There ought to be a specific word to describe the feeling of throwing out perfectly good food that still has prana, or life force—you know, the leftover rice from Indian takeout, the broccoli stalks your kid won’t eat, those egg yolks when the recipe only called for whites. It’s a combination of regret, guilt, and ultimately surrender, because really, what are you going to do with a handful of veggie stems?
“We’ve gotten used to using only the ‘best’ parts of our produce and meat, and tossing the ugly parts,” says New York City chef Eddie McNamara, author of the vegetarian cookbook Toss Your Own Salad. We’re also up against modern food production and marketing methods, which have moved us unconsciously toward overbuying and wasting, and away from the wise methods our grandmothers used for stretching a pantry—and a dollar. In fact, up to 40 percent of food in the US gets thrown away, and food waste is the single largest type of trash going into municipal landfills, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Meanwhile, 49 million US households struggle with food insecurity. The dissonance that comes from wasting sustenance is tragic.
The good news: Implementing a few simple strategies at home can help you eat more consciously and make good (and tasty) use of things that would otherwise end up in the trash or compost. “Food is precious, whether it’s been raised, grown, or foraged—and part of living consciously is using all of it,” says yogi chef Louisa Shafia, co-founder of Magpie Cookshop, a line of eco-friendly kitchen products. “There’s a feeling of deep satisfaction when you find a way to make stray ingredients or leftovers into something delicious and nourishing. It’s a way of practicing ahimsa, or non-harming, toward the earth.” Read on for easy ways to preserve food and transform your scraps into delicious meals.
9 Ways to Give Leftovers a New
Got any of these things hanging around? Whip up a new dish with a few strategic additions.
4 Waste-Wise Choices to Make at the Store
1. Use the bulk aisles and salad bar to your advantage
Be sure to read your recipes before you shop and make a detailed list to remove the guesswork, says Sara Haas, RDN, a culinary dietitian in Chicago. For example, if a stew or soup recipe calls for a small amount of seeds or grains, such as sunflower seeds or barley, use the bulk section to measure out only what’s needed instead of just buying large bags. Or, if you need five olives for a recipe and no one in your household devours them, don’t buy an entire jar! A handful from the salad bar will do the trick, says Amy Gorin, RDN, a dietitian in Jersey City, New Jersey.
2. Shop small
Try to buy only for the week ahead, says chef Eddie McNamara, which may mean eschewing a larger portion that is on sale. Just because you can get 10 bottles of salad dressing for the price of five doesn’t mean you should. Odds are low that you’ll use it all before the expiration date.
3. Buy pulses for your pantry
Keep lentils, chickpeas, and dry peas on hand to jazz up your leftovers. And try stashing a jar of minced garlic in the fridge to add flavor to those legumes in a flash (it also cuts down on food waste—how often have you bought a head of garlic and just used one or two cloves?).
4. Give ugly a chance
Sellers typically toss “irregular” produce that’s perfectly fine but doesn’t look ideal, assuming buyers want picture-perfect items. Thankfully, some stores now have a special section for ugly fruits and veggies that taste the same as the pretty stuff and cost less too, says chef Josh Tomson, executive chef at The Lodge at Woodloch in Hawley, Pennsylvania.
3 Waste-Wise Things You Can Do at Home
1. Prep veggies for the freezer
Late-summer bumper crops like tomatoes and bell peppers best retain flavor when they are roasted before they are frozen. Brush with olive oil, sprinkle with salt, and roast at 400° until skin is charred, 30 minutes; then freeze. Zucchini keeps well when it’s sliced into rounds, blanched in salty boiling water for 2 minutes, and then shocked in ice water and dried before freezing. Green beans, snap peas, and wax beans do well when frozen raw; just remove the ends, snap in half, and freeze.
2. Save scraps for soups
Freeze parts of food that are typically trimmed and tossed, like mushroom stems or eggplant tops, in a zip-top freezer bag, says Gorin. When you’ve collected quite a bit, make a vegetable broth: simmer veggie scraps in a pot of water for 2 hours; remove and strain the liquid. If you’re not going to enjoy it right away, freeze the extra broth in ice cube trays, then pop the cubes into small freezer bags for storage.
3. Grow your own herbs
Create a little herb garden in a sunny windowsill for recipes that require only a sprig of favorites like basil or thyme, says New York City chef Gabe Kennedy, winner of ABC’s The Taste. It’s gorgeous, fragrant, and allows you to trim only what you need.