In my Jan. 21 column in The Japan Times, I wrote about the expiry dates on food labels in Japan and explained how to use them so you don’t throw away perfectly good food. The gist is that the highly perishable foods that warrant a strict 消費期限 shōhi kigen (use-by date) shouldn’t be eaten after the date on the package, but foods labeled with a 賞味期限 shōmi kigen date — and that includes milk, eggs and tofu — come with a little wiggle room. They can be safely eaten for a while after the date; rely on your senses to tell you how long is ok.
Even little steps can help reduce 食品ロス shokuhin rosu (food waste), a huge problem throughout the developed world but particularly acute in Japan, which is dependent on imports for 60 percent of its food supply and lacks capacity for trash disposal. According to the latest statistics from the agriculture ministry, every year, some 500 to 800 tons of edible food are thrown out by Japanese households. Think of all the hungry people that could feed!
Here are 6 Japan-specific tips for reducing food waste:
1) Learn what the expiry dates on Japanese foods mean. If that tofu in the frig is still fine, eating it instead of pitching it will save you money, reduce waste and keep one more thing out of Japan’s limited landfill.
2) When shopping, don’t automatically reach to the back of the rack for product with a later expiration date. If you can use what’s in front before it expires, do everyone a favor and buy it. You might save the supermarket from throwing product out.
3) Don’t buy more than you need. Check what you’ve got at home before going shopping, and take advantage of 少量パック shōryō pakku (small-portion packs) and ばら売りbarauri (things sold separately rather than in sets).
4) Learn how to use the stem, tops and peels of fruits and vegetables. If you or a loved one read Japanese, there are lots of recipes available under headings like 捨てずに、まるごと、おいしく食べる sutezuni, marugoto, oishiku taberu (“eat the whole thing, deliciously, without throwing anything away!” and エコうま eko uma (“Eco and delicious”). Here’s a nice recipe in English, for using up daikon or kabu leaves.
5) Be careful when ordering at restaurants. In order not to leave food on your tray, tell ‘em how much you can eat. It’s perfectly fine to say, ご飯は少なめでお願いします gohan wa sukuname de onegai shimasu (“A relatively small portion of rice, please.”) Restaurants don’t like wasting food any more than you do.
6) If you mistakenly order more than you can eat, tell the staff you want to do 持ち帰り mochikaeri (“take it home”). Some restaurants won’t allow this because they’re worried you won’t handle the leftovers safely and then complain when you get sick. I’ve sometimes gotten my way by using terms like 自己責任 jiko sekinin (“on my own responsibility”) and もったいない mottainai (“It’s a shame to waste!”). Thanks to efforts by groups like the Doggy Bag Committee, food service outlets in Japan are becoming more open to the idea of customers taking home leftovers.
Feel free to add your own tips in the comments section below. My readers will thank you for it!