This is not just quarantine planning. This is rest-of-your-life skills we’re talking about here.

By Stacey Ballis
Updated April 03, 2020
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For most of us, shopping for food involves either one big trip for the week or shopping for ingredients as needed. But with the new normal of sheltering in place requiring us to keep two weeks' worth of food on hand (including loading up on pantry staples or buying in bulk) we all have begun to rethink what we buy and how to store it.

Perplexed? You're not alone. Which is why it's time to turn to the world experts on how to purchase and store larger amounts of food: restaurant chefs.

Restaurant chefs rely on smart management of supplies to maximize their very tight margins. Since food is usually second only to labor costs when running a restaurant, it is important that they are smart about how they order their products and even smarter about how they store and use them. So, here are some of the tricks they use to prevent waste while keeping things at their optimal quality:

Chef Tip #1: Order smart.

Chefs are constantly threading the needle of ensuring they don’t run out of something while also being mindful of not wanting too much overage to deal with. So, they are cautious about how much they buy of any one item, especially if it is delicate or super perishable. We should be doing the same.

Apply this rule: If an item has a short shelf life (like certain meats and produce), buy just what you need for 2-3 days. You want to know you will use it up before it goes bad. If it is an item that does go bad quickly, but can be saved by cooking, pickling, turning into jam, or freezing, be sure that you have what you need to make those shifts.

The longer the shelf life, the more you can feel confident about ordering more. Just don’t hoard during these times of scarcity.

Chef Tip #2: Reorganize your storage.

Chefs keep their walk-ins, freezers, and pantries meticulously organized. And that organization habit is a good thing to adopt right now, to help make sure you are able to manage a much larger amount of food than you are used to.

Now is a great time to check your fridge, freezer, and pantry for expired items, transfer remainders of things into smaller containers to take up less space (two ounces of ketchup in the bottom of a giant 32-ounce squeeze bottle is doing you no favors), and to shift anything that doesn’t require refrigeration into your pantry for the time being (looking at you, soy sauce).

If your pantry is full of a lot of items that you are not necessarily using right now (all the Christmas cookie decorating supplies?) you should box them up and move them to a less prominent location for the time being. A good re-org and cleanup of your storage spaces will set you up for success.

Chef Tip #3: Store items properly.

Chefs know that storage is half the battle when it comes to not wasting food. For starters, properly clean and prep any items that need it, and repackage or wrap foods for maximum life.

First, arrange your perishables from the back of your fridge to the front, so that the items that need using first don’t get accidentally lost in the depths of your fridge. Leftover cooked items, more delicate vegetables and fruits, and dairy items with the nearest expiration dates should be front and center. Hardier items can shift to the back.

Staples like onions, potatoes, and other root vegetables; hard squashes like butternut or acorn; apples; and citrus can all be stored in cool dark places. Free up space in your refrigerator by setting up a cooler or box in a cool spot: Basements, back porches, and garages in cooler climates are fine if you protect them from critters.

Fresh herbs will last longer if you cut an inch off the bottom and store in fresh cold water in the fridge if you have room, or at cool room temp like cut flowers.

Any meat you don’t plan to use within three days should be frozen.

Chef Tip #4: Inventory and label your stuff.

It is an insider joke that painter’s tape and a Sharpie are a pro chef’s most important tools. But seriously: Labeling items with dates of opening is more helpful than just relying on the best-by or expiration dates, especially for cooked or prepped items. Time is a little bit fluid at the moment, so grab some tape, labels, or Post-it Notes and make sure you know what’s in your larder!

Secondly, it can be helpful to keep a list posted of what you have, and when you need to use it by. We are keeping a master list of our perishables, which indicates what we have, where it is stored, and when we need to use it by, so that we have an easy reference for meal planning and also know when we are getting low on something crucial.

Chef Tip #5: Get creative with leftovers and scraps!

There is a whole station in many restaurants called Garde Manger, which literally translates to “keeper of food.” This is usually the area of a kitchen where salads, hors d’oeuvres, and other chilled items are prepared. But what many don’t know is that it is also often where the chef is challenged to use up leftover items or to utilize products about to be past their prime and make them shine. Those leftover scraps from trimming meats might become a gorgeous pâté or rillettes. Bits and pieces of cheeses can become a cheese spread, wilting herbs might find new life as an herb oil or pesto or salsa verde. Cooked leftover vegetables turn into beautiful composed salads.

At home, think about smart ways to use up what you have. Stir fries and fried rice dishes can take a bunch of seemingly random leftovers and turn them into something glorious. If you overbought vegetables, soups are a great way to go, and if you have some sad fruit nearing the end of its useful life, no better time than the present to learn how to make simple quick jams.

Thinking and prepping like a chef might just be the easiest way to ensure that you are feeding your household not just effectively, but also deliciously!