Save Money and the Planet: Waste Less Food

I’m excited to share with you Mary King’s first post! Mary and I kept finding each other through shared interest groups and mutual friends. We met for breakfast one morning and now I’m happy to call her my friend! I view the act of sustainability as a personal and social journey to help save and restore the Earth’s most precious resources and help minimize the effects of climate change. Right now, I’m currently working on reducing my family’s food waste. I knew this was one of Mary King’s strengths, so I look forward to learning from this post as much as anyone. Thank you, Mary!

Photo by Anton Atanasov on

Save Money and the Planet: Waste Less Food

By Mary King

As a “Nature-Led Life” reader, you know that the choices we humans make affect the natural world around us. One way to be a Nature-Led food consumer is to use what we take.

We’re all feeling a bit of sticker shock at the grocery checkout counter these days. It’s tempting to buy the cheapest brand of everything, forego organics, and eat whatever canned or packaged goods are on sale. It’s better for your family and the planet to explore ways to get more out of your purchases while actually choosing higher quality.

Carrots in a grocery store By Mary King

Keep in mind as you shop that your price per item may be greater than what the store receipt shows. Shipping, and manufacturing shipping vehicles, will expend fossil fuels and generate waste. Pesticide production and use will pollute water, soil, and air; the abatement will be paid in diseases and in taxes. Lack of product and packaging safety regulations will affect community health, increasing taxes and healthcare costs, as will weak labor standards. Subsidies for conventional agriculture are paid with tax dollars. This is called true cost accounting and while these costs may not be visible, you and future generations are paying them.

Not-so-fun fact: it’s estimated that between 30-40% of food produced in the United States is wasted. That includes spoilage and contamination in shipping and processing, food left unharvested due to labor shortages or overproduction, over-ordering and culling blemished food in retail outlets, and consumers throwing out food. The fossil fuels, labor, packaging, and environmental impact in production are all wasted along with every bit of wasted food, and efforts to mitigate hunger in our country need to be increased. It’s crazy.

Getting your money’s worth out of anything you buy, whether it’s food, clothing, tools or toys, requires summoning your inner pioneer to think creatively and use every bit. Rule number one in frugality is to waste nothing. Maybe that’s a high bar, but a worthy goal. Start your meal planning by shopping your fridge, freezer, pantry, and garden. Try a sheet pan bake of all the odd bits of veg and meat that needs attention.

Saving Meat Fats By Mary King

Get more out of perishables:

  • Learn how to store meat and produce for longest freshness.
  • Eat your cauliflower leaves (use it like cabbage), broccoli stems (peel and slice), squash skin and pumpkin seeds (roast in the oven and season). Greens attached to vegetables, like radishes, beets, carrots, turnips, are usually edible and highly nutritious.
  • Save clean carrot peels, parsley stems, corn cobs and other trimmings in a jar or freezable bag. When it’s full, make a pot of vegetable broth to use in soups and grain cooking.
  • Meat bones, even off the plates at the end of dinner, can be similarly saved to make stock, either alone or with the vegetable scraps.
  • Meat fats rendered in cooking can be strained, poured into a jar, and reused for cooking. Save your olive oil and butter and sauté some vegetables in bacon grease or chicken fat.
  • Fruit peels contain natural pectin, which can be added to juice as it simmers for jelly and strained out or can be used to make scrap vinegar.
  • Limp, sad produce, unless it’s moldy or slimy, is perfectly fine for almost any cooking application. Many vegetables that we serve raw in the United States, like radishes and celery, are just as delicious cooked. Chop and freeze if you can’t use it today, and add to your recipes for a nutrition and fiber boost, or add it to your scraps for broth.
  • Leftover leafy salad? Even if it’s got a light coating of vinaigrette (not coated in mayo-based dressing), it can be chopped and added to soup, your breakfast scramble, tacos, or blended into a dressing or dip.
  • Citrus rinds are very versatile! Never slice an orange, lemon or lime without grating or peeling the zest and saving it in the fridge or freezer or drying it. Grated zest is that something extra in baked goods, dressings and sauces, while a strip of peel is lovely in your tea, a stir fry, cocktail, or candied. Combine grated citrus rind with some pantry staples to make a safe and naturally fragrant abrasive cleaner.
  • If you know your household will only consume part of a bread loaf before it’s stale, freeze half as soon as you bring it home, or embrace old bread as a recipe staple, as does most of Europe. Stale bread is essential for French toast, bread pudding, croutons, bruschetta, panzanella, and gives body to pureed soups. It can also be ground up for crumbs and used to coat fried foods, extend ground meat, or become a gratin on a casserole.
  • You can freeze milk and cheese! You can freeze that half empty container of chicken broth, pesto, tomato sauce, hummus. The freezer should be used to give you a little more time, not as expensive garbage storage. Label what you freeze and keep an inventory taped to the door, with dates, and shop here when you’re cooking.
  • Small amounts of leftover cooked grains can be used in soups, muffins, one-pan dinners, salads. Mix grains! That ¼ cup of rice will play well with the extra quinoa, oatmeal or even pasta.
  • Did your child leave a half-eaten apple or banana on her plate? Chop and add to tomorrow’s oatmeal, breakfast muffins or pancakes.
  • EAT YOUR LEFTOVERS. Incorporate small amounts into new meals, or just set out all the small portions for a smorgasbord of bites. The family member who balks at eating leftovers probably won’t be the wiser if you’ve added some cheese, put it in a pie crust, or blended it in a soup. Bring home and quickly consume your restaurant leftovers, too. They can also be part of creative new dishes.

Saving Herbs By Mary King

Shelf stable products are wasted all too often because of confusion about “best by” dates. Canned and dried foods can be safe and delicious for months or years, as long as they’re properly stored.

Do a food waste audit from time to time. Take notes on what goes into the trash or compost for a week or longer. Fine tune your shopping and cooking according to this information. Maybe you can buy less of those ingredients by purchasing unpackaged (two oranges instead of a bag, or a cup of whole wheat flour from the bulk aisle instead of a five-pound bag) or choose foods you prefer to cook and eat. Don’t forget that you can give away edible food in gifting groups or to friends and neighbors. Opened bag of dog food that your pooch hates? Half a birthday cake from a party? Frozen meat that you know you won’t eat? Someone out there can use these.

Learning to preserve foods is a great way to cut down on food bills, because you can buy on sale or in bulk. It does involve investment in tools and time, and it doesn’t necessarily eliminate waste. You don’t need to be a master home economist to waste less food, and you’ll be helping more than your wallet.

What helps you get the most out of your food budget? How do you avoid food waste in your home or at work? Perhaps you’re involved in wider community action around food waste and hunger reduction efforts. We’d love to hear from you.

Mary King is an alumna of the Washington State University Extension Service’s programs in Sustainable Community Stewardship and Master Gardening. As a crafter, cook, gardener, and homemaker she has practiced frugality, reuse, recycling, and creative upcycling for over half a century.