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Food waste is a major issue in the United States. In fact, recent data collected by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that between 30 and 40 percent of all food ends up in municipal landfills. Not only could food that winds up wasted be used to feed families who are in need of nutritious food, but the process of decomposition results in the buildup and release of methane gas that makes American landfills the third largest source of methane gas emissions in the country.
Although the stats appear dire, the USDA has developed an initiative called the U.S. Food Waste Challenge, a program that encourages food processors and distributors, grocery stores, industry groups, NGOs, and government bodies to improve their food management systems in order to lower the amount of food waste in our landfills. On an individual basis, the Environmental Protection Agency has released a set of very helpful guidelines to help the public reduce food waste at home that includes a guide to composting, ways to support your community food bank, and meal-planning tips.
Food Scrap Inspiration From the Professional Kitchen
Restaurant kitchens are great examples of how food scraps can be used to their full potential. Tim Harris has been a professional chef for 20 years, working in restaurants and as a private chef, and throughout his training and career he’s learned all about the importance of using food scraps in the kitchen.
“In the best professional kitchens there are very little food scraps,” he says. “Leaving meat on the bone during any butchery is an indicator of your inability. …Vegetable stems and trimmings like asparagus and broccoli are puréed into soup or maybe dried as garnish. It’s about squeezing every cent out of every ingredient.”
Harris even had the opportunity to work under Jacques Pepin, who he says would “wipe that little extra bit of egg white out of each half of the egg shell with his finger tip” because “every dozen eggs has an extra egg white stuck in the shell.”
General Tips for Preventing Food Waste
There are many ways to reduce the amount of food waste in your kitchen. Harris says his number one tip is to “shop more often to reduce spoilage. Plan to use things before you buy them and they won’t end up as science experiments in the back of the fridge.”
It’s also important to learn the difference between “sell by,” “expiry,” and “best before” dates as confusion surrounding these terms can lead to perfectly good food being thrown out before it has actually spoiled. According to the USDA’s “Food Product Dating” resource
- A “Best if Used By/Before” indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
- A “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It is not a safety date.
- A “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It is not a safety date except in certain uses on infant formula packaging.
You can learn more about what these terms mean—and how to distinguish actual expiration dates for various products here.
Keeping a whiteboard or notepad by the refrigerator and keeping stock of items as they run out will also help prevent over-shopping and doubling up on items you already have.
Get involved with composting.
It’s easy to set up a bin for composting food scraps and yard waste, especially if you have access to a backyard. Check with your local municipality to see if they have set up composting programs for apartment buildings and condominiums. City-wide composting programs are a growing initiative across the country and help to cut down on food waste in landfills.
If you’re worried about the smell from storing compostable goods on your kitchen counter, there are many indoor compost pails that are made to prevent the emission of strong odors. Another option is to freeze compost until you’re ready to dispose of it.
Get souper creative with food scraps.
Next time you’re faced with a crisper full of vegetable odds and ends or leftover cooked vegetables, add them to a kitchen sink–style veggie soup. Those last remaining bits of meat on a rotisserie chicken or steak attached to the bone will add depth to any soup, so throw in the whole thing (bones and all) and remove the bones before serving for an extra-savory flavor.
Salad leaves (with or without dressing) can also be used to make a quick yet deliciously light soup. Just blend together the salad greens with vegetable stock, Greek yogurt, or crème fraiche, and salt and pepper to taste. For best results, make your stock or broth from scratch using food scraps.
Making Homemade Stock or Broth From Leftovers
According to Harris, one of his favorite culinary experiences was with a Thai chef who had worked in embassies almost her entire career and would often eat the leftover food from functions and galas. “She once took the skin of a salmon I butchered and along with a couple limes, fish sauce, coriander, and chilies made a broth that blew my mind,” he says.
Homemade stocks and broths are an ideal way to use up food scraps in the kitchen. Not only can you use fresh scraps, but you can freeze stems and peels as you cook for use in future stocks or broths.
Harris offers many suggestions for ingredients that should be saved for this purpose:
Any gristle, silver skin, or cartilage is used to enrich a sauce of stock before being discarded. Trimmings of carrot, onion, celery, leek, garlic, fennel, tomatoes, et cetera are all saved for stock and every bone removed ends up in there too.
If you use Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, save the rinds in your freezer for stocks, risottos, and pasta sauces (just make to remove the rind before eating). Some ingredients are too strongly flavored to include in a stock or broth recipe, though, so beware of using the flesh of starchier squash, bok choy (in large amounts), cabbage, broccoli, collard greens, kohlrabi, spicy chili peppers, radishes, fresh rosemary, and turnips.