Recently, I viewed the trailer for the new film "Wasted: The Story of Food Waste" (you can view it HERE). It looks interesting, and I'll definitely see it when it becomes available; the featured chefs talk about how to use the parts of the ingredients that we would normally throw away, and make delicacies of them. A great thing for more restaurants and chefs to learn and put into practice, in my opinion.
It got me thinking about my own practices, and the food waste in my own kitchen. We make a lot of mistakes here at Poppy Corners, and we're constantly learning new things, but one thing we've got pretty well dialed in is how to avoid waste. Both Tom and I grew up with frugal, creative mothers, who could do a lot with less, so we learned early how to eat 'nose to tail' so to speak (even though our mothers probably wouldn't have cooked noses OR tails). As we've become more avid home cooks, we have developed systems to help us continue this frugality/no-waste idea. Here's a few suggestions, in the hopes that we all become better no-wasters.
1) Meal Plan/Shop Smart: I remember a time, back when we were first married, when Tom and I would come home exhausted from a day at work and a long commute and we'd look at each other and say, 'What are we going to eat?' and then someone would have to go out to the store and get something easy and fast, or go pick up take-out from a local restaurant. Once we had kids, we realized how unsustainable this practice was: Expensive, not very healthy, and it made everyone cranky and harried. It doesn't have to be that way. A little planning goes a long way. You can plan a whole week's worth of meals, which I did for years when we were under a tightly controlled budget, and it works successfully, though I actually found that for us, it wasn't ideal, as either some food would go bad before I could get to it, or we'd not be in the mood for what I had planned seven days ago. Then I went through a phase where I fancied myself a little like Julia Child in Paris, shopping every day. She would stop in at the fish monger, the cheesemonger, the boulangerie, the vegetable market. This is a delightful fantasy, and if you live in a place like this, more power to you. But our local farmers market takes place once a week; we don't have a butcher anymore let alone a fish monger; and what about things like toilet paper and napkins? Clearly a little planning was needed.
I finally settled on a every-other-day or every-three-days pattern that doesn't drive me crazy, provides everything we need, and still allows room for cravings or creativity. I keep two lists on the fridge at all times: One for Safeway, for things like dry goods or toiletries, and one for Whole Foods, for all the good cheese and grassfed meat and produce that we aren't growing at the current time. If a trip to the Farmer's Market happens on the weekend, or we take a day trip to a place with farms, then some things can be crossed off the Whole Foods list.
I plan two to three dinners at a time. I'm always asking the family for ideas of things they want or are craving, but mostly they eat what I've planned. That means a heavy rotation of things I know everyone likes, such as pesto, or roasted chicken, or marinated flank steak, with one or two new things a week that we all vote on and decide if we'll have it again. I try to have fish at least once a week and a vegetarian meal at least once a week, but it's not a hard and fast rule. We also eat seasonally, which means lots of watermelon and corn and using the grill in summer, and lots of hearty greens and brassicas and braises in the oven in the winter.
2) Make the right amount/Eat the leftovers: I'm lucky, because I have family members that will eat all the leftovers. In fact, they vie for them! Investing in good thermoses for the kids and good storage containers for Tom (who has a microwave at work) have really helped. Adam loves the leftovers more than the dinners I sometimes think, and Tom has a great desk lunch instead of a sad desk lunch of a soggy sandwich. However, if you don't have folks in the house who will eat leftovers, then make less of any given dish, or only as much as you will eat that night. Or consider a food swap - I have friends that belong to dinner groups, where someone makes dinner for several families on Monday, then someone else takes Tuesday, etc. Or if you're baking and you have extra, consider giving to an elderly couple in your neighborhood, or inviting the local kids to a cookie party.
3) Use as much of any ingredient as you can: Look for recipes that use up as much of a given ingredient as possible; for instance, a fish dish called Rollatini of Sole we had recently used the entire lemon rather than just the zest or the juice: the zest was used in the breadcrumb filling, the juice of one half was used in the sauce, and the other half was sliced and used as a base on which to place the fish as it baked, and then became a tasty part of the dish. (By the way, we used local fresh Petrale sole, and it was excellent. I highly recommend this dish!) I tend to use a lot of stems when cooking with herbs, so they aren't wasted; some people even save tomato seeds and pulp to make tomato water, which is an excellent liquid with which to cook rice. Which brings me to...
4) Make broth: Any of those peelings or leafy tops that you don't eat can become a beautiful jar of broth. Nothing is easier! Fish bones become fume. Chicken bones and innards become chicken broth. Pork chop bones become pork broth. Beef rib bones become beef broth. Vegetable scraps can be added to any of these for deeper flavor, or can be used on their own to make vegetable broth. Just keep your bones/peelings in the freezer in a bag until you're ready to make broth, then put in a large pot, cover with water, add any seasonings you like (I never add any because I want a pure taste, but many people add all kinds of stuff. I do add a little apple cider vinegar to help leach the nutrients from the bones). You can put it on the stove top and let it simmer away, or you can put it on a low setting in the oven and let it go all day, or you can even put it on the low setting of your crockpot while you're at work. Strain out the bones and trimmings, cool in mason jars, label, and freeze. You'll have all the tasty liquid you need to make any kind of soup, rice, beans, grains, your own pho or any other Asian noodle dish, or you can drink it on its own when you are sick or need some extra nutrients. This is one of the most nutritious things you can do for yourself!
5) Maintain a compost bin/worm bin: Any bits of things you can't figure out a use for can be put in a compost bin. Eggshells, coffee grounds, used tea bags, that dried out mango, that moldy peach, even your nail clippings or the hair from your brush. Compost bins are the great equalizer. You don't need to do anything fancy, you can even just make a pile in your yard somewhere. One of my teachers throws all his fruit trimmings under his fruit trees, which he says looks ugly, but they compost in place and make even better fruit the next year. Just keep a bowl on your counter and add to it all day, then toss it on the pile at night. When you have extra leaves from your trees, add those too. If you have newspapers, add those. Paper towels, paper napkins, cardboard boxes, paper grocery bags, add those. Let it sit for a year. You don't even have to turn it or water it if you don't want to. Compost will happen even if you don't maintain it; it will just take more time.
If you don't have outdoor space, consider an indoor worm bin or a city composting service. Or perhaps you have a local school who collects scraps for their garden compost.
6) Keep chickens/hogs: I used to often stay at a place in Mendocino with cabins and outhouses, a very rustic kind of place. They requested that any food scraps you had be fed to their pig, who had his own corral in the middle of the garden. The list of items you could feed the pig were astounding, and it was always fun to take your bucket up to the pig and watch it all get inhaled. That pig was butchered at the end of the year to provide food for the staff, and then they'd start again with a new pig.
I don't have enough yard space to keep a pig; my neighbors are awfully tolerant of my quirks, but I think they might draw the line at hogs! Chickens are another matter. They don't take up a lot of space, they don't smell, and best of all, they are efficient composters who can turn food waste into usable food, in the form of eggs. Our chickens will eat nearly anything. That tablespoon of buttermilk left in the carton. The head and tail from the rainbow trout that Adam caught and we grilled for supper. The ratty ends of the lettuce. The tomatoes that were half eaten by rats in the yard. The partial bowl of oatmeal that someone didn't want. The only thing I don't give them is garlic or onions, because apparently it can change the taste of their eggs; otherwise, they are the perfect receptacle for any food scrap we generate. Not only that, when they eat our scraps, they eat less store-bought feed, which means their food bill is far cheaper.
Food waste is not a forgone conclusion in our home kitchens. We can find crafty ways to use every bit of our purchases. And I'm also speaking as a grower, not just a consumer. Nothing is as precious is the produce that you nurtured for months; you certainly don't want to waste any of it! That fosters a true respect for the product. I think if we all treat our food with that kind of respect (animals especially), we'll all feel compelled to waste less of it.