Waste Not, Want Not: Stop Throwing Away Your Food!

By Andrea Karim on 29 October 2010 (Updated 20 October 2011) 31 comments
Photo: sleepyneko

Americans waste a lot of food. Every year, we throw away approximately 30 million tons of food. Don't worry (or do!), we're not alone; apparently those goody-goody Swedes throw away roughly a quarter of the food that they buy. Sure, we might be composting like crazy these days, but still, when you think about it, throwing away that much food is still a waste of money. (See also: 10 Ways to Cut Waste When Feeding Kids)

My grandmother, who spent a better part of her childhood in Nazi prison camps, instilled in her children a strong conviction that wasting food was downright sinful. I've never gotten over that lesson, so I live in a rather paranoid world where refusing to take home your leftovers from a night of Chinese food is almost on par with punching a kitten: It's just not done. I have become rather adept at using up leftovers. The food that I find myself wasting these days turns out to be stuff that I never previously thought of as food, per se.

This past summer, I was meandering through a local farmers market when I came across a stall manned by a Hmong farmer and his wife. On display he had dozens of different vegetables that I had never seen before. Something I was rather surprised to see included was the leftover greenery from the harvest of summer squash. I asked the gentleman who was bagging up my purchase about the squash stems and leaves. Having recently had a terrible experience with undercooked taro leaves, I was leery of anything new and exciting, and the greenery of most gourds is covered in tiny thorns that scratch the skin — not exactly something that I was eager to ingest.

Seeing my apprehension, the farmer laughed and said, "These are scratchy, but not if you cook them for loooong time, like we do." Intrigued, I looked up recipes for squash leaves online later that day, and found that squash greens are used in laksa, a noodle soup common in Southeast Asia. I had happily eaten squash blossoms before, but never the greens.

Intrigued, I started thinking about other greens from our gardens and refrigerators that we throw away once the harvest is over.

Carrot Greens

Carrot tops can be boiled for soup stock, along with things like celery and fennel bottoms, fennel fronds, woody herb stems, and the rinds of hard cheese, bones, and apple cores. You still end up throwing away the leftover bits, but at least you're getting all the flavor out first. If you're feeling more adventurous, you can use carrot greens in a way akin to parsley.

Cauliflower Leaves

These are often removed from a head of cauliflower before you buy, but if they are still attached, you can cook them with the cauliflower. They're just like cabbage.

Broccoli and Cauliflower Stems

This might seem like a no-brainer, but lots of people discard the stems from broccoli and cauliflower. Just thinly slice the stems and cook with the rest of your veggies. Stems contain fiber and nutrients, too.

Radish Greens

The tops of a bunch of red radishes or daikon are a spicy treat. Because they are often sandy, I triple wash mine before cooking.

Pea Greens

Anyone from China can tell you that dou miao are a delicacy. Sauteed with garlic and sesame oil, pea greens are healthy and delicious.

Watermelon Rinds

You probably already know that you can pickle watermelon rind, but you can also simply cook with it — it acts very much like the Chinese winter melon that is so popular in soups. Watermelonrind.com has a big list of rind recipes that you can print out (staring at that web site might cause severe eye strain). Try to ignore all of the brand name recommendations; you can use any brand of cumin that you want when making watermelon rind curry.

Potato Skins

I'm honestly baffled by anyone who would peel a potato and not eat the skin; the flavor and texture of potato skins is my favorite part of a French fry. But if you're a mashed potato purist, keep the clean potato skins to the side and fry them up as a crunchy topping for meats or salads.

Squash Seeds

Also big in China, salted watermelon and pumpkin seeds are a delicious snack. Although many roasted pumpkin seed recipes call for an oven temp of 325°F, you can also cook the seeds at 250°F over a longer period. Try seasoning with kosher salt and spicy Indian masalas, like Kitchen King, before roasting.

Garlic and Onion Tops and Flowers

You'd have to be living under a rock not to know how useful garlic scapes are in cooking. While it's true that most grocery stores carry only the bulbs, if you grow your own garlic and onions or buy yours from a local farmer's market, you can take advantage of the whole plant.

Banana Peels

Yes, you can eat banana peels. If chopped finely, they add a distinct (if unfamiliar) flavor to savory dishes, including this Indian curry dish, and this recipe, which combines banana peels with black eyed peas. One enterprising chef and writer even made banana peel cakes. Banana peels can also be used, like many fruit peels, to create homemade vinegar.

Coffee and Coffee Grounds

Used coffee grounds are great in the garden as slug deterrent, but leftover coffee is also a meat tenderizer. Leftover coffee grounds can also be used in recipes that call for a lot of chocolate, like cake or homemade truffles.

Tomato Greens

Gardeners are often loath to part with the fragrant tomato greens. I've always been told to avoid tomato greens due to toxic chemicals contained therein. Well, it turns out that their toxic reputation* may not be so deserved, because tomato greens are in use at Chez Panisse and other establishments, and have been since 1987 (see page 2 for citation).

* While no conclusive data has shown tomato greens to be particularly toxic, you should exercise restraint when eating any plant that you haven't previously consumed. Tomatine, the toxin that exists in tomato vines and green tomatoes, both of which are technically edible, is dangerous in large doses. So don't go eating a pound of tomato vines.

Animal Parts

Most of us don't deal in whole hunks of animals, but who hasn't stared down a sack of giblets at Thanksgiving and wondered why turkey hearts were so unappetizing? I'm not fond of kidneys, myself, but I have a newfound appreciation for deep-fried gizzards. Liver and marrow make meat and tomato sauces more rich, thick, and satisfying.

Are there fruit and vegetable parts that you have found a use for? How about unusual cuts of meat?

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Guest's picture
Trish

We feed our dogs raw, so they get the strange cuts of meat and gizzards.

Guest's picture
Lisa

Hooray for raw fed doggies!! (We feed our 8 yr old Aussie raw too!)

Guest's picture
cmdweb

My parents and grandparents lived through the second World War and here in Scotland, making your food stretch became a way of life, as it did in many countries even for decades after the war. I had instilled in me a view that food should never be wasted as others would be glad of just some of the food we waste.
I firmly believe that people have forgotten how to store food, while processed foods and ready meals mean that there's a whole generation coming through that are not familiar with the basics of food and food usage.
I particularly liked the last paragraph on offal. As a Scot, I'm very partial to a good haggis. I'll let those who are not familiar with it find out for themselves what's in it.

Guest's picture
Beth

Ooooh, I'll have to try these ideas! Always love your tips, Andrea :) I love cauliflower and brocolli stems -- didn't know you could also cook the leaves!

I keep all those "throw away" parts of vegetables like the tops from beans, celery bottoms, etc. in the freezer and throw them in the pot when making soup stalk.

Andrea Karim's picture

Thanks, Beth!

You know, soup stock is a funny topic - I remember when I first started writing for WiseBread, some writers would mention soup stock as something that everyone should make and keep at home, and I thought that they were crazy - seemed like a lot of work, and after all, stock isn't THAT expensive.

But then I started making it, and I found that it was just really handy to have around. I freeze it in big batches, and it's amazing how often I'll be stumped on how to cook something, and I'll remember my frozen stock, and I can get my braising on. ;)

Guest's picture
Guest

Depending on the fruit or veggie, you might want to be very sure that you're eating an organic food before you eat the peels. While many supermarket melons are coated in food-safe waxes, much large-scale commercial produce is sprayed heavily either during growth or for storage / shipping. Removing the peel removes (some) toxins. Better yet, buy organic or local.

Guest's picture
stannius

Most of the food thrown away is by stores, restaurants, etc. - not directly by consumers.

That said, this was an interesting article. I actually started buying radishes just so I could make http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/Radish-Top-Soup/

Andrea Karim's picture

Oh, that's a good point - I hadn't thought about how much of it is from restaurants. Thanks for the recipe link - that looks amazingly tasty.

Guest's picture
Melyssa

See. My hubby (and now my son) never eat the brocolli stems. Even if I cut them really short. Now I know they're missing out.

And I never peel my potatoes.

I hate throwing away food.

Alameda County in California uses a separate bin on garbage day where people can throw away thier food. Then it gets recycled into compost. I wish more areas did this.

Thanks for the post!

Andrea Karim's picture

We have the same thing in the Seattle area - our yard waste bins are composted, so we can use them for food waste and paper products, as well. It's satisfying, and my garbage is almost never even close to full anymore.

I really enjoy broccoli stems, but then, I really love broccoli. I just slice the stems really thinly, coat the whole thing with olive oil, salt, and Indian spices, roast on high heat until everything is really crispy, and then toss with bacon. The bacon, of course, seals the deal.

Guest's picture

How about shredding the broccoli stems with a bit of shredded carrot and making a coleslaw?

Guest's picture

Here's the easiest way to stop throwing away so much food. Reduce your portions and buy less. I really think that individuals are now eating as much for themselves that will feed the whole family. Over the last year, I was able to cut my grocery bill in half for my family of five by simple portion control. I lost 60 lbs. as a nice side benefit!

Guest's picture
FedUpWithTooMuch

I agree Moneysaurus. What fed my family of 7 when I was younger seems to be only feeding three of us now. Did you find problems with trying to limit your husband's food portion? This is where I find the most trouble.

Guest's picture
Lisa

Our bunnies and chickens eat most of the leftover veggies, rice, grains, etc. Everything else except meat gets composted.

Guest's picture
Guest

Good article! Folks just be very careful NOT to eat rhubarb leaves. Very poisonous!

Andrea Karim's picture

That's a good point. I never thought of eating them, myself, but I do love eating beet greens (chard), which I totally forgot to mention in the post.

Guest's picture
J.

Don't eat nightshade greens. There is enough waste you can eliminate without making yourself sick.

Several of your other recommendations are also toxic unless cooked *very* thoroughly (e.g. pea greens).

Also, banana peels are sprayed with very toxic pesticides because they are not meant to be eaten. So only experiment with organic banana peels. Even those are full of insect larvae, but I guess if that doesn't bother you...

Andrea Karim's picture

Actually, no, pea greens are not toxic.

http://gardening.about.com/od/vegetables/qt/Pea-Shoots-Tendrils.htm

are not recommended for human consumption, but regular pea greens are edible with minimal cooking. I've had them countless times, only lightly sauteed with a bit of garlic, and they are cooked for maybe 3 or 4 minutes, tops.

I've recently tried tomato leaves, and haven't found them to have any ill effects, but I suppose it's possible that they have a cumulative effect. However, they are being served in restaurants, as I mentioned. The toxin that is contained in tomato vines is also present in green tomatoes, and I eat those regularly with no ill effects. I don't suggest eating pounds of cooked tomato vines, but my guess is that the leaves can be added, in small amounts, to dishes without any detriment to one's health.

As to banana peels - well, organic is always healthier. This is true for apples and strawberries as well. I'm actually not sure how toxic the peels are, in terms of pesticide application. I'd be interesting to know, if someone cares to cite a source.

Guest's picture
Bev

Love your ideas! Try turning those broccoli stems into a slaw by shredding with some carrots & onion a little red cabbage, mayo, vinegar & dash of milk + salt and loads of pepper. Better when it chills for a day. Great with pulled pork, roast beef or fish.

Guest's picture
kay

I really like these ideas. I also use onion skins to cook up in a broth that I use when I make my Thanksgiving gravy. It makes the gravy a nice brown color (and adds good flavor.) I got this idea when I saw that onion skins can be used as a natural brown dye.
Also, I always peel the broccoli stems and add them to my broccoli. They are my daughter's favorite part of the broccoli. I saw Alton Brown do a show on broccoli and he said they were his favorite part too.
My Grandpa used to use the celery leaves in his potato salad and other things. He thought the leaves were the best part of the celery.
And, even if you don't want to eat the giblets from your Thanksgiving turkey yourself, remember you can cook them up to make a nice treat for your cat or dog.

Guest's picture
Guest

I have a big tub in my freezer that I save all of my trimmings from vegetables as well as chicken carcass. When it's full, I add it all to a big pot of water and make stock. It works wonderfully, has so much flavor and best of all, it's free, considering I would have just normally thrown all of that stuff out. I also have another tub where I keep all edible leftover bits of meat, vegetables or grains. When that's full, I'll make a big batch or soup dubbed "leftover stew". It's a great way to use up those little bits that most of us don't save because it's not enough to really do anything with.

Pea greens are also wonderful on a sandwich instead of lettuce and if you peel the broccoli and cauliflower stems, they're just as tender and flavorful as the florets.

Guest's picture
Guest

FYI, radish tops/greens make a really delicious substitution for basil in pesto....

Andrea Karim's picture

Great tip, thanks!

Guest's picture
Seaseal

Love these tips. For Broccoli and Cauliflower stems, these are wonderful grated into broc-cauly slaw to mix into salads. I use a food processor grate blade.

For Squash seeds, I saute in sesame oil, then put a splash of Bragg's Amino Acids and cover quickly to steam for a moment. Delicious, delicious--and healthy too.

Then, of course, i compost every scrap and uneaten leftover. My trees, shrubs, and plants--indoor and outdoor--benefit from not wasting this *food* for them.

Guest's picture
Guest

Do you peel the stalks?

Guest's picture
Guest

Great ideas - I'll try them. I have tried carrot tops as garnish, but prefer to use carrot tops and onion skins to dye wool yarn. The carrot tops provide a lovely bright yellow, and the onion skins yield rust or gold depending how much you use and how long you simmer.

Andrea Karim's picture

That's so innovative! I'm not a knitter or crochet-er, and I've certainly never attempted to make yarn. I had no idea that you could use carrot tops, or onion skins, that way.

Guest's picture

Love the way you write and the content of this article. I tend to compost all the bits of veggies that I don't include in meals, but there does seem to be a lingering bit of guilt that makes me think we should eat our food. Having said that, composting is always nicer than the landfill. It is very cool that you can have a separate container for food waste in Seattle, Alameda and other pockets.

Thanks for the ideas

Guest's picture
Alex

Broccoli stems can also be peeled and eaten raw. Once the thick, leathery skin is off, the heart is refreshing and delicious, more crisp than cucumber with a hint of broccoliness.

I found this article because I just ate some sauteed young squash leaves today, and they were quite tasty. I think some squash leaves are tastier than others: this was Lare Pumpkin, a rare African squash I got from Richters.com.

Andrea Karim's picture

I really wish I had the room to grow squash so that I could try this. I was visiting my hometown recently, where the yards are much larger than in urban Seattle, and I kept seeing plots of squash with DOZENS of squash flowers. I was so jealous! Squash flowers are a delicacy that cost more than $0.50/piece at our local farmers markets!

Guest's picture
Dawn

Beets. Love the whole thing. Bake the beet like a potato. Cook the delicious greens, and I use the the stems like celery. Raw, the greens are bitter. But I love them so no biggy for me.

Salmon skin: I love it. After my fiance fillets them, I put a skin or two in the microwave for a few minutes. It turns out crispy and poofy like a pork rind. Oh man I love them!!!!
I eat weird stuff. People always ask of I'm deficient. How every, I recently realized how awful carbs are for me. I cut them out and lost weight super quick. I think I ate crazy stuff to balance out my carb addiction.
I did eat banana peals. I can eat shrimp shells. Bones. I love gristle and cartilage. I LOVE the crawfish shell on the tail. Not the tail fan. I eat the meat and shell together. I like clover flowers. I have also harvested cicadas during season and roasted them. Cow tongue. Not your average United States native, I guess.