Discarded food is an ethical, environmental, and economic problem for home cooks, but for restaurants, it’s a matter of business viability.
A restaurant simply can’t survive if it’s throwing food it planned to sell in the trash, and it won’t stay open if there’s any risk that they’re serving any food that might sicken their customers. That means that regardless of their moral stance towards waste, there’s an overpowering incentive, both economic and legal, to keep food as fresh as possible.
First in, first out. This simple and essential system of food rotation (otherwise referred to in, food safety speak, as F.I.F.O.) ensures that all the food that comes in is labeled with its date, with the newest food getting placed towards the back of the pantry or refrigerator shelves. Think of it as truly saving the best for last (or as always eating your oldest food first).
While it’s natural (and convenient) to front-load your fridge, if you move the older items to the front, you’ll stare them down and use them before they can die a slow, painful death at the bottom of the crisper drawer.
Obviously, first in, first out applies to some foods more than others: Delicate, just-right produce—ripe peaches, always-precarious raspberries—you’ll want to consume that day (they’re not going to get any better with time). Buy what you can either eat or cook with right away, or seek out slightly underripe produce and plan ahead.
At Adoro Lei in New York City, Chef Mario Gentile orders tomatoes a week ahead of time and leaves them covered in the storage room until they’re perfectly ripe. Still, he uses the oldest tomatoes he’s ordered, the ones that have had time to ripen, first; once those have been served, the next batch is ripe and ready.
With good planning (and a willingness to jostle the fridge), home kitchens can take cues from restaurant rotation practices, too. Cathy Barrow, a.k.a. MrsWheelBarrow, preserver extraordinaire, plans out her meals based on what needs to get used up first: “Plan what you’re eating based on what’s the most delicate,” she says. This time of year, that’d be salad greens first, then cooking greens, then kale, summer squash, eggplant. She works her way towards the more sturdy things, mapping her meals along, as she puts it, “the spectrum to how the food loses its luster.”