15 Practices of a Waste-Conscious Home Cook

CC BY 2.0. Phil Roeder

And how it really just comes down to one thing.

Whenever the topic of going zero waste in the kitchen comes up, the focus tends to be on grocery shopping – taking cloth bags and refillable containers to the store to avoid bringing single-use plastics into the home. This initial plastic avoidance step is crucial, but the challenge doesn't end there.

Waste-conscious, plastic-averse home cooks have a whole list of practices that they use to be more eco-friendly (and frugal, by extension) in the kitchen. Some of these habits develop over time, as one becomes a more proficient cook, but others require a conscious decision to generate less waste. These are some of the things I do and have seen others do:

1. Cook from scratch.

What convenience foods lack in nutrition, they make up for in packaging, which is precisely what a waste-averse home cook does not want; hence, a stubborn determination to make everything from scratch, whether it's pie crusts, mayonnaise, ketchup, bread, granola, baked goods, ricotta, or ice cream, to name a few.

2. Preserve their own food.

Whether it's canning tomatoes, making jam, or freezing seasonal berries, a waste-conscious chef makes a point of preserving food on their own terms for future consumption.

canning tomatoes

© K Martinko

3. Scrounge for glass jars.

One can never have too many glass jars! These are used for shopping, storing leftovers, freezing, canning, and transporting foods and beverages.

4. Wash out plastic bags for reuse.

When plastic bags do enter the home, e.g. the sturdy milk bags used in Canada or an accidental grocery bag brought by a guest, they are reused for as long as possible.

©. Katherine Martinko -- Milk bags drying on top of my orchid

© Katherine Martinko -- Milk bags drying on top of my orchid

5. Eliminate or reduce meat consumption.

Cutting down on meat in one's diet can go a long way toward improving one's carbon footprint. Waste-conscious chefs opt for plant-based proteins as often as possible, and when they do use meat, use all parts of it.

6. Always be soaking.

Or 'ABS', as vegan cookbook author Isa Chandra Moskowitz calls it. Whether you're soaking grains, beans, or nuts, it's handy to have some semi-soft ingredients on hand at all times.

7. Source local food.

A waste-conscious cook makes a point of seeking out locally-produced food whenever possible. This could mean signing up for a weekly Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share, joining a local food co-op, shopping at farmers markets, buying free-range meat from local farmers, picking fruit from nearby farms, or having their own kitchen garden. They strive to make local, seasonal eating as easy and accessible as possible.

CSA share

© Katherine Martinko

8. Use a better coffee machine.

No Keurigs for the waste-conscious cook! These folks embrace the French press, the moka pot, the pour-over.

9. Incorporate leftovers.

Waste-conscious cooks are masters at using up the bits and bites of previous meals. They're not afraid to toss old veggies and meats and legumes into whatever new creation they're working on.

10. Make stock.

Stock is god's gift to zero-wasters, a way to give almost anything a second life – vegetable scraps, meat bones, limp herbs, etc. Waste-conscious cooks make it in large batches and freeze it for future use.

11. Freeze food without plastic.

Plastic-averse cooks have figured out that utilizing one's freezer is not dependent on Ziploc bags.

Bonneau's freezer

© Zero Waste Chef/Anne-Marie Bonneau (used with permission)

12. Hoard stuff.

Well, they're hoarders of sorts, keeping all things that can be useful in the kitchen, such as butter wrappers for greasing pans, Parmesan rinds and bones for tossing into stock pots, the afore-mentioned milk bags and glass jars, sour milk for baking, stale bread crusts for making crumbs, etc.

13. Compost.

No putting food waste into the kitchen trash for these eco-conscious cooks! The compost bin is always filled to brimming.

Compost bins

© VermiTek

14. Upcycle trash bags.

The plastic-averse cook makes kitchen trash bags out of whatever's available. Sometimes it's a stray grocery bag, a large paper bag, or a bag that something was shipped in; or they may just wrap food scraps in old newspaper.

15. Buy food in the biggest containers they can find.

If they're not using reusable containers, then a waste-conscious chef buys food in large quantities to reduce packaging waste (assuming their household can consume it in a reasonable amount of time). That's why I buy 20-litre jugs of olive oil from a friend's olive grove in Greece.

In a way, it all comes down to a single practice – thinking ahead, always knowing what processes will take time and what can be done in advance. Convenience = waste, and so it stands to reason that a less convenient, slower-paced approach to food production will take longer. That doesn't necessarily mean more work, just planning in advance, e.g. taking jars out of the freezer to thaw, setting dough to rise, soaking beans as mentioned, stockpiling scraps for stock, taking the time to make that stock, menu planning to reduce food waste and stretch high-value ingredients further, etc.