Ever since moving out on my own and having to cook for myself, I became very aware of how I was contributing to food waste while living an omnivore lifestyle. I became fascinated with learning how to cook zero waste food, save money and try to not contribute to environmental degradation. But I felt like I wasn't doing enough.
I am in no way perfect - but that's the point. I don't believe that you have to have an all or nothing attitude to do better. You just need to be aware and make an effort.
Over the years, I've put together some amazing tips, resources and recipes for zero waste food. Ways to do better that are feasible for the average household.
The Problem With Some Zero-Waste Advocates
In my opinion, the best way to make people resonate with your cause is to not even tell them about it. Live a lifestyle that inspires others to be better versions of themselves without being pushy, judgmental or aggressive.
Many of us come from a place of privilege and it's important to acknowledge that not everyone has the time, money, resources or education on making choices that we think are the right ones.
I am here to tell you that if you make yourself aware, and make an effort to be better - you're doing enough. Could you do better? Of course! Everyone can. But always thinking about how you could be better (or how others should be better) is only going to be discouraging.
Tips for Real People to Reduce Food Waste
1. Make a Meal Plan
How many times have you gone to the store with a meal plan in your head and ended up spending hundreds more than you expected? Likely quite a few unless you're a seasoned pro at meal planning.
Shop Your Pantry
The first step to making a meal plan with zero waste food in mind is to look at what you already have on hand. Shopping your pantry doesn't need to stop at your pantry - look in your freezer, fridge and garden if you have one!
What meals could you make (or mostly make) with the food that's already at your house? Brainstorm what you might only need 1 or 2 more ingredients for. Also, think about what you have that can be repurposed?
Does something call for sour cream but you have plain Greek yogurt? Do you need canned corn for a recipe but you have frozen at the house? Does a recipe call for penne noodles but you have rotini? You get it! Substitute when it makes sense.
Plan for Meals That Your Family Already Likes
I'm all for experimenting in the kitchen with new recipes - but be realistic. Try to keep your meal plan to 1-2 new recipes per week. To make sure you're not wasting food because the recipe just isn't to your taste - don't overcommit.
Try and Choose Meals With Similar Ingredients
If you have most of the ingredients to make a roast beef dinner but you need to buy carrots, plan what else they can be used for.
When planning on what foods should be made in multiple recipes while meal planning, consider the ones that will go bad first. If you have leftover zucchini and carrots that were both bought the same day, focus your efforts on the food that will spoil faster (in this case, that's the zucchini.
2. Rethink Your Food Scraps
So you bought some delicious farmers market carrots - the kind that still have the greens on top. Instead of throwing out those greens, use them as a supplemental green in a mixed salad, make them into a zero waste pesto, or even throw them into a scrap bag for homemade vegetable broth.
So everyone has made pesto out of carrot tops or radish tops. That's old news.
There's so many ways to create something really great out of food that would otherwise be wasted. Some examples are asparagus ends, apple peels and potatoes.
This of course is not a be-all-end-all list. These are a few ideas that I've come across that help reduce food waste in my kitchen.
Try to write down the food you throw away for a whole month and brainstorm ways to reincorporate things that frequently get wasted at your household. Send me an email telling me what you struggle with wasting at your house and I'll even add my ideas to cut back what's wasted to this list!
3. Make Use of Your Kitchen
If You Have Perishable Groceries - Cook Something
It doesn't need to be fancy. The best thing you can do is condition yourself to just make something. Even if that means I eat a grilled cheese sandwich or an apple and peanut butter. Best case scenario is I throw on my Instant Pot and make a 30 minute meal.
Also - don't sleep on unconventional meals like breakfast for dinner.
Other Ways to Maximize Your ROI in the Kitchen
I'm always a huge advocate for buying good products one time instead of cheap products once. I don't buy gimmicky products, but there's some kitchen tools that I couldn't focus on zero waste food without.
- A Dehydrator. I love to make shelf-stable goodies in my dehydrator. If you have fruit of vegetables that are going to go bad - dehydrate them for a quick and portable snack. I bought a cheap Hamilton Beach dehydrator and absolutely hated it. Costco had a sale on an Excalibur and it was one of the best investments I've made.
- A Blender. When I had a nutri-bullet style blender, I almost never used it. When I upgraded to a Vitamix I was shocked with how much use we got out of our blender. It's amazing for throwing together fruits and vegetables that are on the verge of going bad and also allows you to purchase more frozen produce.
- A Freezer. Having a freezer is one of the best tips for making the most out of your grocery budget. Not only does it allow you to capitalize on sales, but if you don't get through everything you planned for during a week, there's almost nothing you can't freeze to extend it's life.
- Canning/Preserving Equipment. From mason jars to a pressure canner, there's tons of ways you can preserve your food. If you don't want to invest in the time or learning curve of pressure canning, there's tons of alternatives that are acidic enough to can in a water bath. This is a great article going over foods that are safe to water bath can. As a bonus, here's another article from Fresh Preserving that discusses the differences between pressure canning and water canning. Also - I love to quick pickle. My personal favourites are carrots, cucumbers and red onions.
4. Do Your Best
I'm not living plastic-free. I'm no longer vegan. I occasionally forget about some yogurt in the back of my fridge that spoils. I am not here to tell you that unless you change your whole life that you aren't doing enough.
I truly believe that for every cause you believe in that the best thing you can do is try to be better than you were the day before. There will be days that you mess up and make decisions that may set you back a step.
As someone whop struggles with striving for perfection and then getting discouraged - that is the absolute worst thing you can do. If you wake up and decide you want to be better, do it consciously and gradually. Burn out is real and if you really want to work towards cooking zero waste food or having a zero waste kitchen, it needs to be in small implementable changes to not get discouraged.
No part of your life has to be all or nothing. Just try and be better. Try and teach your kids to be better. Try and encourage your family to be better.
Bonus: Recipe Ideas To Avoid Waste
If you take nothing else away from this article - start looking at food you have in a different light. Try to take a moment each time you're ready to throw something away and think about how it could be salvaged or repurposed.
Here are a few edible ideas to get the ball rolling!
Potatoes + Root Vegetables
Spicy Potato Peel Chips (Potato Skins)
Garden Hummus (Carrots)
Roasted Beetroot and Feta Salad (Uses All Parts of the Beet)
Butternut Squash Soup (Uses the Squash and the Seeds)
Homemade Dehydrated Hashbrowns (Leftover Potatoes)
Parmesan Roasted Broccoli Stalks (Broccoli Stalks)
Zero Waste Pesto (Radish/Carrot Tops)
Vegan Asparagus Soup (Asparagus Ends)
How to Grow Your Own Mung Bean Sprouts
Candied Rhubarb (Extra Rhubarb Harvest Season)
Banana Peel Thoran (Banana Peels)
Pure Fruit Popsicles (Fruit Discards)
Orange Cake (Uses a Whole Orange, Unpeeled)
Apple Jelly (Using Peels and Cores)
Chocolate Covered Candied Orange Peels (Orange Peels)
Meat + Dairy
What Can Be Used in Broth and Stock (Comprehensive List)
Clean Out the Fridge Loaf (Meatloaf with Misc Veggies)
Other Non-Edible Ideas
Banana Compost Tea (For Garden Fertilizer)
What to do With Juiced Lemons (Including a Household Cleaner!)
This is such a wonderful guide - so many helpful little tips and ideas! I totally agree that it doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing thing ... every little bit counts and it all adds up. Thank you!
Thank you for the kind words, Shelley!