Food waste is a huge problem, particularly for the US. Our Department of Agriculture estimates that around 30 to 40 percent, or some 133 billion pounds, of food in America goes uneaten. All that food waste not only has an economic cost — amounting to about $161 billion worth of food — but an environmental one, too.
A 2018 study estimated that 30 million acres of cropland, 1.8 billion pounds of fertilizer, and nearly 4.2 trillion gallons of water went into producing wasted food in the US. To tackle this issue, some chefs have decided to inspire others to adopt sustainable cooking practices that reduce food waste.
Some of these techniques include incorporating leaves, stems, bones, and other frequently tossed meat and produce parts that aren’t ordinarily considered desirable or usable. Two chefs involved in the James Beard Foundation’s Waste Not initiative — Tiffany Derry, owner of Roots Chicken Shak in Plano, Texas, and Kwame Williams, co-owner of Vital in Montclair, New Jersey — shared their tips on how to keep sustainability in mind when you cook so that more of your food ends up on the table than in the trash.
Sign up for a meal kit service if you’re single and new to cooking
If you’re a kitchen newbie and cooking only for yourself, Williams suggests signing up for a service like Blue Apron or Sun Basket, which give you the exact amount of ingredients you need for the recipes they provide. On the other hand, if you shop at the supermarket, which tends to package food meant for two to four people, you might end up with too much food — which will likely go bad before you have a chance to eat it all.
Support your local farmer
If you’re a seasoned cook, buy produce directly from farmers by shopping at your local farmer’s market or joining a community supported agriculture (CSA) program. You may need to flex your creativity to turn the contents of your CSA delivery into a tasty dish, but “the produce lasts a lot longer,” Williams says (there are some ideas in the Beard Foundation’s 2018 waste-reducing recipe book).
The first time he signed up for a CSA, he noticed that the lettuce in his delivery lasted two weeks, while the lettuce he had bought from the supermarket lasted only a few days. And by the way, if you’re all “whatever, lettuce is wispy and of-the-earth so it’ll decompose quickly,” here’s a reminder (most notoriously from Anthony Bourdain’s documentary Wasted) that a head of lettuce can take 25 years to decompose.
Since it doesn’t have to travel far, produce purchased directly from farmers tends to be much fresher. “It’s spending less time in transit and more time in your possession,” Williams says. “On top of that, you’re getting more nutritional value,” since the nutritional value of produce dwindles over time.
Plan, plan, plan
Inventory your fridge and plan meals based on what’s already inside, instead of automatically making a beeline to the grocery store, Derry says.
Avoid grocery shopping when you’re hungry
Not only will wading through a crowded store on an empty stomach leave you hangry, you’ll probably end up bringing home large quantities of food, including random impulse purchases (here’s looking at you, Entenmann’s) you probably wouldn’t have bought otherwise. “I promise, you will buy so many things,” Derry says, “and you’ll get home later and ask, ‘Why did I buy this?’”
Get creative with stems, root tops, and other produce parts you would typically trash
Rather than tossing out the broccoli stem after cooking the florets, turn it into coleslaw by grating it and drizzling your favorite dressing on top, Williams says. Serve it alongside some grilled chicken or other barbecued meat. Or chop it up and throw it into stir-fry.
Use root tops — from carrots or beets, for instance — to make salad, compound butter, or pesto to serve alongside the dish containing the whole root. Carrot and beet tops are “earthy and green-y,” Williams says. “They also have a hint of the actual vegetable. It’s another way of layering the flavor in the dish.”
Derry makes soup out of all the pulp left over from juicing into soup. “I’ll take it and add a piece of hambone and use it as a thickener,” she says. “It adds so much more flavor.
Know how to use produce at different stages of its life span
Say you bought some tomatoes to toss into a salad — which you never got around to making, because, well, life. And now the tomatoes are too soft for salad. Instead of trashing them, turn them into sauce, Derry says. “It’s about knowing how to use things, and when they’re at their peak flavor.”
Combine scraps for huge flavor
Sure, it may not seem like you can do all that much with half a bell pepper and the dredges of various spice jars. But “when you put them together, now it’s a flavor bomb,” Derry says.
Pickle your produce
Doing so can make it last longer, Williams says. Say you decided you don’t want to make stuffed red bell peppers after all. In a jar, add the chopped pepper, your favorite spices and as much vinegar as you want. While you can pickle produce for a year or more, you could also just pickle it for a few weeks to turn it into relish. Add sugar to the jar, and after a few weeks, cook down the pickled peppers for a tart relish that you can dollop atop some chicken, fish, or your classic hot dog.
Imagine your food as cash
While most of us are guilty of buying food only to throw it in the trash later, thinking about how much it cost may give you the nudge you need to prioritize eating it. “You worked really hard for those dollars,” Derry says. “You might as well have taken this money that you made and put it directly in the trash.”
As with anything, if you’re not intentional about reducing food waste, “it gets lost by the wayside,” Derry says. “You have to make it a priority.” Start by acknowledging food waste as a problem and really plan out how you’ll use every inch of the food you buy. In the long run, you could help lighten food waste’s impact on the environment and your wallet, while bulking up on nutrition and flavor.