Happy #ZeroWasteWednesday, and welcome to the second installment of the Re-Think Green series on preventing food waste at home. Often there is a trade-off between food waste and paper, plastic, aluminum or other kinds of waste. When we eat convenience foods, we generate trash but probably not much food waste, as they tend to be in individual portions and have long shelf lives. But in moving towards the zero waste lifestyle, people often start cooking more and thus run the risk of having fresh foods go to waste. Here are my tips for anyone who is new to cooking or is finding it hard to avoid food waste.
Disclosure Statement: This post contains Amazon affiliate links to several cookbooks that I recommend.
Tip 3: Learn some flexible recipes for “fridgescraps”
Stir fry, vegetable soup, veggie or chicken broth, fried rice, bread salad, bread pudding, rice pudding, and smoothies are all examples of flexible recipes you can cook to use up odds and ends of leftover ingredients. There are now apps and websites that help you figure out what to cook with the ingredients in your fridge, but I think the simplest thing is to plan to make stir fry or fried rice or broth once a week and use up anything then. You can also collect scraps in the freezer if you want to make bigger batches of broth. See my previous post to read about other benefits to having a consistent weekly cooking plan.
Tip 4: Keep it simple – avoid food waste ingredients
I’m all for learning to cook “ethnic foods.” In fact, I find it hard to live without some variety in my diet. I grew up with Hungarian food and I love it, but when I lived in Budapest in 2001, I was starved for some Indian food or a bagel with schmear or something — anything — to break the monotony. Globalized first world problems, I know.
So because we like variety, we have to make some tough decisions about how many bottles of exotic sauces and unfamiliar spices we’re willing to bring into our homes. When I lived with frequently changing roommates in graduate school, it was astounding how many different sauces and mustards and capers and vinegars were left in our fridge way past their expiration date. Many of these things don’t go bad very fast, but they still add to the clutter and can go to waste if you never use them again.
One strategy for avoiding odd ingredients is to use cookbooks that have simple recipes, not fancy ground-breaking, cuisine-fusing tours de force by the most famous chef of the moment. Ottolenghi must be a great chef, and it’s been fun playing around with his book of vegetable cuisine Plenty, but I refuse to hunt down and buy hazelnut oil and watercress and whatever “muscovado sugar” is just so I can put ½ tsp. of it on the mouthwatering salad on p. 83. I know I’ve wasted고추장 / gochujang (Korean chili paste) before, because I do get a hankering for bi bim bap sometimes. But I just don’t make it as often as my Korean friends do, and it’s only sold in container sizes that make sense for them. In a similar vein, every time I’ve bought tahini, I’ve only been able to use up a few tablespoons a year.
Some of my favorite simple recipes that still draw from a number of ethnic cuisines are More-With-Less Cookbook (World Community Cookbook) by those kind, traveling Mennonites, and its sister volume, Simply in Season. Another is From Asparagus to Zucchini: A Guide to Cooking Farm-Fresh Seasonal Produce, 3rd Edition. All of these were written by communities, not by chefs, but they have been well vetted and have a focus on fresh produce and pantry foods (staples) instead of canned or processed supermarket products. Other good cookbooks are those written by authors who are nutritionists, not chefs, like Feeding the Whole Family: Recipes for Babies, Young Children, and Their Parents.
Tip 5: Share, don’t buy food waste ingredients
There are a couple solutions to this problem of food waste ingredients. You could just eat out for ethnic food, but that can be pricey and not so #ZeroWaste. Another is to go through phases – learn about Indian cooking for a few months and stock your pantry with the necessities for that. Once you’ve used them up, move on to Mexican food. I know someone who’s a wonderful cook and expanded her repertoire that way, but since I crave variety, it doesn’t work that well for me.
Another strategy is to avoid buying too much of these ingredients by using the bulk section of your supermarket. If you don’t mind an open container, you can also try to get smaller amounts from friends, neighbors, or your local Buy Nothing Group. Tomato paste, for example, is vulnerable to being wasted in my home, so I did once ask if anyone in my buy nothing group had any lying around before I bought some. Sure enough, someone had half a tube languishing in their fridge. How’s that for frugal as well as green?