What are your favourite ways to avoid waste in the kitchen?
March 28, 2009 12:16 PM   Subscribe

What are your favourite kitchen and pantry management tricks to avoid the waste of food and money?

In my kitchen, I go through my fridge and freezer once a week to be sure I know what needs to be used up soon. I freeze leftover orange zest or chopped bell peppers. I make bread pudding from bread crusts, bannock bread (or my Grandmother Swan's awesome potato donut recipe) from leftover mashed potatoes, and banana bisque from elderly bananas. What are your favourite tricks for making sure you don't waste food or money in cooking?

Please do keep your suggestions oriented towards reasonably healthy cooking. There should not be any answers that feature the word "Spam".

We had a similar thread a few weeks ago on MetaChat, but I thought bringing the question to a larger audience would mean even better results.
posted by orange swan to Food & Drink (34 answers total) 127 users marked this as a favorite
After you roast a whole chicken, use the drippings and carcass to make stock/soup.
posted by schyler523 at 12:19 PM on March 28, 2009

I shop locally, several times a week. Having only enough perishables for the next two or three days really cuts waste.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 12:33 PM on March 28, 2009 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Another tip I could mention is baking with sour milk. If I have a lot of sour milk and no time to bake I freeze it until I have the time. My mother always baked with powdered milk to save money, so I usually do as well.
posted by orange swan at 12:37 PM on March 28, 2009

Use a vacuum sealer to safely store items long past their normal shelf life.
posted by torquemaniac at 12:42 PM on March 28, 2009

Smaller but more frequent trips to the grocery is the best if you have the time. We go every other day. This prevents wasted food, but isn't necessarily as cost effective as buying in bulk, and probably wastes more in terms of thrown-away packaging and fuel getting to and fro.
posted by poppo at 12:47 PM on March 28, 2009

I save vegetable scraps and veggies that are starting to go south tightly wrapped in my freeser. When I fill up, say, a gallon-size ziploc bag, I make vegetable stock out of it. Pretty much any vegetable is good to use, but I go easy on the celery as too much can impart a bitter taste.

Same goes for chicken bones.

Elderly bananas are great for banana bread.

When I have leftover white rice, I make fried rice out of it the next day, or the day after. Also, rice pudding, which can either be sweetened (I love throwing coconut in there), or seasoned with salt for a savory breakfast.

Bread that's over a day old can be made into croutons or breadcrumbs. I usually toast my breadcrumbs and they end up lasting longer. You can also season them yourself.

You can stock up on bread if it's on sale (or if you bake more than one loaf) by freezing it. Bread thaws out remarkably well.
posted by DrGirlfriend at 12:53 PM on March 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

- Wash and chop your greens when you get home from the store. I find that having things ready to cook encourages me to use more of them even if I'm dog tired from a day of work.

- Make your own hummus and baba ghanouj. Muuuuch cheaper than buying packaged varieties and tastier.

- Only buy spices in bulk. So much cheaper than the little jars at the grocery store.

- Roast a turkey breast once a week and slice for sandwiches rather than buying deli meats.

- Bake your own bread. Jacques Pepin has a great bread made in a sauce pot recipe on the WNET website.

- Eat more cabbage. Seriously - cabbage is typically one of the cheaper, more nutritious foods you can buy. A little collateral damage is worth it. Consider sauteing red cabbage in a little canola oil, soy, orange juice, orange zest and a little cider vinegar at the last. Add some mustard seeds, too, for a little crunch.

- Eat more cauliflower. Ditto. Tossed with a little olive oil salt and pepper and roasted, it's nutty, delicate flavor is delicious. Also nice sprinkled with curry powder and roasted.

- Freeze end pieces or leftover heels of bread. Thaw, cube and toast them with a little olive oil or sea salt and use as croutons in salad or on top of hearty soup. Or grind for breadcrumbs.

- Salad greens that are spicier and more flavorful than regular lettuce - like arugula, watercress or spinach - that are a little wilted and perhaps past their prime are great when tossed in a hot pan with cooked pasta, garlic, some chopped tomatoes, capers and a little olive oil. Also great in broth-based soup. Also nice added to cooked rice in the last two minutes of cooking, along with a little olive oil, salt and pepper.

- Put leftover pasta and rice in Glad containers and throw them in the freezer. Both are easily brought back to life either by refreshing in boiling water or heating in the microwave or on the stovetop in a heated pan with a little water or broth.

- Make chicken salad out of leftover chicken. I like to add Greek yogurt, celery, curry power, apple and almonds to mine. Or dice and make a quick chicken and, say, orzo soup using a carton of chicken broth, a diced onion, a diced rib of celery, salt and pepper. Simmer for fifteen minutes or so until your veggie are cooked, add chicken and orzo, and serve when orzo is tender.

- Veggies like zucchini, squash, eggplant, broccoli and peppers that are a little past their prime are excellent roasted either in a veggie lasagna, or diced small, sauteed, and added to pasta sauces for extra fiber, vitamins and flavor. Also great roasted and pureed into a soup - add some chickpeas or navy beans and a little kale for color and texture, and thin with broth or water. Drizzle with a little olive oil, salt and pepper.

- I make my own ground chicken in the food processor using chicken thighs and use it as a substitute for ground meat. Great for burgers, tacos or taco salad, or excellent for chicken meatballs in indian-spiced sauce over jasmine rice, or in regular tomato and basil sauce with pasta. Come to think of it, I often use chicken thighs instead of breasts because they're more flavorful, much cheaper, and add depth to your regular chicken and broccoli stir-fry, etc.

- You can use almost all of the stalks on your broccoli if you simply remove the ends and trim off the outer, darker green, fibrous outer husk down to the pale green, inner flesh. I stretch a head of broccoli into several meals this way. Substitute the trimmed stalks for asparagus; much less expensive and milder than broccoli florets.

- Consider having two or three veggie courses with your dinner. You tend to use more of your fresh vegetables this way so they don't hang around the fridge for as long.

- Buy beans in bulk rather than canned beans. This includes chickpeas, which are excellent in salads, sauteed with kale and red peppers, added to soups, etc. - I add chickpeas alot to vegetable sautees to add fiber, as well as to stretch greens into two meals.

- Cheaper cuts of lamb can be ground and combined with soaked cracked wheat, coriander, cumin, salt and pepper, and pinenuts to make kibbeh. Grill on a grill pan and serve over salad. Also a nice change of pace for burgers.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 12:58 PM on March 28, 2009 [31 favorites]

- If you buy uncooked shrimp, buy with the shells on. Save those shells because they contain a tremendous amount of flzvor and can be seared in oil and then simmered in broth or water to make a shellfish stock.

- If you make something with just egg yolks save the whites in the freezer.
posted by werkzeuger at 1:37 PM on March 28, 2009

- If you make something with just egg yolks save the whites in the freezer.

And vice versa: when you make meringues, also make mayo.
posted by CunningLinguist at 1:59 PM on March 28, 2009

Whenever I have a bunch of veggies (plus anyopen cans of tomato paste, v8, chicken stock, etc) toss them all in a slowcooker and make amazing veggie soup. Then I pour it into several single serving tupperware containers and freeze them.


Also, I shop at the dollar store for anything and everything.
posted by np312 at 2:09 PM on March 28, 2009

Chop up fresh herbs and freeze them with a little water in an ice cube tray. Go for about 1tbsp of herbs per cube. Then pop them out of the tray and save them in marked Ziploc bags. Herbs last remarkably long this way and still maintain good taste after being frozen.

Bacon freezes very well, too. I make freezer packages out of 2-3 strips of bacon, wrapped tightly in Saran then covered in foil.

Fruit this is a little overripe works great in smoothies.
posted by sickinthehead at 2:16 PM on March 28, 2009

You sort of alluded to this in your post, but we always plan carefully before we go to the grocery store. I think that we save a lot of money trying to come up with meals that involve stuff we have and will use up as much of what we buy over the course of the week.

For example, this week we bought a bunch of chicken breast. Yesterday, I cooked it all and made fajitas with part of it, but we're also planning to make salads with chicken with the leftovers. Also, we try not to waste much when we do this. If we roast a chicken, we make stock with the bones and some veggies. If we have leftover veggies (like celery and carrots) we eat them as a snack or with meals.
posted by malthas at 2:20 PM on March 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Some stuff I do: a jar each of frozen white and red wines--I just throw whatever's left in the bottle in there to top it off occasionally, esp. if it's just slightly iffy, a little less fun to drink. Beer, too, although I keep forgetting to buy cooking beer (Budweiser). Freezing herbs, whole, just throwing them in baggies. I keep forgetting to do this with cilantro, but cilantro would be great for it, since it wilts if you look at it mean. Freezing little squares of tablespoons of chipotle in adobo sauce, and tomato paste in waxed paper. Par-baking a bunch of six inch pizza crusts, they're great for using the last little bit of green pepper for a topping, or the one mushroom with no use.

We freeze bread, and bagels. If we don't we wind up throwing out one or two.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:23 PM on March 28, 2009

Making a weekly meal plan helps us buy only what we need. There are plenty of programs out there to help with this. You can even save particularly cheap meal plans for repeated use.

We make high-volume meals (e.g. baked ziti) in the beginning of the week, and immediately parcel out the leftovers into lunch-sized tupperwares to take to work throughout the week.

If we have leftover vegetables (half a bell pepper, half a bunch of cilantro) or meat, we throw them into omelets or quiche for brunch on the weekend.
posted by pizzazz at 2:33 PM on March 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have two cupboards—one for open items, and one for unopened items. Obviously I check the open-item cupboard first, whether I'm looking for a specific item, or just general cooking ideas.
posted by grouse at 2:33 PM on March 28, 2009 [6 favorites]

Eat lower on the food chain. Meat is expensive and better for you in smaller quantities (recently published research shows red meat having negative health effects. again.) Beans are tasty, nutritious and cheap. Eggs, too. Oatmeal for breakfast is easy. I use more water than the box says, and often simmer it longer while I'm getting ready for work, and it's fine. Ditto on the cabbage; it's delicious as a raw veggie, too.

I just found out that the grocery store I don't usually shop at has a section for produce that is imperfect, at reduced price. They often have artichokes, and after I strip off the outer leaves, they're fine. Buy what's on special and build your meals accordingly. There are some foods (arugula) I'm willing to pay for often, because I really like them, otherwise, I buy avocados only when they're on special. I often shop later in the evening and am able to buy meat that's marked down; the quality is fine.

Don't buy premium brands without doing side-by-side taste testing. Some brand items are worth the extra cost, some aren't. Your list and mine will be different. If there's a discount store that carries food, check it out. I stocked up on some favorite soups because the producer changed their packaging. Stock up when things you would buy anyway, and that store well, are on sale. I bought 10 lbs of coffee on deep discount, and was really bummed when I had to pay full price again.

A cookbook I like is Cooking More With Less, which I see has a new edition. I like the Mennonite philosophy and the recipes.
posted by theora55 at 2:36 PM on March 28, 2009

If you buy any food in a package, with a logo, or mascot, you're wasting money.

I've actually been planing to start a blog around this topic. I know lots of people my age (23) who are having kitchens of their own for the first time, don't know how to cook, and when they do, end up spending more money than eating out. They don't know how to shop, and go for "convenience" foods, which equals money wasted. I've hesitated starting this blog for fear of being preachy, but hey you asked for it.

Start with breakfast. Like cereal? Buy big bags of store brand, and an airtight storage container. Instant oatmeal? Pssh, a canister of store brand oats make 12 servings, and cost about $1.50. They can still be cooked in the microwave, just add your own toppings. Even just eggs, toast and hotsauce are fast and very cheap, especially compared to those frozen breakfast sandwiches.

What about snacks? Forget potato chips, which you know aren't great for you in the first place, and go for homemade popcorn. A bag of popcorn is around a buck, and makes 12 large batches-- enough for 2 to share. Simply Recipies gives a good technique. No machine required.

If you normally buy washed, bagged salad greens, stop. Buy a salad spinner from Ikea or the dollar store. Buy dirty head lettuce, give the greens a bath in the spinner. It's about a fourth as expensive. Also, if your lettuce is looking a bit old, a quick soak in ice water will perk it up.

Whenever I see whole chickens below $1 a pound I buy a big one. Cut off the wings, and freeze them for stock. (they get over cooked when roasted anyways) Roast the chicken, and eat the breasts that night. Next night make enchiladas, dinner salads, quesadillas, tacos, sandwiches, etc with the thighs and leftover meat. Or make stock, and then chicken noodle soup, chicken tortilla soup, etc. One chicken plus veg, and a few staples can feed 2 people for 2 or 3 days.

Already said, but freeze anything, and everything you might think will be on it's way out. Likewise, if you see something on sale, but wouldn't be able to eat it all before it goes bad, freeze it. I love it when I've got enough food banked in the freezer and pantry that I can make a meal for "free" (or not spending more)

I also highly recommend having several meals that you can whip up from the pantry, that'll resist the temptation to eat out. Blackbean burgers are just a can of black beans, mashed up with frozen corn, bread crumbs and spices. Pan fry, stick in buns or toast. Same with fried rice-- cooked rice plus frozen peas and carrots, meat or veg leftovers, egg, soy sauce.

Tip number one, and most unpopular, would be to eat less meat, and probably less in general. Plant based diets are healthier, lower disease risks, less impact on the environment, etc etc. I'm not a vegetarian, but Malthas and I eat meat maybe 3 or 4 times a week. The typical american has a large serving of meat at dinner and lunch. Lots of great protein to be had in beans and tofu.

Also I think I'd go crazy shopping for food every few days. I'd much rather spend 45 min once a week planing a menu and shopping for it, than 30 min round trip every few days. Saves gas too. I'd say (minus beer and coffee, our two vices) we spend about $50 a week. Cook enough dinner to have leftovers for lunch, then have breakfast on the cheap.
posted by fontophilic at 3:09 PM on March 28, 2009 [10 favorites]

I have a compost heap, so anything really past it gets tipped into the compost bucket and makes its way outside, ultimately to build up the soil where I grow greens and herbs. My mother-in-law doesn't even bother with composting. She just has a trench in a fallow part of the vegetable garden and buries all scraps.

We pack our lunches, so carrots and celery and peppers etc end up as raw snacks in our lunch boxes, which helps prevent ends and halves and bits that aren't enough for a whole dish building up.

When I feel inspired, I make vegetable stock with the saddest looking remnants, and use it in cooking or freeze it for later.

The last handful of pasta or rice goes into soup, stews or casseroles to thicken them.

Rancid or over-used cooking oil is used to impregnate corrugated cardboard and make firelighters/bbq starters.

Fruit on the verge of spoiling can be stewed with sugar and spice for dessert, putting on cereral, or a topping for baked goods.

Roast vegetable soup deals with the ends of all sorts of root or stalk or storage vegetables. Take your last bit of pumpkin, a sad potato, a lonely carrot, that scraggy half onion, etc, brush with oil, roast until browned. Then puree with vege stock (we made that earlier, remember) in a blender. Season - soup. (Suprisingly, carrots and fat celery stalks work ok in this).
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:32 PM on March 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

Every weekend, plan out your meals for the week. Then, figure out which ingredients you need for each meal. That list of ingredients minus the things you already have is your shopping list. Plan your meals that require the freshest ingredients early in the week, and those with less-fresh requirements (ie: beans, canned/frozen food, pasta, etc.) for later in the week.

We started doing this a couple of months ago, and since then we haven't had anything go bad. At the end of the week, the fridge is empty and that's the way we like it.

We have friends who started doing this on our suggestion, and they are loving it. You no longer have to wonder about what you're going to have for dinner, and have to settle for something less good if you don't have everything you need. Also, throwing out no food leads to immense savings.
posted by Simon Barclay at 4:03 PM on March 28, 2009 [3 favorites]

The Lunch In A Box site about Japanese style bento lunches has a lot of good tips on how to cut food bills and freeze foods that I've found helpful. Like Sickinthehead said above, a lot of veggies like green onions you never need much of, but can only buy in buches. I chop up the remainder and put them in clean empty water bottle and put it in the freezer. Then whenever I need some, I can just shake a bit out. The green onion really keeps it's flavor and crispness.

There's another site called Still Tasty with information on food safety & freshness. Like how long that meat will still be good if you've defrosted it in the fridge and haven't quite gotten around to it.

Oh, and as another fun tool, if you have a Nintendo DS, get the Personal Trainer:Cooking 'game.' It's not really a game at all, but an interactive cookbook. You can use it for meal planning and grocery shopping. And I find it just another fun way to actually motivate myself to DO something in the kitchen.
posted by Caravantea at 4:26 PM on March 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

I bake a different flavor of biscotti every week. I keep the slices in a gallon bag. Over time, the bag fills with a rainbow of flavors of biscotti crumbs. They make great ice cream sprinkles.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:29 PM on March 28, 2009

Don't forget that bread which is a bit dry also makes great french toast.

Apples which are getting a bit aged can be used for bread just like bananas can.

Citrus which is getting old can still be used for juice to cook with and you can run the rinds through the garbage disposal to clean it.

When an onion is going bad, you may only have to give up a couple of layers and still be able to use the inner layers.
posted by onhazier at 5:23 PM on March 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm self employed, so I view my time as money. Once a week I give myself 1/2 hour and $100 at Stop and Shop. I have rules: Only items on sale, only items in bulk. 10 for $10.00, family packs of meat, fruit and veggies from the sad rack. Every week I have to use only what I have on hand. We've had some interesting meals, and I'm actually having fun in the shop and in the kitchen for the first time in years.
posted by Pennyblack at 5:58 PM on March 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Take advantage of your grocery store's salad bar, if it has one—the things you get from there don't necessarily have to be used for salad. For example, if celery is something you don't use very often, but you have a recipe calling for 1/2 c. celery, instead of buying a bunch of celery and using one or two ribs then letting the rest sit around until it goes bad, just get the appropriate amount of celery from the salad bar. Bonus: it's already chopped.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 6:55 PM on March 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

Another trick is searching Google for your ingredients + "recipe". You are quite likely to find something tasty which uses just what you have.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 8:49 PM on March 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

It might seem silly or another level of work entirely, but compost what does go bad, and look at something like Square Foot Gardening.
posted by talldean at 8:52 PM on March 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

I make mirepoix in big batches. Because the only reason I buy celery is for mirepoix, this is less wasteful for me. Bunches of celery are cheaper per pound than buying single stalks.

I buy one bunch of celery, trim it and dice it up, and then dice a roughly equal amount of onions and carrots. Saute in olive oil until onions are golden and everything's soft (8-10 minutes for me). I usually do this on a night that I'm going to make soup, so I scoop most of the mixture out of the stockpot, leaving about 1.5 cups - I use that to make my soup. The bulk of the mixture can be removed to a bowl or plate to cool.

Then I scoop 1.5 - 2 cup portions into freezer bags (I usually get 2 or 3 bags in addition to what I'm using that night). Lay the bags on the counter and smooth the mixture up to squeeze out the air and make the bag flat and even. Freeze flat, then you can store it flat or standing in the freezer.

To use later, I just run some warm water over the bag, or break it up and plop it into a warm soup pot. Saute a bit (it will be soggier than fresh mirepoix, but in soups that cook for at least 30 minutes you won't notice a difference), then prepare soup.
posted by peep at 10:31 AM on March 29, 2009 [5 favorites]

"Buy a salad spinner"

What kind of crazy spendthriftness is that? Put leaves on tea towel, grab corners to make a bundle, go outside, and whirl it around while making "WHEEEE" noises. May be delegated to children if they can be trusted not to let go.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:14 AM on March 29, 2009 [4 favorites]

Another way to avoid waste in the kitchen that doesn't have to do with food per se is to use your own grocery bags. My roommate uses plastic bags and I'm amazed at how many we actually build up. Other tips include saving food packaging for storage, like glass jars from dips and plastic containers from butter. It's fine to use these again, just don't microwave anything in them. I also wash out ziploc bags for re-use. And you can use fabric napkins instead of disposable paper ones.
posted by kidsleepy at 2:19 PM on March 29, 2009

- When you make bacon, save the bacon grease in your fridge. Use it for cornbread and for seasoning cast iron cookware.

- Similar to above advice, freeze clean vegetable peels and scraps and use them to make stock. Freeze reduced stock in ice cube trays and store in a zip-loc bag.

- Make your own yogurt. Maybe a stretch for this topic, but it saves money and is a good way to use up extra milk.

- Past-prime yogurt, sour cream, milk, kefir, and probably a lot of other stuff can be made into pancakes.

- If a wedge of cheese grows mold, try cutting off the mold before giving up on the cheese.

- Put a whiteboard on your fridge so that you can keep track of what needs to be used up and how soon.
posted by parudox at 10:12 PM on March 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I've had some requests for my grandmother's potato donut recipe, so here it is. Watch out, though, as they are insanely addictive. I don't make them very often (once a year at most) because I simply can't leave them alone until they're gone.

Grandma Swan's Potato Donuts1

3 eggs
1 1/3 cups of sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 cup mashed potatoes
2 tbsp shortening, melted
4 cups sifted all-purpose flour
6 tsp baking powder
2 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup milk

Beat eggs with sugar until light. Add potatoes and shortening. Sift together dry ingredients; add alternately with milk to potato mixture, beating well after each addition.

Chill 3 hours.

Roll out half the dough at a time, keeping other half chilled. Roll on floured surface to 3/8 inch thick. Cut with floured doughnut cutter.

Chill 15 minutes.

Fry in deep hot fat2 at 375 degrees for about 3 minutes, turning once, drain. Dip in sugar.3

1 I hereby disclaim all moral and legal responsibility for any consequences that follow the posting of this recipe, i.e., Metafilter members and lurkers turning into fatties en masse, as it were.

2 My mother always poured a half-inch of vegetable oil in her electric skillet and fried them in that, and I do the same in a large frying pan, with the burner turned to medium heat. Be careful not to let the oil burn.

3 I never have dipped them in sugar, nor did my mother. They're quite enjoyable and high-calorie enough without it.
posted by orange swan at 5:51 PM on March 30, 2009 [23 favorites]

Response by poster: Addendum to footnote 2: You can lift the donuts out of the oil and reuse the oil to fry the next round, but you will have to keep adding more oil as each successive panful of donuts soaks up a little of the oil in the frying pan or skillet.
posted by orange swan at 6:01 PM on March 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

If you order out at all, don't. Make your own pizza and burritos. They cost about a dollar to make at home. There's a reason fast food places make so much money.

Learn a couple of dishes that you can make with endless variations - spaghetti sauces, risottos, etc. Shopping for the week is easy when you know you are making a pasta, a meat, a veggie dinners, etc.

Make a meal that lasts multiple days: Lasagna, Chili, etc. Cheap and so easy.
posted by xammerboy at 10:17 PM on March 30, 2009

I will echo the fried rice suggestion and add that cooked rice from the fridge makes better fried rice than fresh-cooked rice.

I used to think this was a lie my mom used to pawn off old rice on me, but experience and expert opinion agree it's true.
posted by grobstein at 10:03 AM on April 2, 2009

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