crisper drawers are best. Some heavy duty ethylene producers are: apples, bananas, avocado, papayas, pears, peaches, cantaloupe and honeydew melons. Now you know why these kinds of food ripen well when stored in closed paper bags.

Certain vegetables and some fruits are especially sensitive to the effects of ethylene gas. These include watermelon, peppers, spinach, lettuce and other leafy greens, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, cucumbers, eggplant and green beans. These foods should be stored separately from ethylene producers, perhaps in their own plastic bags.

Some breathable vegetable bags are available to help keep fruits and vegetables fresh. They allow a little bit of air to circulate within the bag, but continue to seal the contents away from large amounts of ethylene that can produce spoilage. There are also refrigerator ozonators that are reputed to reduce the level of biological contaminants, including bacteria, viruses and mold, and are effective in neutralizing unpleasant odors and eliminating odor transference between products.

Chuck Newcomb, MS, RD, CDE is a consulting registered dietitian currently providing medical nutrition therapy services for Memorial Hospital, Los Banos. He has a masters of science in clinical nutrition from New York University. E-mail questions to the Attention of ChuckRD at:

MHALosBanos@SutterHealth.org or on his website MySmartRD.com.

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