In the United States, we throw out billions of dollars of food every year. Globally, the United Nations estimates that around one third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted. Food waste takes place across all levels of the supply chain – for example produce destined for grocery stores that’s tossed out of because it doesn’t conform to superficial standards – and there are many areas that we as consumers can’t have much impact on. We can however have an impact by reducing the amount of food that we waste in our own kitchens.
When it comes to food, we think in black and white: either food is edible or it is not. But things are not so simple. Much of what we consider “waste” isn’t waste at all, simply ingredients that haven’t found the right use. In fact, the mere use of the word “waste” implies that we see no value in the item in front of us. So much of what we consider food waste are instead food opportunities, either for new foods and recipes or for other uses, from cleaning to beauty products.
The key with using food waste is to challenge yourself to think differently. It begins with questioning all of the food habits that you consider normal. There are so many usable parts of produce that we consider “waste.” Peeling vegetables for example; peels are good for you. All the greens and tops that we cut off of produce, like beet greens, carrot tops, and radish greens. Those are all delicious when sautéed, can be used and salads and turned into pesto too.
Cooking with food waste isn’t new, in fact, it’s a skill that we’ve lost in the age of cheap goods and mass consumption. Some of our most tried-and-true recipes come from getting the maximum out of a certain item of food, like stale bread turned into bread pudding. For most of the time that humans have been in the kitchen, if there was something that could be used, it was.
When it comes to rethinking all the usable parts of produce, I have recently been inspired by the book Scraps, Wilt + Weeds: Turning Wasted Food Into Plenty by Mads Refslund and Tama Matsuoka Wong. The book is a celebration of food, a challenge to rethink our own expectations of what we can and can’t use in the kitchen. It’s chock full of creative ideas for “trash cooking” that will get you thinking differently in the kitchen, even for those of you who are already well versed in uses for food waste.
Putting food waste to use is a combination of getting comfortable in the kitchen, and experimenting with things you might usually have put in the compost, as well as learning about different preservation methods. Most solutions to food waste involve cooking, pickling, drying, dehydrating and refrigeration/freezing; all things that we as humans have done for generations. Yes, even without modern appliances, people were still keeping their food cool, although preservation methods like fermentation were easier.
What follows is a list of ideas to help spur you into action in your own kitchen. Composting isn’t on it, because, duh. 101 may sound like a lot, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Cook out of the box, rethink what’s of value and what’s not. Turn waste into opportunity.
1. Meat leftovers, and the bones, as well as fish and seafood, are perfect for making stock, but you don’t always have the time to do it right then and there. Stockpile scraps in the freezer until you are ready to cook up a stock.
2. The same goes for vegetable scraps (like ends, tops and stalks), as well as herbs, which can be used to make a vegetable stock.
3. Don’t stop at meat and vegetables. Parmesan rinds can be used to make stock as well.
4. You can also steep old cheese rinds in milk, then strain to make a sauce for macaroni and cheese.
5. Apple cores and peels can be used to make your own apple cider vinegar.
6. Apples aren’t the only thing to turn into vinegar. You can basically use any fruit scraps to ferment a vinegar.
7. Apples cores can also be used to make tea.
8. Leftover watermelon rinds from a summer barbecue? Pickle them.
9. Actually, you can pretty much pickle anything.
10. And if you don’t want to pickle the watermelon rind, you can make a curry with it.
11. Are you a big juicer? You can dehydrate pulp and then use it to make crackers.
12. You can also use juicing pulp to make vegetarian meatballs.
13. Citrus peels can be dried and stored in your pantry for use in recipes that call for fresh zest, or infused in a tea.
14. Once you have dried citrus peels, you can grind them into a fine powder, which you can use on its own or mix with pepper.
15. Citrus peels can also be used to infuse water.
16. And olive oil, and liquor.
17. Made a recipe using egg yolks? If you don’t want to use the egg whites right away, you can freeze them.
18. Vice versa too: if you’ve made a recipe with egg whites, you can freeze egg yolks and easily add them to scrambles and baked goods later.
19. Have a partial load of bread that’s past its prime? Make croutons.
20. You can also grind that bread into breadcrumbs, which come in handy in a variety of ways in the kitchen.
21. The end of a bread loaf can also be added to a jar of hardened brown sugar; it will soften it up again.
22. Stale bread can also be used as a soup thickener.
23. And yet another good recipe for using up old bread is to make a strada, perfect for a brunch.
24. Did you know that you can use a banana peel to polish silver? Put a few banana peels in a blender with just a little bit of water and puree to a paste, then using a rag, use it to polish any silver items in your house that are looking a little drab.
25. Turn leftover takeout rice into rice pudding.
26. Use orange peels to make a DIY, eco-friendly, all purpose cleaner. Fill a jar with orange peels, then cover them with vinegar. Store in a cool, dark place for a couple of weeks, then strain the vinegar solution and transfer to a spray bottle.
27. Old coffee grounds can be mixed with olive or coconut oil for an exfoliant scrub.
28. Here’s a good tip for wilted herbs from Tama Matsuoka Wong, who recommends hanging them to dry and then using them to make a tea.
29. Another good use for leftover herbs is to make an herb tincture.
30. Keep a bag on hand and stash your onion skins in it; you can use them to dye fabric.
31. Since they are toxic to ingest, rhubarb leaves are a common byproduct of the popular spring and summer ingredient. As it turns out, because of that toxicity, they are great to deter unwanted pests in the garden. You can use them to make an insect spray to ward off aphids.
32. Place used green tea leaves in a cotton bag and add it to your bath; the antioxidants are great for your skin.
33. You can use old egg shells to make your own sidewalk chalk.
34. Another use for egg shells: use them for starting seedlings. They are the perfect size for a little dirt and a seed, and the seed gets an added nutritional boost from the calcium.
35. Kale and chard stems often get passed over for the leafy part of the plants, but these stems are easy to sautée as well as pickle.
36. Use green carrot tops to make pesto.
37. Broccoli stalks are commonly tossed. Shave them into a salad instead.
38. If you can’t give up peeling your vegetables (they’re good for you! Keep them on!), save the peels, toss them with a little oil and make vegetable peel chips.
39. Again, if you’re gung ho about peeling your carrots, use the peels to make carrot oil.
40. After making guacamole, rub the fleshy part of an avocado peel on your face to moisturize.
41. Do you bake with fresh vanilla? After you have scraped the pod out, place it in a jar and add sugar to make vanilla-infused sugar.
42. Infuse honey with a lemon peel.
43. Grapefruit peel can be used to help scour your sink.
44. No one likes to eat overripe bananas. But you know what people do like to eat? One-ingredient banana ice cream.
45. Corn tortillas that are past their prime and a little dry can be cut up and fried in olive oil, then eaten on their own or served on top of a black beans.
46. Tortilla chips and crackers that are stale can be re-crisped by putting in the oven for a short period of time.
47. Have a jar of leftover pickle juice? Fill it with vegetables like carrot sticks and red onion.
48. Pickle juice can also be used as a marinade.
49. Oh, and in a margarita.
50. You can make a fermented vinegar with the rind of a pineapple.
51. Pineapple skin can also be boiled into a tea.
52. Corn husks can be used to wrap food and cook on the grill.
53. If you’re using a can of chickpeas, don’t get rid of the liquid. Aquafaba, as it’s called, has a variety of uses as a vegan alternative to eggs.
54. There are a variety of fruits and vegetables that can be used to start new plants. Avocado pits, pomegranate seeds, apple seeds; they will all grow. You might not end up with a fruit tree, but you will end up with a beautiful house plant.
55. You can also regrow food from scraps, like with beet greens and lettuce.
56. We should all use common sense when it comes to expiration dates, but if you have yogurt that’s truly beyond your eating comfort zone, mix a couple of tablespoons of it with a tablespoon of honey and use it as a facial mask.
57. You can use fruit that is past its prime for your skin as well. Simply puree for a mask.
58. If you’ve got beer on hand that has gone flat, use it as a marinade.
59. Stale crackers and chips can be crumbled up and used as breading.
60. Flavor kombucha in the second fermentation with fruit that’s on its way out, as well as peels.
61. Lettuce looking a little droopy? Refresh it in a bowl of cold water.
62. Milk gone sour? Use it to bake with.
63. You could also use that sour milk to brighten up your silverware.
64. The dregs of all those leafy greens that have found their way to the bottom of the refrigerator? Sauté them with olive oil and garlic.
65. Bruised and overripe fruit works great when cooked into a jam.
66. That same fruit could also be used to make a fermented chutney.
67. Radish greens will add a peppery taste to salads.
68. And are great in pesto too.
69. So there’s a tiny amount of jam left in a jar that seems unusable. It’s not! Mix it with a little vinegar and oil for a salad dressing.
70. The same goes for a jar of mustard or mayonnaise. Add a little olive oil and shake.
71. Leftover lentils can get turned into veggie patties.
72. Scooped out melon seeds and wondering what to do with them? Roast them.
73. Have a glut of summer tomatoes? Make your own sun-dried tomatoes so that you can have a little taste of summer during the gray days of winter.
74. Olive pits can be added to a jar of olive oil to intensify the flavor.
75. Throw a food waste party and challenge guests to bring a dish that incorporates and ingredient they might have otherwise disposed of.
76. Apple peels can be tossed with a little cinnamon and sugar and baked into chips.
77. If you’ve cut the tops of strawberries off, add them to water to make an infusion.
78. If you left those strawberries for just a little too long, you can dry them into chips.
79. Canning tomatoes? Save those cores and skins to make tomato sauce.
80. You can also dry those skins, grind them and make a tomato salt.
81. Cucumber peels can be set out in your kitchen as a natural pest control; ants hate them, particularly the bitter ones.
82. Stone fruit pits can be used to infuse alcohol or vinegar.
83. They can also be simmered in water and sugar for a syrup.
84. And if you extract the kernels from the pits, you can also use them to make homemade almond extract.
85. Bare corncobs can be used to make jelly.
86. Save the tough asparagus ends that you cut off and use them to make soup.
87. Herb stems can be ground up into a paste with garlic, then mixed a little with oil and vinegar to make a vinaigrette.
88. Herb stems can also be added to pesto.
89. Herbs can also be finely chopped and added to a jar of olive oil. Or you can blend them in the blender for more of a puree/sauce.
90. If you need to store the chopped herbs longer, add them to an ice cube tray and fill with olive oil. Freeze, then store in a freezer bag and use when you need a taste of fresh herbs.
91. Vegetable scraps, egg shells, and coffee grounds can be added to a blender with a little water to make a natural fertilizer.
92. Speaking of feeding your plants with your food scraps, roses love banana peels.
93. A leftover lemon will go do a lot for you, like cleaning a microwave.
94. You can also rub a leftover lemon on a sunburn to ease the pain. (Although keep that juice off your skin if you are going to be in the sun.
95. And you can also scrub a wooden cutting board with salt and a mostly squeezed lemon to clean and sanitize it.
96. It’s pretty rare that people let cookies go stale, but if it happens to you, save them and use them to make a pie crust.
97. If you’re still tossing out leek greens, please stop. They can easily be sautéed and used in soups.
98. Make a smoothie with kiwis and leave the skin on!
99. Make a cordial of fruit scraps to use in cocktails.
100. Celery stalks tend to hang out at the bottom of the produce drawer. Use them in a juice with cucumber, kale and apple.
101. Most people make artichokes just for the hearts, but don’t throw away the leaves. Roast them instead.
Photo by Jenny Salita, CC BY-ND 2.0. Photo has been cropped.
Anna Brones is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break, the founder of the print quarterly Comestible and runs Foodie Underground. Wherever she is in the world, she can often be found riding a bicycle in search of excellent coffee.