“Finish your dinner – there are starving kids all over the world.”
We’ve all heard some variation of this saying from our parents when we were younger.
In all honesty, food waste is atrocious and embarrassing in our country. It’s been estimated that about 1/3 of the food produced in the United States ends up in landfills or incinerated (FAO estimates according to the EPA).
It’s that raw chicken you threw away because you left it in the fridge a couple days too long and were too busy to cook. It’s that arugula you bought last week when you were craving a salad, but suddenly a salad sounds too boring, and now the greens are kind of limp and slimy. Or, it’s the big pot of soup you lovingly prepared, but made too much, and a week goes by before you realize it’s still in the fridge and now has a questionable smell. Or, it’s.perfectly good food that hasn’t gone bad, but you just want to make more room in the fridge because you went to Costco. Into the trash it all goes.
We really all need to adopt a low-waste mentality in the kitchen. The simple reality of the food system is that there’s too much food being wasted. But not only that, the environmental and financial effects are costly.
The benefits are great in adopting a low-waste mindset. I try to think this way in all areas of my life. I’m by no means perfect, but I really feel like the more I keep my space clutter-free, the better my mood, and the more at peace I feel. Plus, you’re saving money – it literally does not go down the drain.
So what does living a low-waste lifestyle in the kitchen actually mean? Here are some things I usually think about, starting from grocery shopping and what to keep in your pantry, to what to do with those leftovers:
Grocery shopping and stocking your pantry:
-Write a list and try not to stray too far from it.
We’ve all heard it – don’t shop when you’re hungry. If you do, you’ll end up with all the ingredients to make pico de gallo, a huge bag of tortilla chips, and everything else to make butternut squash and black bean enchiladas that night. But you forgot that your kids have soccer practice, hubby’s having dinner hosted by work, and now you’re left with all this food. Plus, you get home, and it’s a lot of dang work to make those enchiladas now. Nevermind, you think. I’ll make it tomorrow. But tomorrow becomes the next day, and the cycle continues.
-Buy ingredients for 2-3 meals a week, not 5.
I am the worst when it comes to sticking with a meal plan, because my tastes and cravings change throughout the week. Think of buying the ingredients for 2-3 meals. Something always pops up during the week – an after-school/work chat with a neighbor/friend/family member that tides into dinner prep time, the feeling of “I’m too tired to cook so I’m going to grab a bean and rice burrito down the street instead,” or some other reason. If you lower the pressure on yourself to make 2-3 meals that week, you can have leftovers for lunch the next day or repurpose them (see: what to do with leftovers).
-Keep your fridge/freezer/pantry organized.
Buy proper storage containers for your stuff. I have glass Pyrex containers with lids, and I also reuse glass jars, such as those that held marinara sauce, jams and jellies, coconut oils, and applesauce. I have tons of uses for these and store dried beans and lentils, grains, and even cookies in them. Keep it all organized, and either freeze a dish immediately after it cools or eat it soon. It’s better to freeze something right away and use it the next day than to leave it in the fridge until it’s too late to save.
-Do prep work ASAP.
If you have a few minutes when you get home from the store, this is the best time to start your organization. By this, I mean pre-prepping. Cutting up that butternut squash, dicing the onions and chopping the herbs, and preparing a fruit bowl will give you more incentive to consume and cook as the week goes by. I just bought two bunches of kale and spent 5 minutes chopping, rinsing, drying, and storing them while I watched my 13-month-old toddle around and giggle at her big sis. It was so easy and I’d rather do it now than when I have too many excuses later.
-Keep your staples stocked.
By staples, I’m talking about oils, grains, dried beans and lentils, and canned goods such as coconut milk and various tomato products. Staples for produce usually mean vegetables and fruit that will keep longer than that delicate basil. It can be different things for you, but you’ll most likely always find garlic, onions, celery, and carrot in my fridge. This is always great to make a quick soup with some dried lentils, thyme, vegan chicken bouillon, and maybe orzo. Keep 2-3 grains on hand at all times (pasta, rice, quinoa). These ingredients help you transform an old dish into something brand-new.
-Do a kitchen clean-out once a week.
Preferably before you go grocery shopping again. You can take an inventory of what you do and don’t have, so you don’t end up with an extra container of berries because you missed it sitting in the back of your fridge. Plus, it’s an opportunity to wipe down those storage shelves and prevent gross stuff from happening, like a questionable growth of brown, sticky liquid in your produce cabinet (how did that get there?!). I’m pretty much grossed out by a lot of refrigerators I see. LOL!
–Save some scraps for stock.
You can save the ends of onions, carrots, and celery to make your own stock or enhance any soup you make. I like to use ears of corn that I’ve taken the kernels off of to enhance any soup broth I make. It lends a delicate sweetness to soups that my family loves.
-Sharing is caring:
No surprise that I give extra food and sweets to my friends. This allows me to use my creativity in cooking, but also allows me to practice portion control, especially when I make a delicious batch of cookies. Additionally, this cuts down on waste from buying a package of sweets, because I make most things myself.
Here are some things you can do with your leftovers. Always be ahead of the game and think of ways you can repurpose that meal into something new for your tastebuds.
With everything you make, think of something else you can make with the ingredient you have leftover. Leftover coconut milk from your vegetable curry you made last night? Make a coconut milk matcha latte, or add a little coconut milk to your usual almond milk add-in for overnight oats. These are where those glass jars come in handy.
I have a plant-based bowl pictured at the beginning of this post. I made black bean and roasted corn burritos earlier this week and a salad one night. I make brown rice often so had some leftover and my lunch one day was brown rice with the leftover black bean and corn medley, piled on top of a bed of romaine, some of my cilantro-lime dressing, and avocado.
You can make a plant-based bowl with anything – just have grains (quinoa, rice, farro, barley, etc), veggies (at least two are great!), a protein (tofu, seitan, beans, lentils, tempeh), and a dressing if you wish (leftover curry sauce, peanut sauce, cilantro-lime dressing).
-Soups, stews, chilis
Learn how to make the basics. A miso soup, broth-based soup, what goes into a chili, and you can do variations from your leftovers. For example, I had some chopped broccoli, cauliflower, and coconut milk left over from something. I sauteed my staple veggies (onion, garlic, carrot, celery), tossed in the new veggies, and made an awesome Thai-ish coconut veggie soup out of it. Leftover kale? Make a comforting miso soup with those hearty greens and toss in some chickpeas for some protein while you’re at it.
-Fried rice, pasta salad, roasted veggie medley – the possibilities are endless!
I almost always have rice in the fridge (I AM Asian, LOL). So that leftover diced tofu and a couple frozen veggies will make a quick, easy meal. If you have some zucchini left over from making zucchini bread, don’t throw it out! Roast it with onion and tomato, make a dressing with evoo/dried oregano/red wine vinegar and toss together tomorrow’s pasta salad lunch.
You go to the farmers’ market and end up getting huge bunches of herbs, just to garnish a few dishes with it? No no no.Leftover basil from your pasta dish – make a basil butter, make and freeze pesto for later, or even make a basil limeade.
So there you have it.
All it takes is a little thinking ahead to get some minimalism and simplicity in the kitchen, and produce as little waste as possible. Wishing you a great time planning out next week – use Pinterest if you’re running low on creativity (that’s what I do!).