24 Hacks for Minimizing Waste in the Kitchen

Food waste is something of an epidemic these days. A 2013 study for the Food Waste Reduction Alliance showed that more than 84 percent of unused restaurant food in the United States ends up in landfills—and according to some reports, that adds up to 33 million tons each year.

When trying to live a healthier lifestyle, fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs and lean meats make up the bulk of your grocery store purchases. Oftentimes, though, much of the fresh produce and other food items don't last as long as you'd like them to, or were only purchased for a specific recipe before getting tossed. What you end up with at the end of the week is a trashcan full of unused or unwanted food waste destined for the landfill.
Of course, having a variety of fruits and vegetables on hand makes healthy eating a lot easier. You're more likely to reach for an apple if you have a bowl of them on your countertop right within reach. But if eating well means more waste, how can you strike a balance between healthy living and environmentally friendliness?
Almost every household can benefit from a decrease in the amount of food wasted and an unexpected uptick in their checking accounts from using food scraps economically. You might be surprised at what "garbage" food items you can save and reuse—and how easy it is to do.

Save the Scraps

  • Save the bones. Chicken, fish and meat bones can be boiled in water to make a savory bone broth, which can be used as a base for your next soup or as a flavorful substitute for water in rice and grain dishes. Plus, bone broth serves up a host of health-boosting benefits: It provides essential vitamins and minerals, reduces inflammation, improves gut health, boosts immunity and acts as a natural detoxing agent.
  • For larger cuts of meat, MAST' Restaurant and Drinkery owner Marco Caputo recommends cutting the meat into perfect steaks, then using the leftover scraps to make a ragu or Bolognese sauce.

  • Chop, slice or dice unused fresh herbs for future cooking by storing them in a resealable plastic bag with excess air removed (for when you need a pinch or two), or in an ice cube tray with olive oil (for when you want a more exact amount and additional flavor).

  • Prepping fresh vegetables usually means chopping off green tops and bottoms before cooking, but those parts are packed with nutrients. Try saving the green tops of carrots or beets to sauté and include in a salad, or use discarded broccoli stalks to make slaw.
  • Almost all vegetables (save for lettuce and cucumbers) can be frozen for later cooking. When dealing with veggies with a higher water content, like squash or zucchini, grate them first, put in Ziploc bags, squeeze out any excess air and freeze. To use, thaw and mix into baked goods, soups or other casseroles. Consider straining out some of the water after thawing if needed.
  • As a waste management consultant with Fantastic Waste Removal, James Norton often recommends that his chef clients save unused pickle juice to make homemade pickled vegetables. Simply reheat the pickle juice, let it cool and then chill in the fridge for two days before adding chopped vegetables.
  • At Sandwich Me In, Chicago chef Justin Vrany made headlines for his eco-friendly practices. During the shop’s three years of operation, Vrany personally composted all of the restaurant's food waste at his own home. Whether you live on a farm, in the suburbs or in a tiny apartment, you can start composting your own vegetable scraps and more. It’s as easy as setting up a bin, gathering some gear and adding your scraps.
Fruits and Berries:
  • If that bulk bag of lemons or oranges is in danger of going bad, place round slices in a single layer on parchment paper. Stack them on top of each other and store in an airtight plastic bag in the freezer. Add as a garnish or use to keep punch cool in place of ice. You can also freeze citrus zest separately for use in baked goods.
  • Grapes become a lot cooler (and tastier) when frozen. Drop them into your favorite beverage for a more festive alternative to ice, or just eat one at a time for a sweet treat.
  • Berries about to go bad (feeling mushy or beginning to mold) get a second chance when frozen. Layer fruit (remove any completely moldy fruit, leaves or bad sections) in a single layer on a parchment- or wax paper-lined tray until frozen, then transfer to a bag or container for making smoothies, keeping water or other drinks cool (and colorful) or adding to muffins or other baked goods.
  • Avocados are incredibly good for you, but they often ripen and start to get too soft too fast. After slicing a fresh avocado, save the pureed flesh in the freezer and save until you are ready to whip up a batch of guacamole.
  • Can't consume all those bananas before they go bad? You can toss the whole fruit—skin and all—into the freezer. When you want to make banana bread or muffins, thaw them in the microwave and then take out the fruit (warning: it's not pretty) and add it to your mixture. Another option is to freeze individual slices on a lined tray until frozen, then transfer to a container for use in smoothies, baked goods or to eat right out of the bag.
  • Store apple peels and cores in the freezer for jellies and jams or vinegar.
  • The Gantry Restaurant & Bar General Manager Patrick Agostinelli practices keeping a "garbage list" to monitor which produce items are regularly ending up in the garbage, then finds ways to incorporate them into other items on his menu. At home, if you notice you're regularly tossing blueberries down the disposal, start using them to make breakfast smoothies or add them to oatmeal.

Drinks and Juices:
  • Freeze leftover coffee or tea in ice cube trays and you'll never have to suffer through watered-down iced coffee or tea again. When you're ready for the cool version of these hot drinks, pop as many cubes as you like into a glass, add a little hot or room temperature fresh coffee or tea and enjoy.
  • If you have leftover wine or you've been holding onto a bottle you're not fond of, freeze it for future use in many recipes. Each standard ice cube tray section holds about two tablespoons of liquid.
  • Another alternative for citrus is to squeeze the juices and save them for easier storage or when you need more than a couple tablespoons.

  • Can’t finish that artisanal sourdough loaf fast enough? Don't toss it. If it's within a day of purchase, you can save yourself the dismay of trying to eat a rock-hard loaf by slicing it, placing it in a single layer onto a lined tray, and—you guessed it—freezing it. Transfer the frozen bread into a bag and take out slices as needed. They can thaw on the counter or go right from freezer to toaster. Enjoy your frozen bread for up to six months.
  • If, when digging around your pantry, you find those pita rounds or baguette you had forgotten you purchased a week ago, there is hope for them yet. You can cut your bread into chips (for pita chips) or cubes (for croutons). You can make these immediately or freeze the pieces to toast or toss later.

Eggs and Dairy:
  • Have a bad egg or two? Freeze them! The trick is to crack them into a muffin tin first, freeze, then thaw as needed for cakes, cookies or other baked goods.
  • It may seem as though grated cheese wouldn't freeze well, but it actually goes from frozen to your favorite casserole in a flash. For best results, toss a tablespoon of cornstarch to grated cheese to keep it from sticking together.
  • Save your hard cheese rinds to add a lovely umami flavor to stocks, broths, stews or beans.
  • Is your milk in danger of spoiling? You can put the whole container (being careful to leave some room for expansion) in the freezer, or put a little leftover milk in handy ice cube trays until frozen, then transfer to a bag for individual servings. You can pull out what you need (maybe a cube or two for your iced coffee, even) from there. Milk is good in the freezer for up to three months.
  • Yogurt can undergo the same chilly treatment as milk, though you don’t have to worry about any freezer expansion. Pop frozen yogurt cubes into your favorite smoothie.

Make the Most of Your Freezer

Clearly, the freezer is an asset to both healthy cooking and salvaging food waste. Taking care of your freezer's condition and properly monitoring those items stored within are key factors in keeping foods fresh and safe.
  • It's a good idea to blanch your vegetables before freezing, as it helps retain their flavor a little longer.
  • To avoid freezer burn, keep freezer temperatures as consistent as possible. Also, make sure to cool all food completely and remove as much air as possible from any plastic bags or jars before freezing. 
  • Whenever possible, pack foods to freeze in as small a container as possible. Large amounts of food in big containers freeze more slowly, and the faster food freezes, the fresher it will taste when thawed.
  • Freeze foods in a single layer and stack after freezing.
  • Write the names and dates of the food you're storing and when you packed it. Use the oldest first, and periodically take inventory and dispose of foods that are older than six months.         

Additional reporting by Melissa Rudy.