Food & Drink

Chefs Reveal Secrets for Wasting Less Food and Saving Your Money

Unless you happen to be an old-timey oil baron who casually lights cigars with hundred dollar bills, you don’t waste money for no reason. But that’s exactly what you’re doing when you throw food in the trash. According to the documentary Wasted! produced by Anthony Bourdain, American families spend $1,500 a year on wasted food. We bet you could use that money in more fun ways, like sitting on a beach in Italy thinking about all the sweet cash you saved by not wasting food.

To help fund your next trip to Sardinia, we asked chefs from all over the country about their best ways to reduce food waste for home chefs just like you.

Stop shopping (hungry)

The best way to avoid throwing away food is not to buy it in the first place. It might sound like a zen koan, but it’s actually solid advice!

“Don’t shop hungry, that’s the easiest way to overbuy,” said Top Chef Masters champ and restaurateur Chris Cosentino. “I also recommend going to the store with a plan, whether you’re shopping for two days or for the week, and think about what you’re going to be making over the next few days and how you can extend the use of ingredients.”

Use what you got

If you’re the type of person that has plenty of food in the house but always buys more, culinary director Perry Hoffman of the Healdsburg, California’s market/cafe Healdsburg SHED offered the idea to designate one dinner each week where you "shop" in your own pantry and fridge.

“Good oil and vinegar plus some other pantry basics like mustard, onions, garlic, canned tomatoes, honey, crushed chillies, and bay leaves are generally all that’s needed to turn near-wilting vegetables in the back of the fridge into a delicious meal,” he said.

Denver restaurateur Justin Cucci of Edible Beats advised, “Try not to look at food as an endless supply. Be more mindful of using what you already have.”

Use every part of the chicken

Roasting a chicken is remarkably easy, but most people just strip the meat and chuck the bones. Josh Kulp, the co-chef/co-owner/chicken master of Chicago’s Honey Butter Fried Chicken, had a better idea.

“We use the whole bird [at our restaurant], and you can make use of a whole chicken at home as well. Remove the backbone from a whole chicken and butterfly or spatchcock the bird, sprinkle it with salt and pepper, and then roast at high heat, skin side up, for a quick, crisp, and juicy meal.” But you can get even more from the bird! “Use the backbone to make a stock with some veggies. That stock can become soup, jus, or a base for ramen. We use it as gravy that tops our schmaltz smashed potatoes. [You can] easily render excess chicken skin to get a flavorful component that can be added to lots of dishes.”

Turn leftovers into brand-new meals

Having an abundance of leftovers is great at first, but when people get bored eating the same thing over and over again, resulting in waste. Chef Amos Watts of the Boulder, Colorado steakhouse Corrida said that the key with leftovers is getting creative.

“In my home, throwing away leftovers is the biggest waste of food," he said. "We make sure to plan a meal based around them. Making a plan, following it, and not over-preparing food is big for us.”

For example, he said that if you make a sausage and pepper dish one night, throw the leftovers into pasta a couple days later. Even before you start making dinner on Sunday, think about how you can repurpose that meal later.

We also love this tip from chef Avi Szapiro of New Haven, Connecticut’s ROÌA Restaurant. “If you have leftover vegetables, try a Creative Tortilla night. Scramble eggs, add veggies cooked low and slow, and melt a good cheese on top!” he said.

The freezer is your friend

Whenever I see some overripe fruit sitting in a bowl on my kitchen table, I usually feel like a real dumb dumb that I’ll have to throw stuff away. But there’s a better way! Chef Frank Bonanno, a legendary Denver, Colorado restaurateur and owner of the soon-to-open food hall Milk Market, said, “In my house, the moment one strawberry starts getting fuzz, we rinse and freeze them to make smoothies.”

Create Hospitality founder/chef Lauren Koeppe agreed, saying that “when bananas and strawberries are too soft to eat fresh, they’re still perfect for the blender.” The same goes for if you accidentally cut fruit too early. “If it’s too hard, same thing: throw it in the freezer. You don’t have to toss it,” she noted.

Give your booze an upgrade

Who knew that saving food could also make your home bar a little more interesting? Chef Nathaniel Cayer at the Windy City’s I | O Godfrey did, actually!

“You can use produce and herb scraps to infuse spirits,” he said. “Save extra mint leaves, stems, and leftover citrus pieces, and use them to infuse a bottle of mezcal or tequila with new flavors. Just leave those repurposed food pieces in the bottles for 24-48 hours.”

Got any jalapeños left over from Taco Tuesday? You can throw ‘em in your tequila, too.

Cook like an Iron Chef with a one-pot meal

Alex Guarnaschelli is both an Iron Chef and someone who’s worked on tackling food waste issues with the World Food Programme. So when she recommended “one-pot meals like soups and stews because they reduce the amount of dishes (via energy use) and cleaning,” our ears perked up.

But what about reducing your food waste? “[Those dishes] easily cover more than one meal period, and make great leftovers.” Here are a bunch of super-easy one-pot recipes to get you started!

Keep stock of everything

The most common tip from chefs that we received is to make stock from both meat and veggie scraps. On the meat side of things, chef/cooking class instructor Jarvis Belton of Cozymeal Atlanta recommended that you “toss in leftover protein scraps of chicken or beef (no fat!) into a gallon or two of water. Add cut up veggies for flavor and let simmer on low overnight. The liquid that’s leftover is your stock -- the base of your soup. Strain out the old ingredients, add in new ones like fresh veggies and cooked protein, and there you have it! Your own homemade soup.”

Austin chef Evan LeRoy of the BBQ food truck LeRoy and Lewis said that making a stock for veggies is equally simple. “Take all vegetable scraps -- like stalks, onion skins, carrot peelings, celery leaves, etc. -- and make a stock. Cook them in water for 45 mins to an hour." And while you’re saving yourself money, you’re also making sure someone’s work isn’t going to waste. “Farmers spend so much time creating this food. It might be considered a scrap because it’s not a perfect vegetable [anymore], but everything can be utilized.”

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Lee Breslouer is a freelance writer at Thrillist and an avidly waste-averse person. Follow him @leebreslouer.