What Is Food Waste and Why Does It Matter?
An estimated one third of the world’s food meant for human consumption is lost or wasted. Food waste happens at all levels of the supply chain: Crops rot in the field if they’re not in-demand enough to sell in grocery stores; fine-to-eat dairy products are taken off supermarket shelves when they pass their “best by” date labels or expiration dates; and edible food gets lost during transportation. Although a lot of food waste happens before you step inside the grocery store, food waste is also a problem at home.
It’s estimated that Americans alone throw out something like $160 billion worth of “ugly” store food annually (or about 40 million tons), and in the United States, one-third of landfill-bound residential trash consists of organic matter like food scraps and yard trimmings. It doesn’t have to be that way. Those food scraps can easily become a potent natural fertilizer called compost, and for home cooks who embrace zero-waste cooking, food scraps and ugly produce can be transformed into beautiful meals.
7 Tips for Reducing Food Waste
There are a few things you can do to reduce the food waste you create at home. Through careful planning, you can transform leftovers and scraps into flavorful new dishes, and repurpose anything that isn’t good enough to eat by creating compost. Consider the following food waste solutions:
- Embrace ugly. As Chef Gordon Ramsay says, “Never be put off by vegetables looking ugly because sometimes, the uglier the vegetable, the more flavor it has in it.” Sauté wilted salad greens or put them in a soup. A bruised peach is delicious in a cobbler. There’s no need to throw food away just because it’s misshapen, wilted, nibbled by bugs, or bruised. Simply find another use for it. When you find a way to use ugly or damaged produce you would otherwise throw away, you reduce the amount of food you waste and lower your carbon footprint.
- Use scraps. Chef Massimo Bottura believes that everything, even what most people perceive as useless scraps, can be given a second life. For example, taking an onion skin and pairing it with other complementary flavors to make a stock results in less wasted food. His Brodo di Tutto recipe is a pasta dish made from stale bread and broth made from food scraps. He makes the broth with vegetable scraps and he uses finely ground stale bread to make the dough for the pasta. For the stock, use vegetable scraps that you have lying around but that complement one another and the dish as a whole.
- Grow your own herbs. When it comes to elevating your cooking, garnishing pasta with a sprig of fresh mint or adding whole leaves of basil to a tomato salad can make all the difference. Instead of buying packaged herbs at the market, consider growing your own indoor or outdoor herb garden at home (which is easier than it sounds). Growing your own herbs at home means you can harvest exactly what you need, instead of buying an entire bunch of herbs when all you need is one sprig.
- Transform leftovers. Massimo makes his “Better Than Panettone” Soufflé made with leftover panettone, and he uses stale bread in his Brodo di Tutto recipe. There’s no need to throw away stale bread when it can so easily transform into French toast (known as pain perdu, or “lost bread” in France), bread pudding, and more. Canning or pickling perishable vegetables you won’t use in time prevents spoilage and extends their shelf life.
- Use what you have. Massimo says, “Cook what you have in the refrigerator—you’re gonna eat seasonal, you’re gonna save money, and you’re not gonna waste anything.” As Massimo points out, pesto is made with very simple ingredients: basil, extra-virgin olive oil, garlic, Parmigiano, and pine nuts. But you don’t have to limit yourself to that particular formula. If basil isn’t readily available or you don’t have any pine nuts, have the confidence to change course, using another herb in place of the basil or replacing the pine nuts with fresh bread crumbs. Using what you already have at home, rather than buying something new at the store, is one of the best ways to reduce food waste at home.
- Use every part of the animal or vegetable. Gordon insists that every part of the animal be used, including the chicken carcass to make stock. Buying a whole chicken or lobster allows you to practice whole-animal cooking. When it comes to chicken, you can use cut up, leftover pieces and stock from the carcass in chicken and autumn vegetable pies. You can save bones from a previous chicken carcass in the freezer to make chicken stock later. With a lobster, Gordon recommends a main dish of lobster tail, an appetizer of tortellini or ravioli, and a bisque made of lobster shell. This goes for vegetables as well: Gordon says the bushy, green carrot tops are great for salads and soups.
- Start composting. For everything that can’t be cooked, there’s composting. Chef Alice Waters always has a compost bucket in the kitchen, and she encourages everyone to do the same. Any organic scraps that result from your cooking that are not fish or meat can go into the bucket. Alice empties the bucket into the compost pile in the backyard, adding layers of straw, soil, or water as necessary. It is a simple but vital step in recycling nutrients back into the soil and taking care of the planet.
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