Spring is the season of new growth – of green shoots pushing themselves up out of the earth and into the world, beginning their journeys toward our plates. Many won’t make it, of course. Environment and Climate Change Canada estimates that 20 per cent (11 million tonnes) of all the food produced in Canada annually bypasses our tables and winds up as landfill or compost. Second Harvest, the country’s largest food-rescue organization, puts that number at 58 per cent. So while stats vary, it’s clear much of our food goes uneaten.
In recent years, though, we’ve become more aware of what we toss instead of eat, as the COVID-19 era added financial stresses, made it more difficult to run to the grocery store and sporadically affected distribution channels. Skyrocketing grocery prices, an increased desire to be self-sufficient and a deeper understanding of the environmental impact of raising, growing, processing, transporting – and, yes, discarding food – has helped drive a collective shift toward using what we have. We’re digging deep into our freezers, upcycling stale bread and using the ends of bags of pasta instead of rushing to restock.
Past generations were more habituated to use what they had, with access to fewer ingredients in smaller quantities. That was before big box stores encouraged purchasing large quantities of everything to stash away in our chest freezers and walk-in pantries. As consumers, we have become accustomed to the luxury of choice, the option to choose between multiple brands and varieties, and make our selections from abundant displays of dry goods and produce.
Food writer Tamar Adler, who idealized kitchen scraps and leftovers in An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace and the just-released The Everlasting Meal Cookbook: Leftovers A-Z, recently wrote in The Washington Post that we “need to collectively replace a preoccupation with ‘food waste’ – which does not sound edible, never mind delicious – with a passion for food use.” I could not agree more.
The truth is, time often improves flavour. For as long as food has been foraged, hunted and harvested, we’ve made efforts to extend its life by curing, jamming, pickling, culturing and fermenting, transforming ingredients such as milk, meat, grains and produce into new foods and beverages that barely resemble their younger selves. Dishes around the world were created to make use of wrinkly veggies, sour milk and scraps of the previous night’s meal. Good banana bread, for example, requires bananas well past the point at which most of us would consider them edible. Fried rice ideally begins with cold leftover grains, which are less likely to clump together than a freshly steamed batch.
As with so many things in life, the first step to reducing food waste is paying attention – to what we have, and what can be done with it before it’s too late. Here are some tips to extend the useful life of your food and prevent it from reaching the tipping point that takes it from edible to compostable.
Seven zero-waste tips in the kitchen
Extend the life of fragile greens such as spinach and fresh herbs by tucking a paper towel into the bag or plastic bin to absorb excess moisture. A bunch of wilting lettuce or kale can be revived by slicing off the ends of the head or stems and standing them upright in a glass of water. Tender herbs such as basil, cilantro, parsley and mint can be whizzed or ground (with a mortar and pestle) in any quantity and combination into all kinds of fresh green sauces, from chermoula (a North African condiment made with parsley, cilantro, citrus, garlic and spices) to zhoug (a similar sauce with origins in Yemen). Make sure you use the stems, too.
Virtually any fresh or cooked food item can be frozen. However, the texture may change. A high moisture content is good (dry items are more susceptible to freezer burn), and foods that have already broken down during the cooking process, such as soups and stews, will retain their texture better. The formation of ice crystals damages the cell structure of fresh foods, so produce will be softer, and will often collapse and release juices as it thaws. Still, frozen berries and other fruit can be added to batters, pies and crisps (don’t thaw them first, unless a recipe specifies), and frozen veggies are perfect for any cooked dish, in which they will soften anyway. And yes, you can refreeze food, as long of how much time an item, particularly meat, has spent in its thawed state.
Store-bought frozen produce is just as nutritious as fresh – and sometimes superior, as produce is harvested at its peak and flash-frozen, so it doesn’t degrade in transit and storage. Unless you’re diligent, there’s usually some waste when you buy a bunch of spinach or a tub of delicate berries, but an entire bag of the same food frozen typically gets used.
Remember that best-before dates are generated by food manufacturers, who are more focused on freshness than food safety. According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the date indicates the durable life period, or the anticipated amount of time that an unopened product, stored properly, will retain its freshness, flavour, nutritional value and other qualities claimed by the manufacturer. Products with a lifespan of 90 days or less that are packaged in-store, such as fresh meat, are not required to be labelled with a best-before date. Most do anyway, or note which day it was packaged on, allowing the consumer to use their discretion.
Get the most from your dairy products. With a limited lifespan, they’re often tossed before they’re finished, but milk, buttermilk, yogurt and sour cream can generally be used interchangeably in pancakes and baked goods. Thicker products, such as ultrathick Greek yogurt, may need to be thinned with water (or milk if you have some on hand) to achieve the texture you’re after. And yes, they can be frozen. Dairy tends to separate in the freezer, which can look unappealing, but it’s perfectly fine whizzed into smoothies or stirred into batters and doughs.
A black-box challenge can be a fun way to develop meal-planning skills. Get into the habit of looking in the fridge and pantry to see what’s there, and coming up with ways to use what you have, versus finding a recipe (or asking what everyone’s in the mood for) and sourcing ingredients. It’s an ideal way to get kids involved with planning meals.
Breathe new life into stale bread. Loaves often end their lives drying out in the breadbox or piling up in the freezer. Ladle soup or a saucy curry over toast or days-old bread to soften slices, and eat with a spoon. And get into the habit of grinding crusts into crumbs (use a food processor or chop them with a knife) to toast in a skillet with oil or butter (and garlic, if you like) to add flavour and crunch to salads, soups, pastas and eggs. So many dishes benefit from a little buttery toast topper, and they’re easier on the teeth than croutons.
Author and cook Julie Van Rosendaal shares some tips you can tart using today to extend the life of your food and save money on groceries.
Three zero-waste recipes to try
Make these go-to biscuits to use up dairy that’s shy of going sour
This has become my make-from-memory biscuit. It’s an excellent way to use any kind of dairy, including nut and oat milks. If you’re using thicker yogurt or sour cream, thin it with some water or milk to the consistency of buttermilk. Make cheese biscuits by adding a big handful of grated cheese (something flavourful, such as aged cheddar or Gouda) to the dry ingredients before adding the milk or cream, or flavour the dough with grated citrus zest by rubbing some in with the butter. Prefer something sweeter? Add 1/4 cup sugar to the dry ingredients, and feel free to add a handful of berries, chopped fruit, nuts or chocolate. The quantity of dairy you’ll need will vary depending on its texture.
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 tbsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp fine salt
- 1/3-1/2 cup butter or other fat, such as shortening or cold drippings saved from roasted meat
- 3/4-1 cup milk, buttermilk, cream or thinned yogurt or sour cream
- Coarse sugar, such as turbinado, for sprinkling (optional)
Preheat the oven to 425 F. In a large bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder and salt.
Using a small paring knife, slice the butter into the flour mixture; cut it into chunks or grate it (mark off the point you want to grate it to with a knife) on the coarse side of a box grater. Rub it into the flour with your fingers, blend it with a fork or just toss it with the flour if you grated it in. Toss in a handful of berries (keep them frozen, if they already are), grated cheese, chocolate or other additions, if you like. Add the milk, cream or thinned yogurt or sour cream – you’ll only need 3/4 cup of milk, but a cup if it’s a thicker dairy product – and stir just until the dough comes together. (If the mixture seems too dry, add a few tablespoons of milk or cream.)
Gather up the dough and either pat it about an inch thick on a parchment-lined sheet or, for extra flakiness, pat it out half an inch thick and fold it over itself in thirds, as if you were folding a letter, before patting it out. I like to make a circle or square, then cut it into wedges or squares, which avoids leaving scraps. Pull the pieces apart to give them space on the sheet, brush the tops with a bit of milk or cream, sprinkle with coarse sugar if using, and bake for 15 minutes, until deep golden. Makes six biscuits.
Empty the fridge with this all-in fried rice recipe
There are so many dishes that rely on technique versus a recipe, so break the habit and try not to rely on precise measurements of specific ingredients. Instead, learn to use what fridge remnants you have, in quantities dictated by the number of people you want to feed. Fried rice is a great place to start. It’s best made with leftover rice because cold grains are less inclined to clump together.
- Vegetable or sesame oil (or any other kind of fat), for cooking
- Cold cooked rice (long, medium or short grain)
- Leftover cooked meat (chicken, pork, beef, shrimp, plant-based ground)
- Vegetables (raw or cooked leftovers)
- Frozen peas (optional)
- An egg or two, lightly beaten with a fork
- Soy sauce, to taste
- Green onions, thinly sliced
Set a wok or large skillet over high heat and add a drizzle of oil. (I like using a mix of vegetable oil and sesame oil, for flavour.) If you have any veggies (or raw shrimp) that need to cook, sauté them first, just until tender, then transfer them to a bowl or plate and add more oil to the pan.
Put as much rice as you’d like into the pan and cook, stirring and breaking up any clumps, until it’s coated with oil. Add chopped cooked meat, vegetables and peas, and stir to heat everything through.
Push the rice mixture over to one side of the wok or pan, add a bit more oil to the empty side if it seems dry, and pour in the egg. Cook, stirring to scramble it, and then stir it into the remaining ingredients just as the egg appears set, but still slightly wet. Season everything with soy sauce, and add almost all the green onions, keeping a few to scatter on top. Once everything is well combined and heated through, and starting to get crispy on the edges, divide into shallow bowls and top with extra green onion. Serves as many as you like.
Don’t let wilted veg go to waste with a green and easy soup
Just about anything can be turned into soup, but fragile greens are perfect candidates, whether they’re fresh, wilted or frozen. Use any combination of leafy greens – they all go together well – and toss in some asparagus, broccoli or frozen peas if you like. This soup is delicious with a spoonful of green curry paste, but it is also excellent plain, or flavoured with any herbs you happen to have around.
- Vegetable oil and/or butter, for cooking
- 1 medium onion or a small bunch of green onions, finely chopped
- Salt, to taste
- 1 garlic clove, crushed
- 1-2 tbsp Thai green curry paste (optional)
- 1 medium thin-skinned potato, finely chopped
- A few big handfuls of spinach or other spring greens (kale, chard, lettuce)
- A small handful of bright green herbs, such as mint, basil or cilantro (optional)
- 4 cups (1 litre) vegetable or chicken stock
- A long pour of coconut milk or cream (optional)
- Yogurt, coconut milk or crème fraîche, for drizzling (optional)
- Pea shoots or other microgreens or toasted breadcrumbs, for garnish
Set a large saucepan or Dutch oven over medium-high heat and add a drizzle of oil (and a lump of butter, if you like). Sauté the onion for about five minutes, sprinkling with salt, until it’s soft. Add the garlic and cook for another minute, then add the curry paste, potato, greens, herbs and stock. Bring to a simmer and cook for about 10 minutes, until everything is soft.
Add about half a can of coconut milk if you like, then turn off the heat and purée the soup right in the pot with a hand-held immersion blender. Serve warm, drizzled with some yogurt or coconut milk, and topped with a few tiny green leafy things. Serves four.