A recent article in The Guardian reported that a fifth of respondents to a survey about wasted food said they would eat more of the food they have on hand if they had recipes for that food. So I thought I’d look up the top wasted foods and throw out some recipe ideas—and, I hope, help readers throw out less food.
The size of the wasted food problem
Worldwide, about a third of the food we produce goes uneaten, which generates up to 10 percent of all planet-heating global greenhouse gas emissions. To put that into perspective, the aviation industry generates about 2.5 percent of emissions. In fact, if food waste were its own country, it would rank third in greenhouse gas emissions, behind only China and the US.
In addition to the food itself, this waste squanders the many resources that went into the food’s production—labor, water, energy, seeds, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and land cleared of trees that can no longer sequester carbon, all for food that no one will eat. To make matters worse, in the oxygen-deprived environment of a tightly packed landfill, anaerobic bacteria break down wasted food and in doing so, generate methane, a greenhouse gas 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period, according to the IPCC.
The top wasted food categories and items
According to ReFED, a nonprofit dedicated to ending food loss and food waste, the top five categories of residential wasted food in the US in 2019 were:
- Dairy and eggs: 4.16 million tons, 19.7 percent of all wasted food
- Dry goods: 3.96 million tons, 18.8 percent
- Produce: 3.53 million tons, 16.7 percent
- Frozen foods: 3.22 million tons, 15.3 percent
- Prepared foods: 2.47 million tons, 11.7 percent
I had a little more trouble tracking down the individual items of wasted food but did find an article about a wasted food survey from Bosch refrigerator. The company surveyed 2,000 Americans and found that the following foods go to waste the most:
- Leafy greens
Ideas for five of these commonly wasted foods
The relatively short shelf-life of strawberries may explain why they go to waste often. Uneaten strawberries also increase the demand for plastic as most grocery store strawberries are packaged in plastic clamshells. If you eat all the berries you buy, you’ll buy fewer berries—and fewer clamshells. My city doesn’t accept these plastic clamshells for recycling and even if it did, if no market exists for all the plastic that Big Plastic produces, plastic goes to landfill. (Go here for more on recycling myths.)
- Freeze the berries. After buying strawberries, I prep and freeze some shortly after I get them home and eat the remaining fresh ones within two days.
- Brew this spectacular strawberry soda. All you need are strawberries, water and sugar. The bacteria and yeast on the berries eat the sugars and carbonate your drink. Really good. The strawberries themselves can turn slightly alcoholic if you let this brew longer—a tasty little treat!
- Make a fruit crumble or galette. I have recipes in my cookbook for Flaky Fruit Galette and Any-Fruit Crunchy Crumble. I included those as options to bake with whatever fruit readers have on hand. If you don’t have enough strawberries to make these, mix in other fruit.
- Cook the strawberries down to make strawberry sauce. This is like applesauce but with strawberries. Eat it on pancakes or ice cream or just by the spoonful. Add a small amount of water—about 1 tablespoon per cup of strawberries.
- Throw a few into a batch of scrap vinegar (you’ll also need apple peels and cores for that). Go here for the scrap vinegar recipe.
Whether you have an apple tree or you simply bought more apples than necessary, these ideas will help you eat them all.
- Cook a pot of applesauce. I made this often when my kids were little. Place apple chunks in a pot, add water and, if desired, cinnamon and a bit of sugar. You don’t want the apples swimming in water. Add about 2 tablespoons of water per apple. Cook everything down in the covered pot over medium heat for about 15 to 20 minutes, stirring and mashing occasionally. Now you just need some latkes (see potatoes below).
- Bake an apple crumble or galette. See the strawberry section above.
- Grate them and stir into pancake batter. I eat sourdough pancakes at least once a week. I will add grated apples or carrots, or puréed winter squash, a bit of mashed banana and so on. Go here for the sourdough pancake recipe.
- Grate them and add to quickbread. You could use apples in place of pumpkin for this pumpkin sourdough discard quick bread.
- Brew vinegar. I make this with apple peels and cores, not whole apples but if you have a glut of apples on your hands, you could cut some up for vinegar. Go here for the apple scrap vinegar recipe.
Think of stale bread as a valuable resource ready for its next incarnation. I actually like having stale bread on hand, especially for making breadcrumbs (more below).
According to the Canadian grocery chain Sobeys, 750,000 loaves of bread go to waste every day in Canada. So much bread! So many plastic bags!
Here are just some ideas for rescuing bread past its prime:
- Grind or shred it into bread crumbs. Add filler to vegetable pancakes, nutloaf and bean burgers; coat eggplant for eggplant parmigiana; top baked casseroles like macaroni and cheese; fry some in fat to sprinkle on salad. Completely dry breadcrumbs will keep in the cupboard for months and months. You’ll find so many uses for them, you’ll want to have stale bread on hand. Go here for instructions to make breadcrumbs from day-old bread. If the bread has completely dried out, simply grate it up.
- Make croutons. Cube and toss in olive oil. Bake 5 to 10 minutes at 400°F. Be sure to keep an eye on these so they don’t burn! Once cool, store in a glass jar if you don’t eat them all immediately.
- Cook stuffing. Stuffing has no season. You don’t have to wait until Thanksgiving to eat it and you don’t need a bird to stuff it into. Make it any time. Slice several pieces of bread, cube the slices and spread the cubes on a cookie sheet. Cover with another inverted cookie sheet and wait. When you make the stuffing a few days later, sauté onions and celery in fat, add ground sage and savory, salt and pepper, stir in bread cubes and add enough broth to moisten them. You can also add nuts or orzo (pasta that looks like rice) or dried cranberries. Bake in a covered dish or small Dutch oven.
- Ladle soup over torn pieces. I ate the stale end of a loaf of sourdough bread yesterday with the small amount of soup left in the refrigerator. The bread soaks up the broth and softens. Even though I had only a small amount of both bread and soup, combined, they satiated me.
- Cook French toast. I don’t measure anything for French toast and merely eyeball the amounts. I whisk together an egg, some milk, a splash of vanilla and a dash of cinnamon in a pie plate (a shallow dish results in evenly coated bread), dip in the slices of stale bread one or two at a time to soak up some egg mixture, turn the slices over to saturate the other sides of the bread and fry until golden. I serve French toast with either maple syrup or powdered sugar and lemon juice. For a vegan version, this recipe from Love & Lemons looks good.
- Bake bread pudding. Turn a stale loaf into a rich, creamy dessert. I included a recipe for Mexican Hot Chocolate Bread Pudding in my cookbook. You’ll look forward to stale loaves after tasting it!
- Brew kvass. This classic Ukrainian fermented drink calls for rye bread. The last time I made it, it was quite boozy. Go here for a recipe that calls for dry active yeast. (I make it with sourdough starter but don’t have a recipe on my blog for that.)
- Revive stale bread by dousing it with water and heating it up. I doubted this would work the first time I tried it but it will revive even very stale bread. Put the crust directly under a running tap—yes, directly under!—to get it sopping wet, avoiding the cut edges. Place the wet bread in a 300°F oven for about 7 minutes. If you accidentally soaked the cut sides, leave the bread in the oven for a few more minutes. The water will turn to steam inside the oven, which transforms your bread from stale back to scrumptious.
Animal products require more water, more land, more energy and more labor to produce so while you don’t want to waste any food, you really don’t want to waste animal products. But milk need not go to waste! You can rescue it in so many ways. Below are just some options:
- Make quick soft cheese. You don’t need fancy ingredients or tools to make ricotta or paneer. You heat the milk, add an acid to curdle it, strain out the curds from the whey and, for paneer, form a slab and press it. Go here for the ricotta recipe and here for the paneer recipe. Save the whey too—you’ll render lots! I substitute it for water when I bake bread. It also freezes well.
- Make yogurt. By fermenting surplus milk you can’t drink, you extend its shelf life by a few weeks. You do need yogurt to make more yogurt but not very much. And once you start making your own, you won’t need to buy more unless your yogurt dies (which does happen occasionally). My daughter makes her yogurt in an Instapot but you don’t need one; you just need an element and a pot. Heat the milk, allow it to cool a bit, backslop it with the reserved yogurt from a previous batch, let it sit in warm spot overnight and violà. Go here for the recipe.
- Make sour cream. Like the yogurt recipe, this one extends the shelf life of surplus dairy—this time, half and half. To make this, you need cultured buttermilk—not flavored buttermilk. But once you have that, you can make more buttermilk. Stir a bit into half and half. Let sit overnight. Chill. Devour. Eat this with your baked potatoes or latkes. Go here for the recipe.
- Make a creamy vegetable soup. First, make a béchamel sauce, next add steamed vegetables and broth and then purée. I love creamy broccoli soup made this way. Go here for more details.
- Make bread pudding. See the bread section above. You can also make rice pudding. Or actual pudding.
- Freeze it. Yes, you can freeze milk for about six months. If you use jars, be sure to leave a couple of inches of headspace to allow the milk to expand without cracking your jar. (Go here for more on freezing food in jars.)
If your potatoes often sprout, try storing them in a cooler place. Warmer temperatures encourage sprouting; the potatoes think spring has arrived and start to grow. You can eat them after they have sprouted but they taste better before they reach this stage.
Two additional ingredients will help ensure you eat more of the potatoes you buy: fat and salt.
- Bake a pile of potatoes. This makes quick work of lots of potatoes. After scrubbing and stabbing the potatoes with a fork, dry them, rub them with just enough olive oil to coat and place them in a cast-iron pan (or other pan). Sprinkle with salt and bake at 425°F for 45 minutes or until the skins have crisped up and a knife slides smoothly into the potatoes. A baked potatoes piled with toppings can serve as an entire meal. Top them with salsa, black beans and sour cream or steamed broccoli and cashew cheese or leftover chili or all of the above. You’ll find something in your refrigerator to put on them.
- Make pan fries out of leftover baked potatoes. I use any type of potato for these. Heat oil or a combo of oil and butter in a pan (I prefer cast iron) over medium high heat. Add the diced baked (or boiled) potatoes, sprinkle on salt, stir often until browned and serve hot. I love mine with homemade vinegar. (Go here for the vinegar recipe.)
- Roast them. Cut the unpeeled potatoes into bite-size pieces, toss in olive oil—about 1 tablespoon per 2 cups of prepped potatoes—sprinkle on salt and roast at 400°F for about 30 minutes until tender on the inside and crispy on the outside. The cooking time varies based on the potato type and freshness. Very dense, very fresh potatoes require more cooking time.
- Bake french fries. I used to make these all the time for my kids. The recipe I used is similar to this one from New York Times Cooking.
- Make latkes. This classic potato latke recipe, also from New York Times Cooking, calls for russet potatoes. If you’ve made applesauce with surplus apples, serve it with these. You may also want a dollop of sour cream (see the previous section).
- Make potato bread. What could be more comforting than potatoes? Potatoes and bread! Go here for my sourdough-potato focaccia recipe.
- Eat the peels. Fried potato skins taste delicious. I fry them in a pan on the stove. My daughter MK has access to an air fryer and uses that for hers. The peels of various fruit and vegetables often contain more pesticide reside so I avoid eating peels of non-organic produce. Do what makes you most comfortable. Go here for more on frying potato peels.
- Plant them if they sprout. I have potatoes growing in a burlap sack at the moment. I buy organic ones, which do sprout (non-organic are treated with an herbicide to prevent sprouting). Organic store-bought grow faster. (Go here for more on planting store-bought potatoes.)
Bonus strategy to prevent wasted food
Give food away that you can’t eat! Sharing food is another good strategy to prevent wasted food and it makes you feel good. Offer your surplus food to friends and neighbors. Or post the food on OLIO, a free app like Tinder for excess food (and other items but not dates although you could hit it off with a recipient). Visit OLIO’s website here.
Keep in mind that your food doesn’t have to look Instagram-worthy. I think cooking shows and food porn do a disservice to home cooks who just want to get dinner on the table—and waste less food. Like Julia Child said, “You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces—just good food from fresh ingredients.”