Saving food isn't just efficient use of resources. It's an efficient use of your money. So what's the best way to keep your leftovers for later?
The USDA and the Census Bureau discovered that American retailers and consumers throw away about 96.4 billion pounds of perfectly good food each year. That comes out to about 122 pounds of wasted food a month by the average family, or about $600. In theory, if we were to preserve all of the edible leftovers we've got, we could cut more than a quarter of our waste.
One benefit of food preservation is that it enables you to buy in bulk, which provides a cost benefit all its own.
The FDA and the USDA say that any food kept at zero degrees Fahrenheit can be kept safe indefinitely. Whether its flavor will keep, and for how long, is a matter of taste. Many find that the flavor of potatoes, rice, pasta, raw veggies, cream sauces and cheeses will deteriorate over time, but if you eat them quickly enough, and don't let them frost over in the back of your freezer, the change in flavor may not be discernible. Freezing
Freezing also requires electricity, which costs money. The bigger the freezer (chest freezers cost from $250), and them more bulk items in one, the more you'll spend preserving your food. Taking into account both the cost of the appliance and electricity, a fair expense estimate might be about $11 a month for an eight-year lifespan.
Also, if the freezer stops working, your food will spoil. Some foods, such as meats and some vegetables, may not thaw properly, which can lead to them being overcooked.
Also, many apartment and city dwellers won't have room for a freezer, making it something that's more suited to suburban and rural eaters.
Still, if you buy in bulk, you can offset the cost of owning your freezer by filling it to the brim with stuff you like. Just don't forget about it! The longer you wait, the more you may compromise taste.
It's a relatively simple process to make food edible for a long time, but it's not simpler than tossing it in the freezer. In most cases, fruits and vegetables don't lose vitamins and nutrients in the canning process. The process varies for high-acid food (the water bath canning method for berries, jellies, tomatoes) versus low-acid ones (the pressure canner method for meats, vegetables, mushrooms), but neither one is too complicated for the average home.
Canned food doesn't need to be refrigerated or frozen, and if executed properly, the food should keep for at least a year. The main expense comes in the equipment, but at $70 to $100 for a boiling-water canner and $30 to $200 for a pressure canner, the expense isn't far away from a chest freezer, and your tools don't require a constant flow of electricity to keep working. They're a one-time investment and can be re-used as much as you want.
Glass canning jars are one of the cheapest and most prevalent items in the American kitchen, and they cost about $8 a dozen -- or less. They can also be used for a variety of other functions, including as mugs, vases, and storage for dried bulk goods.
Consider pickling to be canning with flair. Using many of the same tools, you add vinegar, salt, and spices in many cases, altering the flavor of the food but not usually its vitamin content, and the food can often keep for up to three years.
The probiotic benefits of pickled or fermented food are widely touted, too. The yeast saccharomyces cerevisiae forms, which in turn promotes your intake of thiamin, nicotinic acid and biotin. There's a reason that Koreans have been eating kimchee for centuries: It's easy to make, easy to store, and it's good for your gut.
Given the time (1 to 5 weeks until maturity) and energy required, pickling is probably best done in bulk, but like canning, its results don't need to be refrigerated. If you're already a canner, you can be a pickler without buying any more equipment.
This one is easy, but requires a constant purchase of supplies: $18 to $135 for a vacuum including bags, which will cost $8 to $20 when you need more. Most vacuum makers only advertise that food stored in them will last up to three times longer than not using one.
Vacuum sealing also won't prevent you from having to use the freezer or fridge. The bottom line is that vacuum sealing won't keep bacteria from growing on food -- there will always be a little air trapped in there -- so it's good for retarding spoilage for a few days, but it's not a substitute for canning or pickling.
That means it's good for keeping some leftovers for a day or so, but not good for opening the door to money-saving bulk purchases, which makes the investment fairly weak compared to other methods.
Not everything lends itself to the process. Meats (beef jerky, biltong) are the most popular. Five pounds of London Broil become a space-saving single pound of jerky.
Appliance driers cost $70 to $300, but you can also use a convection oven with a drying rack. You won't really save on foods by drying them unless you buy something seasonal in bulk, and you will never save unless you dry the food yourself; store-bought dried food is always more expensive than the fresh variety.
No matter what preservation method you use, one key to savings is to take advantage of bulk savings and stock up on something you like while the prices are at their lowest. That's where the real value comes in.