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12 Easy Ways to Move Toward Low-Waste Cooking

Food waste is a huge problem in American homes, but it doesn’t have to be. Follow these tips for a lower waste kitchen

Every day a staggering amount of food is wasted at the farm, retail and consumer level. A recent study in PLOS ONE that takes into account consumer behavior in addition to the supply chain finds food waste may reach a staggering 527 calories per day per person. The findings suggest that reducing waste globally requires reducing high levels of discarded food in wealthier countries – that’s us. Almost a third of all calories produced in the United States ends up being trashed, according to an estimate from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. To put it another way, in the U.S. we waste roughly 40% of all the food we produce, and the country spends roughly $218 billion growing, processing, transporting and disposing of food that never gets eaten.

Why fret about food waste? If saving money isn’t enough of motivation (and it should be, since food costs keep ticking upward), we should keep in mind that food waste is also lousy for the planet. Decomposing food that makes its way into landfills releases methane, which is a significant contributor to climate change. Also, when you toss curdled milk or limp lettuce, you’re not just throwing away the food but all the resources such as water, labor and transportation that went into producing it and then getting it to market. All this trashed food hits the economy harder than a slice of stale bread. What’s more, food waste results in a lost opportunity to take in higher amounts of key nutrients like vitamin D, fiber and potassium. It puts stress on the system and is a contributing factor to food inequality and food insecurity.

Food waste is one of the greatest challenges of our time, with significant environmental, social and economic impacts. And, although waste isn’t just an individual problem (food is wasted at every stage of the food chain, making it a diverse problem), household waste is considered the worst contributor. Consumers throw away food for various reasons, such as food safety concerns, desire to eat fresher food and poor kitchen management. Thankfully, once you know where your weaknesses are, you can shore them up and do your part to curtail the amount of food from the supermarket and your garden that goes uneaten. Take heed of these tips to reduce needlessly packing your garbage or compost with tomorrow’s dinner.

1. Write it down

Like a food diary, it can be helpful to keep a food waste report to monitor how many edibles you are discarding. This not only gives you a clearer picture of the amount of food waste coming from your kitchen but also makes it easier to pinpoint any problem areas and help develop a game plan for overcoming them. For instance, making note of how much milk you send down the drain can be a wake-up call that you typically purchase more than you and your family can drink before it spoils. Knowing how much delicate lettuce you are sending to the compost heap can be a sign that you should be more judicious about how much you harvest from the garden at any one time.

2. Plan ahead

Perhaps there is no better way to cut down on the food waste in your kitchen than with proper meal planning. It allows you to strategize which foods to buy and how much exactly to purchase. The best approach to this is to once a week carve out some time from your schedule to map out your meals and snacks for several days, make a detailed grocery list of what you need to prepare these, and then purchase only what is required when pushing your cart through the supermarket aisles or wandering the farmers market. This way you’ll be less likely to pick up random items that may go to waste. A key part of reducing food waste is showing restraint when grocery shopping by avoiding impulse buys of items that you don’t need and that may not get eaten. Tech-savvy cooks may enjoy the many useful meal planning websites and apps like Grocery IQ that are now available. When crafting your menu plan, think about which ingredients spoil quickly—raw meat, fresh fish, leafy greens—and use them first.

Just don’t get too ambitious with your meal planning. As a workweek gets busy, the chances of preparing elaborate meals decrease, which can encourage food waste when what you bought for a recipe on Thursday night doesn’t get used. In other words, incorporate realistic lazy meals or restaurant purchases into your meal plan, and be aware that some of the waste in our kitchens comes from overbuying or buying in bulk when we see a great deal, which is especially tempting now, given that our budgets are being squeezed. So while certain items are better than others to stock up on, it’s not a smart move to hoard large amounts of food with a fleeting shelf-life.

3. Shop your fridge and garden first

Before you make a trip to the grocery store or farmers’ market, take an inventory of your fridge as well as what is ready to pick from the garden. From this, make a plan for everything that needs to get used, pronto. That includes the on-the-way-out lettuce in your crisper and the towering, ready-to-flower basil in your backyard. Knowing what you already have on hand and should get used sooner than later is a critical step in reducing over-purchasing and thus food waste. Come up with menu ideas based on those ingredients and think of grocery shopping as building on what you’ve already got. Why buy a pint of cherry tomatoes when the ones you’re growing are ready to harvest? It’s a good idea to learn a handful of fridge-clearing recipes like stir-fries and stews.

4. Think like a restaurant chef

For the sake of their bottom line, most restaurants try to never let anything go to waste. Using an ingredient in its entirety is not only economical for them but also opens new culinary possibilities. In your own kitchen, you should also work to be more resourceful and keep as much as possible on the plate and out of the landfill or compost bin. There are many delicious and nutritious parts of food you should stop discarding and start eating, so be a root-to-stem cook. Carrot tops are great in pesto and tossed with greens in a salad. The tougher ends of common vegetables like kale, broccoli, and cauliflower are discarded too often when in reality all they need is some extra time on the cutting board to be transformed into substantive and more nutritious meals. Peeled and sliced broccoli stems can bulk up a stir-fry, while you can add sliced kale stems to egg dishes like frittata or an omelette. You can pickle watermelon rinds which transform the fruit into a sweet, briny snack. Those cilantro stems from your garden are great when blitzed into a vinaigrette. Avocado pits (we kid not) can be dried and then pulverized in a high-powered blender into a powder that works in smoothies or stirred into a pot of oatmeal. It's nutty! Keep peels and scraps from onions, carrots and other vegetables (and any chicken bones) in the freezer and turn them into stock when you have a full bag. And why dump olive brine down the drain when it can be used in marinades for meats?

5. Be flexible

The yoga mat isn’t the only place where it pays off to be flexible; it’s a benefit in the kitchen as well. Remember that recipes are just a guideline, and you likely have a lot more wiggle room than you may realize. This practice can help you avoid buying unnecessary new ingredients and turn you into a more versatile cook. Possible substitutions include spinach for kale, zucchini for peppers, lentils for beans, pork for beef, cilantro for parsley and yogurt for sour cream. Sure, the end result might not be exactly as imagined, but if it allows you to use up something that's growing beautifully in your garden or has been lounging in the fridge a bit too long and would otherwise go to waste, that’s a top chef accomplishment.

6. Embrace ugly ducklings

Large-scale food buyers, such as restaurants and supermarkets, may reject food that doesn’t meet their requirements for appearance or other quality measures. That’s because they rightfully worry consumers won’t want to buy it. One study published in Science Direct found that the percentage of consumers selecting apples with defects was no more than 15%, despite the misshapen fruit being perfectly safe and nutritious to eat. So those oddly shaped peaches and stumpy carrots may just end up rotting in fields or landfills. If you shop at a farmers market, be sure to support a grower's effort to unload oblong fruits and knobby vegetables that many grocers won’t accept. Ditto for anything you pluck from your backyard farm. If your supermarket is now offering “seconds” or “imperfects” of less-than-perfect fruits and vegetables, be sure to support this initiative.

7. Preserve it!

If you have just too much of something to use up before it goes bad, employ the various methods of preservation to reduce food waste. Turn a garden full of basil into pesto, hot peppers into chili sauce, and extra vegetables into pickles. Canning, pickling, dehydrating and fermenting are all good ways to preserve your food. There is an abundance of cookbooks on the market who can help guide the way.

But the easiest preservation method is the freezer, and it works with most foods to reduce food waste. In the warmer months, it’s easy to go overboard with produce from the market and your backyard, so leverage the power of your freezer to stretch the season. For fruits and vegetables, it lets you buy them in large quantities when they are in season and least expensive and freeze the bounty to use for future meals with much less risk of spoilage. Learn the nuances of how to properly freeze different types of fruit and vegetables (blanch or no blanch? freeze separately on a baking sheet or just dump into a large zip-top bag?). You can freeze overly ripe bananas (remove peel first) which are great in smoothies. An abundance of herbs can be made into pesto that can then be frozen in individual mini muffin cups to brighten up dishes all year round. And don’t forget that even items like milk, bread, hard cheese and cooked grains and beans can be frozen for future use instead of letting them spoil. Store leftovers in airtight containers with as much air removed as possible, and be sure to label before you deep freeze to avoid the guessing game when you thaw.

8. Store properly

To extend the life of perishable produce, be sure to keep your fridge set between 35° and 37°, and do some research about the nuances of properly storing items like herbs, berries and greens. For example, since moisture is the nemesis of leafy greens like baby spinach, open those containers and place a paper towel atop the greens, then store lid-side down. In general, refrain from washing veggies before storing; stash dairy items in a cool part of the fridge like the back of the top shelf and cut off the tops of root vegetables to extend shelf life (but use the greens in your cooking). Beeswax wraps such as Abeego are a great reusable option that allows foods like delicate herbs to breathe naturally and prevent items from rotting prematurely when moisture is trapped inside storage bags.

Use glass jars and storage containers in the fridge because they allow you to see what’s there. And keep them up front, not at the back. The back is where people often find last week's takeout that is now a science experiment. What’s out of sight is out of mind and more likely destined for the trash bin. Check out Save the Food’s Food Storage Directory for more useful food storage tips.

9. Break it down

Don’t forget about composting! You should make an effort to compost the food you end up not eating so it doesn't contribute to producing planet-warming gases as it slowly decomposes anaerobically in a landfill. (Composting is considered the second-least effective option on the Environmental Protection Agency’s food recovery hierarchy, but it’s still far and away better than tossing all your scraps in the garbage.) Take advantage of any municipal composting programs or consider using a backyard compost bin that can produce natural fertilizer for your garden. In the end, you’ll have a garden with healthier soil leading to more productive harvests. There are several excellent guides on composting, including this one, which explain what you should and shouldn’t be composting and how to maximize the benefit.

10. Navigate the label lingo

Sometimes—as in the case of the slimy cucumber in the back of the fridge—it’s clear that food needs to be discarded. But concerns over ambiguous “best-before dates” is a big contributor to food wastage. Arbitrary “sell by,” “best by,” and “use by” dates are not the same as “expiration dates,” but are rather based on when taste or texture of the food may become altered. As long as the food has been properly stored, often it will be perfectly safe to consume well after these dates. For instance, a tub of yogurt that has a “best by” date set for tomorrow is likely perfectly good to eat for another week or more. Milk, greens and packaged grains are all other items that can typically go past the best by dates. It's better to use common sense to figure out if something is still OK to eat or should be tossed. A useful resource is Still Tasty, where you can find true expiration dates for many different foods.

11. Don’t over-prepare

A dinner party or backyard barbecue for four can’t eat five pounds of potato salad and three gallons of coleslaw. And how would just you and your neighbors eat 12 hamburgers? Leftovers are great, but only if you’re willing and able to eat them. Avoid making too much food when hosting by better adjusting recipes to match the number of servings you need.

12. Share the love

Ideally, you want to feed edible food to people, not the compost heap. So if you have a bumper crop of cherry tomatoes and zucchini, make it a habit to share extras with family, friends or coworkers, or donate it to a food bank, food pantry or shelter. If your garden yields surplus produce, you can use Ample Harvest to find a local food pantry that can supply this nourishment to those who need it.

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