When Seattle-based food writer Jill Lightner started researching her book Scraps, Peels, and Stems: Recipes and Tips for Rethinking Food Waste at Home, she asked a diverse bunch of people what their most wasted foods were. “Every single family included leafy greens in their top three,” she said. “Family income, number of people in the household, zip code, age, race, or sex made no difference.”
Those wasted greens add up for those families — and probably yours. In 2016, the market for packaged salad was $964 million. If the standard statistic that U.S. consumers waste 40% of the food we buy holds true, that's nearly $386 million of wasted greens in a single year!
To help you waste less leafy greens, we have an excerpt adapted from Lightener’s book below. The book, published this month, is a complete guide to wasting less of everything in our kitchens. With more than 70 recipes, money-saving tips, and a lighthearted style, Lightener demonstrates why we need to take this issue to heart and gives to tools to take action.
Even with modern refrigeration, fresh leafy foods are distressingly perishable. Yet they are most commonly sold to us in portions that are larger than we can use right away. Even when they’re sold in bulk so we can fill up a bag with only as much as we need, it’s not always easy to eyeball the two cups of arugula your recipe calls for, and scales are no help in the matter.
There’s a fairly obvious rule to keep in mind, which is that the sturdier the leaf, the longer it will last in the fridge. All varieties of kale and cabbage will last the longest; chard and bok choy are in the middle; lettuces of all sorts, whether they’re whole heads or bagged as a mix, and tender herbs (the kind that we eat the stems of) are the most perishable.
With that in mind, here are more simple ways to waste less lettuce.
1. Grow it yourself.
Mixed greens are pretty to look at, very easy to grow from seed, and prolific in sunny spots when the temperature is in the sixties and seventies; when temperatures hit the eighties, they need a bit of shade and extra water. You can trim off a few leaves at a time and replant a sprinkling of seeds frequently so you’ll always have new leaves—and if you end up with varieties you strongly prefer, you can stop buying mixed-variety packets and stick with your top two choices. If you have limited garden space that you have dedicated to herbs, and you toss a lot of greens in the trash, you might consider switching that space over to DIY lettuce; it will be a better value than herbs.
2. Go farm to fridge.
While I have only my own shopping experiences to support this hypothesis rather than a formal study to point to, I have noticed that bags of salad greens I pick up from the farmers market consistently last almost twice as long (up to six days in the fridge) as any brand I have ever purchased from a grocery store. My best guess is that the shorter time period between field and fridge accounts for the difference, as the varieties in the mixes have a lot of overlap. Farmers market greens tend to have better flavor and texture as well. If you can afford to pay a bit more than the grocery store price and have a farmers market nearby, it’s a good option.
3. Switch to salads that aren’t based on lettuce.
For many people, lettuce is filler—something you crunch through to get to the more interesting tomatoes and peppers. Change the vegetables and fruit up seasonally to keep things interesting and get the greens intake you need from sturdier, longer-lasting varieties like kale and chard.
Here are a few lettuce-free salad ideas for motivation, with no cooking needed for any of them.
- Tomatoes, peaches, mozzarella, fresh basil
- Zucchini, red bell peppers, artichoke hearts
- Mangos, canned corn, black beans, fresh cilantro
- Strawberries, spinach, goat cheese
- Grated beets, orange segments, feta cheese
- Shredded apples, carrots, cabbage
- Thawed frozen peas, bacon, red onions, water chestnuts
- Cucumbers, chili sauce
- Avocados, tomatoes, red onions, fresh cilantro
4. Store tender greens with care.
On the occasions when you do choose to use tender greens such as lettuces (butter, red leaf, green leaf, and other varieties), spinach, and arugula in your kitchen, regardless of what storage method you try here, the best-case scenario is that you have about four days before these greens start deteriorating quickly. A lot of different mixes are sold prewashed, but for food-safety purposes, it’s best to wash and dry them again before eating. While heartier greens last longer if they’re not washed immediately, I break the convention here for two reasons: one, washing them doesn’t noticeably shorten their already-short life span, and two, I’m that much more likely to eat them if I can thoughtlessly grab a handful or two with no prep work. Make that easy by picking through the greens for any wilted leaves and then washing and drying them. Wipe away any condensation from their container, and line it with a muslin or flour-sack dish towel before placing the washed and dried greens back into it (or a plastic bag) for storage.
5. Salvage leafy greens before they go bad.
If you know in advance that you’re likely to use only half of the greens you bought, or if you consistently toss out a lot of tender greens, whirl up the excess in your blender to turn it into something usable. If your household is a fan of smoothies, use an ice cube tray to turn salad mix into ice cubes. If smoothies aren’t your favorite, turn the greens into a quick sauce like Pesto or Palak ka Saag [both recipes are in the book]. Remember that such recipes adapt themselves well to almost any small leafy green. Everything from sorrel, chervil, and spinach to mustard greens, chard, and kale can be used to make a fresh sauce that will freeze well. Iceberg lettuce is the sole exception.
Giveaway and Discount!
Want to learn more of Jill’s tips for reducing food waste? We have 3 copies of Scraps, Peels, and Stems to give away to readers thanks to Mountaineers Books. Head over to our Instagram for details. Mountaineers Books is also offering a 20% “friends and family” discount to Sustainable America readers when ordering the book with the code SECONDS. Offer expires 12/31/18.
Excerpted with permission from Scraps, Peels, and Stems: Recipes and Tips for Rethinking Food Waste at Home (Skipstone, October 2018) by Jill Lightner.