Waste not want not: Useful tips for curbing food waste and keeping your food fresher

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen

Earth Day arrives in April, bringing with it a crunchy, granola version of New Year's resolutions. We'll all swear to recycle more and use less plastic, but by June we'll have lost most of our new canvas totes and given up on reusable straws. They're so hard to clean. 

For my part, I just signed up for a composting service so I could write about it in this column. Just kidding. It's because of Nashville's spotty reputation for waste pickup and the city's only once-monthly recycling pickup. Practically speaking, we simply need less trash to manage. 

Curbing waste doesn't have to be something you do to be pious. It's hard to feel like you're making difference when the world is so vast. Your individual impact can feel like a drop in the ocean. But it can serve a practical purpose, too.

The composting service will cost me nearly $40 per month. For that, I'll have more room in the garbage can and receive compost for my garden. Have you seen the price of bagged dirt lately? 

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It's also important for me to divert some of my food from the landfill. While you're reading, I might do a little food waste proselytizing. 

Compost helps your garden grow.

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, food waste in the U.S. represents about 30-40% of the food supply, which means more than a third of the food grown in the country is destined for a landfill. That's a tremendous amount of energy, water and labor to grow food that never gets eaten.

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That trashed food also doesn't go away once it hits the landfill. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, food is the single largest source of landfill trash, representing about 24% of what we're tossing out. When food decomposes, it releases a lot of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. 

So what can you do? Small changes can add up to a lifestyle shift, and before you know it, you too will be signing up for compost services online and saving chicken bones in the freezer like a hoarder. Yes, I do that. You should too. Have you seen the cost of chicken stock lately?

Shop to reduce food waste

Buy only what you need. This sounds like a no-brainer, but it's easier said than done. "Include quantities on your shopping list, noting how many meals you’ll make with each item to avoid overbuying," EPA pros advise. "For example, “salad greens: enough for two lunches."

Think about portion sizes and how much you'll need to feed the people in your household. I usually plan about 6 ounces of protein per adult portion, although the American Heart Association recommends about half that per serving. I'm no doctor. If I end up with leftover steak or chicken, it makes for a nice salad the next day.

Buy frozen or dried. Only buy as much meat and as many fresh vegetables as you know you can reasonably consume within a 3-5 day period. Beyond that, plan a meal based on frozen vegetables, meat and/or dried pulses such as beans and grains. 

Know how to store your food

These tips come courtesy of the EPA.

  • Most vegetables, especially leafy greens, carrots, broccoli and anything else that usually gets misted in the produce aisle should go in the high humidity drawer of the fridge.
  • Most fruits, as well as vegetables that don't need extra moisture, including peppers and mushrooms, should go in the low humidity drawer.
  • Bananas, apples, pears, stone fruits and avocados release ethylene gas as they ripen, making other nearby produce ripen quicker. Try to keep them separate. 
  • Do not wash delicate produce — raspberries, cherries, strawberries, etc. — until you're ready to eat them. Waterlogged berries equal mold. 
  • Think of what might go in a root cellar — potatoes, winter squash, onions, garlic. Those and similar items should be stored in a cool, dry, dark, and well-ventilated place.
  • The refrigerator door is the warmest part of the fridge. You can store condiments there, but not milk or eggs.
  • The lower shelves are the coldest part of the fridge. Store meat, poultry and fish here.
  • Freeze food such as bread, sliced fruit, meat or leftovers you know won’t be eaten in time. Label with the contents and the date.

Repurpose your scraps

Make stock. Save vegetable peels to make vegetable stock. Chicken stock is easily made from vegetable scraps and the bones from a rotisserie chicken.

Use all the parts. Carrot stems make great pesto. Stale bread can be made into bread crumbs or croutons. 

Think before you toss. Not everything tastes good past its prime, of course. But soft apples are perfect roasted or boiled and pureed into sauce. Wilted carrots roast up nicely or taste perfect in carrot soup. Cut the brown parts from potatoes and make soup from that, too. Imperfect vegetables are perfect for soup.

Try this recipe for baked potato soup. You can use your scrap stock, your blemished potatoes, your wilted carrots and the leftover bacon lurking in the back of your fridge in one fell swoop.

Serve this soup with an array of toppings, such as scallions, bacon and cheese.

Baked potato soup 

Serves: Makes 2 generous quarts

Total Time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

2 tablespoons canola oil

1 onion, chopped

1 carrot, chopped

2 stalks celery, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

4 cups homemade chicken stock or low-fat, reduced-sodium chicken broth

3 cups 2 percent milk

4 russet potatoes, peeled and cubed (about 1 3/4 pounds)

1 cup grated extra-sharp cheddar cheese (about 12 ounces)

Optional garnishes could include:

Chopped scallions

Bacon bits

Sour cream

Hot sauce

Instructions

In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion, carrot and celery, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables begin to soften, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, 45 to 60 seconds.

Sprinkle the flour over the vegetables and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Gradually whisk in the stock, then add the milk. Add the potatoes, increase the heat to high and bring the soup to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes.

Add the cheese, a little at a time, stirring until melted and smooth after each addition. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Purée the soup with an immersion blender. Leave it coarse for a more rustic soup, or purée it until smooth for a more elegant result. To serve, ladle the soup into warmed bowls. Serve with the toppings on the side.

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.

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Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com