When you’re putting together a grocery list or getting mentally prepared to clean out your kitchen, do you just know there are pantry items that you’re not using—or mysterious bags in your crisper you’d rather not touch?
If so, you’re not alone. For most of us, going through the ominous, unlabeled containers crowding the back of our refrigerators is about as appealing as speaking in public unprepared or getting our taxes audited. Unfortunately, this has some repercussions that, to put it succinctly, aren’t great. According to the FDA, 30 to 40 percent of the United States’ food supply regularly goes to waste.
To reduce that percentage, there’s a lot of buzz these days about how to make the most of every scrap of food—and other kitchen resources. We see news stories about people whose yearly personal trash output can fit in a cup, brands who are going plastic-free, and the slow yet persistent eradication of straws.
When it comes to our own homes, it can be difficult to consider making choices that reduce our footprints and make our lives more eco-friendly and sustainable. After all, our habits are relatively ingrained, and a lot of the waste we produce is pretty non-negotiable.
However, there are some smaller steps we can take to point ourselves in the right direction, even if we’re not ready for sweeping change! Instead of thinking about the huge prospect of becoming a zero-waste household, let’s talk about getting to a low-waste kitchen (in five easy steps!).
Get creative with your leftovers and vegetable scraps
When you think of gourmet chefs, what comes to mind? Michelin stars? Fine linens? Large plates and tiny servings?
Ingenuity, resourcefulness, and creativity—these are three of the defining ingredients of a good chef. As it turns out, the most successful chefs are experts at not letting a single scrap in their kitchens go to waste. From using fond to create luxurious pan sauces to gathering veggie scraps and using them to flavor stocks and broths, those in-the-know realize that flavor and function can be found in the tiniest and most unlikely places.
If you’re not so much a kitchen savant, you can use your odds and ends to enhance your home in other ways. Don’t have the inclination or elbow room to compost? Consider planting your onion and potato ends in pots, and reap the benefit of (free!) plants in your home.
Also: did you know that a lot of the foodstuffs we regularly discard are actually completely edible? Incorporating more of these types of ingredients into your meals can help your kitchen be more sustainable:
- Strawberry tops can be used to make spa water.
- Almost any vegetable scraps can be saved for delicious and uber-healthy stock. Same goes for any bones leftover after Sunday chicken roasts or steaks! (Just make sure to get your bones simmering right away or freeze them immediately to lock in health benefits and to stay safe.)
- Before you trim and toss “inedible” parts of your produce away—like leek tops, beet tops, cilantro stems, and kale stems—consider whether they’re really not for eating, or if you’re just not used to eating them! Leek tops are delicious sautéed; beet tops are a unique option for salad greens; cilantro stems can be used along with the leaves; and kale stems can be finely diced and added to salsas, sauces, and more.
- Fried potato skins are definitely something to try (think of them as a crispier alternative to a French fry).
- When it comes to nearly any about-to-go-bad produce (except lettuce), try making a baked good out of it. Carrots, zucchini, and parsnips all make delicious (and unexpectedly sweet) coffee cakes.
- Citrus peels can be candied, used for zest, or soaked in vinegar and used as a natural household cleaner.
Of course, this is by no means an exhaustive list—some of the best (and most unexpected!) results may come from a little experimenting yourself.
Reduce the need for paper towels and plastic wrap
There are some things that you just need a paper towel for. However, the vast majority of cleaning activities can just as easily be completed with a cloth. Get a bunch of bar mops in bulk, designate a drawer or a cute basket in your kitchen for them, and keep your paper towels on a high shelf in your pantry—to be accessed only when truly necessary.
The same goes for plastic wrap. Between stretchy silicone bowl toppers, beeswax wrap (which you can actually make at home!), and simple ad hoc solutions like covering a bowl with a plate and calling it a day, the number of occasions where you specifically need plastic wrap are rapidly shrinking.
Try not to buy specialty ingredients (especially not in bulk)
If you need a speciality ingredient for a special occasion, see if there’s anyone in your nearby community who has it, see if you can substitute with something you have, or buy the smallest amount possible of that specialty thing (even if the unit price is a little more expensive).
Then, figure out other recipes specifically to use that ingredient. Got extra gochujang? More garam masala than you need? Haven’t the foggiest what to do with the rest of the sauerkraut? Take to the internet, my friends.
Bring reusable bags to the market
This isn’t a new tip, but it’s a solid one. Prioritizing the use of reusable bags limits the amount of plastic waste coming into your home, which will by necessity make your plastic waste go down.
Pro tip: keep a set of folded bags tucked neatly into your purse, and stow your bulkier store-brand reusable bags in the back of your car.
Extra credit: purchase or make a set of vegetable and bulk produce bags. They’re pretty, washable, and easy to keep in your pantry—and they’ll reduce your need for plastic from the market even further. A win-win!
When you do have to use plastic or paper bags at checkout, inquire whether the store has a collection spot for mass recycling. Some residential areas don’t have easy recycling services or convenient ways to recycle plastic bags in particular. Taking your bags back to the store not only helps with getting them out of your home sustainably, it also reinforces in your brain that bags are to be reused, no matter their material.
Try a regular no-grocery challenge
If your home is anything like mine (or like most homes), you have more food in your pantry, the back of your fridge, or your freezer than you even realize. With a little creativity, a few internet searches, and the ability to be okay with slightly experimental cuisine, you can save money—and save food from going bad—in one fell swoop. Interested?
Enter: the no-grocery challenge.
Sarah von Bargen of Yes and Yes has plenty of resources for this, but the idea is simple: the last week of the month (or the week prior to a vacation, or prior to payday, or whatever suits your lifestyle), don’t buy new groceries, save for any truly necessary fresh essentials. Instead, take a half hour to do an honest audit of what you already have at home. Plan your meals around those ingredients—even if you end up mixing up truly interesting dishes. It’s a great creative mind boost as well as a budget-enhancing hack!
(Pro tip: Stir fries, “everything” salads, and omelets are key to no-grocery challenge success, as are fresh green salsas!)
If you’re interested in inspiration for this culinary challenge, check out Anthony Bourdain’s Wasted! The Story of Food Waste for background on the food industry, how a little action on your part goes a long way, and what professional chefs do when they are faced with a similar pantry-hacking effort.
Do you have to suddenly incorporate all of these tips? Of course not! However, taking small steps towards a lower-waste kitchen can help the world out a tiny bit, and it can also give you a little win—which many of us need right about now. Try one or two of these tips over the coming week to see how you feel (and if you discover any surprising new food faves!).