Cook Like a Chef to Reduce Food Waste

by Sherri Brooks Vinton

Published: 9/05/18, Last updated: 5/23/19

Reducing food waste makes sense on so many levels. Environmental, social and cultural issues all play into the need to get the most out of our ingredients. For chefs, however, reducing food waste is also just common sense — they have to make the economics of the restaurant work. Food costs are high and margins are thin. Throwing away food is just bad business. Getting the most out of the products that come into the kitchen means a healthier bottom line. Researchers from World Resources Institute and the UK based Waste and Resources Action Programme revealed that, on average, for every dollar invested in things like training staff to lose less food in production, fourteen or more dollars were saved. While your home kitchen may not realize the economy of scale necessary to show such extreme results, reducing food waste at home will definitely impact your own grocery bill. It is estimated that a family of four spends $1,500 per year on food that they throw away. Here are a few ideas that the pros use, and you can too, to run a more efficient, cost-effective kitchen.

Sourcing With the Seasons

For many cooks, reducing food waste starts far from the kitchen, at the beginning of the food chain. Their relationship with their growers and producers informs the menu. Where previously a chef might write a menu and then order the ingredients for it, they now reach out to their sources to discover what is abundant and available and use that information as inspiration for the dishes they create. The chef not only gets a better price for buying ingredients that are abundant, they discover new products that inspire them and their diners.

You don’t have to be a pro to tap into this habit. Chat up the farmers at your local market for tips on what is at its seasonal peak. The same idea applies at the fish, meat or cheese counter. Keep an open mind and palate and try new items that are in the flush of their availability. You can also join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture program); it’s like a farm membership program that entitles you to a regular share of whatever is coming off of the field, pasture or catch. Shares keep you supplied with fresh, local food, and they regularly include an item or two that are new to most home cooks and will help you expand your edible repertoire.

Community and Collaboration

Eat Nose to Tail

Oftentimes, the least popular cuts can be the secret ingredient behind a revered recipe. For example, Feijoada, the celebrated Brazilian stew, not only uses what we might consider food waste but is made better for it. Pig ears, feet and tails might be something today’s cook would avoid, but without them and the collagen these cuts contain, this traditional meal would lack the hearty depth of flavor and lip-smacking porkiness that is its hallmark. Make your stock from the chicken feet, necks and backs that would normally go to waste for the most collagen-rich broths full of body and flavor. Slip a ham hock or pigs foot into a pot of greens as they simmer for a robust, satisfying dish.

Eat Root to Stem

Sometimes reducing food waste is just a matter of changing your thinking about what should be discarded. Root to stem dishes and restaurants that feature them celebrate the whole of the plant. Dig into such a feast and you might enjoy not only the subterranean part of the carrot but its fronds as well. Heads of broccoli and cauliflower are great but so are the leaves that surround them. Using more of the plant piques kitchen creativity and gives eaters something new to try. Chat up your local farmer to discover crop by-products that you might try and ideas for using up every bite of the food you are buying from them. You can also dig into the growing list of books that are dedicated to whole plant eating.

Enjoy the Entire Life Span of Ingredients

Chefs are genius at transforming ingredients that are in different phases of their lifespan into delicacies to be savored. In their hands, day-old bread doesn’t hit the bin, it becomes bread crumbs or even pasta. An old rooster might not sound like the start of a dinner worth savoring, but as renowned chef Dan Barber explains, “Take something like coq au vin, originally made from a rooster that tastes like wood unless it’s cooked down for hours in oxidized wine. You’ll notice they don’t call it “waste chicken” — instead they turned it into a coveted dish.” A modern cook might sub in boneless skinless chicken breast in the dish but they would be doing themselves a disservice. Coq au vin doesn’t just do a good job of using up a bird that needs a long, slow braise to tenderize the meat of an old rooster, it capitalizes on the gamey flavor that only a bird so long in the tooth can provide. Before you toss out something because it is old, stale or wilted, give it a second thought. Old wine can become vinegar. Many vegetables will revive in a bath of cold water. Fruit that is starting to shrivel is still smoothie-worthy. Turn slightly sad herbs into sauce. Even stale tortilla chips can find new life.

Stock Up

The sheer volume of food scraps produced in a professional kitchen is incentivizing to some cooks. Just to see the size of the pile of items such as carrot peels and onion skins that result from even a single evening’s prep can spur a chef into action. Not wanting to add that amount of organic matter to the waste stream or calculating the cost per pound of those items can push a cook toward a creative solution. Give your kitchen the chance to inspire you in the same way by accumulating your scraps. The peels of a couple of salad-bound carrots may not be enough to work with, but a week’s worth might beg for a higher purpose than the trash bin. Many scraps can be frozen until you reach critical mass. Collect bones from roasts in a resealable bag to make stock. An empty milk carton can be a catch-all for a variety of vegetable scraps to turn into stock or as repositories for single items, such as asparagus stems or parmesan rinds that will be used at a later date when you have enough to add flavor to your dish.

Proper Food Storage

Storing food properly is a key aspect of efficiency that is of paramount importance in a professional kitchen but is often ignored at home. Just a few tweaks to your food storage routine can keep food fresher, longer, and make sure that it is seen so it is used and rotated in a timely manner.

Storing Dry Goods

The key to keeping dry goods fresh is, you guessed it, to keep them dry. You want to seal the containers they come in properly or transfer the contents to a sealable container to keep moisture out, and pests, too. No more half-crumpled bags of snacks, flour sacks or bags of coffee. Use clips — clothespins work great — or tape to seal bags and boxes shut. Transfer staple items such as flours, coffee, pasta and crackers in containers with tight-fitting lids that have a permanent place in your pantry line-up.

Label Everything in Your Refrigerator and Pantry

Want to drive a chef crazy? Put an unlabeled, poorly labeled or even a container with a label slightly askew in the walk-in. Everything that goes into that sacred space must be easily identifiable in an instant. The system most commonly employed is easy to replicate at home. Just keep a roll of painter’s tape handy and use it to jot down the name of the ingredient and the date that it was opened, cooked or purchased before you pop it in the fridge or freezer. Poof, no more mystery dates with dinner. Want to take it one step further? You can color coordinate your labels to indicate different categories, such as “protein,” “side,” “dessert” or “stock.”

Save Food by Covering It Up

Food spoils faster when it is left uncovered. It dries and oxidizes, which makes it less appealing to eat. It can also pick up pests or pathogens that will make it inedible. There are a number of ways to keep your food covered without creating a lot of disposable waste. My favorite is to simply slide a plate or saucer over a bowl of leftovers or use a bowl to cover, like a cloche, anything on a plate.

FIFO and Organizing Your Refrigerator and Pantry

“FIFO” is the acronym that everyone learns about in food safety classes, the required training that every professional food handler has to master to work in the business. It means “First In, First Out,” and it’s a reminder to use up older food before tackling more recently purchased or cooked items. It’s an easy, common sense concept to consider, but sometimes it takes a beat to put it into practice. How often, for instance, do we come home from the market and throw the purchases in the crisper drawer on top of what is already there? That would be a perfect time to use the FIFO system, by simply pulling out the contents of the crisper and putting it on top of the new items, to make sure that you are rotating your produce. Same thing with a new carton of milk. Make sure it goes behind the old one, not in front of it, so that it gets used up before a new container is opened.

Be Delicate With Delicate Produce

You also want to layer your produce so that you aren’t crushing tender greens and herbs. Keep them in a separate drawer or in their own resealable container within your crisper drawer so their delicate leaves don’t get bruised.

Avoid Food Contamination

One of the cardinal rules of professional food storage is that raw meat is always the lowest ingredient on the storage totem pole. It goes on the bottom shelf in the walk-in and you should treat it the same way in your shopping and storage habits. Raw meat is at the bottom of your cart and your shopping bag (or, even better, in its own bag). It’s stored on the bottom shelf of your fridge or freezer where any drips or leaks won’t spread pathogens to foods below them and can be seen and cleaned right away.

Buy What You Need

It can be really tempting to buy huge containers or amounts of food to get the better price. But if you aren’t going to eat it, you aren’t saving money by buying it. Even if you love mayonnaise, you probably won’t make it through the commercial half gallon container before it goes off. Restaurants, too, have begun to reconsider their old vending strategies that relied on minimum order volumes, often requiring chefs to order no less than cases of produce at a time. Local purveyors, who allow more flexible ordering and smaller shipping quantities are becoming more attractive.

Donate Extra Food

Food recovery programs, such as New York’s City Harvest, pick up wholesome but uneaten food and redistribute it to the needy. Restaurants, particularly those who prepare large quantities of dishes for catered events, often use such programs to prevent leftover food from becoming waste. You can do the same. If you are throwing a large party, school or work function you can reach out to local soup kitchens and homeless shelters to see if they work with a food recovery program or if you can drop off the food yourself. Even on a small scale, if you find yourself with a too-big-batch of dinner, perhaps deliver some extra portions to a neighbor who could use a break from cooking.

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