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How to stop food rotting in your fridge

As much as 75 percent of the fresh food bought by Americans goes bad. Phil Lempert has tips on preventing such waste.

“Waste not, want not.” That was the axiom our parents learned from their parents, mostly as a result of coming of age during the Great Depression. But for the Baby Boom generation, which was reared to want more and live the best possible life, it seems that, sadly, wasting food has become their way of life.

There are the huge amounts of good food left on the sides of plates at restaurants (who are much to blame for serving way-too-large- portions).

But even greater amounts are wasted at home.

Today, our refrigerators and freezers are flawless in their ability to chill and keep our foods to the peak of perfection. Packaging has also improved, with products that allow even the most fragile of our foods and beverages, such as milk, to sit on supermarket shelves for years without any risk of spoilage.

So it came as a huge wake up call when I started to review the results of a recent survey to find out just how much fresh food is being discarded in America’s home kitchens. Almost half, 49 percent of those surveyed in the latest FMI Trends 2004 report, reported that they waste between 25 and 75 percent of their fresh foods because of spoilage.

What is going on here? What can you do to stop the waste?

  • First, make sure that you are buying the correct quantity. Many of us over-buy as the aromas, colors and freshness in the produce department takes over our senses. Keep to that list and buy in smaller portions and packages if you are finding that you have to discard some of the foods before your next shopping trip.
  • Buy produce more often. If you go to the store twice a week – the national average -- plan your produce needs around meal occasions and just buy what you and your family will consumer over the next three days.
  • Shake your veggies! Many stores mist their fruits and veggies to keep them fresh looking. The reality is that having water soaked produce means it will spoil more quickly. SO look for those that have not been misted heavily, or even ask the clerk to get you produce that is not on display, but in the back. (It’ll also save you money – those water-laden veggies weigh more at the check-out.)
  • Control the moisture. A highly absorbent paper towel in the bottom of the produce drawers will help absorb excess moisture and keep your produce fresh (as well as your drawers clean). Replace the paper towel each week.
  • Store your fruits and vegetables in separate compartments in your fridge. Gasses that naturally emit from fruits may well accelerate spoilage of your greens.
  • Be sure your refrigerator is set at the correct temperature. The only way to be sure is to have a refrigerator thermometer. Temperature should be set at 40°F or below and 0°F or below in the freezer.
  • Do not over-stuff the refrigerator or the crisper drawers. Cold air must circulate to keep food fresh and safe.

Follow these practices and you could help bring down the numbers in another part of the FMI survey – the 87 percent who said they would eat more fresh food if they were able to keep the produce fresher longer and the 69 percent who reported that their fruits and vegetables go “bad too soon” and that is the number one reason deterring them from eating more.

Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to

PLEASE NOTE: With this column, Food WEDNESDAY is going on vacation. Look for Phil Lempert’s next set of columns on Wednesday, August 18.