I hate throwing away food. Over the years, I’ve watched as food rots in my fridge, bread goes stale and plate after plate of food disappears into the trash—along with my hard-earned money. Finally, I decided to get serious and make a change. It’s still not perfect, but I’ve developed several strategies to minimize waste with the goal of someday never wasting any food. To be truly no-waste, of course, includes non-food waste, like packaging, which I will discuss in another post. For now, I want to share the food saving methods that have worked for me.
1. REVIEW YOUR HABITS
The first thing I did was to figure out why I was throwing away food. I saw this tip on lifehacker.com a while back and it really helped. When you track what you’re throwing away, patterns start to emerge. Are you buying exotic ingredients and only using a little? Are the packages too big? Are you cooking too much? Spotting the root causes will help you to find solutions that fit for you.
2. STORE YOUR FOOD WELL.
One of the easiest way to avoid food waste is to review the list from Step 1 and re-evaluate how you store those items. For me, one that stuck out was berries! I love fresh berries, but those delicious little devils never seemed to last more than a day. There are several excellent guides online about food storage, but Still Tasty is one of the most comprehensive ones I’ve found.
3. MAKE A LIST OF WHAT TO MAKE WITH WHAT YOU HAVE ON HAND
Make a list of your planned meals (this also helps at the grocery store!) Meal planning may sound like a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be. Just keep it loose: I always have a “meal plan” but it doesn’t involve anything as rigid as Meatloaf Monday, Taco Tuesday; it’s more of a list that reminds me of what I have available to make.
The list doesn’t even have to be in order. It’s more of a reminder of what you could make with what you have on hand, and it can include full meals as well as snacks. Attached it to the fridge with a magnet, and anytime you think of something new you can make, add it to the list. When you make something, cross it off the list. This way, when you’re hungry and pressed for time, a quick glance at the list will tell you immediately where you stand.
4. USE UP LEFTOVERS
The easiest way to use up leftovers is to make foods you might actually want to eat as leftovers. (We all have our favorites!) But when that’s not an option, repurposing leftovers is your best bet. Some of my favorite ways to reuse leftovers include:
Rice: Turn leftovers into fried rice, or cook with milk and sugar for a tasty rice pudding
Pasta or other noodles: Make a pasta salad, noodle salad, or savory pancakes.
Herbs: Freeze or dry excess amounts of fresh herbs. Or, make a vinaigrette or a frittata.
Bread: One “leftover” I always have is bread ends. Too thin for a proper sandwich, I like to use them in meatloaf or meatballs, to toast and use as croutons or breadcrumbs, or to make bread pudding.
Egg yolks and whites: Anyone who cooks often will run into the problem of a recipe that calls for a large number of yolks (or whites) and you’re left with six or a dozen of the other. Use this egg whites/egg yolks chart below for when you have one or the other left over.
5. USE-IT-UP MEALS
Another useful habit is to have a couple of super easy, go-to recipes that use up all the little odds and ends that seem to accumulate in the kitchen. Nubs of cheese, bits of vegetables—the stuff that’s not quite enough for a meal. Here are a couple of my favorites:
Vegetable Stir Fry
This is a great recipe because it uses up all the random vegetable bits, and all you need to do is lightly fry everything with a little oil and top it with this brown sauce or your favorite stir fry sauce, or ponzu sauce will work well too. If you have a small amount of any kind of meat leftover, you can cut it into strips and toss it in there as well. It’s nearly impossible to go wrong on this one.
Another great way to use up random bits of vegetables: tempura. Tempura batter is simple to make as it’s ingredients are just corn starch, and/or flour, and water. It’s easier than you think.
Quesadillas are great for really small quantities of meats, cheese, and vegetables. Almost anything can go inside a flour tortilla, (as long as some cheese is in there to hold it all together!) then you just fold it in half and grill in a pan for about a minute on each side.
Since I’m a cheese lover, I often end up with silly little bits of cheese that are too small to make anything out of so I shred a few of them up and make a quiche. A basic quiche recipe is quite forgiving on the type of cheese you use, so long as the quantity is roughly the same. It won’t work if you substitute a high-moisture cheese like mozzarella, but for the most part you can use whatever else you’ve got. Making your own pie crust is fairly easy, but you can always buy a premade crust, throw a few sheets of phyllo down instead, or even forgo the crust altogether. A quiche can also use up your veggie scraps: quiches are delicious with just about any combination of vegetables mixed in.
Every so often I like to do a “farmer’s plate” type of meal, which is just a collection of sliced meats, cheeses, raw vegetables, bread, and so on. You can use what you have on hand and it’s very easy to put together.
6. SUBSTITUTE, SUBSTITUTE, SUBSTITUTE.
Another great way to avoid food waste is to substitute. Not only does it help you use what you’ve got, you avoid buying yet another product that may leave leftovers. For example:
Carrot tops are a perfect stand-in for fresh parsley.
Dark leafy greens are nearly interchangeable: you can swap beet tops, chard, and spinach for one another in most recipes.
Nuts can be swapped out for similar nuts.
Similar herbs can be substituted for one another, such as oregano and marjoram or tarragon in place of chervil
7 WHEN FOODS HAVE GONE BAD…OR HAVE THEY?
Sometimes, foods aren’t exactly bad—they aren’t going to make you sick—but they aren’t very appetizing anymore. Sometimes these foods can be salvaged and saved with minimal effort:
Overripe Fruit: Overripe fruits are wonderful in smoothies. Overripe bananas can also be used to make banana bread or muffins.
Root vegetables: Root vegetables like carrots that have lost their firmness can often be revived by soaking them in cold water, or if they are still limp, they can be cooked into soup where crunchiness isn’t as important.
Hard Brown Sugar: Hard brown sugar can be kept from getting hard in the first place by storing it with a piece of bread, a slice of apple or a piece of terra cotta.
Wilted Greens: Similar to root vegetables, slightly wilted greens can sometimes be revived with a cold water bath, or added to soup.
8. USE YOUR SCRAPS
There are several ways to use foods we normally think of as scraps, including:
Add parmesean rinds to your soup, it really adds a little something, particularly to tomato-based soups like minestrone
Make soup stock from onion tops, carrot ends, excess herbs, and meat bones
Candy citrus peels or use them to freshen up your garbage disposal
One of my personal favorites: you can actually regrow food from scraps. Check out this link for a quick overview of what’s possible: Regrowing from scraps
When all else fails and something simply must be chucked out, there’s always compost.
WHAT LEFTOVERS ARE YOU ALWAYS STUCK WITH?
Tell me and I’ll try to come up with a solution
Santa Fe native Melyssa Holik earned a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and a Bachelor of Fine Arts in graphic design and photography from New Mexico State University. She currently writes and photographs for peggyomara.com, localflavormagazine.com as well as for her own site, holikdesign.com. She loves food (growing, cooking and eating!), art, travel and adventure.