According to a recent USDA study, Americans waste 1 pound per person per day at the household level. Now I basically live and breathe waste. I would like to insert the word figuratively into that statement but with plastic pollution in our water, our air, our soil and our food I cannot. Even with my crossed-the-borderline obsession with waste, I found that 1 pound per day stat shocking. I don’t waste food and I know many others who don’t waste food. So some people out there waste over a pound per day to make up for the non-wasters. Who can afford to do that?
Not only does wasting food squander all the resources that went into producing it—the land, the water, the energy, the chemicals and fertilizers, the labor—it also causes a massive environmental problem upon disposal.
Compacted in a landfill, food lacks exposure to air. Anaerobic bacteria—bacteria that thrive without oxygen—break that food down. The bacteria produce methane gas as a byproduct, a greenhouse gas much more potent than carbon dioxide. On the other hand, if that same food becomes compost, it not only returns nutrients to the soil, it actually sequesters carbon dioxide. Of course, food should be eaten first and composted as a last resort.
But food waste, unlike other environmental ills, has (among others) one very simple solution. We can eat the food.
Why do we waste so much food?
Among other causes—supermarkets rejecting ugly fruit and vegetables for example—a lack of both kitchen efficiency and kitchen skills increases food waste. Many people don’t cook. If they do cook, they may not plan their meals. They may eat out at the last minute, despite having a stocked refrigerator or pantry or—with the best intentions to eat healthy—they may simply buy too much food.
How many of us shop and cook today
A. Like a character from the pages of a dystopian novel
- Command Alexa to order a meal kit from Amazon. Wait for box crammed with individually, plastic wrapped ingredients to arrive on doorstep in a tidy cardboard box proudly displaying “made from recycled materials” on the bottom.
- Hide behind the curtains when the UPS driver pulls up and do not answer door so as to avoid all human interaction along this very long food supply chain. Wait patiently for the not-too-distant day your meal kits will arrive via drone.
- Assemble meal.
- Throw out copious amounts of plastic and cardboard and mixed materials packaging in the trash.
B. By picking a recipe at complete random
- Tempted by the siren song of food porn, choose a recipe online. Or pick one of the four recipes we make frequently from a cookbook that has 143 other recipes which we will never try.
- Make a shopping list of all the ingredients. Go to the store. Buy ingredients. Start cooking.
- Return to the store to pick up the bunch of parsley we forgot, of which the recipe calls for two tablespoons.
- Cook the food. Shove all the ingredients left over from prepping the meal into the back of the refrigerator, never to be eaten.
- Store the leftovers of the meal in the refrigerator, only to hear our family pooh-pooh them the next day when we pull them back out.
- Throw out a lot of food at the end of the week.
- Buy more food.
How to eliminate all food waste from the home
All food waste, you ask? Yes, all food waste.
Rather than allowing our whims to choose what to eat for dinner, let our pantries do it. Instead of picking a new recipe to cook from scratch every night for dinner—who has time to do that?—look at what you have on hand and let that determine what you’ll cook.
Have a pile of wilting yet perfectly edible vegetables in your vegetable crisper? Make soup. If you have a few spoonfuls of cooked rice drying out in the refrigerator or a half cup of cooked beans, toss those in. An apple that has seen better days? Absolutely chop it up and add it. Parmesan cheese rinds? First of all, good work saving those. Into the soup they go. Garnish the soup with croutons made from stale bread cubes and you’ve not only made a delicious, satisfying meal, you’ve diverted a pile of food from landfill.
Made too much rescue soup? Freeze it for several days or several weeks and enjoy it for lunch or dinner another time.
Forgo the recipes. Learn to master a few endlessly versatile and simple dishes and you won’t waste food. Cooking this way may not result in Instagram-worthy meals but they will taste delicious.
Now that I’ve recommended you throw out the recipes—to avoid throwing out food—I present a bunch of recipes. But think of these as non-recipes which you can adjust according to what you have on hand.
Chili is a great example of a versatile use-what’s-on-hand recipe. Add various vegetables and a handful grains if you like. Although some may disagree with me, you do not have a moral obligation to make chili with red kidney beans. Use whatever beans you have on hand. If you eat meat and you have some bits of it in the refrigerator, toss it in as well. Here is my chili recipe.
I love Indian food and cook dal once a week or so. This delicious, satisfying and aromatic dish contains dry split peas or lentils, onions, tomatoes and spices. Even my picky daughter eats it. As with all of the recipes listed here, you can improvise with dal, adding a bit of this vegetable and a smidgen of that, depending on what ingredients you have on hand. Find my basic dal recipe here.
Have a bunch of vegetables you need to use up and some eggs? Make frittata. My daughter calls this quiche without the best part—the pastry. If you have pastry on hand or want to take an extra step and make pastry, you can use these same ingredients to make a quiche. Go here for the frittata recipe.
Conveniently, you can make each pizza component—the dough, the sauce, the cheese if you make your own cheese—in advance of the actual pizza-baking day, a great stress-reducer for birthday parties or sleepovers or simply those what-on-earth-are-we-gonna-eat-oh-look-I-have-dough-and-sauce-ready-thank-heaven nights. Click here for pizza.
Soup I: Vegetable
I can make tasty soup out of almost nothing. I need a bit of fat, some homemade broth (also made from nothing) and some of those vegetables rattling around in my refrigerator—vegetables that might otherwise go to waste. Here is a highly adaptable soup recipe.
Soup II: Minestrone
You can add sorts of different vegetables to minestrone soup—carrots, celery, leeks, cabbage, cauliflower, parsnips, turnips, bell peppers, squash, pumpkin and potatoes, for example. In summer, you might add green beans, corn and fresh basil. Whatever vegetables you include, you will, however, want to add tomatoes. This is after all an Italian dish. In winter, I will use a jar of my roasted tomatoes that I prep and freeze in the summer and eat all winter. If you use fresh tomatoes, ideally, you would blanch, peel and seed them. I do this step only occasionally, I have to admit. Click here for minestrone soup.
If, while searching through your pantry, you stumble upon an overwhelmingly large pile of vegetables, don’t panic! Roast them. Eat some now as a side dish and purée the rest in a bit of liquid, either water or homemade vegetable broth made from scraps and enjoy your roasted vegetable soup for lunch the next day. Here is my roasted vegetable recipe.
Sourdough Starter Discard
Recipes that use up excess sourdough starter deserve an entire post of their own (I’ll get to it eventually…). When you nurture a starter, you will feed it every day, removing most of the established starter and feeding fresh water and flour to what remains. This can quickly result in a large accumulation of discarded sourdough starter. But don’t waste it! With the discard, you can make (among other delicious food):
Like soup, stir fry is easily adaptable to the vegetables you have on hand. Have one green onion or two mushrooms? Slice them and toss them in. Found a small head of broccoli in the crisper that you forgot about? In it goes, along with the leaves and stalk. Wondering what to do with that handful of spinach? It wants to be loved. In a stir fry. Go here for my stir fry recipe.
Other Use-It-Up Recipes
Many other recipes work well for polishing off food you have on hand. These include fried rice, pot pie and empanadas, for example. Fruit crumbles and hand pies transform fruit that has seen better days into delicious desserts. Quick breads can help you deal with some of that excess zucchini you may have on your hands this summer.
By restricting yourself to using ingredients on hand to make dinner, you get creative, you save money and you likely have more fun in the kitchen.