Its a novice mistake all Costco cardholders make at least once in their membership lifetime: buying too many perishable items. That shiny new Costco card feels like a dream, and so does buying a year’s worth of two-ply toilet tissue for a penny per square foot. But you let it get out of hand. You ventured into the produce aisle and bought 40 ounces of spinach for a party of one. Your fridge looked like a pirate’s bounty until you realized you can’t eat more than three smoothies a day without exploding, and you have no idea how long potatoes last or how to store them. The panic sets in. But don’t worry, here are FIVE tips to help you to get through all the perishable BS you bought at Costco before it becomes literal food waste.
A quick note: I’m not going to get into what foods you should buy or how to cook each specific item. This guide is about ways to make the most of the food you already bought. I don’t care what you eat, I just hope it’s relatively good for you.
1. Make Meal Prep Interesting
It’s easy to forget that buying in bulk means cooking in bulk, too. If meal prepping each week sounds cumbersome, try reframing it in your mind. It’s not a chore so much as it is “me time.” Blast your favorite music and break out the cutting board. Start with the simple step of just chopping up your fruits and veggies. And use a good knife. It will make the slicing process much easier (and safer).
Next, section off the sliced produce you’d like to keep fresh for snacking, drop it in some Tupperware and throw it in the fridge. Great! Snacks are done. Now decide what you will cook and what you will freeze. Only cook what you think you can eat in a week. And if you’re one of those people who can’t help but eat out every now and then, make it three or four days.
If you’re buying meat, you’ll want to be extra careful with your preparation. Raw meats like beef, poultry, and fish, shouldn’t be kept for more than two or three days without cooking them, and three days is pushing it. Cooked meat I’d give a shelf-life of four to five days, depending on what it is. In the end, I think it’s better to cook less and waste less than to cook too much and either throw food out or risk food poisoning. If you need more details on the matter, check out foodsafety.gov.
2. Avoid Freezer Burn
Take the things that you want to freeze and section them into Ziploc bags. I like to store them by category rather than meals so I can reuse the bags (because plastic is this century’s devil). For instance, bags with veggies are always bags with veggies, never meat. The important thing here is to not get lazy about how you store them. Avoid freezer burn by removing as much air as possible from your bags. There are a few good ways to do this.
First, you can simply use your hands to push the air out of the bag by flattening it as much as possible. This can work for Spinach you plan to cook or throw in a blender since it doesn’t matter if you ruin the shape. But there are some foods you don’t want to get too handsy with (like meats) or some that are too bulky to simply press away, like broccoli.
If flattening the bag with your hand doesn’t work, you can place a straw in the corner of the bag, then zip it up as much as you can. Use the straw to suck the air out of the bag to create a vacuum seal. Do not do this with raw meat. Do not do this with raw meat!
My personal favorite way is to use water. It makes me feel like an airtight seal hack wizarding genius. Fill the sink (or a really big bowl) about two-thirds of the way with water. Then, zip the bag up leaving 1/8th unsealed. Slowly dip the upright bag into the water and watch the water displace all of the air in the bag! Once you get the zipper line of the bag pretty close to the top of the water, seal the rest of the bag. Presto! A vacuum seal. If you still don’t get it, watch this video:
3. Use Your Oven
It may be daunting at first, but once you get to know your oven, it’ll be your meal-prep BFF. The biggest thing novice cooks get wrong about the oven is the process. Oven cooking is 90% prep-work, 10% sitting around. So, what’s the first step for cooking anything in the oven? Open the door and look in the oven. Yeah, it’s that simple. Make sure there’s nothing in there that’ll burn your house down before you go preheating willy-nilly. Once you know it’s safe, go ahead and preheat the oven. 350 – 375 degrees Fahrenheit will cook most foods just fine, though baked goods and pastries are a different story. I typically go for the higher end of that range because I’m a rebel and I like my food a little crisp.
Roasting Vegetables and Meats
While that’s preheating, cut up your food and lightly coat it in an oil of your choice (and some spices if you wish). Coconut oil is not recommended for its relatively low smoking point (when the oil gets too hot and begins to smoke like Estelle from Friends). Olive oil stands the heat a little better and adds some flavor, while grapeseed oil and sunflower oil have the highest smoking points and the least flavor.
Throw a little extra oil on the bottom of a baking sheet and spread your veggies out on it. You can cook meat like salmon or chicken right next to the veggies, too, if you don’t mind them taking on some of the meat’s flavors. If you do, wrap the meat in foil.
Lastly, set a timer for like 15-20 minutes and don’t jack with your food until the timer goes off. Opening the oven halfway through to check on your food only lets out a bunch of hot air and messes up the temperature. Unless something is burning, just leave it alone. When it’s ready, your veggies should be golden brown in some spots and easy to pierce with a fork. Fish should flake apart when you stick a fork in and twist it a little bit, chicken and pork should have no pink inside, and cook your red meats however you like (within reason, like, don’t get sick).
If you’ve reached the end of the week and your produce is on its last leg, try giving it a second life by making bread out of it. Banana bread is best when its made with overripe bananas. Pro tip: I like to smash the bananas by putting them in a Ziploc bag and squeezing the hell out of them. You can also add a dollop of yogurt or sour cream to help keep your banana bread moist. Zucchini bread is also great when you forget to make that zoodle pasta recipe for four nights in a row. But feel free to get creative and throw whatever you like in the batter, as long as you think you’ll eat it. Try raisins, strawberries, or a little fresh-squeezed orange juice and orange zest. Add in a little sugar, cinnamon or nutmeg and a dash of salt to enhance the flavor. These sweet, fruity slices of bread are great warmed up and served with a little butter.
4. Learn Sauce Theory
Sauce theory is the trendy way of saying you can make your basic food taste better and keep it healthy by making your own sauces. Don’t see this as more work. See it as a chance to get creative. I didn’t push too hard on seasoning your meats and vegetables before cooking them for this exact reason. Having a few yummy sauces on hand can keep you from getting bored with the same meal every day. And making sauces doesn’t have to be complicated. The basic formula is this:
Fat or Oil + Acid or Vinegar + Spices or Extra Flavor = Good Sauce
Keep it loose and don’t be afraid to play around with different combinations. The key to good cooking is recognizing foods not by recipe, but by their flavor profiles or chemical makeups. A common oil used as a base in dressings is simply olive oil. Its flavors are incredibly versatile can be mixed with acids like balsamic vinegar, red wine vinegar, lemon, crushed raspberries, or other citrus juices. Add in salt, pepper, basil, or any spices you like. Another common combo is the honey mustard dressing. You can make this with actual honey and mustard if you like, and thin it out with a little oil to make it more of a dressing than a dipping sauce. I like to use grainy mustard for dressings for a little extra texture and flavor. Switch it up mid-week by going for more Asian-style dressings. Throw some soy sauce and brown sugar in a pot and let simmer to make an easy teriyaki sauce, to which you can add a little peanut butter for a Thai peanut sauce, or some ginger to liven things up. Even beans (think chickpeas or cannellini beans) can be blended and jazzed up with a little vinegar or lemon juice, plus a dash of salt, pepper, and cumin for a healthy dip or delicious spread.
5. Use Your Time Wisely
If you’re a full-on grown-up with your own damn kitchen, there’s no reason not to run it like a well-oiled machine. Cut your veggies and freeze the extras while the oven preheats. Make your sauces while the veggies roast. Clean as you go to save time later. Sweep the floor when you’re done. And most of all, have fun with it! The process is entirely yours, so cook and eat the foods you enjoy however you like to enjoy them. And I don’t cast shame on those who snack as they go. I can’t help myself either.