Tips for less kitchen waste and more benefit during COVID pandemic
Be a pro in the kitchen to cut down cost and boost up flavour
Canadians are notoriously bad when it comes to wasting food. To reduce the amount of food you throw away during this period of isolation, while you're likely doing more cooking at home, think of your home kitchen as a restaurant kitchen.
Restaurants gauge the food they buy carefully and we should too. It's human nature to stock up when it looks like we need to, but plan out your meals so you're not over-purchasing — especially when it comes to perishable foods.
Here are tips to go pro in your own home.
Write it down
Write out menus and the ingredients needed, planning for some extra that can be frozen. Keep your grocery and food receipts as a record of your costs. If you have a lot left over or you run short, it can help with understanding what worked and what didn't, and what it cost. It's a good reminder of how you're spending your money.
And, for better or worse, if you're spending more time at home there's a good chance you have the extra time on your hands that it will take to sit down and do this planning.
Being able to identify the food in the fridge is key, especially cooked dishes and leftovers stored in opaque containers.
Label food tubs with peel-off masking tape and a good, strong marker pen. Organize them in the fridge for visibility, noting the ingredient and an approximate quantity, making sure older ingredients are used first.
Date the containers so you know when they went in the fridge or when you want to use them. (Note: if the fridge gets very full, food might freeze, which may then need to be thrown out, so make sure air can circulate. Ironically, refrigerators can get too cold if they're stuffed full.)
Store like a store
The floor plan of the produce section at the grocery store can provide a guide for how to store food to avoid waste. What they display in a cooler, you should put in your fridge. What is not refrigerated at the store, you generally don't need to refrigerate immediately — depending on how long it will be until you use the item.
- Tomatoes shouldn't be stored in the fridge.
- Leafy greens should be refrigerated.
- Onions, garlic and root vegetables should be stored in a cool, dark place. Do you have a cool basement space, for example?
- Mushrooms should remain unwashed and saved in a brown bag in the fridge.
- Cherries and grapes should be kept unwashed and stored in a plastic bag in the fridge. Wash just before eating.
- Citrus is best stored in a breathable bag in the fridge.
Bananas can be stored on the counter. But if they turn black and over-ripe, consider how much you paid for them before tossing. Can they be combined with a handful of nuts and a couple of eggs for banana bread rather than chucked in the compost bin? Freeze them for later, if needed. While they may have cost only pennies, the pennies add up to dollars and to food waste.
Freeze meals in smaller amounts that are easier to use over many meals. When heating meals, portion out the plate or bowl size you want, before heating, in order to save the excess that might end up being binned.
If you make your own tomato sauce, for example, freeze it in ready-made, easy to use individual portions (a.k.a. a muffin tin).
Best before, or unsafe after...
Use common sense about "Best Before" dates. Fresh meat, for instance, is one thing to be wary of as it reaches its due time. But a wrinkled red pepper or yogurt that is several days old doesn't need to be tossed away immediately. Decide: Is it a matter of quality or safety?
Slices of stale bread can make a delicious bread pudding, be seasoned and baked into croutons, or simply crumbled and chopped into bread crumbs to then use as a topping for mac and cheese or stuffing for a roasted bird. Bread can be frozen, like in a restaurant kitchen.
Stock answer: grate
Re-purposing vegetable scraps is part of a restaurant kitchen's routine: bits of aromatics and parsley stalks aren't thrown away: they go into the stock pot. Use a one-litre container (or two) to store the scraps and off-cuts of your flavourful plants in the freezer until you have enough. That's two litres less going into the green bin or landfill.
Rather than tossing the cores and stalks of cauliflower and broccoli, they can contribute to a soup or stew when cooked, to extract flavour. Strain them out when you serve it. Get an inexpensive box grater to rasp up vegetable bits and use in soups, stews and casseroles. Try sneaking a few shreds into the fresh-made burgers you're making for the kids.
After you wash them thoroughly (with water only, never detergent), peel your carrots, parsnips and sweet potatoes. Slather the peels generously with olive oil and salt and pepper, the roast them to become crispy chips. Peeling potatoes for mashed? Roast the skins in a similar way and season as you like. People pay money for these inventive treats in restaurants, so why not do this at home!
On the protein side, keep meat scraps and bones and freeze them to make soup stocks later. At the moment, I have some trimmings and fat from a large roast in my freezer: I'm planning to blitz the scraps in a food processor and make a few hamburgers for the spring barbecue season. Otherwise, I would have just thrown them away.
If the occasional bare grocery shelf is any indication, it's human nature to "buy a bit extra" in anxious times. By being deliberate and thoughtful — in other words, professional — with your kitchen management, you can avoid throwing away food when you don't need to.