As part of HuffPost’s “Reclaim” project, HuffPost Taste will focus the entire month of July on simple ways you can reduce food waste in your own home.
In the sky-high aisles of Costco, where you can buy an engagement ring, an inflatable pool and a 3-pound bag of pre-peeled garlic cloves in one fell swoop, going overboard is not only inevitable, it almost seems encouraged.
But in America, where up to 40 percent of food goes uneaten, it’s important to do our part as consumers to help reduce food waste. As part of HuffPost’s “Reclaim” project, we decided to explore ways to do just that at big-box stores like Costco.
With a little bit of creativity, there are ways to shop frugally and efficiently at Costco, so you don’t end up throwing food in the trash and money down the drain.
Of course, the most consequential impact on reducing food waste has to come from the grocery stores themselves, but consumers can contribute by shopping consciously and making smart decisions not only for themselves, but for the planet.
Below, tips that will overhaul the way you shop at Costco and make each trip last and last ... and last.
1. Plan, plan, plan.
Martin Bucknavage, senior food safety extension associate at Penn State’s Department of Food Science, says consumers should abide by three overarching rules when shopping at big-box stores: Plan, Manage and Avoid.
Since planning is the first rule, map out what you are going to buy before you head to Costco. This way, you won’t end up with any surprises in your shopping cart. “Only buy what you need,” Bucknavage told The Huffington Post. “That means taking a quick inventory of what you have and buying what you will use in a reasonable amount of time.”
It sounds like a no-brainer, but skipping this step can lead to an overflowing pantry and fridge ― and perfectly good food doomed to the landfill.
2. For produce, only buy what you need.
Once you’ve come up with a game plan, you’ll have a much better idea about what you won’t be able to consume. Two dozen nectarines sound delicious while you’re in the store, but if you’ve already decided on a plethora of other fruits, it’s likely many of those nectarines will go to waste.
And if you can’t finish the produce you buy at Costco, you might as well spend your money elsewhere, such as a local farmer’s market, rather than throwing perfectly good food (and money) down the drain.
“A fresher, tastier local lettuce may cost more, but if you actually eat the whole thing, you’re not saving money with the big box stuff,” Cinda Chavich, author of The Waste Not, Want Not Cookbook told HuffPost.
3. Always keep your freezer in mind.
When buying in bulk, your freezer is the real MVP.
For Megean Weldon, author of the Zero Waste Nerd blog, that means making room for food of all kinds. She buys bananas in bulk, for example, so that when they ripen simultaneously, she can freeze them and have them on hand for banana bread and “nice cream” in the future. She also freezes berries in bulk to extend their lifespan.
“Strawberries and blueberries go bad quickly,” she told HuffPost, “so I freeze them on a baking sheet first, so they don’t stick together, then transfer them to glass jars where they will keep for many months.” The best part is that you can buy berries when they’re in season (and at their tastiest) and use them throughout the year in smoothies, baked goods, jams, and jellies.
Basically, if your freezer isn’t on the verge of bursting, you’re doing it wrong.
4. Steer clear of certain products.
There are some items in big-box stores that you most likely won’t be able to finish before they go bad.
For Weldon, that’s especially true with certain spices. “Almost always, the spice will lose its potency before the bottle is empty,” she told HuffPost. “How much clove do you really need?”
Bucknavage suggests avoiding items you’re trying for the first time, would only eat in small quantities or would tire of quickly. For instance, a big tub of hummus or package of smoked salmon ― as appetizing as they may seem ― will spoil quickly once opened. So if you’re not planning on eating it daily, it’s best not to buy it in the first place.
5. If you accidentally buy too much, share!
It’s easy to justify buying six heads of lettuce for $4.99. But unless you’re eating salads for breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert, there’s a good chance that half of it will wind up wilting before it makes it onto your plate.
So when the price is just too good to pass up, remember to keep your food out of the trash by keeping your social circle well-fed. “The reality is you’re not getting a deal (or saving money) if you buy too much and throw half of it into the compost (or horrors, the garbage),” she told HuffPost.
Split your bag of lettuce with a friend or bring half of your massive carton of cherry tomatoes to the office. You can even set up a deal with friends and family to get reimbursed, but if you don’t get paid back, find solace in the fact that giving produce away is so much better than throwing it out.
6. Don’t ignore packaging dates ― but don’t swear by them either.
Don’t get us wrong, expiration dates exist for a reason. But many of the dates printed on packages are easily misunderstood. In the U.S., billions of pounds of food get thrown out every year just due to expiration date confusion.
Believe it or not, there are probably a lot of foods you’ve thrown away before you needed to. Educate yourself on expiration, sell-by, best-by and use-by dates so you know just how long you have to consume each food item before it drops in quality.
7. Store things the right way.
You can lengthen the life of food items by storing them correctly, making buying in bulk highly cost-effective and majorly efficient.
For instance, Weldon says she buys flour in large quantities, but stores it in the freezer to prevent it from attracting bugs or going bad.
Bucknavage emphasizes keeping your storage areas spick and span. “Once mold becomes an issue in your produce drawer, it can get onto the other items and cause more rapid deterioration,” he told HuffPost. “The same goes for dry storage. Keep those areas clean and dry. It is easy to get mold, or mites, or moth larvae in a storage area that is not managed and not kept clean.” All of these issues can lead to food spoiling more quickly.
He also recommends transferring food into airtight containers to increase its lifespan. Repackaging things that will stale, such as cereal, can make food last longer and prevent bug infestations as well.