The Second Life of Food

This morning, I was doing a bit of advance planning for our dinner this evening. It’s Friday, which is traditionally homemade pizza night at our house, but tonight we were intending to use some left-over beef stew and transform it into a beef pot pie using a pie crust and some corn starch for thickening.

As I dug around in the cupboards and refrigerator to make sure we had everything on hand, I came across a few scary outdated items in the back of the refrigerator. They looked scary. They smelled scary. And, sadly, they headed right to the trash can.

One of the most disappointing things at our house is food that’s gone bad. It finds its way to the back of the refrigerator or cupboard and, eventually, gets too old to use. I look at such things with disappointment, as it’s good food simply going to waste.

Throwing away food – just like throwing away anything else – is a waste of resources. Our money and/our our time was invested in acquiring and preparing that food and simply throwing it away means that your time, money, and energy went to nothing. That’s a conclusion that doesn’t make anyone happy.

Of course, much like anything else, food can sometimes be recycled to a spectacular second use. Before you decide to toss out the food, give it a serious second look and ask yourself if the trash can is the best ultimate destination for it.

Quite often, the food really is bad and needs to be discarded. If something is moldy, I don’t mess with it (well, excepting certain kinds of cheeses, of course – blue cheese is all about the mold). If something has a smell that indicates that it’s gone wrong, I’ll just toss it. If it’s opened and past the date, I’ll almost always toss it immediately.

Sometimes, though, food that I’ll pass on in its current form has value if it’s used in another context. Here are some examples.

Stale bread If you have stale bread that’s gone dry and hard, get out the grater and grate it into bread crumbs, then save those crumbs in a jar. After all, this is exactly what bread crumbs are. Bread crumbs make a fantastic breading for fish, chicken, and vegetables, helping to seal in the moisture and flavor while making a crunchy outer shell.

Old fruits As long as they’re not genuinely rotting, most over-ripe fruits can easily be turned into an excellent bread. One great example of this is banana bread, which just requires a loaf pan, a spoon, some over-ripe bananas, a bit of butter, sugar, an egg, vanilla, baking soda, and flour. Just mix them in a bowl with a spoon until it’s consistent and put it in a loaf pan. You can make something very similar with many overripe fruits – I’ve made strawberry bread, pineapple bread, and zucchini bread and all were good (we just tend to eat a lot of bananas, so banana bread is a regular thing).

Old vegetables I save these in a small box in the freezer. When I have a full box, I’ll use the vegetables to make a vegetable soup. I’ll just put all the vegetables into the crock pot, add water until it’s got about half an inch of liquid over the top of the vegetables, and then season the whole thing like crazy. It makes for a pretty good – and pretty healthy – meal.

Another old vegetable and fruit tactic Add them to a compost bin. If you don’t have one, ask around, particularly among your gardening-oriented friends. It’s far better to return the leftover materials to the earth than to put them in the trash and watch them head to a landfill. You can use coffee grounds and eggshells in a similar fashion.

Here’s the real message: don’t look at old food as something to immediately be thrown out. Sometimes, it’s a resource that can be used in future meals. It’s far less wasteful to approach things in this fashion, which means that you’re not only conserving your own resources, time, and money, but you’re also sparing the earth.

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  1. brad says:

    though the real message is: you’ll be more upset the one time you save something that HAS gone bad (and suffer the impending gastrointestinal consequences) than the ten times you play it safe and decide to compost the three leftover strawberries.

  2. leslie says:

    is there a point where bananas are too bad to use in banana bread? Because I have thrown out bananas that I thought were even past the bread-making point but I wasn’t sure if I was just being overly paranoid about it.

  3. Holly says:

    @leslie: My grandmother always told me that they were fine until they turned to soup (gross). I have seen some seriously black and squishy bananas, but they’re always eaten before losing all ability to hold a shape.

    As for compost, I can’t grow things to save my life, but I’m adept at decomposition. =) I just have a passive heap (read: pile) out back, and let gardeners know where it is and how to help themselves to it. (So sometimes, zucchini appears on my doorstep in the middle of the night.)

  4. Ruth says:

    I’d like to nominate “The Second Life of Food” as Scariest Title Ever Seen in blogland.

  5. Russ says:

    Friday is Pizza night… The kids will be disappointed..Make the pot pie Saturday..

  6. Bavaria says:

    When the fruit looks a little bruised and a little too ripe, make a smoothie. Blend the fruit, crushed ice, honey, etc… so good!

  7. Courtney says:

    We like to feed the birds in winter but it gets pretty expensive since birdseed isn’t cheap. We save all our uneaten odds and ends – breadcrusts, pizza crusts, half-eaten muffins, little bits of pasta, etc. – in ziploc bags in the freezer and then feed it to the birds in the winter.

  8. karyn says:

    That’s one benefit of raising chickens. I always have food on the floor after meals (we have three little ones) but at least the chickens eat well and produce yummy eggs.

  9. Another Dave says:

    I’m with Bavaria… Smoothies have become a healthy evening snack for me. Yogurt, and whatever bruised, over-ripe fruit is in the house, and frozen fruit to fill it out, juice or milk for liquid. It’s def not rotten fruit but stuff past the point the rest of my family will eat it.

  10. Chris says:

    Trent, in much the same way you have your soup box in your freezer, I have a smoothie bag. (plus, keeping soup-stock and smoothie ingredients in your freezer is a great way to keep it full and save energy!)

    Browning bananas get peeled and plopped in a ziploc bag in the freezer. Peaches or mangoes going soft? Same deal. Also berries that are looking a little smooshy: into the smoothie bag.

    The BEST part of this strategy is that you won’t have to use ice in your smoothie at all– the frozen fruit does the trick, adding texture, temp, and flavor!!

    p.s. a splash of vodka in that icy fruit drink is awesome!!

  11. Stephan F- says:

    But this is the best way to feel smart twice. Once when you put it in the frig, you feel smart because you are saving food. When you throw it away you feel smart again because you’re saving your life.:)

  12. Christopher says:

    If it’s a fruit or vegetable and it’s truly beyond eating, give it a second life in your compost bin.

  13. Britt Landon says:

    Easy way to track your leftovers: attach a small white board to your fridge, list leftover(s) and date(s) they entered the fridge. You’ll use them up much more efficiently!

  14. Refrigerator organization is the key to eliminating waste.

    I mean c’mon, some of us out there act as if our fridges are some deep dark cavern where stuff can actually get lost.

    Keep stuff organized—keep leftovers in the FRONT–and you’ll be reminded daily to use them.

  15. deRuiter says:

    Chickens are the best way to get rid of small bits of food which you usually KNOW are going to get ignored, so feed the odds and ends to the chickens instead of storing the food to give it time to spoil. If food’s questionable, into the compost heap it goes. Chickens LOVE human food, and they reward you with beautiful eggs for cooking and manure for the vegetable garden. You’re also cutting down on the demand for battery eggs, by having chickens in a decent pen where they can socialize, move around, have a good quality of life. Chickens enjoy the outler leaves of lettuce, broccoli, limp parsley, carrot peelings, carrot greens, as well as dried bread, cake, crackers. They need their regular laying mash, but if you feed the leftovers, you enrich the chickens diet further and they will eat less mash. Free range eggs will have bright orange yolks which stand up high over the pan into which you’ve cracked the eggs, and thick, viscous whites. You’ll never want one of those pale yellow egg yolks again!

  16. Peggy says:

    We have a special leftover shelf in our fridge. If someone doesn’t like what Mom’s made for a meal, they are welcome to anything on the leftover shelf. Twice a week we have meals made entirely of leftovers. Pick what you like and eat it. Between those strategies, I rarely have to trash food anymore.

  17. Shevaun says:

    I agree with David #14… I’ll admit that sometimes my fridge gets messy (especially when I’m trying to clean up in a hurry because guests are over), but usually, I have one shelf for beverages (milk, juice, coffee creamer, a bottle of white wine), one shelf for fruits and veggies, one shelf for lunch meat, eggs, and chesse, a drawer for bread stuff, and the bottom shelf for raw meat or things that I otherwise don’t want to drip on other stuff accidentally. Condiments go in the door, and leftovers usually are put in the front of the lunchmeat shelf (since I consider leftover dinner “lunch”). Like David says, by being organized, you don’t buy things you already have.

    On another note, buying in bulk usually is a great way to save money, but I’ve found with some rarely-used ingredients, buying small saves money because it prevents rot-and-toss.

  18. Kandace says:

    Once bananas get a little too brown and spotty for me to eat, I put them whole, unpeeled in the freezer. The outside will get dark brown and will not be appealing. When I have four or five of them, I pull them out and make banana bread. Let them thaw first. The interiors will be mushy and dark, but make great banana bread!

  19. kat says:

    an older lady i knew had a Friday tradition-she served “mustgo stew” (everything in the frig must go) she would cut up any leftover meat, start a stock, add a few potatos, and then throw in the leftovers to reheat. It was ususally quite delicious.

  20. Pat says:

    #14, 16, 17 have the right idea. It is all about organization. I also keep my leftovers front and center (on the shelf next to the milk). Since moving them there instead of the bottom shelf where most people keep them I always use up my leftovers. They become lunch the next day (and the day after if needed).

  21. Claudia says:

    #19-I had to laugh, my mother always made home made soup out of whatever leftovers were in the frig. It was disgusting! But then, my mother was a terrible cook. (Sorry Mom) I’m sure it is a good idea if it’s done right.
    I too keep a bag in the freezer with celery, carrots, etc that are still good, but too soft for eating raw and bananas for bread making and save stale bread for bread crumbs. The rest gets composted which does make one feel that it’s not totally going to waste.
    Most of my leftovers go into individual serving containers, so they can be easily nuked or brought to work.

  22. Sandy says:

    I’m the same way when something is not salvagable and must go to the trash. Organization is definately the key! One thing that we do in our home is to have numerous srving size Rubbermaid containers. After a soup meal, for example, I either freeze a bunch to make a dinner in a few weeks when time is short, OR make several individual servings that my husband can take to work in the next day or so. If those aren’t eaten in the next day or so, they join the freezer items. We also do the leftover smorgasbord….everything comes out and is served buffet style. Often it’s a Saturday lunch, and we’re all coming and going from our activities, it’s easy to heat something up, and we’re not tempted to do a fast food thing (bad for health, budget and environment). The refrigerator is then emptied out for the next wave of leftover options!
    Bananas go immediately into the freezer for us once they hit that brown level that none of us will touch. The day that I know I’ll be baking, I get out 6-8 frozen ones in the morning and let them thaw out (in a pan of some sort so they don’t stain my counter!). I make 2-3 loaves of banana bread, eat one and freeze the others for later..good for a quick breakfast.

  23. AnnJo says:

    Stale bread is the basic ingredient in stuffing, which is a good side dish even when it’s not Thanksgiving, and a great way to use up the last two limp celery stalks, the last few dried out mushrooms, the sausage heel, the cracked egg you’re scared to use for an omelet (just make sure you cook your stuffing to 165 degrees internal temp), etc.

    Stale bread also makes great croutons, french toast, bread pudding, crumb topping for casseroles, italian-style bread soups, and cheese strata. I’ll use it sometimes in place of pie crust for a quiche, if the solid filling is heavy enough to hold it down (otherwise it’ll float to the surface, which actually is OK too, but a different dish).

    Past-its-prime fruit (not rotten, but too soft to be enjoyed fresh) can be peeled and chopped, cooked with a little sweetener and cinnamon and used as a topping for ice cream, yogurt, tapioca or rice puddings.

    A lot of left-over veggies make great blended “cream-of” soups with the addition of some rich homemade stock, milk and/or cream and/or sour cream and/or a little left-over mashed potato for thickener. Our favorites include celery, zucchini, winter squash, carrot, parsnip, broccoli, spinach.

    Left-over veggies are so often the wrong quantity – too much to throw away but not enough to make full servings out of. This method extends what you have and still serves everyone. Personally, if I’m using left-over veggies in a soup, I prefer it blended. The texture of twice-cooked vegetables isn’t that appealing, but blended, all the flavor is there and the soup seems heartier. Love my 25-year old immersion blender!

    Love cooking, too! You can probably tell.

  24. Sharon L says:

    I freeze those peeled old bananas and bring them out to make banana bread for Christmas gifts. They are really sweet and strongly banana flavored, and make the best bread!

  25. Wendy says:

    Being frugal, I’ve always saved plastic containers (yogurt, cream cheese) and leftovers go into them. Sometimes they don’t get labelled and then we forget what’s in them. I have recently gone to glass containers with plastic lids. Now I can SEE what’s in them and nothing is forgotten. It was worth the cost of the containers.

  26. Arthi says:

    Thanks for mentioning the banana bread.

    Now I can use up the two ripe bananas that I had frozen.

    By the way, I’ve realised that the sunk cost fallacy forces me to take bad food decisions.

    Since I prefer not to waste food, and since my husband would not touch left overs with a ten foot pole, I end up eating all the left overs, and gaining weight.

    Other times, I drink juice that’s in the fridge for more than 5 days, just because I do not want to waste it. This could cause some serious food poisoning.

    Now I throw away any food that might be past its prime (We do not compost, nor know of anyone nearby who does.)

    But if it is safe for consumption, I try to use it in some recipe and thus not waste it.

  27. Georgia says:

    A neighbor taught me to use pint and quart glass jars for leftover. She said plastic containers can get pushed to the back, and since you cannot see the contents, they get spoiled. Also, she had teenagers and they would have to open each carton to see what was in it. This often caused messes if they were in a hurry. So, with the glass, you can see the contents even in the back of the fridge and the kids don’t have to open it to see what’s there. Was a great idea.

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