Reduce waste outside the kitchen as well! Learn How to Live a Zero-Waste Life.
After trimming a bunch of asparagus I look at the discarded stems and feel guilty. Same thing happens when I juice up a bag of oranges. All those gorgeous rinds sitting in the garbage just seems wrong.
It took me a while, but I’ve come to realize my intuition is usually right. If it feels bad to throw away food, then I should reconsider its use. In many cases, the stuff I throw away is loaded with flavor that can enhance my cooking. This “wasted food” can increase my efficiency, save me money, and decrease my carbon footprint.
The United States wastes about 60 million metric tons of food a year, half of which ends up in landfills as a source of methane gas pollution. And the problem is not just here. The food wasted by developed countries is enough to feed the world’s population of hungry people.
Obviously, many people and organizations play a role in when it comes to food waste. Farmers discard food that doesn’t meet supermarket standards of form and color; supermarkets dispose of aging foods that don’t meet customer demands; home cooks throw away food for a litany of reasons – not knowing how to use it being one.
Related: Why You Should Eat More Plants.
Reducing Waste in Your Own Kitchen
Luckily, we can do something about it. Before World War II, home cooks knew how to use the whole food. But today, most of us have to relearn those techniques, and find a way to incorporate them into lifestyles significantly busier than our great grandmothers’.
It’s not as difficult as it sounds. The information is out there: in books like my Kitchen Ecosystem, on the web, and in friends’ kitchens. Fitting these techniques into your cooking routine is not as time-consuming as you’d think. In fact, over the long run, they will save you time.
Buy the Whole Food
First, buy the whole food. Buy carrots, beets, and radishes with their greens; buy the whole fish, the whole chicken and cut it up so that you can use the bones (okay, there’s a learning curve to this, and your first chicken or fish will look like you butchered it with a chain saw, but after a few tries it will become automatic). Use the bones to make stock: it’s only one more burner on the stove and you can do it at the same time as you are cooking the rest of the protein for dinner. Stock is great to have on hand, to make soup or cook pasta the next night.
In my opinion, if you aren’t buying the whole food, you are getting ripped off.
Learn how to make your own chicken stock here.
Don’t Toss That Pickle Juice
Second, use the remnants of the jar. After you have used the preserved fruit, the marinated vegetables or the pickles, don’t throw away the syrup, marinade or pickle juice in the bottom of the jar. That stuff is kitchen gold! Fruit syrups can be used to poach other foods, make cocktails, sweeten tea and lemonade, make sodas, and reduced to make dessert sauces. Marinades can be used to dress salads and flavor foods. If I have some leftover artichoke marinade on hand I can cook a sausage and boil some potatoes and heat them in the marinade and boom! Dinner is on the table. I can’t think of any recipe that calls for oil and vinegar (except canning recipes) where you can’t use leftover marinade. Likewise, pickle juice can be used in any savory capacity that calls for vinegar, plus it adds pickley flavor.
Peels and Stems
Third, use the byproducts of cooking. Asparagus stems can be boiled and passed through a food mill, creating an asparagus stock that will make your risotto or minestrone sing. The ruby red water from boiling beets makes fabulous granite (aka granita, a slushy treat made out of fruit or veggies). Stale bread—all of it, from bagels to baguettes—can be ground into breadcrumbs, and they’re so much tastier than store bought! Orange, lemon, and grapefruit rinds can be zested and frozen for later use. Or use the rinds right away in any dish that calls for zest: orange bitters, candied grapefruit peel, and lemoncello can all be made with the stuff we usually throw away.
Clearly, there is a hierarchy to food waste; some foods produce more valuable byproducts than others. So if I am really busy I will favor the most productive food waste, like chicken bones and carrot tops over zests and beet water. Some foods don’t produce much waste, like green beans—they are waste neutral. Other food waste, like banana peels, doesn’t seem to have as much use and are best composted. (But here I am showing my limitations. In some cultures, there may be very cool traditional uses for banana peels!)
Can Foods While You Cook Dinner
Prioritizing my food waste is one way I fold this philosophy into my life. Another way is to make nano-batches, whether they are stock, pesto, breadcrumbs, or home preserved foods, at the same time I am cooking dinner anyway. For example, I might buy two pounds of ripe, local tomatoes. I’ll make a tomato salad with one pound, and I’ll shove the other pound into a pint jar and can it in a water bath. It’s just another burner on the stove. I build my pantry one pint at a time. This strategy not only generates tasty, healthy foods that can be used later in the year, but also increases my kitchen diversity because I have lots of different foods on hand. It also improves my efficiency because I always have something on hand to make dinner, keeps my dollars local year round, and lowers my carbon footprint. I’ve learned to prepare or preserve foods I would otherwise buy in the quantity I actually eat them over the course of the year. As a result, I’ve always got enough home-canned tomatoes and homemade mayonnaise, and never too much sauerkraut or strawberry jam.
Learn how to can jam here.
Sounds like a lot of work? Only if you think you’ve got to do it all. You just need to start with a pantry intervention. Ask yourself: "what are the top three things I buy year round? What are the top three things I eat a lot of during a particular season?" Then practice preparing, preserving, and utilizing all parts of those three annual foods (for example, bread, vinaigrette and bacon) and three seasonal foods (like spring strawberries, asparagus and shell peas). As your skill set evolves, it will be easy to add more foods to your repertoire.
You’ll probably find you are taking out less garbage and eating a lot better.
Here are a few great websites that cover the food waste issue.
Learn more about cutting down on food waste – and dollars spent at the grocery store – see 7 Steps to a Green Kitchen.
Eugenia Bone, a nationally known food writer and James Beard nominee, is the author of five books. Her most recent is The Kitchen Ecosystem: Integrating Recipes to Create Delicious Meals (Clarkson Potter, 2014).