How to Make the Most Out of Your Food Scraps

How to get creative with skins, pits, and stems.

Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

There’s something extremely satisfying about finding new life for a food item that you would have otherwise thrown out. And, sometimes, it can even be thrilling. But beyond the excitement of it all, zero waste cooking can help us pivot to more sustainable lifestyles. 

“When food scraps are thrown away, they get tightly packed under piles and piles of garbage, which squeezes all of the oxygen out of landfills,” Lauren Singer, environmentalist and CEO of Package Free, told me. “This causes food to break down anaerobically (aka without the presence of oxygen) and methane is created as a byproduct. Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change in a major way.” 

To help me devise a list of innovative ways to make use of food scraps, I also tapped Barrie Cohen, herbalist and artist. Cohen spent a few years working on organic fruit and vegetable farms before founding Anthemia, a Brooklyn-based fashion line that features fabrics dyed from food sources. She taught me not only how to use food scraps, but also all sorts of fun ways to curb waste. 

Dye fabric with avocado pits

There’s never been a better time to play around with natural dyeing. “There are so many different variables when you’re working with natural dyes that every piece is truly unique,” Cohen says. For this project, I decided to transform one of my white, cotton face masks. According to Cohen, natural fabrics, like cotton or silk, work best with natural dyes.

I collected the skins and pits from the three avocados that I ate this week and scrubbed them with a toothbrush to make sure all of the green meat spots were removed. If you’re looking for a precise color pay-off, Cohen advises a 1:1 ratio. For example, if you’re dying six ounces of fabric, use six ounces of avocado scraps. Use more scraps than fabric to get a darker color, and less scraps than fabric to get a lighter color. 

After simmering my avocado skins and pits in a small pot of water for about an hour, I ended up with a deep maroon dye bath. I let that sit in the pot overnight to cool, strained it the next morning, and then made sure my mask was freshly cleaned and wet before putting it in the dye bath and re-simmering. In order to prevent the dye from fading over time, Cohen says you can simmer the fabric beforehand in a chemical called alum, which can be found at the grocery store.

As the mask was simmering, I moved it around with a tiny pair of tongs, and was delighted to see it take on this beautiful, pale rust color after about an hour. Once it cooled down, I wrung it out and hung it outside in the shade—as the sun will make the color fade quicker—and hand-washed it with a pH neutral soap. According to Cohen, this process is pretty much interchangeable with any other vegetable, and some of her other favorites include onion and pomegranate skins.

Turn potato peels into chips

If you’re working on a potato-heavy recipe, salvage the skin peelings, toss them in olive oil, sea salt—maybe get a little crazy with paprika or rosemary—and roast them in the oven for about 10 minutes. Fun fact: the potato skin has even more nutrients than the interior of the potato. 

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Use citrus peels to make an all-natural cleaner

Natural cleaning products contain fewer allergens and are safer for the environment. By making your own, you can save money and use less packaging. “All you’ll need is water, distilled white vinegar, leftover citrus, and a glass spray bottle,” Singer says. “Fill the bottle with your leftover citrus, cover with vinegar, and let it sit for two weeks. Afterwards, strain the citrus and fill the rest of the bottle (about 50/50 ratio) up with water.”

Simmer vegetable scraps for a homemade broth 

Turn all the vegetable scraps you’ve accumulated throughout the week into a flavorful broth—perfect for soups, stews, and gravy. “Any vegetable scraps—carrot ends, onion skins, all of that—put it in a bag in the freezer and once you collect a good amount, simmer it in water for a few hours,” Cohen says. “I’ll usually add some fresh onions, garlic, and spices. Those scraps are still super nutritious.” Throw in freshly-roasted chicken bones, and you’ve got chicken stock. Store in a jar for up to a week, or freeze into ice cube trays.

Incorporate veggie tops and stalks into recipes 

Chop up carrot greens and add them to any pesto or chimichurri recipe. Don’t throw away cilantro stems after you’ve picked the leaves off—use them to spice up any green juice, or pulverize for a salsa. Broccoli stalks can be pureed for soup.

Grow new fruits and vegetables from old ones 

When food sources became scarce during quarantine, everyone turned to scallion regrowth—including Cohen. “You cut off the tip, put it in water, make sure that you change the water every day to every two days, and it’ll just grow back in a week,” she says. But there are a ton of other vegetables and fruits that you can regrow, like celery, leeks, lettuce, and even pineapple.

To regrow a pineapple, detach the crown, remove the lower leaves, and let it dry for a few days. Place the crown in a jar of water, and wait a few weeks for roots to form, changing the water daily. After about a month, it should be ready to plant in a pot of soil. You’ll want to choose a pot with room to grow, and use a potting mix suitable for succulents. If you wait long enough—we’re talking years—the plant will start to fruit, but in the meantime, you’ll get some beautifully spiky foliage.

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Jessica Sulima is an editorial assistant at Thrillist who's still waiting for her pineapple to grow. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram