I always feel so guilty when I throw out an expired condiment or a slimy mass of rotting lettuce. Not only does it sting from a money-losing standpoint, but I also feel guilty contributing to the landfill, while wasting precious resources.
I often admire those environmentalists you hear about, the ones who can fit their entire years’ worth of their household waste into a single Mason jar. While I might never attain this level of zero-waste prowess, I’ve found that I can at least get a few steps closer to zero waste just by changing a few things about my cooking and grocery-shopping habits.
Here are a few of the best ways to cut down on trash and food waste in the kitchen.
1. Plan Your Meals Better
The most food waste is results from unused portions of ingredients that go bad before they can be used. When I’m planning meals, I try to find recipes that use similar ingredients that I know I’ll have a surplus of, but in different ways. The bunch of cilantro that I use in a Mexican taco recipe, for instance, can also be used in a Thai curry. And I can cook up a big batch of black beans and use them once in chili, and another time to make veggie burgers.
2. Shop from your pantry before you head to the store
Once I ended up with three containers of cornstarch because every time I went to the store, I assumed I was out of it (and mind you, it takes quite a while to use up an entire container of cornstarch!). These days, after I make my shopping list, I take a look in my pantry and my refrigerator to see what’s already there. Often I end up checking off quite a few things from my list, and even changing my menu plan for the week to incorporate ingredients that I already have on hand.
3. Know what to do with food that’s past its prime
Wilted lettuce and bruised fruit might not be the prettiest, but it doesn’t mean it’s inedible. Often greens can be revived by dipping them in cold water for a few minutes. And produce with bad spots on it can often be cut up and still used in a recipe — zucchini bread, a smoothie, or a fruit butter, for instance. Even hard cheese with a spot of mold can still be eaten safely if you cut the mold away. The same doesn’t hold true, though, for bread, soft cheese, or jarred foods like jam. (The safest thing to do, if you have any doubt, is to discard it.)
4. Don’t always believe the expiration date
Food doesn’t automatically go bad the moment the date stamped on the carton arrives. Terms like “sell by” and “best by” are simply guidelines, and you can usually use up the rest of the container safely within a week or so afterward this date. Chicken, ground meat, and precut, bagged produce, however, are more likely to have bacteria, so in their cases, it’s a good idea to heed the date.
5. Use it all
There’s something so satisfying about being able to use every single part of an ingredient. A good reference, like the book, My Zero Waste Kitchen, will showcase just how you can do that. I’ve gotten really good at making stocks from chicken bones and vegetable scraps, but I’ve also gotten even more creative. If you buy a bunch of beets, for instance, the greens taste excellent when they’re sautéed like spinach. And in the aforementioned book, the author even explains how you can plant the unused parts of the vegetable, like the core of a lettuce head or the root end of a scallion, to regrow them!
6. Have “Leftovers Night” dinner weekly
By Thursday or so, I usually have a fridge full of little leftover containers: Monday’s soup, Tuesday’s taco filling … not enough to make a whole meal, but certainly more than I’d want to throw away. If the leftovers can’t be combined into some kind of meal that makes sense (grain bowls are great for this), the kitchen becomes a free-for-all, and everyone gets to pick their favorite leftovers to reheat. We find it’s helpful to include a Leftovers Night in our weekly meal planning to ensure we eat them before they go bad.
7. Buy loose produce
There are certain conveniences of supermarket chains that I love, with one major exception: Their produce is often only sold prepackaged in cellophane or plastic-wrapped onto Styrofoam platters. I’ve taken to buying my produce instead at supermarkets where everything is sold loose. And even there, I steer clear of those plastic bags intended for bagging produce: I don’t need bags for larger items like cucumbers or apples, and for smaller items, such as green beans or cherries, I bring reusable mesh produce bags. As convenient as they are, avoiding pre-washed or prepped ingredients, such as salad greens or bagged broccoli florets, also cuts down on packaging waste.
8. Eat Less Meat
Since I’ve cut back on my household’s meat consumption, I’ve noticed that my kitchen waste has also diminished. I’m not buying plastic bags of lunchmeat, Styrofoam platters of ground turkey, or vacuum-sealed portions of fish fillets. There also are fewer bones, skins, or fat trimmings to do away with. And while I used to throw away meat leftovers because of worries of contamination or that they had gone bad, my meatless leftovers are likely to last a little longer since bacteria tends to thrive on proteins like meat. Buying less meat allows us to spend a little more for high quality when we do buy it. In this case, we try to buy meat from local butcher shops (lower carbon footprint since the meat is coming from a nearby farm), where it’s wrapped in compostable butcher’s paper rather than sealed in plastic.
Being more mindful of how one buys, stores, and uses food will undoubtedly help any home cook drastically reduce their household waste. I know that within a few weeks of practicing some of these tips, my trash can is already less full!