Make better use of your kitchen’s resources to waste less food and save more money

August 31 |
This is one trick Rockethaus uses to save food -- open communication about what needs to be eaten asap.

In my household, we spend most of our disposable money on food. We like food. But food, unfortunately, is a fickle and delicate thing. One too many days in the fridge and the squash is shot to hell. And when the water reaches boiling, do you get pasta panic? How much do I put in?! Too much and it's wasted, too little and everyone is sad.

Wasting food is a bummer. It's a waste of money, it's a disappointment, and it can be prevented. Here are nine ways to waste less of your precious, tasty, delicioso food.

Grow it

The produce in grocery stores is old. Last time I brought strawberries home, they looked great in the store, but had mold by the next morning. The stuff on grocery shelves includes months-old apples and spinach picked two weeks ago. I've heard stories of shipments of watermelons arriving at a store after days on an unrefrigerated truck, presented on a layer of fermented slush and mold.

Some of the most delicate tasties are stupid-easy to grow: spinach and herbs like cilantro and basil. Get yourself a few small planters, a packet of seeds, and you'll have fresh (cheap!) greens that don't turn into gooey sludge after a couple days in the fridge. You'll spend less money, and since you can pick-as-you-go your produce won't have such a short lifespan.

Learn to store food

It doesn't all go in the fridge. It can't all sit out on the counter. A good rule of thumb for produce is to copy the situation you found in the grocery: apples, grapes, oranges, onions? They're all sitting out in the open. Asparagus? Lettuce? Berries? Broccoli? Usually refrigerated.

Plan meals

I use a service called E-mealz to provide me with a list of meals each week. I dig it because the ingredients overlap, so although I may only use a half onion in one dinner, the next day I'll finish it off. E-mealz works for me because I'm crap at planning meals. Without it, I generally have ideas about dinner at about 6 PM each day.

Whether you're using E-mealz or a pad of paper and a pantry inventory, planning a menu before the week's grocery trip saves you trips to the store and loads of moldy veggies.

Eat less food

That sounds dumb, right? Hear me out. During our last move, I packed up the fridge. When I got to the third jar of pickles and the fifth bottle of ketchup, I informed my partner he was on a pickle-and-ketchup buying moratorium. He informed me, in turn, I'd earned a cucumber moratorium.

Since then we've made a real effort to only buy what we need, when we need it. It cleans up the fridge and keeps us eating to the end of our supplies — rather than throwing out the jar of spaghetti sauce that finally got old.

In the same gesture, we began cooking less. I try to alter recipes so they're right for two people because I know we're not great about eating up leftovers. If one of us is still hungry after dinner, so be it! I'll nosh on a carrot or Scott can grab a slice of bread. Just focusing on making smaller portions keeps us from throwing out the extras.

Get friendly with the freezer

It took me a really long time to embrace freezing food. When I finally did, it started with my first big batch of edamame. All you need are sealable sandwich bags (I have not had a problem with cheapo brands, although Ziploc keeps trying to tell me they're on the bleeding edge of scientific advances in plastic bag research). It's also good to stock up on high-quality containers — the kind that will last years, not warp in the dishwasher.

Assuming it's kept frozen, most food will be good for a year or more. Make big batches of red sauce and freeze them. Freeze precious and pricey portabella mushrooms to pop into soups. Food goes a lot further when you embrace the freezer.

Crank out casseroles

…Or whatever your leftover-saver of choice might be. Casseroles are easy, though — take most any vegetable, add it to most any leftover carb (rice or pasta!), include mushroom soup, some salt, and cheese if you're feeling crazy and — casserole! Now you have dinner and more leftovers, but in a form which actually tastes good warmed-over.

Okay, maybe consider these hot dogs way past good. © by Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious

Fuck expiration dates

I'm a sniffer. I heartily, truly believe that our sensory systems evolved to help keep us alive and goldarnit, if that yogurt smells fine then it's fine! Unless food has visible mold, exceeded safe unrefrigerated times, or is so old you can't remember its origin story, smell works. I realize the page I linked to says NOT to trust smell, but I'm saying you are a grown up and you can use good judgement. I'm also saying: I live in a mostly-vegetarian household and we grow much of our produce, so our risk of food poisoning is lower than a meaty fridge with California-grown spinach in the crisper.

Ask for help

When I took over food responsibilities, my partner came down with food blindness. He's suddenly very bad at looking in the fridge and finding something to eat. Then we added a third person to the house and confusion grew. I grabbed a marker and made a list of foods: Eat this. Not that. and On notice — see it at the top of this post? These are the foods available to be eaten, those being saved for recipes, and those which I am tossing soon as they're nearing the end of life. To be fair, I have no idea if it's helped anyone else in the household, but seeing the list on the fridge door helps me remember when I should give extra consideration to snacking on a cucumber while it's still fresh.

Compost it!

mixed veg surprise
Photo by weegeebored. Used under Creative Commons license.

You would not believe the amount of STUFF we've added to our compost this summer. Much of it comes from the yard and garden, but I also can generally fill one compost bin full of scraps each day. Bits leftover from dinner, cantaloupe rinds, petals from flowers in vases, even half-finished glasses of water go in the bin instead of down the drain — since compost needs to be kept moist to blech up, I figure I may as well use already-tapped water instead of the garden hose. We're a vegetarian household, so just about everything we eat can go in the compost, but your mileage may vary.

It's especially nice when something does go bad — I feel a lot less bad about chopping up a moldy squash into the compost than I do about tossing it out.

That's what I've got — some of these items are common sense, but when combined they're pretty powerful in reducing waste from our house. What have you learned about cutting down your food waste?

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  1. make stock!

    i keep a couple of containers in the freezer to toss leftover good food bits in. carrot tops? half an onion? garlic peels? tomato that's going to be rotten by tomorrow? toss them in the freezer container. when they get full, dump into a stock pot, cover with water, add some salt/pepper/bay/wine/whatever, boil for a few hours and strain. the boiled veg goes into the compost, the stock back into the containers and into the freezer.

    for max flavor, i recommend making sure there's a decent portion of onion and tomato in there (sometimes i add non-leftover things).

    your soup will be twice as awesome, and you don't waste stuff you would otherwise not eat. also works well with chicken carcasses and other meaty leftovers.

    3 agree
    • The idea of keeping bits of vegetables to make stock is great, but I think you're not supposed to refreeze goods that thawed due to an increased risk of bacteria contamination: in this case, you might not want to freeze the stock made out of thawed goods. Or only freeze stock made of never-frozen goods. Uh… Am I clear?

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    • I suspect this is mooted by the boiling process, as this should kill any bacteria that managed to grow on the veg when thawed.

      7 agree
  2. This was a fascinating read. And the article about grocery store food was also fascinating…and depressing too. I just moved into a new apartment, and since summer's ending soon, there aren't many veggies I can plant. Makes me very sad.

    On that note – any firsthand tips on composting while living in an apartment, i.e. without a backyard to store a big bin? Can you compost through the winter?

    • worm bin. also called vermicomposting, i believe. i just got mine a week ago, so i can't tell you much, but it's done in a plastic (usually), covered bin, so it's easy to store, and as long as you don't overfeed them, it won't stink at all. and you can keep it indoors, so the winter (or summer) is no problem.

      • Cool! I've been thinking about trying that. It's probably what I'll end up doing. 🙂

      • You do have to really keep an eye on your worm bins and be responsible. We tried one when I was in high school in our class. Trust me, that is not the place to attempt composting. It stank. So just be aware it will take some work to find your balance and make sure it's working for you properly.

    • Here in Philly (and I've heard tell in other cities as well), we have a composting service — someone comes around on a bike and picks up our compost from a bucket we leave on the porch. It's 10$/month and so worth it! We don't have any garden space, so we can't use the food scraps we create, but it's so nice to have less trash — and less stinky trash!

    • Unfortunately worn bins just can't process much compost, there are however Electric composers that can be used indoors. If you go this route, you must keep it balanced ie not too wet or it will smell like death.

  3. Thanks for the small apartment slant for composting! Our landlord is super anal about stuff being outside, even on the concrete pad of a "porch". I love spinach, prefer it over lettuce, cooked or raw.

  4. Great tips! I live alone, so food prep, storage and spoilage are real issues for me. I found E-mealz to have a bit too much emphasis on packaged foods for my taste, but I LOVE fresh 20!

  5. I need to get back into the habit of big batch cooking. I've started doing our lunches that way, but I used to always have red sauce and chili in the freezer. I need to just buy another big pot and start setting aside one Sunday a month for cooking!

  6. Good tips! Some of my tips:

    I make a kitchen sink soup (as in everything but the kitchen sink) to use up leftover bits of veggies and random stuff in the fridge / cupboards.

    Make it a game to see if you can stretch your grocery shopping day a few days later by shopping your cupboards and fridge to really finish off the last bits of dry goods and random condiments and turn them into snacks and meals.

    Shop local (farmer's markets, etc.) and more often in smaller quantities so produce has less time for things to go bad. People with small fridges do this automatically (city dwellers, Europeans).

    Be really careful about what you take home from the store. Turn over the whole piece of fruit or vegetable and check for bad spots and bruises. Look through the visible areas on that bag of lettuce and see if any bits look slimy already. Stores often put the oldest milk in front – if you know you won't finish it by the expiration date, hunt towards the back to find the newer milk.

    • Thank you for explaining the name of your soup. I was imagining some pretty horrifying things about sink soup.

  7. Um, can I just say, E-mealz is blowing my mind. I had no idea stuff like this was out there. I can see this taking my meal planning to a whole new level of awesome laziness.

    One way we "use up" food is actually contrary to your suggestion of eat less. We cook more, 4 portions for 2 people, and then pack the other 2 portions in containers for lunch the next day.

    We aren't really leftover people, either, but a yummy dinner redux for lunch combats our anti-leftover attitude because it's out of the fridge and in our bellies a mere 18 hours later. Not too shabby.

    • I do this too. I used to hate left overs, but for lunch they are really, really great. When I'm at home, I will cook something slightly different with them – a new meal! When I'm at work, I will take a container an try to add something else to it – a bit like the containers Ariel always talks about, but looking less beautiful. Left over lunch FTW!

  8. In addition to growing one's own produce, I'd suggest joining a Community Supported Agriculture project. The produce I get in my box each week seems to last so much longer (and taste better, and all the other perks) – though I don't always get around to using everything in time. It's a work in progress.

    • Agreed that CSA'a are awesome in principle, but DO YOUR RESEARCH on the specific one you join and hold them to their promises. We joined one that promised asparagus and strawberries and mostly delivered things that we were already harvesting . . . because they are invasive in our area (dandelion and mustard greens, etc.) We left them and joined another who turned out to be great.

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  9. i cook for two people, one of whom eats like a fussy two-year-old and doesn't like green things, things that taste like vegetables or things with chunks in.
    I've learned to make a weekly meal plan as a grocery list, and every few weeks i will try a new meal out on him – often just a variation on something he's had before and likes. Sometimes it's good enough to be repeated, sometimes it's not, but planning is the difference between knowing what we actually like and trying to guess at the supermarket.
    The other thing that has greatly helped with our waste is actually spending *more* money on food. No, really. We eat meat maybe three nights a week and buy buying the nicer cuts or better grade of mince, we enjoy it and eat it all rather than sticking leftover sup-par bolognese in the fridge to mold. We keep track of what brands of things we like best and try not to stock up too many condiments (i have a small problem with relish and pickles!). As well as this, i've gotten a lot better at anticipating portions – i now know i eat maybe 1/3 less than the Boy so for big meals so i will either plate it that way, or we'll have a meal the size i prefer and he can have a sandwich later.

  10. Composting!! EVERYTHING in our house that isn't dairy or greasy goes in the compost, yes, even small bits of meat (buried well). Tissues, toothpicks, popsicle sticks, cotton rags, wool yarn bits, almost all of our paper waste, veggie and fruit scraps, vacuum lint, dryer lint. We've cut our waste down by at least 75% this past year, since we moved somewhere that composting and recycling is possible.

    We also feed a ton of our 'scraps' to the chickens, and they love it. Rinds of bell peppers, slightly off but not moldy fruits, egg plant peels, carrot bits. I'm glad they're eating something real (on top of their chicken feed) and they love their 'salad' as we call it. And when they have more veggies and fruits, their eggs are even better tasting.

    We also meal plan, and always try to use stuff immediately. We found that shopping twice a week actually saves us money because we don't buy veggies that will go bad before we can use them. Some things we wait and buy the day of or the day before (sprouts, for example. They get slimy sitting around in a baggie for a few days).

  11. I am a leftover person. I hate, hate, hate cooking, so I make one big batch of something (rice and beans, stir-fry, casserole, soup) and basically eat that plus raw produce for the whole week. It's pretty cheap, especially since the food I can cook is really simple, and the ingredients tend to be inexpensive (also, I don't eat much). For example, enough lentil soup for ten meals costs…maybe $7? Less than a dollar a meal. Fantastic!

    1 agrees
  12. I too live in an apartment and have no outdoor space to contribute too. Is there any info on communal compost that I may be able to find to contribute our scraps to? I just hate wasting.

  13. I agree with the expiration date comment. As long as it doesn't get moldy, you can eat yogurt way past its date – it might get a little sour and a little liquidy, but it won't hurt you. Quality cheeses also last for ages, if they're well-wrapped. Slice off any surface mold and give the cheese a taste – if it's good, eat it!

    • A good way to keep your cheeses from getting mold is to make sure you never touch them with your bare hands. This transfers oils and potentially bacteria, and the cheese grabs hold and doesn't let go. Also, wrap it back up in new wrappings every time; don't re-use. And make sure there's as little air as possible. These things will keep your cheeses for a lot longer!

      1 agrees
  14. Eating fresher foods, especially raw, combined with shopping more often (bringing home less food per trip) have helped us waste less. There's only a few foods we eat enough of to make sense of bigger batches, namely pinto beans. I would rather underestimate at the store and have to go back than buy too much… which ends up being healthier because instead of eating the over-ripe food I bought days to a week ago, I'm eating something that was probably harvested more recently and is more nutritious.

  15. We are big meal planners, and buy ingredients accordingly-things that can be used in many meals. We also believe in the power of leftovers, the power of a packed lunch, and the power of SOUP! I make about three full meals a week-the rest of the time food is reused or recycled as a soup or casserole. This helps us avoid food waste, and keeps our grocery bill down. My husband also takes our leftovers to work with him.

  16. I never, EVER buy more perishable food than I can realistically eat (or make into something freezable) in one week. If I run out of something, I can always buy more. If I can't plan a week in advance, I'll plan three days in advance and go from there. It works – I can't even remember the last time I had to throw out food.

  17. This has inspired me to plant a wee vege patch, and I'm so excited — to the point of annoying the husband with my excitement!
    Also, I don't have a compost (where I live in NZ has a council run seperated rubbish system — compost, recyclables and inorganic rubbish), but my dogs do enjoy the benefits of vege cut offs – potato and kumara peel, carrot tops, apple cores … if they're good they even get the odd grape/green bean/pea …

    1 agrees
    • Yes! Animals trained this way become the best kitchen cleaners – no sooner does something hit the floor than it's gone. Saves sweeping time, especially if when kids come around.

  18. Two questions (which might actually merit a whole new post).
    First, is it possible to have indoor planters when my cats have the run of the house? And leave some foods (like the grapes etc mentioned in the post) out on the counter? Is the pantry better than the fridge? The cats get into everything already…
    And second question: I love all the ideas about having smaler portions and just snacking extra if needed, but what are some healthy snacks that can be kept in the house? Especially if we're assuming that all of our fresh stuff has been eaten, and that's why we're looking for a snack… Are there any recommendations for non-perishable snacks for a healthy household?

    • In terms of the cats and plants, I'd say it depends on your cats. Of our 3:
      – One of them leaves all plants completely alone.
      – Another one nibbles (doesn't eat, just puts little teeth marks in) any and all leaves she can reach.
      – Our third cat likes to grab hold of plants and pull them onto and sometimes across the floor, generally killing said plant (especially by the time I get home and discover the awesome mess).
      We love our kitties, and we also love having plants around – but we have to find ways to keep them up high, and out of the reach of the cats. I'd say give it a try, just make sure you experiment with something non-poisonous to cats. I've also heard (but haven't experienced) that some cats like to dig in the dirt and make a mess that way, and that chili powder in the soil can help discourage this. But again, that's second-hand advice, we haven't had to go there.

      ~~~Edit~~~ In terms of leaving things like grapes on the counter, none of our cats have ever shown any interest in eating fruits or vegetables. The only human food they have gotten into has been fish or dairy products.

      On your second question, I'm not an authority, and 'healthy' means different things to different people. To me, fresh=healthy (more or less), but many people would list things like peanut butter and canned fruits/veggies as healthy non-perishable – but then you have to keep in mind things like added sugar, salt, and random mystery-preservatives.

  19. This! When we moved house when I was a teenager, our family cat stayed inside for a few days to prevent her running away. As an outside/do what she wants cat, she disapproved of this … and found the funny little built in planters in the bathroom counter with soil in them. Come morning, soil all over the counter, carpet, tile … hilarious, but only when you're 13 and not the one who has to clean it up!
    P.S Kitties also don't like used coffee grinds, which are also a super health food to your plants. Win!

  20. I started The Four Pounds of Cheese Project. For the first week in August, I took pictures of all our food waste, including what ended up in the compost bin. Many folks have participated and continue to participate. One of them posted this article on the group wall. We can always learn more and be more mindful of our relationship to food and our attitude towards waste. Thank you for the great ideas. We compost, too, but for some reason, I never think about pouring water into it. Makes perfect sense, though.

    If you are interested, here is the fb group page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/247297005310256/

  21. Buy only fresh things you plan on using that week. I used to buy fruits and veggies, thinking "We need more healthy things!" But then I wouldn't have a recipe ready, and they'd rot. It didn't take long for me to start joking that our fridge was where fresh food went to die.

    Now we're much better about it, and moldy food is thrown out much less often.

    Oh, and frozen veggies. Frozen veggies are the best.

  22. My fiance and I are actually working on a computer program that I can input all my favorite recipes into (ingredients, cook times, health information). When I'm ready to make my grocery list, instead of going through my dozen cook books to find recipes, I'll just pick the recipes from the program and all the ingredients will be included in the list. Doing this will save me at least 3 hours every other week, and will keep our grocery list to the minimum of what we need for meals.

    We also dig on leftovers, so if I make a double quantity of my recipes, we don't have to worry about lunch or snacks, which cuts out a lot of extra munchies shopping, just need some extra fruit and bread! 🙂

    • I totally want a computer program like that. I am also, sadly, completely incapable of coming up with a program like that.

  23. I thought I was the only one who had pasta panic! When I lived in Japan, we bought spaghetti that had five or six individually-wrapped servings in the bag. (Like a bit of paper around the middle of each bundle.) So easy! Now that I'm Stateside again, I never know how much to cook. Luckily my mom just gave me a pasta measure thing. Saved!

    To answer the actual question, we plan our meals in advance and make lists. Again, living in Japan was easier in some ways because food is sold in small packages. In America, the only option seems to be buying way more than we need, and then it's a struggle to use it up. But we've only been back for two months, so hopefully we'll get used to it soon.

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