New ways to use food waste at home
by Jill Lightner
This article was originally published in January 2019
Food waste has received a lot of recent media attention. This publicity is exciting because food waste is a serious issue at the intersection of climate change, food insecurity, and finances. At the same time, reducing food waste shouldn’t be a passing fad but a permanent way of life.
The numbers are stark. Of the food wasted in this country, home kitchens are responsible for between 30 and 40 percent, the single largest share of food waste. This makes the issue personal. Rather than an unsolvable problem where we point fingers at different culprits, food waste reduction benefits from small, individual changes that chip away at the 150,000 tons of wasted food U.S. consumers are responsible for each year.1 To address this issue, we need look no further than our own kitchens.
Creativity leads to less waste
I’ve been a food writer for nearly two decades with a focus on Pacific Northwest farms, ingredients and sustainability. Last year I collaborated with PCC on “Cooking from Scratch: 120 Recipes for Colorful, Seasonal Food” (Sasquatch, 2018).
While testing each of the 120 recipes for “Cooking from Scratch”, I preserved the leftover odds and ends and quickly saw that dozens of kitchen staples include a bonus ingredient or offer a wonderful second life. The leftover wedges of baguette from Cheesy Egg Boats were turned into toasted crumbs for a very old-fashioned brown betty dessert. After Blueberry-Nectarine Caprese, I experimented with the mozzarella brine as a marinade for grilled pork chops. Excess fresh herbs from numerous dishes were turned into chimichurri, cilantro chutney, persillade and my tangy favorite condiment, chermoula. All freeze wonderfully. I even saved the liquid from the canned kidney beans used in Tiger Mountain Turkey Chili to confirm that the vegan egg substitute aquafaba (typically made by whipping the liquid from canned chickpeas) can be made successfully from any sort of bean. After peeling Yukon golds for Potato and Egg Baskets, I turned the peels into a treat very much like salt and vinegar chips. I even grew some baby leeks out of the roots I trimmed while making Sherried Leek and Chanterelle Gravy.
There are endless little tricks like these, a pleasant reminder that reducing food waste doesn’t have to make cooking less creative.
Save the scraps
One basic strategy to reduce food waste at home is to save vegetable scraps for soup stock, a great starting point — and storing scraps in the freezer means you can make a batch at your convenience. Two of my favorite twists on this idea are corn stock and shrimp shell stock.
For corn stock, the cobs can be cooked or not. Just scrape off the kernels and break the cobs in half, then simmer with water and a few aromatics. The result is stock with the sweet essence of peak summer corn, ideal to save for winter chowder. The shrimp stock isn’t seasonal but it’s exceptionally flavorful: freeze the peeled shells from shrimp until you have several cups, then toast them gently in a dry pan (they’ll develop noticeable color) and once again simmer with water and aromatics. In gumbo or seafood chowder, shrimp shell stock delivers a welcome brininess to the final soup.
Shopping and storage
You also can make a sizeable impact on food waste by tweaking your shopping lists and storage systems. Fresh produce is so perishable, it’s useful to remember there are other places to buy vegetables: the freezer case and the canned goods aisles. Frozen and canned produce textures aren’t suitable for every purpose, but for soup or casseroles, frozen vegetables can make good sense while offering great flavor and still impressive nutrition.
Best of all from a food waste perspective, if dinner plans change, frozen leafy greens and canned tomatoes will survive another week. The same can’t be said for fresh. When we do end up with fresh leafy greens in need of rescue, use a food processor to purée them with a small amount of water. Frozen, this purée can last for up to one year and be used in smoothies, old-school creamed spinach, or saag paneer.
Choosing frozen or canned seafood rather than fresh can make a similar improvement. Seafood is the second-largest category of food wasted in our homes (more than 1 billion pounds per year), in large part because of how perishable those delicate proteins are.2 Either buy fresh seafood the same day you intend to eat it or choose frozen or canned fish.
Frozen seafood can thaw in just 30 minutes and modern technology and handling practices keep the quality impeccable for several months. Canned seafood, from oil-packed sardines to water-packed wild sockeye, is another way to enjoy fish while greatly reducing the likelihood of it being wasted.
Grain products are the largest category of home food waste. This fact isn’t entirely surprising considering the grain category encompasses much of our diet, from rice and bread to flour, pasta, cereal, crackers and more. The oils in whole grain products have a short shelf life, so storing them in the fridge or freezer will extend the usability of those products greatly, from brown rice crackers to whole wheat flour. Remember, too, that purchasing grains and flours in the bulk department allows us to customize the amount we buy to the number of servings we actually need for a specific recipe. It takes little extra effort to fill our own bags and it can noticeably reduce waste for rarely used ingredients. Don’t forget to bring your own containers or bags to reduce packaging waste, too.
Finally, in a region with dozens of excellent bread bakeries, stale bread is a given. Use a food processor to whirl old bread into crumbs that can become everything from meatloaf filler to a crisp salad topper. Or make French toast (sweet or savory) a regular part of meal planning.
Waste in the garden
Even coffee grounds can have a usable second life in Western Washington, where our soil is acidic. Used coffee grounds add organic matter to any soil, along with a small boost of phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, copper and nitrogen.3 Save your grounds and work them into the soil to a depth of 6 to 8 inches. (Some plants, however, will be more sensitive to caffeine than others, so avoid spreading coffee grounds around seeds or seedlings where it may inhibit germination and growth.)
If you need something to plant in your improved soil, look no further than any sprouted garlic cloves you might have. Tuck them down into a well-drained garden bed in the fall as you would a flower bulb. Within about five months, a new head of garlic will have grown underground. If you grow more than you need, drop them by your neighborhood food bank. Almost every cuisine can use fresh garlic and our region’s food banks have an ongoing need. Sharing our harvest with our neighbors is a great way to close the food loop.
Developing these long-lasting shifts in our habits is about attention to small, consistent adjustments that ultimately become a part of everyday life.
Jill Lightner has been writing about eating, drinking and farming for almost 20 years. Her latest book is “Scraps, Peels, and Stems: Recipes and Tips for Rethinking Food Waste at Home” (Skipstone, October 2018).
Tips to trim food waste
- Remnants of vinaigrette salad dressings make great marinades for grilled meats or roasted vegetables.
- Save wax-free rinds of hard cheese to add richness to homemade vegetable or chicken stock.
- The leaves of crucifers, such as cauliflower and broccoli, not only are edible, but they’re also delicious stir-fried or roasted.
- Store restaurant leftovers in air-tight glass containers rather than cardboard cartons. Transfer them when you get home or bring your own container when you dine out.