9 Easy — and Delicious — Ways to Reduce Your Food Waste, According to a Chef

You don't need a compost bin to prevent those food scraps from ending up in a landfill. These hacks will help reduce your food waste *and* upgrade your cooking skills.

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Women cooking to reduce food waste
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Even though every uneaten carrot, sandwich, and piece of chicken you toss in the garbage is out of sight, withering away in your trash can and eventually in a landfill, it shouldn't be out of mind. The reason: Food waste can actually have monumental impacts on the environment and your wallet.

Of all of the trash produced on a daily basis, food is the largest contributor to landfills. In 2017 alone, almost 41 million tons of food waste were generated in the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency. It may seem like no biggie to have fruits, veggies, meats, and the rest of the food pyramid rotting away at a dump, but while decomposing in landfills, this food waste emits methane, a greenhouse gas with an effect on global warming that's 25 times greater than carbon dioxide, according to the EPA. And in the U.S., the decomposition of uneaten food accounts for 23 percent of all methane emissions, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. (FYI, agriculture and the natural gas and petroleum industries are the largest sources of methane emissions in the U.S.)

Composting your food scraps is one of the most effective ways to cut waste-related methane emissions, as the food decomposing in a compost bin will be exposed to oxygen, so the methane-producing microbes aren't active like they would be in a landfill. But if picking up the practice is too intimidating, even reducing your food waste from the get-go can help lessen your environmental footprint.

Not to mention, tossing perfectly edible food in the trash is just pouring money down the drain. Each year, American families throw out about one-quarter of the food and beverages they purchase, which amounts to about $2,275 for the average family of four, according to the NRDC. "That's like going to the store and then just leaving one of your four bags of groceries by the side of the road every time," says Margaret Li, co-owner of the Boston restaurant Mei Mei, co-author of Double Awesome Chinese Food (Buy It, $25, amazon.com), and half of the sister duo behind Food Waste Feast, a blog dedicated to sharing professional tips on reducing food waste and cooking meals with food you have on-hand.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made the case for reducing food waste and making use of food scraps even stronger, as people look for easy ways to cut back on trips to the grocery store and extend their grocery budgets, says Li. "It's something that I think is always important, but it's extra important right now," she says. "It can improve people's lives in just the smallest way."

Luckily, reducing your food waste doesn't require upending the entire way you cook and eat. To get start lessening your environmental impact and saving cash, put Li's accessible and tasty tips into action.

Double Awesome Chinese Food: Irresistible and Totally Achievable Recipes from Our Chinese-American Kitchen

Double Awesome Chinese Food: Irresistible and Totally Achievable Recipes from Our Chinese-American Kitchen
Amazon

1. Change the Way You Think About "Expiration" Dates

Dumping food in the trash the day it hits the "sell by" date seems like a reasonable — and safe — move to make, but the date stamped on the packaging may be leading you on. "A lot of those dates are an idea from the manufacturer of when it's at its top quality," says Li. "That doesn't mean it's unsafe to eat after a certain date." The USDA agrees: The "best if used by," "sell by," and "use by" dates don't relate to safety — they merely indicate peak flavor or quality — so the food should be perfectly fine to eat after the date. (Note: The only exception is infant formula, which does have an expiration date.)

Meat, poultry, egg, and dairy products will typically have these clearly displayed dates; however, shelf-stable products (think: canned and boxed foods) may have "coded dates," aka a series of letters and numbers that refer to the date it was packaged, not the "best if used by" date, according to the USDA. TL;DR: Most food items are A-OK to eat a week or two after that date, and pantry items like rice can last indefinitely, as long as there's nothing visibly wrong with the food, says Li. To be sure, just give the food a sniff — if it smells foul, it's probably ready for the trash (or compost bin).

2. Store Your Bread in the Freezer

If you can never finish off a loaf before it's entirely speckled with spores, Li recommends cutting the loaf in half and storing one hunk in the freezer. Once you eat the first half, start eating slices from the frozen part; just pop it in the toaster for a few minutes to bring it back to its original delicious state. Not in the mood for a piece of toast? Use the frozen pieces to make cheesy garlic bread, homemade croutons, or fresh breadcrumbs, she suggests. (

3. Give Wilted Lettuce a Second Life

It seems like lettuce goes bad in the blink of an eye, and most people think to eat it only when it's perfectly fresh, says Li. Instead of tossing your wilted greens in the trash, dunk them in an ice bath to perk them up — or step out of your comfort zone and add them to warm dishes. Li's favorite: Garlicky stir-fried lettuce, inspired by her Chinese heritage. "It is such an awesome way to use up lettuce, and I'm surprised every time how good it is," she says.

Still, it can be difficult to wrap your head around the idea of cooking a few leaves of romaine. That's why Li recommends sticking to buying arugula and spinach, greens more commonly found in cooked dishes, so you'll be more likely to use them up.

4. Think About Foods In Categories

If you've somehow found yourself with pounds and pounds of raw carrots and have zero clue how to use them, think about what other veggies they're like. Carrots, for example, are hard veggies, so you can treat them exactly the same as potatoes, winter squash, or beets, whether that be in a soup or the mashed component of a shepherd's pie. If you have collard greens on your hands, add them to dishes in which you'd typically use kale or Swiss chard, such as pesto, quiche, or quesadillas. Got eggplant? Use it like zucchini or yellow squash in a galette. "If you think about things in categories, then you're less likely to feel like, 'This is totally unfamiliar and I don't know what to do with it. I'm just going to leave it until it gets moldy and then I'll just throw it out,'" says Li.

5. Create an "Eat Me First" Box

An easy way to create more food waste is by slicing open a fresh lemon or onion, not realizing you already have a half-used one hidden in the back of the fridge. Li's solution: Create an "Eat Me First" box that's directly in your line of vision when you open the fridge. Stuff your extra cloves of garlic, leftover apple slices from breakfast, and half-eaten tomato in the bin and make it a habit to look there for ingredients first.

6. Keep a Stock Bag and Smoothie Bag in Your Freezer

Composting isn't the only way you can use up food scraps. Simply placing two gallon-sized reusable bags (Buy It, $15, amazon.com) in the freezer can help you reduce your food waste, says Li. As you prep, cook, and eat, stick everything from carrot peels and onion ends to chicken bones and pepper cores into one reusable bag. Once it's full, pop it all into a pot of water, bring it to a boil, then down to a simmer, and voilà, you've got free stock for soups and stews, she says. (Just keep foods from the Brassica family, such as cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cauliflower, out of your stock, as they can make it bitter.) In a separate reusable bag, stash those uneaten apple slices, slightly wrinkled blueberries, and browned bananas, and whenever a craving strikes, you've got all the ingredients you need for a tasty smoothie, she says.

SPLF Reusable Gallon Freezer Bags

SPLF Reusable Gallon Freezer Bags
Amazon

7. Roast Veggies on the Verge of Spoilage

When your cherry tomatoes, peppers, or root veggies are looking worse for the wear, chopping off the tainted areas and eating them raw as part of a fancy crudité platter is perfectly acceptable. But if you want to give them a whole new life, toss them all in olive oil and salt and roast them, which will help them last a few days longer and makes for an easy meal when paired with rice or a fried egg, says Li. "Anything that's cooked is going to be more likely to be eaten than something that needs work," she says. Bonus: If you turn this into a weekly habit, you'll also get in the groove of regularly cleaning out your fridge. Cheers to never discovering a three-month-old head of broccoli behind the crisper drawer again. (

8. Don't Be Afraid to Eat Leaves and Stalks

Turns out, the cauliflower leaves, carrot tops, beet greens, turnip leaves, and broccoli stalks you typically throw out are totally edible — and delicious when cooked well, says Li. Kale stems work great in a stir fry, just separate them from the leaves and cook for about five minutes before you add in the leaves so the entire veggie is soft and yummy, she says. Similarly, broccoli stalks can be a bit tough, but peeling them will reveal the tender, nutty sweetness inside. Add those bits to your broccoli cheddar soup, and you'll reduce your food waste without all that much effort.

9. Find Creative Ways to Use Up Leftovers

One can only eat the same rotisserie chicken for so many dinners in a row, which is why Li recommends repurposing your leftovers for other dishes. Toss your rotisserie chicken with those roasted veggies, nestle them into a pie crust, cover with more crust, and transform it into a pot pie. "You've got a whole new dinner that tastes delicious and is exciting in a way that those leftovers separately may not have been."

Another, more innovative, option: Plop all your leftovers, whether it be stir-fried pork from your Chinese takeout or carne asada from the Mexican restaurant down the street, on top of pizza. It sounds a little out there, but not much can go wrong when you have a delicious mashup of crunchy bread and salty cheese involved, says Li. Better yet, stuff them into a burrito or a grilled cheese — there are no wrong answers here.

And that's one of the key components to reducing your food waste. "I think one of the things about food waste is really not being tied to specific ideas of authenticity or what a dish should look like," says Li. "If you think it's going to be great, go for it. I try not to stick too closely to cooking rules because it's more important to eat something that you like and use something up than it is to abide by someone else's notion of what a dish should be."

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