Story by Lisa A. Listwa
Did you know the average American generates more than four pounds of waste per day? That’s each person, each day. So, my three-person household is responsible for twelve pounds of waste every day?
Seems hard to believe, but when I look at our trash and recycling bins each week, well…I can see the evidence. If your house is anything like ours, the kitchen is probably the place where you generate the most waste. Whether your goal is to be more economical or more eco-friendly, here are a few ideas for reducing your kitchen footprint.
Don’t Throw It Out
Several years ago, I read a book called From Garbage to Gourmet by Carrie Isaac and it changed my thinking dramatically. It’s exactly what it sounds like – a book filled with tips, ideas, and recipes to use food completely and purposefully, and reduce the amount of food waste in your kitchen. There are plenty of other places out there to find similar information – blogs, websites, and Facebook groups are great places to start. Try searching “cooking root to stem” or “how to use every bit of meat” and you’ll find a wealth of information for using every bit of your food. Yup, even the parts you thought were garbage.
Here are a couple of my best tips:
- Freeze leftovers of seldom-used items like buttermilk or anchovies or the whites you have left after making hollandaise sauce with the yolks.
- Search the web for ways to use up the end of condiments or the ingredient you bought for that one recipe that one time. Sauces, dressings, and dips get a flavor boost from just a little bit of something from the end of that condiment jar.
- Save vegetable (or meat, or seafood) “scraps” to make homemade broth and stock. Bonus: You can use the vegetable scraps that remain even after the broth making for your garden or compost pile.
- Produce looking sad? Juice it or toss it in a smoothie. Past their prime vegetables are great in soup, too. Of course, you won’t use things that are spoiled, but those less than desirable items can find new life when used in different ways.
- Look for ways to use leftovers purposefully. Leftover corn from last night’s dinner? Add it to stir fry or soup or use it with black beans for a vegetarian taco night. Tamar Adler’s book An Everlasting Meal has plenty of ideas for rolling odds and ends into your next great meal.
Make It Yourself
I make a lot of things at home that I used to buy. To be fair, the initial motivation was about avoiding food dyes and additives. But once I realized how many things are very quick and easy, I started to make more things at home. I can make exactly the amount I need so I don’t end up with that dying condiment in the fridge. It also reduces packaging waste from purchased products – no jars and bottles to throw away or recycle. Hit the Pinterest boards and give it a try! Here are a few of our most often homemade favorites:
- Salad dressing is a great way to use up the end of mustard, miso paste, fish sauce, and other condiments that might otherwise end up in the trash bin.
- Applesauce is super easy to make at home. Keep the peels on and puree your applesauce. You’ll reduce food waste and retain more nutrients, fiber, and flavor.
- Condiments are surprisingly easy. We like to do things like taco, tartar, barbecue, and teriyaki sauces. We make just enough for the recipe plus maybe one more meal. No half-used bottles and the remainder can spark an idea for a second meal.
Consider Your Container
I grew up watching my relatives use all the standard storage and packaging materials – aluminum foil, plastic wrap, wax paper, disposable plastic containers. You know the drill. My big shift came when we started participating in a local CSA program. I was storing all those wonderful farm-fresh vegetables in plastic storage bags. I admit I joined the wash and reuse the bag club – I mean how dirty can a bag that held washed salad greens really be? And besides the waste issue, it felt like I was throwing money away. Washing out bags gets old fast, so I started thinking about other ways I could store my vegetables and other food as well.
Full disclosure: These options do involve some initial investment but considering the amount of waste and money that can be saved over time, they could be a very good option. Here are a few we’ve tried or are considering:
- Use glass bowls and jars in place of plastic containers. Sure, the plastic stuff is reusable, but it does break down and stain over time. To me, glass just feels cleaner. Try some glass bowls with matching lids or mason jars. If you don’t love the metal lids or you’re just storing, not actually preserving, you can get BPA-free plastic lids which won’t rust.
- Instead of disposable plastic storage/freezer bags, consider reusable ones. They’re readily available on places like Amazon and they come in different sizes.
- And while we’re talking about bags, try reusable mesh produce bags for storage at home and for shopping at the market instead of the plastic baggies from the roll.
- Silicone bowl covers might be the answer to plastic wrap. These can be found in round and square/rectangle shapes and stretch to fit various size containers. No more arguing with the plastic wrap roll! Use them on your containers, but also on items like that half of a lemon or watermelon you have saved for another day.
Paper or Cloth?
This is the big debate in our house right now. I hate paper towels (and napkins). My husband loves them. It makes me cringe when I see the trash can filled with them. I keep trying to convince him to use a cloth dish towel for his paper towel needs, but I still watch the paper towel supply dwindle at an alarming rate. And paper napkins just seem…silly. We haven’t made any major conversion decisions in this area yet, but here are the things I’m proposing to my family that we at least try and see if we can make a difference.
- Reusable dish cloths and towels. Most people think of dish towels as decorative more than functional and if we’re being honest, some towels just aren’t very effective. I already use cloth towels in my kitchen, but I need to replace them. I’ve come across reusable dish cloths and towels that just might be the thing – absorbent, machine washable, and biodegradable once you finally do toss them. These are on my birthday gift wish list.
- Cloth napkins. These seem like a complete no-brainer to me. Why save cloth napkins for special occasions? Check out end-of-season clearance sales at your favorite home goods store. Invest in a supply of durable, washable, absorbent cloth napkins and keep them at the ready in place of the paper kind. You’ll reduce your paper waste and feel fancy at the same time!
- “Unpaper” towels or reusable paper towels. This is something I’m still learning about, but I am fascinated by the possibility. It’s exactly what it sounds like – towels that work like paper towels (you can even store them on a roll!) but are washable and reusable. I’ve seen several varieties, but flannel, cotton, and bamboo seem to be the big three options. This week I got the husband to agree to at least try a roll and see how it goes.
As much as we’ve learned and changed some habits, our kitchen is still very much a work in progress. Do we still use paper towels? Right now, yes. But we’re on our way to trying something new. Do I still use plastic freezer bags and plastic storage containers? Yes, for certain things, but far less than I used to. But that’s OK. Every little bit is a big step in the right direction and the more we make these shifts, the easier it gets to think of more ways to reduce waste and make the most of our budget. I am always on the lookout for ways to make positive changes that benefit our family and our environment as well as allow me to exercise some creative thinking in the kitchen. If we can make some changes now, perhaps we can help leave the planet in better shape for generations to come.