Zero Waste Cooking For Dummies
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If you’re like most people, you waste your fair share of food. And you may think that food waste is an inevitable part of modern life. In Zero Waste Cooking For Dummies, you learn how to use every last bit of what’s in your fridge, freezer, and cupboard to make delicious meals, save money, and do your part for the environment.

Keep this handy Cheat Sheet as a reference for the basics of cutting down on food waste. It includes food staples to keep around for quick meals, how to organize your pantry, how to make a zero-waste grocery list, make the most of leftovers, and how to store cold foods to avoid unnecessary waste.

Keeping food staples handy for quick meals that waste less

Food staples are common ingredients used for cooking and baking. Some will be shelf-stable, while others may need to be refrigerated (like dairy and eggs) or kept in the freezer (frozen vegetables and fruit).

Everyone’s cooking style and cultural preferences are different; this is just a guide to get you thinking about what food items your household routinely uses to make some go-to favorite dishes.

  • Oil: A neutral oil (such as soybean or canola) for baking, and an olive or avocado oil for cooking and salad dressings
  • Vinegar: At least two vinegars (such as apple cider and balsamic) for salad dressings and marinades
  • Canned foods: Tuna, salmon, chicken, tomato puree, diced tomatoes, an assortment of canned beans, corn, and other vegetables, canned fruit, and stock (some of these come in boxes or pouches also)
  • Grains: Pasta and other noodles, rice, farro, barley, quinoa, bread crumbs or panko, cereal, and oats
  • Spices and herbs: Garlic powder, onion powder, chili powder, curry powder, cumin, paprika, red pepper, black pepper, cinnamon, basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, and Herbs de Provence
  • Basic condiments: Mustard, ketchup, pickles, olives, capers, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, salsa, and hot sauce
  • Frozen items: Frozen peas and legumes, vegetables, shrimp, fish, chicken breasts, fruits, bread dough, and precooked grains
  • Butter, vegetable oil spreads, and nut butters
  • Baking products: Flour, white sugar, brown sugar, honey, baking powder, baking soda, salt, vanilla extract (and other extracts if desired), dried fruit, nuts, chocolate chips
  • Bread products: Sandwich bread, whole grain bread, sourdough bread, buns, bagels, English muffins, wraps, tortillas, crackers
  • Dairy foods: Milk, yogurt or sour cream, cheese, cream cheese
  • Meat: Choose cuts that you’ll either cook or freeze
  • Eggs
  • Potatoes and onions, garlic (can use fresh cloves or minced garlic in jar)

Organizing your pantry for less food waste

Organizing and rotating food on your pantry shelves creates less stress when you’re looking for an ingredient and makes it easier to take inventory for your shopping list. Check out these tips:

  • As you purchase and put away canned, boxed, and jarred foods after grocery shopping, use a “first in, first out” system. Put items you bought most recently to the back and older items up front so they get used first.
  • Keep a running list of what you have on hand, so you won’t buy more of it until you use what’s on the shelf.
  • Keep things in categories — for instance, all rice, grain, and pasta in one area; all canned tomato products in another; all canned beans, vegetables, and so on.
  • When you take inventory, donate any unopened items you don’t think you’ll use in the next 6 to 12 months to a local food pantry.
  • Mark cans and boxes with either the date you bought the item or the best-by date, so it’s easy to spot at-a-glance.

Best-by and use-before dates indicate the best flavor and quality is by that date, not safety. Canned food is still safe to consume for months, or even years, after that date. Most boxed items such as rice or pasta are safe for months afterward too, although items like cereal or crackers could go stale.


Putting your money and food to good use with a zero-waste grocery list

Having an organized shopping list can help you save money and reduce food waste. Consider creating a reusable list that you can customize however you prefer. Here are a few options to consider:

  • You could divide your list into food categories (meat/poultry/fish, grains, bread, fruit/vegetables, dairy, condiments).
  • You could divide the list according to the sections of your kitchen (pantry staples, frozen goods, refrigerated items).
  • You could organize it according to sections of the stores you shop in (produce section, dry goods, fresh and frozen meats, bread aisle).
  • You could break your shopping list into the items you get more routinely at local, smaller grocers or markets, and then other items that you’ll specifically go to a big box store for.

You can also use a smartphone app like Anylist or Our Groceries to stay organized and keep an ongoing list as you use up staple food items.

When you’re ready to create your grocery list, follow these helpful steps:

  • Check out what items you already have in your pantry, refrigerator, and freezer. Think of ways to use those foods first, and avoid buying more of the same!
  • Then consider the week’s schedule to determine how many meals you’ll actually be home to cook.
  • Make note of the ingredients and food items you need to make the recipes or meals you’ve planned for the week, incorporating in-season and sale items, when possible, from the stores where you routinely shop.
  • Check fliers, website ads, and store apps for bulk buys that make sense and allow you to use fewer single-serving items.

Making the most of leftovers

My guess is that some people in your household love leftovers, and some don’t. The secret to getting everyone to love leftover night is to create something completely new with the cooked leftover ingredients. Sure, you can just reheat and eat the leftovers, but here are a few more creative ideas:

  • Create a chopped salad with whatever lettuce or greens and extra veggies you have. Top with any leftover cooked protein (you can also use canned tuna, canned beans, or a sliced hard-boiled egg).
  • Stuff your leftovers into a pita pocket or wrap.
  • Make fresh rice to serve leftover chili over, melting a sprinkling of cheese on top.
  • Add eggs to leftover sautéed sliced veggies. You can scramble them in or fold the leftovers into an omelet.
  • Cook pasta and then top with leftover cooked meat and veggies.
  • Bake a potato and add leftover chili, pulled pork, or cooked veggies to it. Garnish with cheese and sour cream if desired.
  • Make any leftover more fun by making nachos! Create a base of tortilla chips, then top with leftover chili, beans, shredded rotisserie chicken, pulled pork, or roasted vegetables. Sprinkle with shredded cheese, then bake in a 350-degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes, or until cheese melts. Serve with a side of salsa or guacamole or sour cream — whatever you have to use, you have nothing to lose!
  • Create a “power bowl” by adding each person’s leftover ingredients of choice onto a single-serving bowl of rice, then add extra canned beans, shredded cheese, sour cream, or some hot sauce to it— reheat and eat.

Storing cold food items properly to avoid unnecessary waste

Proper food storage is key to a zero waste kitchen.

Using your appliances properly and having a variety of containers on hand helps preserve both the safety and quality of food and ensures less waste. Reducing food waste with proper storage practices helps you save money and is one way to divert wasted food from landfills.

Here are some fridge-specific ideas to try:

  • Keep your unit set at the right temperature. Most refrigerators should be set between 38 and 40 degrees (and freezers at 0). Check your owner’s manual for your appliance’s preferred settings.
  • The top refrigerator shelf and doors are the warmest. Store items that are cooked or don’t require cooking (pickles, jams and jellies, beverages, leftovers) on the top shelf and condiments, beverages, or juice on the doors.
  • The middle shelf is the second coolest area. Store eggs, cheese, yogurt, and other dairy products on the middle or bottom shelf.
  • The bottom shelf in your refrigerator is coldest. Store milk, raw meats, and fish here.
  • Don’t pack your produce drawers. Keep them only about two-thirds full for best results. Use the crisper drawers to separate fruits and vegetables based on humidly tolerance.

High-humidity drawer:

  • Endive, leafy greens (lettuce, spinach, collards, arugula, and watercress)
  • Broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage
  • Carrots, celery, cucumbers, asparagus, peppers, zucchini, and eggplant
  • Berries, cherries, and watermelon

Low-humidity drawer: Avocados, figs, kiwifruit, honeydew, cantaloupe, mango, grapes, papaya, and stone fruit

Apples (and pears) release a large amount of a natural ripening gas called ethylene, so store them separately from any other fresh fruit or vegetable. You can keep them in a separate bowl on your counter or on an upper or middle shelf in your fridge.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Rosanne Rust is an internationally recognized nutrition expert, registered dietitian, and author with a passion for balanced eating and reducing waste. Grounded in science, she has focused on helping people set realistic health and dietary goals over her 30-year career. She provides freelance nutrition communications work in the food and agriculture spaces and blogs at Chew the Facts.® Find her on social media @chewthefacts or

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