Creativity in the kitchen isn't just about exploring new recipes and experimenting with different ingredients. It's also about making the most of your food, including the ends, stems, peels and other little bits that many people just throw out.
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Because those little bits add up quickly: Americans create around 38 million tons of food waste a year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and about 94 percent of it ends up in landfills or combustion facilities.
As food in landfills breaks down, it forms methane, a greenhouse gas that's up to 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide when it comes to trapping heat and warming the planet, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Plus, it's not just food that's wasted; consider the water, oil and energy that went into growing, harvesting and transporting it, too. Food waste accounts for more than 25 percent of water consumption and about 300 million barrels of oil per year, according to a commonly cited November 2009 analysis in PLOS One.
That's why LIVESTRONG.com teamed up with chef Alison Mountford, founder and CEO of Ends+Stems, a meal-planning service designed to help people reduce their food waste. For the month of November, we'll be focusing on simple ways you can throw out less food, save money, eat healthier and do some good for your community and the planet in the process.
Why Reducing Food Waste Is So Important
One seemingly simple mission — reducing food waste — can have surprisingly far-reaching effects.
On a personal level, it can help you save about $1,800 a year, according to the USDA. Buying only what you'll actually eat means you spend less money, and it also means you're more likely to eat healthier, because you're planning your meals more consciously.
On the community level, it helps the environment by reducing harmful emissions from landfills and pollution from combustion facilities. And because wasting food means wasting resources, it also helps conserve water, electricity and gas.
Many believe that the vast majority of waste occurs in the process before food even reaches grocery store shelves, but that's not actually the case: Consumers are responsible for 40 to 50 percent of all food waste, EPA official Ashley Zanolli told NPR in a November 2014 interview, and eight times the energy waste compared to farms, according to a November 2011 report from the research firm McKinsey Global Institute.
"We can get the ball rolling by taking action," Mountford says. "It feels good to participate in something meaningful, and your efforts — in combination with your family, friends, neighbors and community — will add up." Every little bit matters when it comes to taking care of the health of the planet, she says.
"Plus, you don't need any expensive equipment or new knowledge to get started," Mountford says. "No solar panels, specialty machines — nothing to learn, study or evaluate."
How to Join the 'Shrink Your Waste' Challenge
- Step 1: Print your food waste bingo card and food-waste audit. Print your bingo card (see below) or save it to your phone to play along throughout the month. When you complete a task (like filling out your food-waste audit), cross off that task's box. Aim to get five squares in a row or even cross out the whole board!
- Step 2: Join our Challenge Facebook Group. This supportive community is where you'll find tips, motivation and expert advice throughout the month.
- Step 3: Reduce your food waste. Complete your bingo tasks and commit to making lasting changes that limit the amount of food you toss in the trash.
How to Play Food-Waste Bingo
Get a printer-friendly version of your Food-Waste Bingo card here.
Throughout the month, challenge yourself to see how many of these waste-reducing tasks you can accomplish. Once you complete one, cross it off, aiming to get five in a row. Bonus points if you can check off everything in 30 days!
Keep reading for more information and tips on the different bingo card tasks, which are organized into five categories: Get Started, Get Organized, Get Optimized, Get Cooking and Get Creative.
Take Stock of What You Already Have
"Buying food randomly with no plan and not following through on eating it" is the most common mistake Mountford says she sees people make.
Taking stock of what's already in your pantry and fridge might seem obvious, but it's a crucial first step in reducing your food waste.
"Don't buy more food until you check what you have," she says. "Write down what you'll cook and eat this week only after you physically check what's in the cupboards and the fridge right now."
Make a Grocery List and Meal Plan
If you're the kind of cook who can whip up creative meals on a whim using what's already in your fridge, that's one thing. But Mountford says most people she encounters don't enjoy cooking blindly.
That doesn't mean you have to cook every meal from scratch; schedule in the days you'll have takeout and don't forget to eat your leftovers, she says.
Make a List of Wasted Foods for the Day
Mountford designed this food-waste audit you can print and fill out as you toss food into the trash. You can also use a plain piece of paper or a note on your phone.
Get a printer-friendly version of your food-waste audit here.
"The classic way to fill this out is to print out the sheet and hang it by the trash can," she explains. "This way, anyone in the household can fill it out and you're less likely to forget."
Alternately, you can take photos of plates of food remnants, containers of leftovers or other cooking scraps before tossing them into the trash.
"After a few days, you can easily put all of those photos side by side, and you get a real gut check on how much food was tossed out. The photo method is less scientific, but it tugs on your emotions, which inspires many to take on this challenge of reducing food waste."
Don't Toss It — Compost It
You're bound to have some food scraps to throw out from time to time. But composting is a great way to repurpose that waste. It does require a little more prep and planning on your part, but if you're ready to give it a try, here's everything you need to know.
Reorganize Your Fridge
You might be tempted to throw new food in the front of your fridge, freezer or pantry as soon as you get home from the grocery store. But that increases the likelihood that you'll forget about the food you already have until it's too late.
Instead, organize your fridge using the First In, First Out (FIFO) method, with the oldest items in the front of your fridge and newer food in the back. Double check the "sell by" or expiration date to make sure food that's about to expire is closer to the front, as well, regardless of when you purchased it.
Reorganize Your Freezer
Make sure the oldest items in your freezer are front and center, just like with your fridge.
Label anything you transferred from your fridge to the freezer because it was about to go bad with the date you froze it. Add freeze dates to any containers of leftovers or meals you've prepped, too.
Set a calendar reminder to move anything you haven't used five days after coming home from the grocery store from fridge to freezer, Mountford says. You can also freeze portions of meat or poultry you don't plan on eating right away when you get home from the store.
"And you can freeze almost all dairy, and it works just the same in baked goods and cooked food," she says. "If milk or cream goes sour, you can still eat it in pancakes, biscuits, etc. — it’s just like sour cream."
Organize Your Pantry
If you're sensing a theme yet, you're spot on: Organize your pantry much like your fridge and freezer with the oldest things in front. Place the items you need to use soonest at eye level for a visual reminder.
Donate Canned Goods
Drop off extra non-perishables with plenty of shelf lift left at a local food bank — just make sure to check their rules for donations first.
Check Your Fridge Temperature
Food spoils quicker when it's stored at the wrong temperature. Your fridge should be between 37 and 39 degrees Fahrenheit (3 to 4 degrees Celsius). Either check the built-in thermometer on your refrigerator or place a thermometer in a glass of water and check the temperature after 5 to 8 hours, according to the USDA.
Check the Humidity Settings on Your Produce Drawers
First, make sure you have one drawer designated as "high-humidity" and another as "low-humidity." They'll either be already labeled or up to you to control via a switch on each fridge drawer.
Set up each drawer following Mountford's advice:
- In the high-humidity drawer: Produce that needs more moisture to stay fresh, including fruits like berries and vegetables like lettuce, carrots, herbs, cucumbers, peppers, cabbage, broccoli and leafy greens
- In the low-humidity drawer: Produce that needs to stay drier to stay fresh, including fruits like peaches, bananas, apples, avocado, pears, citrus and melons
- What not to store in the fridge: Tomatoes, bread and coffee beans or grounds
Schedule and Eat a Leftovers Meal
Dub one day of the week "Leftovers Day" and then try Mountford's trick: Repurpose your extra ingredients into a comfort food meal you already know you love. Leftover pasta can go into a casserole, roasted vegetables can go into a frittata and chicken or beef can go into a soup or stew, for example.
Meal Prep a Dish That Uses Up Something in Your Fridge
Maybe you have chicken breasts that are about to reach their expiration date. Marinate them, throw them on the grill or in the oven, then slice to toss on salads throughout the week. Or if you have vegetables on the brink of going soft, make a big batch of soup and freeze or refrigerate for later.
Cook With a Neglected Pantry Staple
Reach into the farthest corner of your pantry and see what you find. As long as it's not expired, try a new recipe using that ingredient. Here are some ideas:
Make a 'Use It Up' Meal
Take a little bit of this and a little bit of that — all the ingredients left in your fridge, freezer and pantry in too-small quantities for a full recipe on their own — and combine them into a salad, soup, stew, frittata, omelet, stir fry, pasta dish or other creative recipe.
Post-Thanksgiving turkey stock is a fall favorite, but you can simmer any bones, fat or innards from meat you've prepped along with some herbs (like thyme, rosemary or oregano) for several hours to make stock. Follow Mountford's tips for stock success, then sip as-is or stir in leftover meat, chopped veggies and/or noodles.
Revive Wilted, Limp Produce
Before you toss out lackluster lettuce, grab a large bowl, fill it with cold water and ice and let the leaves soak for a few minutes before removing and shaking off the excess water. You can also revive soft carrots, celery or radishes in cold water, Mountford says.
But avoid storing them this way from the start: "I don't personally store them submerged unless they're going bad," she says.
Leave the Skin On
Eat skins and peels of produce like cucumbers, potatoes and apples. Not only does this reduce the amount of waste that ends up in landfills, but you'll be getting additional nutrients.
For example, an apple with its skin on has up to 332 percent more vitamin K, 142 percent more vitamin A, 115 percent more vitamin C, 20 percent more calcium and up to 19 percent more potassium than a peeled apple, according to the USDA.
Instead of tossing citrus peels, strawberry tops or cucumber ends, add them to water to make getting and staying hydrated a little more delicious.
Store Nuts in the Freezer
They'll last longer and taste fresher, according to the University of California, Davis.
Freeze Overripe Produce for Smoothies
Find yourself with an overabundance of fresh fruit and veggies? "You're probably buying too much," Mountford says. "Write down what you toss and get a better idea of what you'll truly eat."
If you still have extra, you can freeze for smoothies, she says. Just make sure you wash all produce and peel and slice fruit like bananas and oranges first.
Not a smoothie fan? Make jam or bake a mixed fruit tart with overripe fruit, instead.
Save Seeds for Planting or Roasting
Anyone with space to garden can save apple, avocado, peach, pear, lemon or other seeds and pits and plant them in a cup of dirt. Once the seeds sprout indoors, transfer them outside to an area that gets ample sunlight and water them regularly.
Pumpkin and other squash seeds are perfect for roasting. Rinse and clean them in the sink, spread them out on a lightly oiled baking sheet, sprinkle seasonings on top (like salt and pepper or garlic, curry powder or paprika) and bake for 45 minutes at 300 degrees Fahrenheit.
Re-Use Coffee Grounds
Make a marinade by adding salt, pepper and vegetable oil to dry coffee grounds and rub on steaks.
Or, add the grounds to soil or your compost pile, according to Oregon State University. Some gardeners even swear coffee grounds help repel slugs and snails.
Freeze extra brewed coffee into ice cubes for iced coffee, use it to water your plants (just watch out for browning leaves, which means they've had too much) or make a coffee granita for dessert, Mountford says.
Use Eggshells as Fertilizer
Crush up eggshells and add them to your compost or garden soil — especially helpful if you're planting seeds you saved, per the University of Minnesota.
Tomatoes, peppers and eggplants in particular do well with the calcium boost from eggshells.
Keep Going After the Challenge Is Over
A month is a great foray into limiting the amount of food you're throwing out, but it's not the end. You don't need to use up every single end and stem every time you cook — we're only human — but you can continue to make smart changes that benefit both your wallet and your planet.
"This isn't zero sum, you can mess up today and start over with the next thing," Mountford says. "Think of your efforts as a starting point and just try to get better with baby steps. Start with that lettuce in your fridge that you know you need to eat today. Get your family on board — kids and older folks alike can help with this project."
Again, every little bit matters. "It helps to change the culture of our country to one that cares about the health of the planet for future generations." And that $1,800 per year in savings doesn't hurt either.
Want to learn more about reducing your food waste? Sign up for the Ends+Stems weekly newsletter, which includes tips, recipes and more.
- EPA: "Reducing Wasted Food At Home"
- Climate Accountability Institute: "Carbon Majors"
- The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: "Climate Change 2013"
- USDA: "Appliance Thermometers"
- USDA: "Apples, raw, with skin"
- PLOS One: "The Progressive Increase of Food Waste in America and Its Environmental Impact"
- University of California, Davis: "To End Food Waste, Change Needs To Begin At Home"
- McKinsey Global Institute: "Resource Revolution: Meeting the world’s energy, materials, food, and water needs"
- Oregon State University: "Coffee Grounds and Composting"
- NPR: "To End Food Waste, Change Needs To Begin At Home"
- University of Minnesota Extension: "Coffee grounds, eggshells and Epsom salts in the home garden"