If you want to cut down on food going in the trash, you'll have to rethink your approach to shopping, cooking, and eating.
There are many articles on TreeHugger about how to reduce food waste at home, but I think it's time to pull those smart tips together into one place. The following list explains more or less what my household does on a daily basis. We produce almost no wasted food, aside from a small compost bin that gets emptied every 2-3 days in a backyard composter.
Fighting food waste does require a mental shift, a willingness to use what you've got even if you don't feel like eating it and would rather order takeout. It gets easier if you equip yourself with the right tools and brush up on some basic cooking skills. Do these things, and you can make a real dent in your food waste footprint, as well as have a much less stinky kitchen garbage.
1. Make stock.
Stock can be made out of bones and/or vegetables of all kinds. I use both raw and cooked bones, even bones that have been eaten by my family and friends. I figure that the long simmer will deal with any germs left from people's eating. The same goes for carrot peels that have been washed, celery and fennel fronds, mushroom stems, limp parsley, zucchini ends, broccoli stalks, onion skins, and more. All of this makes great stock.
Now, you don't always want to be making stock, so that's why you should stash it in the freezer in large containers, jars, bowls, or reusable plastic bags until you're ready. When the time comes (such as a lazy Sunday afternoon), I put in a stock pot or Instant Pot, fill with cold water, add peppercorns, and start boiling. I cook for 45 minutes at high pressure in the Instant Pot or 2-3 hours on the stove, then let it cool before draining and transferring liquid to freezer containers or jars in the fridge. The remaining vegetables and bones go into my solar composter, which can handle meat scraps.
2. Put your freezer to work.
I mentioned the freezer above, and it's truly a great way to stay ahead of food waste. Develop a good system for freezing food and labelling it clearly with name and date. I use old yogurt containers, wide-mouth glass jars, and Ziploc bags that get reused for months. If I have any doubts about whether or not something will get eaten in time, I put it in the freezer. I often buy produce on clearance in large quantities, such as green peppers, then wash, chop, and freeze it so it's ready for soups. Whenever I have too much stale bread, I whirl it in the blender, put the crumbs in a jar, and toss it in the freezer; they thaw out almost instantly when needed. Did you know you can freeze rice, milk, butter, and eggs? Read: How to freeze food in glass jars
3. Learn key recipes.
Certain recipes are effective at reducing food waste because they're like catch-alls that can absorb surplus or close-to-expiring ingredients, without making it any less delicious. I'd recommend learning how to make a great minestrone, a spicy vegetable chili, and a good noodle-and-veg stir-fry in order to use up ingredients quickly and deliciously whenever you need to. Keep long-lasting staple ingredients on hand that will allow you to make these dishes anytime, such as canned tomatoes, small pasta, stir-fry sauce (or condiments to make it), chili powder, canned beans, and more. You should also learn soup, pilaf, and risotto recipes as a way to use up all the extra stock you've now got in the freezer.
Learn to make green sauce. I once wrote an entire article about this basic blend of limp fresh herbs and greens, olive oil, and spices that I make regularly and use on everything from pizza and omelets to salads, grilled vegetables, and sandwiches.
I have recipes I make automatically when I end up with extra ingredients. Stale naan or pita becomes cheese pizza, broiled for a quick kid-friendly supper. Stale tortillas get fried and transformed into tostadas, topped with black beans and avocado. Even stale sliced bread can be made into garlic bread or cheese toasts to accompany a soup; just put it under the broiler. Old wine is great for cooking or can be turned into wine vinegar, if you're up for a fermenting project. Sour milk should always be kept for making muffins or pancakes. Pizza is great for using up moldly cheese (cut off the mold first), an old jar of tomato sauce, and limp vegetables.
4. Refine your food storage techniques.
I love Abeego founder Toni Desrosiers' description of food being "on a journey from living to not alive." We need to start thinking of food as being on a spectrum of freshness, not a stark good or bad comparison, and the way you store it should encourage it to linger at the fresher end of the spectrum. She recommends beeswax wraps as a way to allow food to breathe naturally and prevent it from rotting by trapping moisture inside. It's a good suggestion that I can vouch for, as well.
I'd recommend using glass jars and storage containers in the fridge because they allow you to see what's there. Otherwise, what's out of sight is out of mind, and you won't remember to use it in your next meal. Create an organizational system in your fridge that pulls the oldest food to the front, making it most accessible.
Part of this is learning to interpret 'best before' dates more liberally. They are arbitrary and have very little meaning in real life. It's better to use common sense to determine whether or not a food is still OK to eat, and to rely on one's senses like any other animal does: Smell it. Look at it. Taste a tiny bit of it. Scrape/cut off the mold and look at it again.
5. Commit to eating leftovers.
Eating leftovers isn't always fun, but it has to be done if you're serious about reducing food waste. Designate certain meals as 'leftover' meals. For my family, that's usually lunches. Instead of making sandwiches, my husband and I eat whatever is left over from last night's dinner. Sometimes we send it in our kids' school lunches, too. This is easiest if you have a selection of small insulated thermoses in which to keep food warm; these can be pricey when bought new, but I've found all of ours second-hand for just a few dollars.
You could establish a weekly leftover night when you clean out the fridge and everyone eats something different; describing it as a leftover buffet or smorgasbord might make it sound more exciting to your kids. Former TreeHugger writer Sami talked about his Wing-It Wednesdays:
"Every Wednesday becomes an opportunity to create some kind of meal out of whatever leftovers, unloved veggies, herbs or pantry staples happen to take our fancy. Usually it comes together as some kind of salad, rice dish or stir-fry, served in a bowl (and often topped with a fried egg)."
6. Strive for better food disposal methods.
I realize that people are limited by where they live. Apartment dwellers may not have a backyard composter, nor does every city have curb-side compost pickup, but you can try your best to divert food scraps from the regular trash can, where it goes to landfill and contributes to methane emissions, not to mention a horrendous stench. Install a backyard composter if you can, and look into getting a solar composter, too, which accepts meat and dairy scraps. Consider putting a box of red wiggler worms on your balcony or back deck to consume food scraps. Store fruit and vegetable scraps in a freezer or unheated garage space in a paper grass clippings bag and transport to a municipal compost yard.
If none of these options are available to you, start talking to neighbors, fellow apartment dwellers, and local government officials. If the Bon Appétit Test Kitchen was able to figure out how to compost all its food scraps at 1 World Trade Center in Manhattan, I am sure you can, too!
7. Plan your meals.
Perhaps the most effective weapon in the fight against food waste is to plan out your meals. Never go to the grocery without checking the fridge first to see what's there, then come up with menu ideas based on those ingredients. I think of grocery shopping as building on what I've already got, even if it's just inspired by condiments that have been sitting in my fridge door for a while; shopping is almost never a blank slate where I'm introducing new ingredients for new dishes.
As I mentioned above, you'll want to stock your pantry with ingredients that allow you the freedom to cook somewhat spontaneously based on what you have and what's starting to go bad. There are numerous lists available for what a well-stocked pantry should look like, so take a look (here's one from Budget Bytes) and start building that toolkit. This allows you to scoop up clearance deals when you see them at the store, knowing you'll be able to work with them because you have the backup ingredients.
8. Recipes are just a guideline.
When it comes to savory mains, you have lot more wiggle room than you may realize. You can substitute zucchini for peppers, broccoli for cauliflower, kale for spinach, green onions for yellow onions, cilantro for parsley, canned tomatoes for tomato paste, yogurt for milk, coconut oil for butter, and the dish will still be delicious. Sure, it might not be exactly as the recipe developer imagined it, but if it allows you to use up something that's been sitting awhile, that's an accomplishment.
I also mix leftover meals into new meals if I'm having trouble eating them. A lingering cup of bean soup will disappear into burrito filling, an Indian lentil dal will add body to a Mexican chili, some mashed potatoes or old porridge will enrich a batch of bread dough. If the quantity is small enough, no one will ever know the difference.