Reducing Waste By Using Food On Hand

Americans waste 150,000 tons of food a day—almost one pound per person—according to a study published last April. What’s more, the biggest food wasters aren’t people with poor eating habits. Instead, researchers found that households with healthy diets were the worst offenders because fruits and vegetables are the foods that most often get thrown out.

That waste isn’t just bad for the environment; it’s bad for your food costs as well. We asked Toni Okamoto, founder of the Plant Based on a Budget website and author of the recent cookbook with the same name, how to reduce food waste in a whole-food, plant-based kitchen by using what you have. Here are her top tips so you can cut down on what you throw out—and make the most of the delicious foods that are (already!) in your kitchen.

Toni Okamoto

Keep a list.
“I have a magnetic dry-erase board on my refrigerator where I keep a list of things that need to be eaten first. It helps me know what I have in the fridge and use up the older items sooner than what I’ve just bought. Leftovers also go on the list so that they don’t get pushed to the back and forgotten.”

Add leftovers to “catch-all” recipes.
“Curries and chilis are all easy, inexpensive dishes that can be adapted to what you have on hand. You can throw so many things into them, then the slow cooking allows all the flavors to meld. I’ve come up with some interesting dishes by just making curries and chilis with what I have. … One time, I even threw a banana into a chili with sweet potatoes, quinoa, and cinnamon. I also do a lot of stir-fries and bowls. Bowls are especially easy to build with what you have because you just start with a grain, add beans or tofu, use whatever vegetables you have, then pull it all together with some type of sauce.”

Make broth with vegetable scraps.
“I like to cut up leftover vegetable bits like carrot ends, potato peels, and any weird pieces of produce that might have gotten left in the fridge, put them in a freezer box, and then use them to make a rich, homemade vegetable broth when the box is full. Vegetable broth only takes minutes to prepare in a pressure cooker or Instant Pot, and you can use it all week long in other recipes.”

Have a few basics on hand.
“I always have pantry staples like canned beans and tomatoes that can be used in lots of different ways to quickly make a meal. Condiments are also a big help when throwing together meals. I keep soy sauce, hot sauce, and a salad dressing on hand at all times so I can use them to flavor whatever I’m making.”

Know how to improvise.
“One thing I learned while cooking on a budget and one thing I really want for my readers is to feel comfortable making recipes based on what they have in their pantry. For example, when a recipe calls for kale, you should feel empowered to use whatever greens you have instead of making a special trip to the store for kale. Most greens are interchangeable in recipes. Any color of bell pepper is fine [when bell pepper is called for]. Any member of the onion family—onions, leeks, shallots, et cetera—will work for another. And so on.”

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about the author

Mary Margaret Chappell

When Mary Margaret Chappell first started out in the plant-based food world as a writer, editor, and recipe developer, she was a bacon-loving former pastry chef who didn’t think she could ever cook without butter. Fourteen years, four cookbooks, dozens of cooking classes, and hundreds of recipes later, her favorite thing in the world is sharing the tips, techniques, and recipes that show just how easy and delicious whole-food, plant-based cooking can be. The former food editor of Vegetarian Times magazine has done away with her dependency on butter and is honing her skills at baking with natural sweeteners. 

Mary Margaret lives in France, where plant-based eating can often be a challenge, but the fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes available are simply amazing.

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