Good Cooking Choices: Tips for Avoiding Food Waste

Good Cooking Choices: Tips for Avoiding Food Waste

If you're looking for ways to reduce food waste and lower costs, it only takes a few tweaks to your kitchen habits to get you on the right path.

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The USDA pegs food wasted at the retail and consumer levels at 30% of the food supply. That’s a lot of food.

One way to attack the problem is targeting “zero food waste.” A plan like that can take a big bite out of your carbon footprint and leave more money in your wallet. It does require a little planning and strategy. For that, we’re here to help. With these tips your kitchen will be well on its way to being a zero-waste kitchen.

First Things First

Food waste falls broadly into two categories:
1. food wasted before it ever has a chance to be served
2. leftovers that never again see the light of day

One way to tackle both ends is to devise a meal plan and stick to it. It doesn’t have to be for a whole week! At the beginning, it might just be for three or four days. You’re more likely to stick with something manageable that makes sense for you.

Even with a meal plan, everybody has leftovers sometimes — sometimes by accident, sometimes on purpose. The key to zero food waste is how you deal with them. One of the biggest problems with leftovers is that sensation of “Ugh, I don’t want to eat the same thing again.” So, don’t. Sometimes the trick is turning one food into another — and often that “other” food can be pizza or stir-fry.

If you know on Tuesday that you’re going to have leftover rice, then it can become a stir-fry on Wednesday. (Check out Leftover Beef and Rice Stir Fry for one example.) If you know you’re going to have leftover spaghetti sauce one night, then perhaps that sauce becomes a pizza topping the next night. Or perhaps the spaghetti itself does, as in Leftover Spaghetti Pizza. Pizza can even be the solution for that leftovers-generating holiday par excellence: Thanksgiving Leftovers Pizza. (Turkey, gravy and cranberry sauce on pizza should start to show you that the sky’s the limit for pizza toppings.)

Have a plan for every ingredient. When you use part of a fresh vegetable — say, half of a head of broccoli or a little bit of cucumber — have a plan for the rest of it. Using a vegetable entirely or having a firm plan for using it another time soon are both good ways to make sure the food doesn’t linger and perish in the fridge.

Keep staples on hand that will help you use up leftovers. While having too many unuseable ingredients creates a risk of waste, a plentiful stock of nonperishable items that you know you use regularly reduces the risk. For example, having pasta on hand means you’re never far from roasting all the odds and ends of the produce drawer and making a sort of pasta primavera (perhaps Roasted Vegetables with Pasta). Keeping rice on hand (maybe one white rice and one brown rice to add variety) along with a bottle of ready-to-eat stir-fry sauce (or two!) means never being far from being able to mix things up in a large frying pan on the stove and make a stir-fry.

And while eggs are perishable, they last a long time, so don’t overlook them in the struggle against food waste. Not only can fried eggs be served up next to leftover rice, pasta or vegetables, but many leftovers can be incorporated into egg dishes. We've partnered with Chef Joel Gamoran, a zero food waste evangelist, on a recipe collection called "Freestyle Feasts" for our Pro Recipe series, available with a Yummly paid subscription. He teaches techniques that help people cook with what they have on hand and he makes use of eggs in his frittata.

Rearrange your fridge. Don’t let things linger in dark, remote corners for too long. Keeping things out of view is a recipe for spoilage. You may also keep a list on the fridge of the things you want to remember to use up in the next few days, crossing out and adding on as necessary. When it comes to shopping, shop your fridge first. Identify the items that are closest to going to waste and build a meal around those.

To really combat food waste, you need a freezer strategy. This means freezing leftovers before they head too far south and then — this is key — jotting a note of what you stashed in the freezer. The note goes both on the container itself — no more mysterious zip-top bags of …. what was that again? — and on a little notepad near the fridge. The notepad helps you know your inventory before you do a deep-dive in the freezer. A chalk marker makes marking on reusable food containers easier. The inventory-tracking takes a tiny bit of time, but those seconds save so many mystery-food headaches and less food ends up in the garbage.

Take a second look at those dates on packaged food. While you should not gamble with food safety, you should know exactly what the dates mean. One thing to look for is the “Best if used by date.” If that date has passed, that doesn’t mean the food should be discarded. Don’t just take our word for it! The USDA says: “Foods not exhibiting signs of spoilage should be wholesome and may be sold, purchased, donated and consumed beyond the labeled ‘Best if Used By’ date.”

All that is left after you buy the food. But, of course, despite your best intentions, food waste can start when you're at the grocery store. It can be wasteful to buy something for which you have no plan, no matter how tempting the store display or sale price. If you can come up with a plan for something, great. Otherwise, you’re headed down the path of food waste.

Try to avoid aspirational shopping. We’ve all been there. You buy something because you think you “should” eat it, but then it lingers and gets tossed. Be honest with yourself about the time you have, the number of meals you eat at home, and the number of people that your grocery shopping will feed. And if it’s going south and you still haven’t used it, fall back on the freezer plan before you need to toss the item. The freezer can buy you some time that you can use to strategize.

Finally, there’s composting. This comes last on the list because it’s better to eat the food than to compost it. Some waste is inevitable, and you can put that food to work by turning it into compost. At the beginning of the process, keep track of what you throw away to avoid falling into the same trap again. (For coffee grounds in particular, check to see if a café nearby has a program that accepts them.)

“Zero food waste” probably won’t happen overnight. Discovering methods that you can incorporate into your routine is key. Find strategies and routines that work for you! That’s the key to building new habits and making the routine stick.

Want to learn more about zero-waste cooking?

Learn to cook zero-waste dishes alongside Chef Joel Gamoran with a Yummly subscription. His collection, Freestyle Feasts, features video cooking guides for real-time use in your kitchen.

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