Stop Wasting Food: Creative Ways to Use Every Last Bit You Buy

Almost 40 percent of the food supply in this country never gets eaten, due to loss and waste, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (“Loss” refers to things like mold and shrinkage due to desiccation.) More than half of that loss and waste is due to the way we use – or don’t use – the food we buy.

Stop throwing money away! Get the most out of every grocery dollar with two simple tactics:

First, make a plan for what you’ll be eating in the next week (or more) and build a shopping list based on those meals.

Second, learn to make great food from some of the things you might otherwise have thrown out.

Understand: This does not mean eating dangerous food. What it does mean is eating all the food – even parts you might not have considered usable. The following tips will help you get creative about every calorie.

Vegetables and Fruit

The boiling bag: We keep a bag in the freezer for onion skins, peapods, spinach stems, celery ends and leaves, carrot tops, potato peels, apple cores, chicken or meat bones, and other items. Simmered in the slow cooker and then cooled and strained, these items become a great soup stock. Add some diced potato, carrots, and onions (or any other vegetable you like) plus some seasonings and you have a satisfying supper. In the winter we go heavy on the root vegetables and sometimes add some cooked beans, rice, or pasta. Meat is, again, optional because this broth is very tasty – and it’s never the same twice.

Herb stems: Add them to a cruet of olive oil and make an herb-infused condiment. And speaking of condiments….

Broccoli and cauliflower cores, stems, and leaves: Chef and food author Tamar Adler quickly cooks these along with garlic, olive oil, salt, and a little water to make a chunky pesto-like product. It’s delicious on crackers or served hot on pasta – and it keeps you from throwing away one-third or more of these nutritious veggies.

Greens: If you buy beets or turnips with the tops attached, braise the greens with olive oil and garlic for a tasty, nutritious side dish. Or put them in the boiling bag.

Limp carrots: It happens. But while a bendy carrot is no good for a crudité platter, it’s just fine in soup or curry. (Pro tip: Don’t buy the five-pound bag if you can’t finish it up within a reasonable time frame.)

Potato peelings: Scrub the potatoes well before you peel them, then toss the peelings with olive oil and salt (and pepper, if you like), then bake until crisp. People pay good money to buy potato-skin appetizers at restaurants, right? These are healthier because they’re not smothered with cheese. (And if you can get your kids to love them, they’ll never have to know these things are actually good for them.)

Citrus peels. Orange, lemon, or lime zest can be frozen for future cooking and baking. Adler suggests combining a spoonful of zest with half of a chopped garlic clove, a handful of roughly chopped parsley or mint, and a little coarse salt to create a delicious seasoning for chicken or poached eggs. In her book “An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace,” she also reveals a way to make sophisticated sodas on the cheap: Simmer finely sliced citrus peels in a syrup made of one cup sugar and one cup water until thickened, then add seltzer and ice to the cooled mixture.

Grains and Beans

Leftover hot cereal. Got a few spoons (or a lot of them) of oatmeal or Cream of Wheat? Add to pancake or waffle batter to provide extra nutrition and a lovely texture. Or do a search for “recipes leftover oatmeal” and you’ll get an eyeful: Oatmeal smoothies. Oatmeal bread. Oatmeal cake. Fried oatmeal, for heaven’s sake. (Incidentally, you can also just refrigerate leftover cereal and warm it up the next day for breakfast.)

Rice. You made too much. Now what? So glad you asked:

  • Warm it up and serve it with milk for breakfast; pioneer frugalist Amy Dacyczyn used to feed this to her kids. (My grandparents used to eat it for supper when they didn’t feel like cooking.)
  • Turn a small amount of leftover grain into a “rice bowl” by topping it with beans, a fried egg, sautéed vegetables, leftover meat, or whatever you like.
  • Add it to burritos.
  • Look for rice pudding recipes (including savory ones) and you’ll be amazed at how such a simple dish can be so satisfying.
  • A spoon or two of leftover rice makes a bowl of soup heartier.
  • Add it to raw ground beef and seasonings to make “porcupine” meatballs.
  • And of course this grain needs to be at least a day old to make a successful stir-fry. (Here are some more clever ways to use leftover rice.)

Beany bits: A fairly small amount of pinto or black beans left over – not enough for a meal, but you hate to throw them out. So don’t. Instead, freeze them for a future meal, or add them to a canned soup for extra bulk and nutrition, or make them part of one of those rice bowls.

Quinoa: This wonder grain tastes like whatever you cook with it. If a small amount is left, turn it into breakfast with some apples, cinnamon, and milk. Or dump it into canned soup. Or add it to a meatloaf recipe. Or do a search for “quick quinoa recipes.” Just don’t throw it away – this stuff really is good for you.

Lentils: A half-cup of leftover lentils could wind up pushed to the back of the fridge until they turn into a science project. Try this instead: Saute onion and celery (if you have it) plus a small amount of cut-up ham or some other meat (or not, if you’re vegetarian), then stir in the lentils and any herbs/seasonings you like. Crack an egg on top, cover the pan, and cook until the yolk is as firm as you prefer. Enjoy as-is, or top with some of the mustard vinegar mentioned below.

Meats and Fish

Save the pan juices: The chicken or roast left liquid in the pan but you decided against making gravy. Pour the juices into a glass measuring cup or bowl and refrigerate, then remove the fat and freeze the meat drippings to make your next boiling-bag-broth soup more flavorful.

Save the fat, too: Use it to sauté vegetables, or spread it on toast made from good bread. As for bacon fat, it goes without saying: Save it!

Boil those bones: Beef, chicken, or pork bones can go into the boiling bag to add heft and flavor to the broth. Or boil the entire chicken or turkey carcass to make a great soup stock.

Fish broth supreme: The bones (and heads) of mild fish such as cod, flounder, and halibut make a good soup stock; so do shrimp, lobster, and crab shells. Look for recipes online.

Bread Products

Stale bread: If the last few slices of that Italian or French loaf went uneaten, turn them into croutons, stuffing mix, or bread crumbs. Save enough of these slices in the freezer, though, and you can create an easy and hearty Italian delicacy called ribollita, aka “bread soup.” Lots of recipes for that online, and it can be as simple or as elaborate as your available ingredients support.

French bread pizza: Stale bread, a little leftover spaghetti sauce, and a little cheese makes a very cheap, very fast entree that most kids (and a lot of grownups) will love. (To ensure leftover sauce, freeze a half-cup or so before you serve your next pasta dinner.) Play around with toppings; it could be barbecue sauce and a little shredded chicken, or sautéed vegetables, or spicy fruit salsa and grilled chicken with no cheese at all. Lots of recipes out there.

Bread pudding: Not just the dessert kind, either – look for “savory bread pudding” recipes online. If you do stick with dessert puddings, look for variations on the same old eggs-milk-bread dessert. So. Many. Options.

French toast: This extremely simple but surprisingly fancy breakfast treat can also be the underpinning for a “breakfast for dinner” evening. (Hint: Instead of drowning it in syrup, try it with cinnamon sugar or a dab of jam.)

Miscellaneous Tips

Vegetable cooking water: Start a container for the liquid you drain from boiled potatoes or other vegetables. When it’s time to put the boiling bag scraps into the slow cooker, add the contents of the veggie cooking water container. I even include the liquid from commercially canned vegetables; these can be high in sodium, which means I simply adjust how much (if any) salt I add to the resulting soup.

Save sauté oil: Once you’ve fried onions or braised vegetables in olive oil or chicken fat, use a spatula to scrape the oily (and flavorful) result into a container to refrigerate for the next cooking job. Or drizzle that liquid over rice. Or add it to the vegetable cooking water container for a flavor boost.

Same old rind: Don’t toss the rind from Parmesan or other hard cheeses. Cook them with homemade soup, pasta sauces, beans, and other dishes. Look for recipes online.

Bean broth: Cooking dried beans is noticeably cheaper than buying canned ones, so we’ll do a big batch and drain and freeze them (flat, in Ziploc bags) for fast meals. Their broth – rich with olive oil and spices – gets frozen separately, to be added to soup or curry. (Bean broth is also an element of that ribollita.)

Dairy disasters: If the milk smells just a little bit off when you take it out of the fridge, don’t pour it down the drain. Search for “uses for sour milk” and you’ll get everything from “scramble eggs with it” to “make it into a facial.” I’ve used it to make pancakes and waffles and a recipe called “sour milk cake.” You really can’t taste the sourness. Honest. (Pro tip: Forestall souring by using what you need and putting the container right back in the fridge, rather than letting it sit on the breakfast table or counter.)

Condiment gleaning: Don’t throw away that mustard/pickle/whatever jar! You can marinate pork chops in sweet-pickle vinegar, but save the dill brine as well: When the mustard bottle is nearly empty, add leftover pickle brine and shake to create a savory vinegar that’s great with lentils or beans and gives a little extra zing to a homemade soup. (If you add oil, it becomes a mustard vinaigrette.) Once I found a recipe for “dill pickle soup” that used pickle brine; it was actually pretty tasty.

For deviled eggs, add a tiny amount of milk to a nearly empty mustard bottle, shake well and add to the mayo and cooked egg yolks. When a bottle of ranch dressing is all but depleted, add a little milk to the bottle and shake, and make it part of the dressing for potato salad. If you’ve got a nearly empty jam or jelly jar, add milk and shake until the jar is clear, then tell your kids it’s a “milkshake” (or drink it yourself).

Nearly empty catsup bottles or salsa jars can get a splash of water and a hard shake; the result is good poured into chili or soup pots. Yes, this is just a couple of cents’ worth of food, tops, but why waste it? Especially since the results are so potentially tasty?

Garbage soup bag: Not actual garbage! This is for things like that quarter-cup of leftover mashed potatoes, the half-spoon of corn, last ladle of gravy, the shreds of pot roast from the carving board. It all goes into a bag in the freezer; when it’s full, cook it with a container of that boiling-bag broth (or canned stock) plus some seasonings and, if you like, additional vegetables. This potage de garbage is never the same twice, but it’s always good. Float some of those homemade croutons on top and feel not just well-fed, but frugal.

The Bottom Line

Food is the portion of our budget with the most wiggle room. We have to eat – but we can decide how best to use our food dollars.

You worked hard for that money, so make it work for you, grocery-wise.

Readers: How do you make sure you use all the food you buy?

Award-winning journalist and veteran personal finance writer Donna Freedman is the author of “Your Playbook for Tough Times: Living Large on Small Change, for the Short Term or the Long Haul” and “Your Playbook for Tough Times, Vol. 2: Needs AND Wants Edition.” 

More by Donna Freedman:

Donna Freedman
Contributor for The Simple Dollar

Award-winning journalist and veteran personal finance writer Donna Freedman is the author of "Your Playbook for Tough Times: Living Large on Small Change, for the Short Term or the Long Haul" and "Your Playbook for Tough Times, Vol. 2: Needs AND Wants Edition." A former full-time reporter for the Chicago Tribune and Anchorage Daily News and longtime columnist for MSN Money, Freedman has also written for Get Rich Slowly, Money Talks News, and other publications

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