Extending the Shelf Life of Your Groceries

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The uncertainty of how long we will be required to practice social distancing and sheltering in place as requested by local and state governments has dramatically impacted what we purchase when we travel to the grocery store. We resort to stocking up on almost anything that is available for purchase. From water to paper products to eggs and milk, many have purchased much more than “normal” due to the anxiety of not knowing what may come next, even with the constant reassurances that the supply chain that provides us with the necessary stables will not be affected. Now, as we are weeks into fighting this pandemic, it has become clear that the store shelves are being restocked quickly and regularly, and that fears of shortages of food and other basic necessities are beginning to subside. I even walked by a near vacant aisle that had some brands of toilet paper almost fully stocked. This would have not been possible just a short two weeks ago as we all have experienced.

To me, this was a sign that households have more than enough on hand and that the supply chain is more than able to meet our needs. Another sign was that the buy one, get one free items seemed to be sold out, as compared to the fully stocked, normally priced items. Individuals may still be loading up, but at this point, only if it is a bargain. I expect to see more and more of the shelves continue to return to normal as each day passes, as household pantries, refrigerators, and freezers reach their capacity limits.

As a result of all this buying, a new issue has emerged. How to keep all this extra food from going bad. While you may have toilet paper that will be around until your grandchildren finish college, some produce may only last 7-10 days, with other non-shelf stable products lasting just a bit longer than that. Even shelf stable products have a best by date. Here are a few tips to help you from throwing the good stuff out.

It is important to follow a first in, first out method for both shelf stable and non-shelf stable items. By placing items that will expire first up front, you can help prevent waste by preventing food from becoming too old by sitting in the back of the fridge or pantry. With the time that many of us currently have available, it would be a good idea to organize and clean our pantries and refrigerators if we have not already done so. Just be certain to keep foods at appropriate temperatures during the process.

Consider freezing items that you will blend or cook with. A great example is spinach. This is a staple for many smoothies. It might last a little longer than a week in the crisper bin, but if you freeze it, it will last a few months. Since it also reduces when it is cooked, there is little impact to the end dish. The caveat here is if you need something crisp, then freezing is not an option.

In other words, thawed spinach is not recommended for your salad. Other items that can be frozen include: Bananas that are at risk for over ripening, as well as almost all other fruits (properly prepped), prepped onions, peppers, garlic, ginger and other vegetables and spices. Remember, the texture of many plant foods will change once frozen and thawed, so doing so should be reserved for items designated for blending, mixing, baking or cooking. Breads are great candidates too, as are nuts and seeds (if purchased in bulk). Meats of course can also be frozen – be sure to thaw properly. Proper thawing includes refrigerator thawing (from freezer directly to refrigerator until thawed – recommended method), cold water thawing, microwave thawing and cooking without thawing. Never thaw frozen meats under hot or warm water or by leaving on the counter. Doing so greatly increases your chances of foodborne illness. For more information, visit the USDA’s website and search for “The Big Thaw” (https://www.fsis.usda.gov/).

To go along with freezing I recommend “prepping” items once you arrive home from the grocery. Instead of repeating the same fundamental prepping tasks day after day, save time and energy by doing many of the repetitive tasks at the same time. Purchased a bag of onions? Slice a few and dice a few, storing away in the freezer to make meals in the future. Better yet, combined prepped items in larger freezer bags to make your own “frozen meals”. This greatly simplifies eating healthfully while reducing waste and time in the kitchen.

If items are not frozen, take time to understand how to properly store items in your pantry or in the refrigerator to maximize freshness.

If you are buying produce, extend shelf life by purchasing local if possible. Doing so reduces days the produce may have spent traveling to your grocer. Regardless of where it is from, you will want to prep and properly store it at home as quickly as possible. This includes placing appropriate fruits and vegetables in crisper bin. This bin helps control temperature and humidity. Also, remove the tops of any root vegetables and store the removed tops as leafy greens (if you plan to eat them).

Many tops can be used in salads and would otherwise pull moisture from the roots causing them to shrivel and dry up.
Items like tomatoes, potatoes, onions, and garlic should be stored away from direct sunlight and heat. These items will last longest in a cool, dry location.

If you do not get to produce as quickly as planned, there are steps that can be taken to help mitigate your losses. Wilted greens and other produce can be shocked in very cold water to “revive” some crispness. If too much moisture has accumulated on items, dry/change out the bag they are stored in and place back not the fridge. As a last resort, make a dish out of items that coming close to going bad. Ideal dished include soups or stews. Made a bunch? Store in the freezer for a delicious meal in the future.

Following a few of these simple techniques can surely help to reduce any food waste and stretch your dollar as we continue to do what we can to help fight the pandemic. If you find that you have any shelf stable products that will probably expire prior to using them, please do not let them go to waste. Find a local food bank that will be certain to see that they are distributed to those who can use them.

Robert Warns, MS, RD
Guest columnist Robert Warns, MS, RD
Clinical Dietitian AdventHealth Wellness Center Celebration Lifestyle Clinic and
Executive Health Program

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