Edited by Amanda Sorell
The pleasures of home-prepared food made from fresh ingredients are many, but using up all those odds and ends that don’t make it into the meal can frequently pose a challenge. Thankfully, conscientious cooks can control what happens to some of the nourishment that would otherwise go to waste. We asked editors, friends and fans how they anticipate and avoid food waste in their homes. Hundreds of responses poured in, showing that food “scraps” have a solid standing in the kitchen, if only we help them live up to their potential. To turn the scraps you have on hand into a more substantial dish, try our featured recipes for Beef ‘Stoup’, Loaded Enchiladas, or Breakfast ‘Muffins’.
Plan ahead. Leftovers from Monday night’s roast chicken can become tacos on Tuesday and a robust salad on Wednesday. Planning your meals in advance is the first step toward buying only what you need, and using every last bit. This will keep you from filling your cart too full when you’re at the store — and from emptying your wallet too fast. Use a mini-chalkboard, whiteboard or pinned-up printed calendar in your kitchen to list the week’s meals and keep yourself on track. Make your grocery lists accordingly, and when you do plan to cook something substantial, such as a whole chicken or roast, make sure your meals for the following nights incorporate the food that will be left over.
Freeze your foods. Jessica Kellner, editor-in-chief of Mother Earth Living, urges eaters to employ their freezers. “If I have browning bananas but no time to do anything with them, I’ll pop them into a freezer bag and save them for the next time I want to make banana-oat cookies, banana bread or a smoothie,” Kellner says. “Same with most produce — if you have tomatoes that are about to go bad, stick them in the freezer, and then use them in a sauce, stew or casserole later.”
Preserve herbs. If you buy bundles of fresh herbs from the store or farmers market — or have a lot to harvest from your garden — MOTHER EARTH NEWS Managing Editor Jennifer Kongs has a recommendation for saving them: “If you can’t use the whole bunch within a week or two, chop the herbs, press them into an ice cube tray, and then cover them with water or olive oil. Freeze them, and then pull out a cube or two anytime you need to add an herbal lift to a dish. Drying is another good option: For rosemary, sage, thyme and oregano, bundle and tie the ends together, and hang them in a dry place. When the herbs have fully dried, store them in a spice jar for up to a year.”
Compost. Reader Dorinda Troutman works her food scraps into a productive cycle that incorporates the entire homestead. “I have chickens, so anything left over in the kitchen or the bottom of the fridge ultimately goes to them, and they turn it into manure, which becomes compost and goes back on the garden to create more meals and leftovers,” she says. You can compost, too, no matter where you live or how much space you have. Read How to Make Compost to get the dirt on a number of composting setups, including worm bins, tumblers and a plain old hole in the ground.
Double up. MOTHER EARTH NEWS Senior Associate Editor Robin Mather, author of The Feast Nearby, minds her energy bills while also diminishing food waste: “If I’m going to cook something in the oven for a long time, such as a stew, I’ll typically also bake something alongside it, such as muffins or cookies,” she says. “Even if the secondary dish goes straight into the freezer, I’ve saved the energy needed to bake it.” You can tap this tactic by roasting a tray of vegetables while baking dinner or dessert, for example.
Mather also takes water conservation into consideration. “I use leftover water from my kettle to rinse off my dishes before putting them into the dishwasher,” she says. This water and any greywater you collect can also be used to water plants or even flush your toilet.
Those commonly discarded bits in your kitchen can add zeal to new meals. The following tips, which range from familiar to unique, will help you pull as much as possible out of your perishables.
Reuse cooking oil several times by straining it after each use. Place a funnel in the mouth of a canning jar, and then line the funnel with a paper coffee filter. Slowly pour cooled oil into the funnel, and allow it to filter through and drip into the jar. Put a lid on the jar and store it for your next use. You can save the oil-soaked filter to start a fire in your fireplace or fire pit. — Mary Ann Wall Yancey
When your hens lay a surplus of eggs, whisk them up and freeze them raw in containers with one-eighth teaspoon salt or 1-1/2 teaspoons sugar for every four beaten yolks to keep them from becoming sticky. Label each container with the number of eggs inside. The eggs will come in handy in winter, when fresh eggs are scarcer. To thaw, place the containers in the refrigerator overnight, and then use the eggs as you would fresh eggs. — Roberta Bailey
Freeze milk that’s on the edge of turning sour in recipe-sized portions — usually a cup or half-cup — and use it for cooking. It’s even better to go ahead and sour it before freezing by adding 1 tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice per cup, and then to treat it as buttermilk. Use it in pancakes, muffins, quick breads and other baked goods that call for buttermilk.
Save bones and vegetable scraps in the freezer to make stock. You can also freeze bits of cooked roasts, chicken, pork, etc. After you have enough to fill your slow cooker, start the stock by covering the food scraps with water, and then cook on low for 12 to 24 hours.
Freeze the small odds and sods of hard cheeses, such as Parmesan, cheddar, Swiss and Gouda. When you have a bagful, thaw them and whiz them together in a food processor or heavy-duty blender along with half the cheeses’ weight in butter and a tablespoon or two of brandy. You’ll then have potted cheese spread. — Robin Mather
I never throw out the tops of celery stalks. Instead, I dehydrate them and grind them up to use as a seasoning. — Jessica Kaml
I chop up the outer leaves and stalks of cauliflower and use them in soups and stir-fries. — Ros Tosi
My favorite way to use leftover mashed potatoes is to make potato pancakes for breakfast. Here’s how: While about a tablespoon of oil or butter is heating up in a frying pan, mix rosemary, salt and pepper with the chilled mashed potatoes, and then shape them into patties. Dredge the potato patties in flour for a nice crust, and then fry them up into potato pancakes. I enjoy them with eggs, Brussels sprouts and coffee.
I put cut-up chunks of stale bread in the freezer until I have about 1 pound. When I’m ready to use the pieces of bread, I fetch them out of the freezer, let them defrost a bit, and then bake them with raw eggs, vegetables, cheese and a bit of cream to create a satisfying strata. — Hannah Kincaid
I turn dry bread into breadcrumbs, or I cut it into cubes and season it with garlic, butter and herbs for homemade croutons. — Janette Hartman
I save the last pieces of fruit that no one wants to eat, such as the final few grapes, strawberries or blueberries. I keep them in the freezer, and then a couple of times a year, I haul them out, put them all together in my food processor, add a little sugar and a little pectin, and voilá! — it all becomes some of the best jam you’ll ever taste. If you don’t believe me, just ask any of the recipients of my special mixed-berry jam! — Cindy
Really ripe fruit that we aren’t able to eat goes into the blender. Blend 2 cups of fruit, 1 tablespoon of sugar if needed, and 1 teaspoon of lemon or lime juice, and then put the mixture into molds and freeze for fruit popsicles. My personal favorite is 1 cup of nectarines or peaches mixed with 1 cup of strawberries. Sometimes, if I have extra pie crust, I’ll make mini-pies with the fruit, too. — Stephanie Figg
After squeezing limes or lemons, I freeze them to later stuff into a chicken before I roast it. This imparts a citrus flavor and also helps keep the meat moist. — Sarah Matteson
I always zest my lemons, limes and oranges before peeling, slicing or juicing them, and then I freeze the zest. The next time I need zest for any recipe, I just pull it out of the freezer. — Trina Reynolds
I use the pulp left in my juicer to top salads or other dishes. I also use it in homemade breads and veggie burgers. — Lori Bonner
Don’t throw away the pulp from juicing fresh vegetables. Instead, add it to soups and stews to thicken and stretch them. — Anne-marie De Waal Coetzee
When I make a pie, I use the pastry bits left over from cutting around the edge of the pie to make an appetizer. I scatter a bit of grated Parmesan cheese over them, and bake them at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for 10 minutes. — Katherine Britton
I grind up leftover roasted meat and mix it with mayonnaise and relish to make a filling for sandwiches. — Jean Ray Weddle
Add 2 cups of leftover cooked vegetables to a food processor with an egg, a quarter-cup of flour and a tablespoon of cream. Using a small ice cream scoop, drop the mixture onto a cookie sheet, and then place the sheet in the fridge to chill for 30 minutes. Then, place leftover meat from a pot roast in a saucepan with your favorite barbecue sauce, and simmer it on medium-low for 30 minutes. Finally, remove the balls and deep-fry them. Put the meat on bread for a barbecue sandwich, and enjoy it along with the fried vegetable balls. — Xris Hess
We steam a big batch of rice and keep it in the refrigerator to use later in all kinds of quick dishes throughout the week — in burritos, with red beans, and as fried rice.
Our favorite version of fried rice uses up all the standard neglected vegetables in the crisper — especially mushrooms, bell peppers and the butts of onions — and sometimes we throw in leftover sausage from the night before. For extra protein, we’ll add an egg. We drop all the ingredients into a large skillet, fry them with sesame oil and toasted sesame seeds, and serve with soy sauce on the side. — Rebecca Martin
My wife, Gwen, makes a soup/stew — we call it “stoup” — that’s great for using vegetables that are close to turning. These ingredients are just a suggestion; you can use any vegetables you may have. Yield: enough servings for an army.
• 3 pounds ground beef or stew meat
• 1/4 cup white flour
• 3 cups whole tomatoes
• 8 carrots
• 1 bunch celery
• Potatoes, squash, zucchini, corn or any other veggies on hand, about 1 cup, chopped
• Beef stock or water
• 1 cup barley
• Spices or dried herbs, such as basil, oregano, Greek seasoning, black pepper, thyme or garlic powder
1. Brown the beef in a large stockpot over medium-high heat. Drain the excess fat, sprinkle flour over the beef, and cook, stirring, until flour has browned. Chop your vegetables, including the whole tomatoes, and add them to the pot.
2. Fill the pot with stock or water until the veggies and meat are covered. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer. Add barley and spices.
Simmer on low until the barley is cooked and the vegetables are soft, about 45 to 50 minutes.
— Caleb D. Regan, managing editor at Grit magazine
This one-pan classic is perfect for incorporating all kinds of vegetable scraps and other “extras” you may have lying around. Make sure you have good tortillas and enchilada sauce, but other than that, you can put practically anything inside enchiladas and end up with a delicious meal. Here are some ingredients I’ve added and loved, most of which are optional.
• Finely chopped vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower, squash, peppers or potatoes
• Chopped greens, such as spinach or kale
• Finely diced garlic, onions or shallots
• Olive oil
• Cooked beans
• Diced, shredded or ground meat, such as seasoned hamburger, chicken, roast or steak
• Cooked grains, such as brown rice or millet
• Salt, to taste
• Herbs, such as cilantro or chives
• Spices, such as cumin, chili powder or paprika
• Enchilada sauce
• Enough tortillas to hold ingredients
• Cheese, such as cheddar, pepper jack, goat cheese or queso fresco
1. In a large pan, sauté any raw ingredients in olive oil until tender. Chop cooked items — such as steamed broccoli, baked potatoes, roasted squash or leftover meat — into small pieces and add them to the pan, along with any cooked grains. After everything is combined, season the mixture with salt, spices and herbs to taste.
2. Next, pour some enchilada sauce into a baking pan large enough to hold the number of enchiladas you want to make. Coat tortillas with sauce on both sides, and then place a bit of your filling on each tortilla. Sprinkle on some grated cheese, and then roll up the tortillas and arrange them in the pan. Pour the rest of the enchilada sauce over the top, cover the pan, and then bake for 25 minutes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Then, pull out and uncover the dish, and sprinkle the top of the enchiladas with a bit more cheese. Bake them for 5 minutes more, then serve.
3. If you have extra filling, store it in the fridge, and then eat it with a bit of cheese melted over the top sometime in the coming days.
4. You can do practically this exact same thing with lasagna. Just layer your tomato sauce, cooked lasagna noodles, a cheese/herb blend, and your anything-goes filling mixture in a pan and bake it for 30 minutes or so at 350 degrees, until bubbly. Or, consider adding your leftovers to a pot of noodles along with tomato sauce for a hearty spaghetti.
— Shelley Stonebrook, senior editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS
To make these breakfast bites, you’ll need a muffin tin, but you won’t need paper liners. Think of this as a formula, not a recipe.
• Any vegetables you have, such as onions, celery, green peppers, spinach or potatoes
• Butter or oil
• Spices and herbs, such as basil, oregano, rosemary, cumin or garlic powder
• Grated cheese, such as provolone, mozzarella, cheddar, Swiss, Parmesan or Asiago
• Leftover meat, such as ham, bacon, ground beef or diced chicken
• 2 eggs per muffin
• 1 tbsp milk or cream per muffin
• Salt and pepper, to taste
1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Cook the vegetables until tender in a skillet with some butter or oil, seasoning them with spices and herbs, to taste.
2. Butter each cup of the muffin tin, and put about 2 tablespoons of grated cheese into the bottom of each one. Add about 1/4 cup of sautéed vegetables. If you’re using leftover meat, add it now. Beat the eggs with the milk or cream, if using, and pour the mixture into each cup, to about a half-inch from the top. Season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle more grated cheese on top. Slide the tin into the oven and bake until the egg is cooked and the cheese is nicely browned, 10 to 15 minutes. These breakfast muffins will keep for a week in the fridge.
— Robin Mather, senior associate editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS
(Top) Photo by Dreamstime/Zigzagmtart: Toss vegetable odds and ends into a pot and simmer for a soup-ready stock.
(Second) Photo byDreamstime/Pepmiba: Dry bundles of herbs for long-term culinary use.
(Third) Photo by iStock/wwing: Make friends with your freezer to keep your leftovers fresh. Label each container with its contents and the date to fend off forgetfulness.
(Fourth) Photo by Fotolia/Brent Hofacker: Give yesterday’s mashed potatoes new life by frying them up into herbed potato pancakes.
(Fifth) Photo by Dreamstime/Lepas: Be frugal with your fruit! Zest your lemons before use, and freeze the zest for later.
(Sixth) Photo by Dreamstime/Isabel Poulin: Shape aging fruit into popsicles for a summer treat.
(Seventh) Photo by Dreamstime/Robynmac: This hearty dish will readily accept kitchen scraps and transform them into a warming dinner.
(Eighth) Photo by Fotolia/Monart Design: Stuff tortillas with leftover meat and vegetables and slather them with enchilada sauce and cheese to create these robust rollups.
(Bottom) Photo by Fotolia/beornbjorn: These versatile “muffins” will keep for a week in the refrigerator, and are a great grab-and-go breakfast option.