Weeknight Cooking

My Week of Waste-Free Cooking (& How You Can Do It, Too)

February 24, 2016

Last summer, I went to work for an urban farm in Portland, Oregon. I’d wake at six to harvest Easter Egg radishes and bike home in the sherbet-pink sunset, too damn tired to care that I was wearing my helmet over my sunhat. Everything was beautiful and hard and I was always hungry.

Balancing my Olympian-athlete-in-training appetite with a tiny budget wasn’t easy and so I had to learn not to waste a thing. The bitter leaves of turnips tasted sweeter scrambled with ripe figs; oft-discarded zucchini blossoms were heaven stuffed with a vegetable pilaf and served on my favorite plate.

Later that year, I learned about Imperfect Produce, a Bay Area-based CSA that rescues “cosmetically challenged” cuties from farms and sells them for a fraction of the supermarket cost. This creative response to massive food waste reinvigorated my desire to eat cleaner. Not “clean” as in green juice—“clean” as in minimal waste.

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My idea for “closed-loop” cooking (C.L.C.) grew organically from these experiences. I wanted to winnow the distance between my values and my actions. I wanted to eat in a way that nourished my body and the earth. And I wanted a good reason to not have to take out the trash.

With that in mind, I decided to try to spend one week generating as little food waste as possible, by truly considering what gets wasted at each juncture in the route from farm to fork.

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“Another tip- when I peel and veggies or chop off their tops (i.e.. radishes, carrots, broccoli stalks) I feel them to my dog as a snack instead of a treat. He loves his veggies!”
— Emily
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I didn’t find uses for everything: the skin of onions and ginger roots, egg shells, and acorn squash stems all went untouched. But I did get to spin a thousand lives out of a single beet and discover the perfect pizza combination. Commonplace produce no longer felt so conventional when approached through the lens of closed-loop cooking.

Give it a whirl. Let me know what you come up with. Some if it will work. Some if it won’t. What matters, really, is that you try, trust, and enjoy the process. Scroll down for my day-by-day plan or read my tips for beginning your own week (or more) of waste-light cooking.

The following three steps helped me to get into the spirit of things.

Step 1: Take a Tour of Your Trash

Inspired by several dumpster-diving friends, I checked out the contents of my kitchen trash. Eek. The recycling bin was littered with plastic containers from organic spinach and my landfill carton was proof positive that I eat way too many cheese puffs. Colorful as my compost was, there were enough kale ribs and broccoli stalks to whip up a mean green stew.

I made note of what I was throwing away—both the kinds of products and the types of packaging—and researched relevant recipes and reusable alternatives.

Step 2: Assemble a "Trash-Light" Toolkit

Creating a "trash-light" toolkit—a set of essential reusable objects—helps streamline shopping and reduce waste, and it gives you a reason to invest in a cute reusable tote.

My daily toolkit works for both grabbing groceries to cook at home and eating out with a friend. I tossed my produce into a cloth pouch rather than a plastic bag and used Weck glass jars for shopping the bulk section and storing leftovers (be sure to “tare”—zero out—your reusable jar before loading up on goodies).

Step 3: Shop Small

Armed with my trash-light toolkit and a list of seasonal produce, I decided to shop the bulk section and vegetable bins at my local co-op a couple times throughout the week so that I wouldn’t lose a perfectly good rutabaga root to the gloomy depths of the vegetable crisper. I had worried before my C.L.C. experiment that going full-on locavore would strain my budget; I discovered instead that gravitating toward the bulk bins and farmers market was an easy way to save money. Packaged and processed stuff eats away at more of my budget than I’d realized.

It isn’t always possible for many of us to shop small, local, and seasonal, particularly during the winter. If you can’t afford organic*, if the farmers market near you is shuttered until summer, don’t worry one bit. The beauty of closed-loop cooking is that buzz words aren't as important as the process. If all you have at your disposal is an armful of conventionally grown vegetables, cook them. Closed-loop cooking is about truly working with what you have.

* A quick note on "organic": A lot of the times, many small farmers follow organic practices but can’t afford the certification. Next time you’re at the farmers market, ask “How was this grown?” rather than “Is this organic?”

What was on my list for a week of C.L.C.?

I live in California. Finding green this time of year is pretty easy. But I’m from the East Coast, so I know the simultaneous beauty and burden of root vegetables. And so, in solidarity with my roots, I bought the sort of produce you could find homegrown most anywhere in the U.S. during the winter:

  • 1 red cabbage
  • 2 bunches kale
  • 2 acorn squash
  • 1 red onion
  • 1 bunch beets
  • 2 parsnips
  • 3 yellow onions
  • 4 rainbow carrots
  • 4 potatoes
  • 2 sweet potatoes
  • 2 pieces ginger
  • 2 bunches broccoli

I also stocked up on the basics —garlic, olive oil, rice, flour, eggs—and a little bit of chocolate. Always good to reward yourself for trying new things.

Day by Day

I actually didn’t make a meal plan in preparation for my week. It was most helpful for me to see what was leftover at the end of a meal and go from there. I did, however, take care to follow a few guiding principles: embrace uncertainty, be playful, and picture the process.

Day 1

Starting on a Sunday meant that I had a whole day to take time experimenting in the kitchen. As I surveyed my loot, I remembered a parsnip cake a farmer friend of mine had made one winter when our CSA was turning out nothing but parsnips. Her inventive approach inspired me to make a parsnip polenta cake spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg. In the spirit of no waste, I stirred shredded parsnip peelings into the batter. Once baked, the softened skins infused the moist polenta cake with a sweet earthiness and pale pink color.

The pursuit of beautiful food likewise gave life to a bright beet bowl. Most of the time, I eat the beet bulb and compost the greens. Driven by a desire to work with what I had, however, I chopped the beet right through to the spindly root and conserved the discarded greens to sauté with kale, garlic, and onion. I roasted the beets with the remainder of this morning’s parsnips and mixed it all into an almond-flecked rice.

Feeling adventurous that night, I set out to use the beet and kale ribs I had leftover from lunch. Ribs can be rough, so I threw the couple I had left into a food processor just for kicks. It’s when you say why not? that closed loop cooking really gets fun. Without relevant recipes and rulebooks to guide you, you have full license to get creative in the kitchen, to truly be curious. I wouldn’t have discovered the perfect filling for empanadas if I hadn't asked myself what would happen if I stir-fried kale ribs and beet stalks with shiitake mushrooms, red onion, and minced garlic. And what happened was good.

Day 2

Still satiated from last night’s empanadas, I made myself a beet-carrot-ginger juice for Day 2’s breakfast. I set the beet and carrot peelings aside for dinner that night before heading out to work with my leftover beet bowl in tow.

For dinner, I made an "immunity soup" for warding off the winter blues. The beauty of soup is that you can throw most anything into a pot of boiling water and, with a little salt and an open mind, it’ll work out. I used water as stock and tossed in some beet and carrot peelings, sautéed kale, minced ginger, garlic, shiitake mushrooms, and roasted sweet potato chunks before letting my kitchen sink stew simmer for a couple hours. And I didn’t peel a single vegetable because we’re closed-loop cooking and that means we can be lazy.

When I told my friend Alison, she suggested that next time I make my own stock next time using the vegetable odds and ends from the week before. Our conversation was an important reminder to always ask around. Closed-loop cooking is nothing new. Grandmas with victory gardens and seasoned chefs with fancy kitchens have been doing this for ages. Use this challenge, then, as an opportunity to connect with a friend or to call up your grandma. It’s pretty likely that someone you love will have a cool idea for working with what you have.

Day 3

Day 3 of closed-loop cooking was dedicated to simple pleasures: an easy red cabbage, onion, and potato scramble for breakfast, leftover veggie empanadas for lunch. The kind of meals that remind you that closed-loop cooking doesn’t need to be a mental workout.

By dinner, however, I was excited to experiment—that, and my broccoli was yellowing. Whenever I can’t figure out what to do with a part of the plant, I think Well, what would be pretty? It was this not-so-enlightened line of thought that inspired me to turn the summer-grass green stalks from broccoli into pesto. After a quick Google search, I luckily learned that this idea was nothing new. My favorite recipe was a tweak on Alice Water’s rocket pesto from The Art of Simple Food.

As the fettuccine cooked, I prepped the No-Knead Bread dough for tomorrow’s breakfast and felt, fleetingly, like someone who is actually together enough to plan ahead.

Day 4

In theory, I made my own bread to reduce waste from packaging. In truth, I made my own bread because it is delicious. And cheap. My two favorite things! Thich Nhat Hanh wrote that the “bread in your hand is the body of the cosmos.” When I woke up early that morning to serve myself a slice of just-baked bread smeared with broccoli stem pesto and topped with rainbow carrots, I felt like I understood. For lunch, I had leftover soup with a dollop of pesto and a hearty slice of bread.

When I had friends over to make pizza that night, we discovered that a generous layer of leftover broccoli stalk pesto was the perfect base for tangles of caramelized onions and roasted parsnip and sweet potato.

Day 5

By Day 5, closed-loop cooking felt like second nature. I always had leftovers on hand for breakfast or lunch, and cooking dinner was getting easier and easier. I kept things simple with a slice of last night’s pizza for breakfast and a chopped kale salad for lunch.

Dinner was devoted to using up everything that was going to go bad soon. I hollowed out an acorn squash and roasted both the squash and its seeds in the oven. As the squash roasted, I sautéed beet greens, beet ribs, rainbow carrots, and broccoli florets to make a stuffing for the squash. Served with shredded red cabbage, the stuffed squash was (almost) too pretty to eat.

Day 6

One of my favorite recipes to make is a loaf of Winter Squash Bread adapted from Jimmy Williams’ Seed to Skillet. To keep it closed-loop, I mashed the roasted squash skins into the batter and used the seeds I had saved the night before for a granola made with oats, chocolate chips, and cinnamon.

Lunch that day was a red cabbage, onion, and potato scramble, and dinner was the last of the broccoli stem pesto, used on top of pasta.

Day 7

The squash seed granola was perfect for Day 7’s breakfast and made for a great little something to share with friends (as did the rest of the winter squash bread!).

My last day of closed-loop cooking was really about using up what I had left. And so I invited my friends over for a “work with what you have” party. Everyone brought their leftovers to share. There was a little bit of this and a little bit of that and big loaves of bread to sop up every inch of goodness in your bowl.

Delicious, cheap, and fun enough that I’d do it all over again.

How much waste do you generate in a week? And have you found any ways to cut back? Share in the comments below.

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A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).

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40 Comments

Sandra L. March 9, 2018
"skin of onions and ginger roots, egg shells"<br />There is a use for these. The skin of onions can be used to make a healing tea. Ginger root skins can be used to strengthen an Asian broth and discarded, or used to make Ginger Root Tea. And eggshells, they are magical! First boil them in water then dehydrate them before grinding into a powder which can be added to smoothies, baked goods, veggie patties, casseroles, and just about any recipe that uses flour.
 
foofaraw January 6, 2017
The problem with my kitchen scrap is that those are the parts that I don't think I can eat, such as parts that I worry have most pesticide/insecticide content, (fruit skins like conventional apple), the parts that have unknown bruises (so you don't know if it was contaminated from outside), signs of mold (onion skins on my supermarket tends to have black-ish mold in between the skin layers), have weird brownish part (the tops of carrots, radish, tends to have slimy brownish bits on their tops because the leftover of cut leaves died down there), or very bad taste (the stalk of cauliflower). <br />Anything else that taste ok, considered edible (beet tops), and/or just hard (rosemary stalks, broccolli stalk, potato skins etc) have been cut smaller, cooked longer, and eaten with everything else.<br />Is there any other way to reduce food scraps?
 
amseattle October 5, 2016
Such great reminders! We save our onion skins throughout the winter and then use the skins to dye easter eggs. (red and brown work) Egg shells are saved, crushed and then scattered in our garden.
 
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Kate W. October 5, 2016
Ooh I love that idea!
 
Monica B. August 26, 2016
The onion skins and rinds of other vegetables can be boiled into a vegetable stock to be used as a soup base. And as mentioned in another post you can use some pulps to make flour and hummus. The shells from shrimp, and the bones from fish to make fish stock. And of course, meat bones for meat stocks chicken etc as mentioned in the article. I love the whole waste-not-want-not concept. Connie, I keep the shrimp shells and other bones until there's enough of them to warrant putting on stock pot filled with water.
 
Laura415 April 3, 2016
Dehydrating my juice pulp and making it into flours. I'm using it to make GF crackers or in GF cakes and cookies as an alternative tasty flour. Carrots, apples, ginger, beet and celery pulps make great flour when dried. Stems from chard, broccoli and kale make good hummus after cooking until soft. Puree the heck out of the stems and add tahini, lemon, garlic, cumin. The cookbook Root to Stalk Cooking by Tara Duggan has some good ideas for cooking with the stuff we usually throw away.
 
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Kate W. April 4, 2016
This is such an awesome idea Laura! And I just ordered that cookbook—can't wait.
 
Danielle H. April 1, 2016
I always try to eat with as little waste as possible, but I am reinvigorated to get to zero waste from this article! Plus such great comments! I am clearing space in the freezer for a soup bucket right now. Also, about these empanadas, I have a pile of beet ribs from a roasted beet/beet green salad I made last night. Going to hunt up some 'shrooms at the farmers market tomorrow and try it out!
 
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Kate W. April 1, 2016
That's so great to hear Danielle. Let me know how the empanadas go!
 
Connie March 31, 2016
People laugh at me because I keep bones and ask them to theirs for me. <br /><br /><br />Another thing that never goes to waste. People laugh at me for keeping all my bones in the freezer. I also keep seafood shells. I make incredible stocks.. My husband thought I was nuts until he started to ask if he could use my stocks. Virtually nothing in my house goes to waste. I have been doing this for 25 years. Anyone want my recipes, let me know,<br />
 
Connie March 31, 2016
Even my eggshells find a use. I dry and stockpile. Then put them in the blender. It makes a great deterant to snails/slugs while also acting as a protein fertilizer in my garden.
 
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Kate W. March 31, 2016
Love this Connie! I'm going to try this with my garden this year.
 
Maggie March 30, 2016
I eat everything humanly possible including skins, leaves, stems and seeds... if it's completely unpalatable I have squirrels who visit my porch for scraps on a regular basis :)
 
Sarah March 30, 2016
I got interested in CLC when I first tried a CSA. All of the veggies came with their gorgeous stems and I was paying a little more than usual, so I didn't want to waste them! Carrot top pesto became a quick favorite. I also love to sauté beet greens for a warm salad, with scrambled eggs, or over a sweet potato. And I second your friend's recommendation to use scraps and even squash skins to make your own veggie broth. It is so simple and has tons of flavor!
 
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Kate W. March 31, 2016
Mmm that sauteed beet salad sounds heavenly!
 
Evie F. March 30, 2016
Kate, great article, but it sounds like you stopped C.L.C. cooking at the end of the week? At least for me, ooking/eating this way is a worthy lifestyle choice!
 
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Kate W. March 30, 2016
Actually Evie, I continue to cook like this! But framing it as a fun challenge was a great way for me to more fully commit. I totally agree with you—closed-loop cooking is a worthy lifestyle choice and once you dive in, it's really easy (and enjoyable!) to do.
 
HDeffenbaugh March 30, 2016
You make waste-free look pretty sexy. What great looking uses of all this produce.
 
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Kate W. March 30, 2016
Thank you! Waste-free cooking IS pretty sexy!
 
Stephanie K. March 30, 2016
My grandmother (a child of the Depression) never wastes anything. I've lived my entire 40 years knowing about her "soup bucket." Whenever there are vegetables left at the end of a meal, they are added to the container she keeps in the big freezer, even if it's just a few bites. When the container is full, it's time to make vegetable soup. Plus, as a kid, it was fun to see the frozen veg come out of the container in layers, like the rings of a tree. I often sat there trying to figure out when we ate that squash, or those carrots. It was a simpler time, I guess. :)
 
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Kate W. March 30, 2016
Ooh a "soup bucket" sounds so fun. You have an awesome grandmother!
 
Heather M. March 30, 2016
My neighbor who is lucky enough to have room for a small farm (my day will come) uses the egg shells, grinds them up tiny and puts them with the chicken's food (scraps) rather than buying oyster shells to give them their calcium. You just have to make sure to crush them up, or the chickens might start trying to peck at the eggs they lay.
 
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Kate W. March 30, 2016
Thanks for the tip Heather! I'm visiting my friend's farm right now and we're going to mix this in with the chicken feed.
 
Azora Z. March 1, 2016
Onion skins are actually super antioxidant rich (more so than the rest of the onion, I believe) and make for an AMAZING stock.
 
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Kate W. March 1, 2016
Testing this out right now Zoe and so far, SO GOOD!
 
EL February 26, 2016
I forgot: Onion skins can be used to dye eggs. One way reminiscent of tie dye is to wrap each egg in an onion skin and tie into a piece of cheese-cloth. You can use both red and golden onion skins for this. Then you can dye with other colors on top of these patterns. They're truly lovely.
 
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Kate W. March 1, 2016
Tried this with my friend EL and it was so beautiful. Thanks for the suggestion!
 
EL February 26, 2016
I also never peel veggies (or apples for pie or sauce). This includes ginger (unless I am fine grating it). Thin sliced ginger in a stir fry is great and you definitely don't notice the skin. Apple peel (unless a very thick peel) adds great texture both to pie and to a rustic apple sauce.<br /><br />As a gardener, I compost everything vegetable (don't compost meat and dairy) as well as eggshells. I never have anything "icky" in the trash and I only need to put out trash about once a month.
 
Maurina R. February 26, 2016
I don't peel veggies. Carrots, parsnips, potatoes are all used with peels intact. I also use the stems of greens, just chop them up and cook with the leaves. Onion and garlic skins do get trashed, but I'll try them in stock.
 
Emily February 26, 2016
Wasting food is my ULTIMATE pet peeve so I love this! As I was reading it, I found that I already do a lot of this without even knowing it. Save leftover potatoes from dinner for scrambles in the morning. Use wilted greens chopped up in a sautee or eggs. I love the idea of saving scraps for a stock. Have a dedicated container in the freezer to save them. My favorite line of this article was the idea of using what you have on hand that is most perishable and go from there. What about saving the eggshells for a seed sowing starter? The provide the nutrients the little guys need to grow. Or, if you're not a gardener, you can add the shells to your veggie stock. Another tip- when I peel and veggies or chop off their tops (i.e.. radishes, carrots, broccoli stalks) I feel them to my dog as a snack instead of a treat. He loves his veggies!
 
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Kate W. February 26, 2016
LOVE those ideas for eggshells. Thanks Emily!<br />
 
Emily February 29, 2016
Check this out! How adorable?! <br />http://www.oldfashionedfamilies.com/seed-starting-container-ideas/
 
DianeKirkland February 26, 2016
The greens of my root vegetables aren't always nice enough to eat but they can be composted -- a worm bin is a lot of fun. If you are in an apartment you can still have one and use the castings for house plants.<br />