Food waste is not a new problem, but during the past several months of quarantine, it has been thrown into stark relief for many; with resources scarce at times and budgets tighter than ever, no one has wanted to throw a single unnecessary scrap away. One of the simplest ways to fight food waste is to make sure you use leftovers and extra food before it goes bad—but sometimes it’s not as easy as it sounds. Here are some strategies and tips to keep in mind to help you stick to your best intentions.
On average, Americans waste 400 pounds of food, per person, every year! Sounds like a lot, right? But think about those times you didn’t get to that cilantro before it got slimy, or how one bad apple really did spoil the whole bunch. And what about all those un-appetizing leftovers, and all that overzealous bulk grocery shopping—how much of that food ended up in the garbage? Save your food from untimely demise in the waste bin with these helpful food-saving mantras.
Slow It Down
How to Store Fresh Produce So Fruit, Vegetables, and Herbs Last Longer for tips like what not to store in the fridge, when to trim vegetable tops, and more! Additionally, for leafy herbs, storing with stems in water and a produce bag on top (like this) can make all the difference for keeping them fresh for weeks.If you find that your good intentions to prep and eat fresh produce are foiled by Father Time, then you need ways to slow down the aging of your fruits and veggies. It could be as simple as proper storage—check out our guide on
The freezer is an obvious choice for keeping food usable, but you can get even more use out of that ubiquitous appliance with a few extra steps of prep. When bananas start to soften, cut them into slices and put them in a container in the freezer. Now, they’re ready to go for smoothies and banana bread. Super ripe berries are also great candidates for freezing and using in smoothies and desserts later. For vegetables, take a look at this guide on how to blanch, prepare, and freeze vegetables. Blanching (or boiling or steaming in hot water) kills the enzymes that make vegetables lose their flavor and color, better preserving their flavor and extending their freezer life.
You might be surprised at what food you can freeze besides the obvious. And see our guide to the best way to store everything in your freezer too, to help you keep it organized and maximize everything’s shelf life.
Sometimes we throw away food because it has lost its appeal in the fridge. Leftovers are a great way to prevent food waste, but only if you end up eating them—it doesn’t count if you give them a short fridge stopover en route to the trash. If your leftovers are fried foods, like french fries or fried chicken, reheating in the oven is a great way to restore that original crispiness; this can even fix fries that were soggy from the start! Take a look at how to reheat fries, or how to reheat fried chicken, and taste the difference.
Beyond simply reheating, you can learn to creatively utilize leftovers:
- You can reuse curries, sauces, and broths as marinades.
- Chop and season leftover cooked vegetables and add to scrambled eggs for an extra serving of veggies during breakfast.
- Savory leftovers made mostly of meat, beans, or tofu, depending on their original flavoring, can either be an obvious or innovative base for tacos—just add taco shells, tomatoes, shredded cheese, and whatever else you’d like!
The key is to lean into that left-brain mindset, and come up with unusual ways to reuse those leftovers. You can do it!
For some more specific ideas, see how to use leftover BBQ, how to use leftover chili, and how to use rotisserie chicken (which you can apply to any leftover cooked, shredded chicken you have on hand). As for other excess ingredients, see how to use fresh herbs before they go bad, and how to use leftover cream cheese.
Cook in Bulk
Cooking in bulk cuts down on the number of times you have to set up and clean up the kitchen—do it once, and reap the efficiency benefits for the next week or more!
chili, stew, or soup. The next time you find yourself with lots of potatoes, root vegetables, or meat, peruse our list of 15 Crowd-Pleasing Family Meals from the Slow Cooker, or search online for any of the trillion slow cooker recipes that live on the internet—you’ll be sure to find something that works with your ingredients at hand. Refrigerate what you can eat in the next several days, and freeze the rest for later—effortless future meals!One of the easiest ways to cook a lot of vegetables and proteins at once is with a slow cooker. This is truer if you own either a very large slow cooker, or several slow cookers, to maximize the volume of
Even if you don’t own a slow cooker, you can still cook up big batches of food before they go bad. As many of you know, spinach is the poster child for bulk-cooking—dump a mountain of spinach into a sautée pan, season, heat, and stir, and suddenly you have a palm-sized amount of cooked greens ready to eat or store. While kale does not shrink down like spinach, you can make a large amount of it more palatable by making it into chips; get our Baked Kale Chips recipe, and eat them as snacks, or sprinkle over ramen and rice dishes for additional texture and flavor.
Of course, you can always go with that age-old method of cooking twice as much of any recipe to start, and saving the leftovers. In the summer, check out ideas for grilling extra food to eat later in the week.
And you can deal with an overabundance of some things without cooking too. Too much basil? Make pesto! Too much oregano? Chimichurri! Use your cilantro stems, not just the leaves. See these big-batch no-cook recipes for more ideas.
Flavor and Infuse
Infusing liquids with herbs and other produce is probably the most fun way to use food before it goes bad—all of these concoctions connote gatherings with friends, fancy cocktails, and extra-special touches for meals. Take, for example, our recipe for Cucumber-Orange Water. Sometimes called “spa water,” this idea of infusing water with cucumbers, citrus, berries, and more has taken off for summertime parties, baby showers, and as an alcohol-free option at brunch. It’s easy, it’s fun, and it’s a great way to use that produce that is going to go bad in a few days.
For cocktail fans, flavored simple syrup and infused liquors are a great way to use up leftover herbs or too much produce. Look at our Simple Syrup recipe as a guide; it’s just one part sugar and one part water. When you add fruit that is juicy and contains some water, like in our Cranberry Simple Syrup recipe, you cut down on the water a bit to compensate. Make herby simple syrup for gin cocktails, or fruity simple syrup for vodka cocktails (or homemade soda with a splash of fizzy water)—experiment with whatever you have on hand!
The same goes for infusing liquor; a lot of it is up to taste! Check out this guide to infusing alcohol for some flavor and timing suggestions. I’ve personally had success with blueberries in vodka (don’t forget to score them first to release more flavor), infusing for a few weeks. Conversely, a whole week might be overkill for jalapeños in tequila, unless you love tons of heat in your drinks—really, a day or two for spicy peppers might be best! (Try making your own hot honey too.)
Finally, you can infuse olive oil with herbs, but if you plan on storing long-term, make sure that you first dry them. As explained in these tips for infusing olive oil, any moisture can lead to bacteria growth, so you definitely want to avoid adding fresh herbs or garlic to olive oil unless you plan to use up the mixture within a week.
Pickle & Preserve
An old-fashioned yet timeless method of saving food before it has a chance to spoil, preserving by pickling and canning is also a great way to capture peak produce flavor and stock your pantry for the months ahead. You can quick pickle practically any vegetable, and any jam or jelly recipe can be stored in the fridge for a few weeks without the need to can it (or up to a few months in the freezer). But if you want to get into longer-term storage, see our beginner’s guide to canning, essential canning equipment, and handy canning tips for total newbies.
While all of these suggestions are also ways to just plain-old “use” food, the key is to keep these ideas at the ready when you bought too much broccoli, have too much leftover chicken, are facing down a bounty of berries, or ended up with extra rosemary after you made that one herby recipe. When you’re not sure what to do with those foods, but you don’t want to let them go bad, think of these themes and get creative!
Emily Murawski wrote the original version of this story. It has been updated with additional images, links, and text.
Header image by Chowhound.