We’re all probably guilty of forgetting what we have in our refrigerators at some point. Whether a result of over buying or refrigerating leftovers from our meals, they contribute to the whopping average SGD 258 worth of food disposed by households yearly.
Maybe there’s something comforting about having more than less. Or something therapeutic about filling up your basket during grocery runs. Either way, discarding unconsumed food is not only wasteful but takes extra effort to clear out weekly. Or whenever it is you discover the forgotten broccoli bunch at the back of the fridge.
As compared to food waste reduction methods like composting and meal prepping, binning excess definitely seems like the easiest way around the wicked problem. However, food waste reduction doesn’t have to be difficult as long as we use methods that work for us. Out of all the methods, there’s bound to be one that matches you and your lifestyle(s).
In this article, we gain some insight from Republic Polytechnic’s Chef Aaron Chua on best practices when it comes to food handling and storage. Did you know? Proper storage and handling of food can prolong its life for months up to a year!
How we contribute to household food waste?
In reality, food waste reduction begins even before you go grocery shopping. From creating a shopping list to understanding portions, these are the first line of defense between you and household food waste. When we don’t make conscious efforts to be mindful about our purchase and consumption habits, we inevitably leave the bins and landfills with actually- avoidable food waste.
More does not always mean better. When you purchase more of something for a discount but end up discarding the excess, did you actually save money? Or were you just giving in to your impulsive desires?
That being said, we don’t and can’t blame you. With an abundance of options both online and in-store, it can be difficult to buy just enough. Even more so when presented with tantalising bundle and bulk deals that promise more for less. How can we say no?
According to Chef Aaron, this is attributed to Singapore’s ‘kiasu’ mentality where “It was on offer, I get it and keep it in the refrigerator.” Without thinking further about its actual purpose.
This may seem like a relatively normal practice during the pandemic where restrictions led to panic-buying and stockpiling. However, old habits tend to die hard and we’re likely going to keep up our purchasing habits.
A result of overbuying and chucking into the refrigerator for later, we literally lose sight of what we have. And when we can’t see what we have, we’re likely to forget about it.
A vicious cycle
Acknowledging that the way we plan, purchase and cook food play a part in waste generation is a step towards better food waste management practices.
Why are we unsuccessful in reducing food waste?
In just 10 years, Singapore recorded a 20% increase in food waste. It’s obvious we have not been successful in making an impact on food wastage. It does look like we’re just unaware of what needs to be done.
#1 Misunderstanding date labels on food
Date labels indicate different information about food quality, safety and packaged date for both retailers and consumers. Even with simplified labels like “Use By”, “Best Before” and “Sell By”, commoners like us are still confused by their true meanings.
A 2019 survey indicates poor understanding of date labels which lead to the unnecessary disposal of food that is still safe for consumption.
#2 Stigmatising “Ugly” food
The saying “beauty is only skin-deep” applies to food too. It is a common misconception that bruised, discoloured, or misshapened food are less nutritious than “regular” looking ones.
We may be quick to label food as “ugly” and “unattractive” due to our pre-conceived idea of prettier being better. However, much like humans, food are highly varied and complex items. In some cases, so-called flaws and blemishes may actually be more nutritious for you!
For example, a study comparing scabbed and unscathed apples concluded that scabs, while a sign of a past fungal infection during its growth, contain 40% more antioxidants and vitamins.
Perhaps, the ‘blemishes’ we know of are merely battlescars that we shouldn’t be so quick to judge?
Apple: You know my name, not my story. 😤
#3 Improper food storage and handling methods
Our food storage methods(or lack thereof..) influence the shelf life of our food items. When stored optimally, food can last longer than their indicative expiry dates.
… But what causes food spoilage in the first place?
Environmental factors like humidity, light, heat and oxygen have a lot to do with food safety and quality. In both hot and humid countries like Singapore, food tends to go bad easily as the climate encourages bacterial growth.
It is commonly (mis)understood that bacteria dies in the refrigerator. We’re sorry to break it to you, but Chef Aaron cleared the air for us as well. “Bacteria actually just slows down in the cold. It doesn't exactly die off.”
Dairy and fresh meat are the most susceptible to spoilage, given the high amount of moisture present in them which bacteria thrive off. “It needs moisture to multiply” adds Chef Aaron. For other perishables like fruits and vegetables, where and how they are stored in the refrigerator also influences their shelf life.
Something to think about the next time you stock up: Do you even know why you’re placing something in a part of your refrigerator?
What we can do to reduce food waste
At this point, you may find yourself guilty of one or a few of the above actions. Honestly, so am I, with my lack of refrigerator organisation skills. The good news? We live to learn. It’s not too difficult or late to change our ways.
Well, we’re also glad to have Chef Aaron’s input on steps we can take to reduce our food waste. Thanks, Chef!
#1 Love our food
We mean, ALL of it. Including ‘imperfect’ food with blemishes like bruises and discolouration. Beyond their atypical appearance lies more, if not equally as nutritious and yummy food!
It’s absolutely shocking and unacceptable that approximately ⅓ of vegetables at wholesale markets get disposed of for not meeting beauty standards.
Think about this, does the appearance of your food really matter if you’re going home to chop them up and cook them? Or blend them for juice?
If this isn’t convincing enough for you, here are the cross sections of ‘ugly’ food vs regular-looking ones. Don’t let what’s on the surface fool you!
#2 Understand our food
When was the last time you really read your food labels before you threw them out? Even though all food will perish at some point, certain food can enjoy a longer shelf life than others. Between fresh meat and dry crackers, it’s pretty obvious which is still safe for consumption past its expiry date.
Hint: It’s the non-perishable one!
Just like Michelle Yeoh said at the recent Oscars award show, “Never let anyone tell you you are past your prime”
It is our duty as consumers to interpret and understand date labels before mindlessly throwing them out. Food does not go bad overnight and discretion can and should be exercised.
Chef Aaron echoes this sentiment, having noticed a gap in the comprehension of these labels among his students. “I do go through this with my students in school as well, to help them understand their meanings and I agree that many of them didn't even understand it before I went through them. So the need to understand, educate people on this, is something that's very important.”
Quick tip: The ‘Use By’ date on fresh milk is inapplicable once the carton is opened. It is best to consume it within 5 days!
When in doubt, sensory tests like the sniff and taste tests are trustworthy, effective ways to check for food spoilage. For example, using touch to check for slime on raw meat is an indication that it is indeed, past its prime.
#3 Understanding our lifestyles
When you have control over your lifestyle, you’re in a better position to plan the amount of food you need.
If you’re definitely going to have several late nights in the office this week, or if you’re certainly grabbing dinner with friends on Friday night, cooking at home may be less than ideal. Keeping that in mind, you probably shouldn’t purchase that whole chicken you’ve been thinking about.
Ultimately, having a plan can help cut unnecessary food waste from our homes. As Chef Aaron likes to put it, a plan provides a “horses with blinkers on” effect. Not only does it combat buying more than necessary at the supermarket, you don’t have to worry about possessing surplus food!
No one’s expecting you to micromanage and plan every meal for the week, just having an overview of it can help substantially in preventing accidental food waste.
“…But what if my week is hectic and largely unpredictable?”
Then you definitely shouldn’t purchase that whole chicken you’ve been thinking about. Instead, consider stocking up on food items with ‘best before’ date labels like frozen vegetables, eggs, and uncooked rice. Delicious enough to have on their own, but great when paired with your take out or delivered meals!
If you still prefer the option of fresh meals, versatile food that can be prepared and cooked a variety of ways are your next best bet. Just don’t forget to use them, please!
Salmon and potatoes are Chef Aaron’s personal favourites. Able to be cooked and utilised in various ways, they account for “rollover days” where cooking plans are foiled at the last minute.
#4 Care for our food
If you’ve made it up to this point, props to you! You’re on track to reducing food waste from your home.
Now that we’ve established the relationship between your lifestyle and food choices, storage of food is just as important in maintaining this relationship.
a. Maintaining freshness
It’s commonly assumed that every part of the refrigerator is the same. Since the refrigerator’s sole purpose is to chill its contents.
While that is somewhat true, it also couldn’t be further from the truth.
Due to air circulation within the fridge, some areas may be cooler than others. Which may be harmful for our food.
“In what way? Isn’t it the cooler the better?”
Not always! Food items that have been removed from its original packaging may be prone to drying out. Especially vegetables.
To combat this, Chef Aaron recommends slightly wetting your (clean) hands and sprinkling it over a paper towel. Ensure the vegetable is slightly moist before wrapping them in the towel and into the crisper section. It helps keep it fresh for the next 2-3 days.
Additionally, certain fruits and vegetables should not be stored together as they may accelerate each other’s ripening, possibly leading to untimely spoilage and/or ripening.
Don’t forget about cooked food such as leftovers and ready to eat meals! Even though they have been cooked, they are still equally prone to spoilage. In fact, Chef Aaron warns they may be even more prone to spoilage if placed in room temperature for a prolonged period of time.
The next time you have leftovers or shared food, try transferring it into a clean air-tight container before refrigerating. In this way, existing bacteria on the used plate would not be able to manifest while in the refrigerator.
b. Remembering dates
At the end of the day, even the most well-maintained food will perish. Hence, it is important to keep track of dates and apply a ‘First In, First Out (FIFO)’ mindset in the kitchen. This can be achieved by simply placing older food in front of the newer ones.
Taking steps to ensure food does not spoil prematurely is also crucial in combatting food waste.
#5 Protect our food
“Isn’t caring for our food the same as protecting them?” Not quite. It’s a matter of food safety vs food quality.
Caring for food is ensuring they’re stored in optimal conditions while protecting food refers to food handling and prevention of contamination or illness from unsafe food.
When it comes to food protection, minimal exposure to bacteria is what keeps our food safe to eat and fresh for longer.
a. Preventing contamination
Due to its high-moisture levels and sensitivity to changing temperatures, fresh meat and dairy can easily pick up bacteria when exposed to room temperature during preparation stages such as thawing or defrosting.
When bacteria is allowed to multiply for too long, food can get contaminated and cause illness upon consumption.
Instead, Chef Aaron suggests:
i. Avoiding refreezing
When perishables are exposed to temperatures outside of the recommended 1-4℃ (for chilling) and -12℃ and below (for freezing), bacteria multiplies.
Keeping that in mind, it is best not to thaw and refreeze food as it means continuous exposure to varying temperatures. Imagine the amount and type of bacteria it has been exposed to then?
Once you have brought perishables home, promptly refrigerate them to prevent further build up of bacteria. For whole meats, portion and cut them according to your uses before freezing or refrigerating. Through this, exposure to bacteria from unnecessary thawing or defrosting is limited.
ii. Knowing your temperatures
Just like how perishables are chilled and freezed in specific temperatures, they should be cooked at minimally 80℃ for approximately 2 minutes to kill bacteria.
iii. Share the love, not the germs
As much as mealtime is a social affair and an expression of love, we don’t have to share everything. Especially not germs. Where possible, serving spoons should be used to minimise the exchange of fluids and saliva.
For the duration of mealtime, food is already exposed to bacteria and germs. Adding saliva to the mix will only encourage food to get contaminated and/or perish sooner.
b. Freezing what you don’t (currently!) need
If you know you’re unable to use what you bought within the stated use by date, freezing it can help save it for later! Of course, friendly advice from Chef Aaron, "Do not think that this is a miracle machine where it really just takes care of everything and makes everything so fantastic.
There is definitely going to be the chance of it still spoiling. Right? So don't drag it out for way too long.”
Generally, freezed food should not go beyond 3 to 6 months in the freezer as its texture and taste may change or be diminished after this time period.
Tip: Put food in freezer bags and air-tight containers to prevent freezer burn!
c. Being accountable
Food waste prevention begins the moment we think about purchasing food. Knowing what’s in your inventory is one way to avoid purchasing unnecessarily or more than you need. Not only will this reduce your food waste, the food can go to someone who needs it more.
Some ways to remain on top of what you have:
i. Keep a list
It’s a grocery list, just for your inventory. With this list, easily get an overview of your refrigerator’s content without lifting a finger. Sounds great! What’s more? You can bring it with you on your next grocery run.
Ii. Take a ‘shelfie’ of your inventory
You know what they say- a picture speaks a thousand words. A simple photo of your refrigerator will show you what’s left!
Aiming for food waste avoidance instead of reduction
Food waste reduction begins the moment we think about eating and/or purchasing food. From buying only what we need to proper food storage, food waste reduction doesn’t, and shouldn’t, have to always look like throwing out months-old food from our inventory.
Whether it’s optimising the shelf life of your food or being more mindful about the type of food we purchase, everyone has their own approach to reducing food waste. If we know and stick to what works for us, food waste could be avoided as a whole.
“In nature everything is connected, everything is interwoven, everything changes with everything, everything merges from one into another.” - Gotthold Lessing
Special thanks to Chef Aaron from Republic Polytechnic for providing his professional advice for this article. More about him below:
Chef Aaron holds work experience from restaurants locally and globally, including New York City’s ‘Restaurant Marc Forgione’.
Presently, Chef Aaron is both culinary practitioner and educator, with 6 years of teaching experience at Singapore Hotel and Tourism Education Centre (SHATEC) and Republic Polyechnic’s Diploma in Restaurant & Culinary Operations.
For more about Chef Aaron, click here.