We walk into the supermarket with the best of intentions. We’re brought face to face immediately with vibrant fruits and vegetables, and we cart our treasures home to arrange attractively on the counter or to fill up our refrigerator crisper drawers.
And then a week or two later, after we’ve forgotten about them or gotten busy, they start to look a bit, well, sad. Wrinkly. Limp. Moldy, even. We shrug or make a face of disgust, toss them absentmindedly into the garbage, and wash our hands of the whole situation.
Next week, will we do it all over again?
Food waste affects more than just your wallets.
The number 40% has been thrown around a lot these days by environmentalists and foodies alike. It’s the estimated amount of U.S. food that goes to waste. This waste can happen in restaurants, at supermarkets, and all the way back at the farms. It’s a complex issue with a plethora of consequences.
We talk about the urgency of finding a way to feed the world’s growing population, investing millions in biotechnology and other controversial endeavors because we “just aren’t growing enough.” But what if we could make better use of what we already do grow? It may not independently end world hunger, but shifting the way we approach food versus waste could be part of the solution.
When we waste food, we also waste water, an increasingly grave concern. We devote so much water to grow crops that are then discarded in the field, trashed in a processing facility, sent back to the kitchen by restaurant-goers, or left to rot in our homes. The 1.3 billion tons of food wasted annually translates to about 45 trillion gallons of wasted water.
Of course, financial considerations of food waste are serious, too. Instead of complaining about how much healthy food costs (side note: it doesn’t really), why not identify areas where you could save a little money? One option is simply finding ways to use more of what you already buy.
Read on for some of the ways to turn what we view as food “trash” into food treasures.
Food In Jars and Containers
Aquafaba: It sounds fancy, but it’s nothing more than that goopy liquid in a can of beans that you generally wash down the drain. This water contains some of the nutrients, including starch, from the beans, allowing it to take on some interesting properties. Aquafaba is famous for its capabilities as a vegan whipped topping alternative, as it forms stiff peaks like whipped cream when beaten, but that’s only the tip of the recipe iceberg.
Other condiment brines: The oil left in a jar of sundried tomatoes could be used as a cooking oil or incorporated into a dressing; and a few tablespoons of pickled jalapeno brine can add a pop of mild heat to a stir fry or rice dish. To balance the sodium found in many of these condiments, add less to the rest of the recipe and be mindful how much you use.
Almost empty nut (or seed) butter containers: They’re the perfect size for a single serving of overnight oats! If the jar is glass, you can even pop it in the microwave to warm up the next morning, softening the nut butter and making it even easier to get every last bit! Once I’m done with my overnight oats, I wash out the glass jars well to re-use, allowing me to all-but phase out my plastic storage containers.
Tomato paste: Many recipes only call for a tablespoon or two, and that half-used container is likely to sprout mold before you get around to finishing it. Instead, spoon the leftover paste into ice cube trays and freeze. Each cube is about two tablespoons, which will be quick to thaw when you ne
Past-Their-Prime Fresh Foods
Stale bread: I usually keep my bread in the freezer, but if you’ve left bread out on the counter a bit too long, it doesn’t have to be tossed automatically. As long as it’s not moldy, there are a dozen ways to put it to good use. Try a healthy twist on French toast, bread pudding, croutons, or even bread crumbs (unused bread butts are particularly great for this)! And if you’re wondering if this same idea applies to other stale, bread-like products (such as bagels, cereal, and starchy snacks), the answer is a resounding yes.
Limp vegetables: Fruits and vegetables are made up primarily of water, but over time, they start to lose that moisture content. Crisper drawers and proper storage strategies help slow this process down, but if you find yourself with limp or wilty vegetables, have no fear! Celery and carrots perk up when soaked in cold water, while asparagus prefers a warm bath (but only submerge the ends, not the tips). Slightly wilted greens are great for soups, casseroles, and pesto.
Over-ripe or bruised fruit: Just because an apple has a bruise on it or a banana is browner than you prefer for general snacking doesn’t mean it’s time for the trash! Bruises are easy enough to cut around (or, honestly, just eat), but it is important to use bruised fruit quickly, as structural damage can make bacteria and spoilage more likely. If you’d prefer, use them for baking or making apple and fruit sauces. Bananas past their prime are excellent candidates for the freezer, and make creamy additions to smoothies, baked goods, and “nice” creams.
Skins, Peels, Zest, and Rinds
We tend not to eat the outsides of many foods, especially fruits and vegetables, but with a little creativity there is a lot that we can do with them!
Watermelon rinds: These can be pickled, candied, juiced, or incorporated into any number of food or drink recipes, including vinaigrettes, salads, pies, and slushies!
Cheese rinds: Any Italian chef will tell you they make famously good additions to soups and stews, imparting a salty flavor to the broth. You can also add them while cooking grains or beans and, as long as the rind does not have a waxy coating, you can even grill it to use as a topping for bread.
Citrus zest: Never let the peel go to waste, as it imparts an incredibly fresh flavor to dishes of all kinds. Try adding it to your oatmeal, yogurt, dinner grains, marinades, and salad dressings! You can also use citrus zest for candying, drying for tea, infusing liquor, and with fireplace kindling.
Apple peels: You can avoid waste altogether by using them even if a recipe tells you not to; usually if you grate the apple as opposed to chopped or slicing, it comes out just fine. If that’s not your style, consider making some apple peel tea, DIY cleaner, or jelly. (That last one uses the apple peel and core, by the way!)
Potato peels: These can also often be left on in recipes: try a heartier “smashed” potato over a super-creamy mash, for example. There’s also nothing quite like a potato skin that’s been allowed to crisp up in the oven and drizzled with just a touch of oil and salt. Potatoes, as it turns out, are one of the most wasted foods, and it’s a shame, as there are so many options for using them!
Cores, Bones, Stalks, and Stems
Corn cobs: If you're able to throw yours outside, the wildlife will love you. This does keep them out of landfills and help with biodegradation, but we can do better than just that. They are also used for soup stocks, jelly, and as fire starters!
Bones: Stop spending an arm and a leg on cartons of bone broth that someone else made for you, while you throw away the very basic ingredients you need to make some yourself! (As an aside, the slow cooker is great for this! Add a splash of vinegar to help pull the collagen into the broth.)
Broccoli stalks: I never throw these in the trash. Instead, I peel away the extra-tough outer layer, trim off the very end that gets a bit dried out, and slice the rest to roast or steam with the florets! You’ll get pretty much the same nutrition, plus an extra serving that you already paid for at the store!
Asparagus ends: These guys are too woody to enjoy on their own, but if you simmer them in stock or broth until tender and then blitz in a high-powered blender, you can make a great asparagus soup! I prefer to strain mine before serving, as even with a Vitamix it can wind up a touch pulpy.
Chard stems: This tougher end of the leafy green is great for sautéing, but be sure to add to the pan at least five minutes before the leaves, as they’ll take longer to tenderize. I generally add them along with any other hardy vegetable the recipe calls for, like onion or Brussels sprouts.
We tend to think of our greens as isolated vegetables sold in convenient clamshells or bags at the store; yet so many of the other veggies we buy naturally grow with their own set of greens attached, too! Many of these greens are perfectly edible but may be a bit gritty or sandy, so take care to wash them extra-well. I’ll usually put them in a salad spinner and fill with water, soaking and changing the water at least once. The strainer basket in the spinner makes it easy to change and drain the water, and the spinning function helps them get particularly dry.
Beet leaves: These leafy greens are excellent sautéed or steamed, as are their stems; but remember, as with the chard above, the stems will take longer to soften and should be started first. Add the greens to wilt.
Cauliflower leaves: Try roasting them!
Fresh herbs: Recipes rarely if ever call for an entire bunch, but don't let that stop you. Wash, dry, and chop up the leftovers before they go to waste. I freeze them in little baggies just like that, but other recipes will tell you to blend them with oil and freeze in ice cube trays.
An added benefit of buying these vegetables with their greens still attached is that you’ll often find them without any packaging. This isn’t the case with cauliflower, which always comes with its greens attached and is often wrapped in plastic; but it’s certainly true for beets and carrots. Less packaging means even less waste in our landfills and waterways!
A Change in Perspective
Beginning to adopt a mindset of reducing food waste requires a shift in the way we think about and prepare food.
Change how you shop: So much of our produce is thrown away because consumers falsely equate minor blemishes or irregular shapes with inferior quality. It’s also important to not jump to toss slightly wilted or lackluster produce. Make sure, as well, that you meal plan and work to reduce how much you buy that you can’t use or don’t really need. Keep shopping lists so that you don’t double up on ingredients you already have.
Change how you cook: Planning a “leftovers” night at the end of the week of stir fries, soups and stews, pasta, and “tapas” style meals are all great options for using up a random assortment of fresh ingredients that aren’t going to last much longer. You can also get in the habit of cooking plainer, versatile ingredients, which can be reused throughout the week without feeling stale or boring. For example, cooking up some plain chicken and rice at the beginning of the week could become an Asian stir-fry one night, a Mexican burrito bowl another, and an Italian casserole a third.
Change how you serve: Focus on small servings, since you can always go back for more but can’t easily reuse half-eaten food left on someone’s plate. You can also portion meals into freezer containers immediately after cooking and cooling, so leftovers don’t get shoved to the back of the fridge and forgotten. Lastly, drinking straight from multi-serving cartons and dipping multiple times into condiments, ice cream, and peanut butter promote bacterial growth and will hasten the spoilage of the food.
Become A Trash-Versus-Treasure Expert
Learn the terminology: Familiarize yourself with the nuances of package dates, as most refer to general product quality and have nothing to do with safety concerns. If you’re worried about the flavor or freshness deterioration, know that the dates are ultra-conservative to protect companies from dissatisfied customers; I bet you won’t be able to tell a difference. The one exception is the sell or freeze-by date on meats, which should be adhered to pretty strictly and does refer to product safety. If you aren’t sure, check out the Still Tasty database.
Identify foods that are unsafe to eat: Spoiled foods will typically smell rancid and they will certainly taste off. And when it comes to mold, you’ll definitely want to seriously consider whether the product is still usable. The more moisture is in the food, the more dangerous it is to eat. With harder products like potatoes, carrots, and hard cheeses, you can cut widely around the mold areas and still use the rest of the product. Sometimes you can also pick off a moldy berry, and perhaps the few that surround it to be extra-safe, and still be fine; but don’t buy food that’s already visibly moldy in the store and don’t mess with liquid or softer products that have grown mold.
Compost what you can’t or won’t use: Lastly, seriously think about how you dispose of the perishables that you can’t salvage. Composting is a sustainable option available in both rural and urban areas, thanks to new innovations and a little creativity. The biggest things to avoid composting are oils (or grease in general) and animal products, including both meat and dairy.
It might take a little practice, but remember this if it ever feels overwhelming: it doesn’t matter how big or small you start; just try something. Choose one product or practice to tackle and get familiar with it. Once you realize how manageable it is, you’ll be hooked!