How to Reduce Your Food Waste, Just Like That
Scrappy solutions and tips to keep your food out of the bin.
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I hate wasting food. And yet, it’s something I do all the time. That’s a recipe for self-loathing — or, perhaps, change.
Just the other morning, the normal satisfaction I feel cleaning out the fridge before a major grocery run had been replaced by a deep sense of guilt — tinged with a bit of shame — as I threw out almost an entire kitchen garbage can worth of food. Swampy herbs, desiccated cucumbers, moldy strawberries, avocados gone wrinkled and gray, and countless to-go containers full of half-portions of stale, uneaten leftovers.
Why do I keep doing this?
(And why is this so emotional?)
Then I realized that mine is just one four-person household in a massive nationwide food waste tragedy. By some accounts, Americans throw away almost 150,000 tons of food each day. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which counts food waste as one of its key issues, 40 percent of all food in the United States never gets eaten. (Meanwhile, 1 in 8 people go hungry). And I’m not even mentioning the disastrous environmental effects of discarded food waste.
It can feel insurmountable — like trying to fight climate change one reusable shopping bag at a time. And obviously, there are huge systemic changes needed in the food supply chain to make a real impact. (Case in point: almost half of the produce we grow never even makes it to the grocery store because it’s “too ugly”). But just as I drag along my tangle of cloth bags while grocery shopping, I’m committed to making change, one step at a time, in the name of reducing food waste.
Where to start
You can’t say it better than The Sound of Music.
Let's start at the very beginning
A very good place to start
There are a few key points in the putting-dinner-on-the-table-every-night process where you, the home cook, can reduce the amount of food waste you create.
First? Shopping smarter — by which I mean, shopping with a plan. One piece of the plan is buying the appropriate amount for the people in your home, whether it’s just you or a family of five. Shopping from bulk bins and getting meats from the butcher counter are good ways to buy the exact amount you need. The NRDC site savethefood.com has online tools that will help you accurately guestimate the amount of protein, produce, or grains you need based on the meals you want to make — plus, portion sizes for a dinner party.
The other piece? Knowing exactly which recipes you’re going to make. It’s as simple as sitting down on a Sunday and creating a meal plan for the next three to five days and making a shopping list. Extra credit if you can turn one meal (a roast chicken) into another (chicken noodle soup, with homemade broth).
Added bonus: With a grocery list in hand, you avoid those “extras” featured on the endcaps, so you can save money along the way. These impulse buys, for me at least, are what always end up in the trash, because I never knew what to do with them in the first place.
Second: Storing smarter. This is where I regularly flail. But simple tips on the best ways to store food (like wrapping parsley in a wet paper towel to extend its shelf life) are really all you need to delay spoilage. So use your fruit and veggie drawer for perishable produce. Keep your milk out of the fridge door (stick it in the colder main shelving). Leave those potatoes somewhere cool and dark.
Also! The freezer is your friend. Joel Gamoran — host of the A&E series “Scraps,” author of the Cooking Scrappy cookbook, creator of the Seconds quick-cookies series, and all-around champion of reducing food waste — told me this repeatedly. Bread, old bananas, chicken carcasses ... any excess food scraps can typically go right into the freezer for later. “You kind of become a hoarder,” he says. But more on that later.
Third: Rethinking and reusing what you have left. This is the fun part, and where Gamoran’s enthusiasm for scraps really comes into play. The entire premise behind “Scraps” and Cooking Scrappy is finding a new, delicious use for something that would normally go into the trash, down the drain, or into the compost bin. That brine in the empty pickle jar? Pickle-brined pork chops. Those leftover mashed potatoes from Thanksgiving? Gnocchi!
Smart recipes are key, but this is also about seeing your raw materials through new eyes. That overly ripe, soft tomato? It’s bursting with sugar, says Gamoran — and that’s exactly what you want in a sauce. Those brown bananas? There’s a reason they’re the color of caramel; it’s the sugar. They’re begging to be baked into something delicious.
Think — and act — more like a restaurant
Like anyone on a mission, Gamoran’s began with an a-ha moment. As head chef for Sur La Table, he was leading a class through a shrimp recipe, and he took notice of their compost bowls. Their overflowing compost bowls, full of shrimp shells, carrot tops, onion skin.
“I thought, man, my chefs would kill me,” says Gamoran. In a restaurant, such edible food scraps are profit — they’d never end up in the trash. “Restaurants would never allow this. Why do we allow this at home?”
That moment transformed his career, and put him on a path to champion scraps and fight food waste. “It just seemed like someone had to get behind this and be that voice,” he says. “To me, it feels like a calling.”
Now, Gamoran brings that restaurant savvy to the home cook. Shrimp shells mean shrimp stock is coming (and if you don’t have a use for stock this week, freeze it for later). Carrot tops become a delicious pesto — just add pistachios, parmesan, lemon, garlic, and olive oil. But rethinking your scraps doesn’t have to be complex.
“There’s what I call 'gateway scraps',” says Gamoran. “Once you eat a pear, you’re left with the core. Can you cook that, and make a pear jam? Can you take the tops of leeks and add them to scrambled eggs?”
See the bigger picture
Alyssa Shultis cooks about 60 meals a week for her custom meal service, Soul Provider, in Minneapolis. And like Gamoran, very little of her raw materials go to waste. But for Shultis, it’s not just about the bottom line, or repurposing scraps, or composting — or her belief in mindful eating. For her, reducing food waste is also about honoring our relationship with the people who grew it.
“I believe in connecting my customers and clients to the origins of where their food comes from,” says Shultis, who sources a lot of her organic produce from local farmers. “If you attach a narrative to where your carrot was grown and who grew it, when you eat it, you’re probably going to understand that your food not only costs money but also this other energetic currency. I don’t want to throw something away if someone woke up early to take care of it or procure it for me. To throw that away is not respectful of their energy.”
The idea is: The more we know about our food, the more we will value it; the more we value it, the less likely we are to waste it.
Joel Gamoran plates a Zucchini Frittata.
To help waste less food, you can become savvier when you shop and "scrappier," as Gamoran puts it, when you cook. You can, like Shultis, embrace the deeply human aspect of growing and making food — the work of farmers, bakers, and ranchers. But there’s also another way into this mindset — your own family history.
In episode 9 of Scraps, renowned chef Jacques Pepin tells Gamoran that “cooking scrappy” is something that is (and has been) the norm almost everywhere else in the world, and even in America’s own history. (What killed it? The TV dinner — a.k.a. processed foods and convenience).
Just ask your grandmother — or your nonna, your halmoni, your abuelita. Grandmothers have advanced degrees in making one meal that parlays into another: using bones and scraps from veggies to make stock; transforming old fruit into jams, jellies, or something sweet; pickling whatever was too abundant in the garden; tucking leftover meat into pot pies, curries, enchiladas, or the like. You might dismiss their tricks as Depression-era thriftiness, or old ways from whatever country in which they were born. But you’d be missing generation-upon-generation of wisdom and genius if you do.
That one thing
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve finished stories just like this one knowing a whole lot more about my problem and yet still walking away not knowing what to do next. Do I go shopping now? Should I be meal planning? But this one tip from Gamoran is a keeper — a true baby step, totally doable the next time you’re in the kitchen.
“I don’t want people to feel guilty about where we're at,” says Gamoran. He gets it. It’s easy to get so overwhelmed, thinking, I don’t know what to do with that onion peel, that you give up before you even start.
“It’s cool to just move forward,” he says. And to that end, Gamoran suggests that we start by continuing to make our favorite foods. “Make what you're making, but instead of putting food waste in the garbage, put it in a bowl on the counter and just look at it,” he says.
And you don’t even have to decide right then and there what to do with it. You can pack it up and put it in the freezer.
"It’s okay if the scraps are not part of the plan,” he says. “We’ll make it part of the plan in the future.”
"Someday," he adds, “that onion peel will come in handy.”
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