Minimizing kitchen waste is a challenge in many homes. Up to 40% of food in America is thrown away instead of being eaten. Keeping a well-stocked fridge and pantry often leads to extra food, and extra food and leftovers can easily go bad. For fledgling cooks who are still getting the hang of shopping for and preparing food regularly, learning how much to buy, prepare, and cook can end up wasting a lot of otherwise edible food. Whether you’re concerned with saving money or reducing your kitchen footprint, there are a few easy ways to help minimize kitchen waste when you cook and make your kitchen more efficient.
Shop with a Menu in Mind
Most people use one of two approaches when they go to the grocery store. They buy food without any real scheme for preparing it, picking up a few portions of protein, bundles of vegetables, and bags of pasta and grains. Others go in armed with specific recipes they want to make and grab one of every item on the ingredients lists. These shoppers might end up buying too much of one thing, or picking up a duplicate of something they already have at home. Next time you go to the store, think about what you’re planning on cooking for the next few days. Take a peek in the fridge to make sure you don’t end up buying something you already have on the shelf. Buy each item with a purpose (or a few purposes) in mind, and try to match the amount you buy to the amount you need.
Have extra stuff hanging out in the fridge from your last trip to the store? A quick search on your favorite recipe site can help you figure out what to do with that last half of an onion or a single sausage. I’ve recently started using Handpick, an app that lets you pick the ingredients you have and helps you find popular recipes to use them up. It’s a great tool for finding new ways to pair multiple ingredients and stretch your cooking creativity.
Buy What You’ll Use and Store Ingredients Correctly
Sometimes it can be hard to tell how much of an ingredient you’ll actually use, so if you’re buying a new or unusual ingredient, try to buy only as much as the recipe calls for. If possible, buy ingredients from a grocery store that offers bulk spices and dry goods. Just because they’re called bulk containers doesn’t mean you have to buy a lot of each thing– these goods are sold by weight, so you can buy just a few ounces of a new spice, or pounds and pounds of your preferred type of rice. It’s a great way get to exactly the amount you need and can prevent overspending. Buying “in bulk” is especially valuable when it comes to new or infrequently used ingredients, and helps minimize the amount of food that you end up throwing away.
When you get home from shopping, store your ingredients in ways that help extend their life to make sure that they don’t go bad before you get around to cooking them. Dry goods keep better when stored in airtight containers, and many vegetables will last longer when kept in a cool, dry place. There are countless great storage hacks out there to help keep different ingredients in good shape, from keeping green onions fresh by setting their roots in water to wrapping hard cheese in parchment paper to prevent mold growth.
Learn to Trim Food More Efficiently
When I first moved to San Francisco, I lived near an Asian grocery store that had a veritable menagerie of edible fish, fowl and mammal meats for sale. One day I saw cow tongue among the chicken hearts and pig trotters. Knowing that I loved lengua tacos back in LA, I decided to try preparing some myself. I went to the store, bought an alien-looking, vacuum-packed cow tongue, and went home to get started. And then everything went wrong. The recipe I found suggested peeling off the tough outer casing and thinly slicing the meat before searing it. The tongue was slick and slippery, and the outermost layer didn’t “peel right off” as the recipe had promised. I had to cut it off, slippery piece by slippery piece, sacrificing at least a third of the edible meat as I went. My small, embarrassingly dull knife could barely cut through the meat to slice it into thin strips. By the time I was ready to start cooking the meat, most of it was sitting in a pile of discarded scraps. That night we ate tofu for dinner, and I learned a huge lesson about the importance of having the right gear and skills in the kitchen.
Use the appropriate tools and learn how to cut different foods properly to minimize what you throw away. There are plenty of great guides on the web teach yourself how to trim a piece of meat, and knowing how to cut excess fat off a steak or break apart a whole chicken are great skills to learn. A sharp knife makes more precise cuts than a dull one, so you’re less likely to make mistakes. Have simple but effective tools, can also help you get the most out of your ingredients; for example, a citrus reamer can help you squeeze a few more teaspoons of juice out of a lemon, and a vegetable peeler helps prevent you from accidentally slicing off too much when you’re peeling potatoes. Another part of learning how to cut things is learning what’s edible and what’s not. The greens of many vegetables — beets, for example — can be cooked and eaten just like chard, and the fat and bones from meat can make great additions to homemade soups.
Use a Mise en Place and a Waste Bowl
Using a mise en place system helps you be more mindful of your ingredients while you’re cooking. By taking the time to cut up everything ahead of time, you can ensure that you’ve prepared your ingredients correctly, and that you didn’t forget anything. Consolidate the scraps you do create when you’re cooking into a trash bowl. You don’t need a special container for this–I usually use a small mixing bowl or an empty plastic bag. As an added bonus, this makes cleaning up when you’re done cooking a lot quicker and easier.
If you’re looking to up your waste minimization game even more, have a designated scrap bowl for building a stock bag. Keep things like carrot tops and onion skins, and even fatty trimmings to help beef up (sometimes literally) the flavor of your soups and stocks. Scraps can be stored in a Ziploc in the freezer until you’ve accumulated enough to fill your stock pot.
Find Smart Ways to Use Leftovers
All those Tupperware and takeout containers in the fridge can end up being your own personal mold farm if you’re not careful. Keep an inventory of your leftovers and make an effort to eat them before they start getting fuzzy. I have a whiteboard on the outside of the fridge to remind myself what I still need to eat. Being mindful of your leftovers is the biggest step you can take in ensuring that they get eaten instead of tossed.
Try to incorporate leftovers into new meals, too. A bit of leftover chicken breast can be cubed and thrown into a salad. Bread that’s gone a little too stale to make toast can be pulsed in the blender to make breadcrumbs. The last scoop of yogurt in a tub can give a marinade a tangy bite. There are very few foods that won’t last a day or two in the fridge, and many can easily be reinvented as a new dish.
The Big Picture: Minimize Kitchen Waste by Planning Ahead
Perhaps surprisingly, reducing the amount of food (and food packaging) you throw away can take a little bit of practice. But with a little foresight and planning you can train yourself to use better kitchen waste management techniques relatively quickly. It’s a simple way to make you kitchen a little tidier and more effective, and can end up saving you money and time (fewer shopping trips!) in the long run.