Cooking and eating are two of my favorite activities. They’re right up there with napping and canceling plans so I can nap. But I digress. Back to food. If you, like me, sometimes get a little over-enthusiastic and cook enough food to feed a small army or find yourself throwing away fruit and vegetables you had high hopes of eating a week ago (I call them “aspirational veggies”), you may need a little help avoiding food waste.
As you probably know, nearly half of all fresh produce grown every year goes to waste. And since agriculture is the single largest human use of water, that means half the water we’re using to grow that food is wasted along with it. In Europe alone, it’s estimated that the food currently being thrown away could feed 200 million people. This is isn’t a small challenge. But as always, there are habits you can develop to help solve at least a small part of this problem. And don’t worry, none of them include eating leftovers.
1. Find what works for you
Not everything on this list will suit everyone’s lifestyle, so the most important thing to remember is to be realistic about what changes to implement. If you hate eating the same meal more than once a week, bulk cooking and food prep are not for you, and that’s okay.
2. Plan your meals
It sounds so obvious, and yet, who actually makes time to do this? You can. I believe in you. Take a look at your average week, figure out what you like eating, how often you eat at restaurants or order in, and figure out a plan of action. Once you know how many meals to shop for, make your ingredients list and stick to it. Don’t be tempted by three-for-two offers unless it’s something you can freeze, or it has a long shelf life.
3. Speaking of making lists
It’s a really good idea to use a lists app on your phone. This way, you never leave your list at home or in the car. And you usually have your phone nearby, as you think of something you need, you can add it immediately. I use an app that allows my partner to access it too, so he shares the emotional labour of making the list, and if he goes to the shop for something, he can easily see what else we need. It also means we don’t both buy the same item, since we can cross off as we buy. Truly, do yourself this favor. It’s such a help.
4. Stock up only on basics
It’s tempting to buy a refrigerator full of fresh food but resist that urge. Things with a long shelf life, like canned food, dry pasta, beans and chickpeas are good to keep on hand. If you’re into freezer food (I see you, Trader Joe’s frozen cauliflower gnocci), you can stock up on those staples too. Condiments, pickles, hot sauce, herbs, spices should always be plentiful in your pantry. Just using these basics, there are so many meals you can make in a pinch, and these goods rarely go to waste.
5. Do your grocery shop online
If you like to wake up early on a Saturday and ride your bicycle to the farmer’s market, filling your woven basket with hand-crafted baguettes and artisanal cheese, skip this tip. But, if you usually shop at grocery stores, try switching to online shopping. It’s much easier to stick to a list (and a budget) and remember everything you need. Plus, the delivery vehicle dispatching all their orders at once is more efficient than the fuel each individual person would use driving to the store.
6. Buy less than you think you need
Let’s say you’ve worked out that you need to cook 14 meals a week. Buy enough ingredients for 12. If we’ve learnt anything this year, it’s that life is unpredictable. Sometimes you’ll have leftovers, sometimes you’ll be invited out for a meal, and sometimes you’ll have extra ingredients. Even if you don’t, you can make a freezer or pantry meal or in a pinch, have a slice of toast or a bowl of cereal. Worst case scenario? Pop out and grab a few essentials. But you’ll be surprised how rarely you’ll have to.
7. Find recipes that use only pantry staples
And then keep those ingredients on hand at all times. If you keep a well-stocked pantry, you’ll be able to make meals for at least three days after you think you’ve run out of food. What exactly a “well-stocked pantry” looks like depends on the kind of dishes you eat. I love lentil pasta, so I always keep a box of that, along with canned tomatoes, nutritional yeast, and onions. Together, that’s a really yummy dinner I can make in 20 minutes. I also do a lemony brown rice, chickpea and olive skillet dish that I know can come from my pantry. Having these meals in mind means I don’t need to pick up ingredients or order in.
8. Find recipes that use up waste
I recently made meringues and was left with a whole lot of egg yolks. I was tempted to throw them in my bokashi compost bucket, but then I thought, if there are recipes that use only egg white, there must be ones that call for yolks only. Groundbreaking, I know. After a quick google, I settled on Martha Stewart’s lemon curd recipe and adjusted the ingredient amounts to suit the number of egg yolks I had on hand. You don’t have to make sweet treats though, leftover vegetable ends can make a good stock, so look online to see what you can do with something before you give up on it.
9. Freeze all the things
You probably know to make a double recipe of curry and freeze portion-sized containers to eat at a future date (if you didn’t, now you do) but you can also save other bits and pieces that eventually make it into a meal. If I have extra apples, for example, I cook them down with cinnamon, lemon and a pinch of cayenne (that’s my secret ingredient, you’re welcome) and put it in the freezer. Then when I make oats, I can pop them in or stir a spoonful through yoghurt as a sneaky dessert. I also freeze fresh blueberries when they’re in local season (so they’re not imported) and make smoothies all year round.
Other things you can make in bulk include mirepoix (the delicious mix of celery, carrots and onion that creates a flavor base for anything from shakshuka to risotto), a basic tomato sauce, stock, soup… and…. the limit does not exist.
10. Play ‘ready, steady, cook’ in your kitchen
This is my absolute favorite, and it’s taken me a few years to realize that not everyone cooks this way. I bake using recipes but when I cook, I freestyle it. When I left home at age 17 I didn’t have a big grocery budget, so I got used to eating whatever was around. Eggs and some random vegetables? It’s frittata time! Can of tomatoes and some dried lentils? Veggie spag bol! Almost anything can work when you season it correctly. If you don’t feel confident enough with the principles of cooking to do that just yet, read Samin Nosrat’s book, Salt Fat Acid Heat (there’s also a Netflix series of the same name) or spend some time on YouTube watching tutorials.
The point of all of these tips is that you still eat how you want to eat. If you love indulgent dishes or lighter ones, if you’re a carnivore, vegan or flexitarian, these tips can help you make the most of your meals. So, next time you’re in the grocery store, think of my sad aspirational vegetables going into the compost and buy a little more consciously.