Food

When Does Reducing Food Waste Turn Into Eating Trash?

Introducing the Pickle, Slate’s new food and cooking advice column.

Strawberry on plate with the Pickle logo.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

The Pickle, a food and cooking advice column, was written by The Art of Gay Cooking author Daniel J. Isengart. You can follow all of his work at his website.

My boyfriend and I have a very different standard for when we think food is old—as in, old enough to throw away. I basically think anything is fine as long as it doesn’t smell, and he is willing to throw something away after it’s sat in the fridge for two days, and certainly once it’s passed its expiration date. Our different approaches probably reflect differences in our homes growing up, but as far as I know, he’s never gotten sick from eating old food. I think food waste is a huge problem, and we should endeavor to limit waste; he is scared of illness. (Fair!) Who is right? How do we find a compromise?

While your stance about minimizing food waste is laudable, I’m afraid you are putting the cart before the horse. The real issue here is not finding a compromise regarding when it is okay or not to throw food away; rather, it should be about finding ways to prevent food from ever getting to the point where throwing it away feels necessary, no matter your standard. Never mind that the human nose is not equipped to detect harmful levels of bacteria with any reliability (if it were so, no one would ever be afflicted by foodborne illness): By eating food even when it’s no longer fresh, you are basically turning your own body into the very trash can you profess you want to avoid.

Instead of debating the shelf life of food groups, let me urge you and your boyfriend to examine when and how you shop for groceries, stock your refrigerator, and plan your meals. This will require a new level of forethoughtfulness, discipline, and, most importantly, communication between the two of you. But look at it this way: It will give you a chance to learn something new together and turn the old argument (“This is still good!” “No, it’s not!”) into a joint effort to find a more constructive solution. In addition, you might discover the pleasures of consistently eating food that is, well … fresh! Here are some useful hints on how to make it happen.

Many a vegetable drawer I see in my work as a private chef is a veritable cabinet of horrors, filled with rubbery carrots, half-rotten mushrooms, wilted greens that have already begun to break down into mush, smelly halved onions, and quarters of limes with brown edges. This is food waste of the lowest order. Make a point of regularly taking stock of your fridge’s inventory before buying any new produce—so much of it gets wasted because we forget that we have it or are too lazy to use it. One good tip is to always wash and tumble-dry all lettuces, greens, and fresh herbs right away and store them in airtight containers with a piece of paper towel to absorb condensation. That way, they are conveniently ready, nay, eager to be used, and will keep longer. But don’t think that buying pre-rinsed or, heaven forbid, pre-cut produce gets you any brownie points—that stuff is very likely already days old by the time you put it into your shopping basket.

When you cook a meal from scratch, try to produce an amount that will yield no more than two complete meals each time. Store leftovers in sealable glass containers so you can see at a glance what you have, and plan your next meal accordingly. Understandably, you might not want to eat the same dish twice in a row, but having leftovers on the second day after you cooked the meal is acceptable by any standard. In addition, there are ways to circumvent tedium by transforming leftovers into a completely different dish—the classic example for this is the roast chicken that becomes a broth made with the bones and skin and a salad made with the leftover meat.

Ultimately, I’d like to urge you to consider freshness as your ultimate standard instead of expiration dates. After all, the best way to respect produce and food is to consume and use it up while it’s in its prime.

What is the perfect “veggie fix” dish for when you’ve been an unhealthy eater recently and want to drown yourself in greens? I’m assuming something vegan or vegetarian.

The bitter truth is that there is no “perfect” fix—only a quick fix. There are plenty of companies out there all too willing to offer one to you at a price. Go ahead! Do a juice cleanse, submit yourself to smoothie intensive, undergo a superfoods immersion, have a vegan week. Steam your broccoli with Evian water and kale yourself to redemption. You might feel so absolved from your sins afterward that nothing will prevent you from going back to an extended period of Dionysian indulgence again, and so on in a perpetual back-and-forth between extremes. It’s a great way to keep yourself occupied and ward off boredom, and it has been quite popular since medieval times.

Or you might consider a view I have held dear for years: There are no healthy or unhealthy foods; there are only healthy and unhealthy eating habits. Any extreme diet—be it a junk-food addiction or a green-juice affliction—is unhealthy and dissatisfying in the long run, both physically and mentally. And since most of us have both unreasonable urges and a will to better ourselves, why not seek a sense of balance and marry them? Let’s say you crave a big cheeseburger with fries. Well, have it, but make sure to eat a whopping serving of dark leafy greens with it. Be my guest, eat as much ice cream as you can stomach, but make a point of drinking lots of herbal tea a couple of hours later. Eat the whole can of salty nuts, but munch on some celery sticks between handfuls. Wolf down a whole bag of potato chips if you can’t control yourself, but wrap the chips in crunchy iceberg lettuce and watercress leaves. You’ll maintain a modicum of balance throughout and likely satisfy your craving more quickly, with no need for penance—you’ll have to look for other ways of sinning.

Mostly, consider Oscar Wilde’s famous quip: “Everything in moderation, including moderation.”

What are some things to cook (besides salads and pesto and cold cucumber soup) when it is just too hot to turn on the stove?

No one wants to stand by a steaming pot when the barometer climbs past 85 degrees Fahrenheit. In the summer months, I too find myself craving cooling food that’s simple, refreshing, and bright, highlighted with some spicy notes and boosted by a good level of acidity. However, some cooking might still be in order if you want to move beyond gazpacho and other cold soups. (Melon comes to mind.) But first, consider these other heatless options: varietal salsas (mango, peach, papaya, tomato) with corn chips; ceviche (halibut or striped bass marinated in fresh lime juice and dressed with diced tomatoes, hot peppers, and cilantro); homemade (!) hummus with freshly cut (!) crudité; olive oil and zaatar-topped feta and toasted pita bread (just put up with the heat generated by the toaster—it’s worth it); or Moroccan-style tabbouleh (raw couscous that’s been steeped in a purée of cucumber, tomato, onion, lemon juice, and fresh mint, and finally dressed with diced green peppers, black olives, raisins, and a touch of olive oil).

Once you’re done with those, it may be worth a little fire to diversify your diet. For example, you might want to add some blanched sugar snaps or broccoli florets to your salad for added crunch or sweetness. That would take less than four minutes—three to get the water boiling and about 30 seconds more to parboil the vegetables before transferring them to an ice bath. They go marvelously well with a creamy miso-tahini dressing and a few slices of raw salmon (flash-cured by judiciously sprinkling it with kosher salt and sugar and refrigerating it for a few hours, weighed down under a platter). Personally, I would crave some sesame seed–sprinkled steamed rice with it, which one could cook in the relative cool of the morning—add a dash of rice vinegar and do not refrigerate it lest it turns to a block of cement. Crisping a nori leaf over a gas flame for a few seconds before crushing it to bits and sprinkling it over the rice is also fairly painless and adds variety. Or consider the old staple of hard-boiled eggs served with blanched string beans and canned sardines, topped with just a few red onion rings and some chopped parsley.

Then of course, there is room-temperature pasta: Boil it in the morning, drain and toss with olive oil until no longer steaming-hot, and fold in diced heirloom tomatoes, torn basil leaves, lemon zest, and slivers of raw garlic. Leave it, covered, to marinate all day, and add cubed Mozzarella di Bufala just before serving. Come to think of it, you could do the same with torn-up chunks of stale bread and call it Panzanella—just add capers and a touch of vinegar. Essentially, the sky is the limit if you plan ahead to do some of the de facto “cooking” before it gets so hot in your kitchen that all you want to do is sink into a bathtub filled with cold water, some floating cucumber slices, and rose petals, and call it a diet night.

Speaking of dieting, dessert should not be a problem: Crushed berries from the farmer’s market with a touch of balsamic vinegar, graham crackers, or ginger-snap crumbs, and a splash of ice-cold heavy cream—or a scoop of vanilla gelato, since you’re already melting away anyway.