A Full Plate is a column about family life and the home by contributing writer Laura Fenton, who explores the intersection of sustainable living and home design through a mother’s eyes.
Quick, where’s the biggest garbage can inside your home? Bet you said the kitchen, right? Our kitchens are the source of so much of the waste that flows into—and out of—our homes. From food packaging to forgotten leftovers, the trash fills up quickly.
The kitchen is the part of my home that I have attacked ferociously in my quest towards a less wasteful lifestyle (although I’ve given up hope of ever being anything close to zero waste). I’m happy to report I have made some progress—even with a five-year-old and a pandemic to contend with—but it’s definitely a work in progress. Below are 15 tried-and-tested ways in which I’ve cut down on waste in our family's home, but I’d love to hear how you go about it, so I can get a little closer to an empty trash bin.
Turn kid cast-offs into breakfast
If you’re a parent of a small child, you are likely very familiar with the apple with two bites out of it and the half-eaten banana. Rather than toss these into the compost, I use a paring knife to cut off the bitten-off portion and then store the rest into the freezer for future smoothies—win-win!
Cook down the pantry
A couple times a year, I make a conscious effort to work my way through the non-perishables in my pantry so that nothing goes to waste (I’m looking at you, random nuts and flours leftover from pandemic stockpiling). A couple kid-friendly ideas to use them up are a clean-out-the-pantry granola and multi-grain pancakes. I have found that you can easily substitute half the flour in a waffle or pancake recipe (I use Mark Bittman’s basic pancake recipe) for the random whole-grain you want to use up.
Save every little leftover
Most people throw out their leftovers if they have less than a serving left, but not me, I save everything. Teeny portions are great lunch items for both kids and adults. At home, I make myself what my husband likes to call a “vegetarian garbage plate,” but I like to imagine it’s a curated selection I might have chosen at a salad bar (picture a small scoop of roast beets, a dollop of hummus, a piece of whole wheat toast, and handful salad greens tossed with a little dressing). For my son, I love a divided metal lunchbox because suddenly those random bits feel like a special lunch. Pro tip: Put these in clear containers if you can, so you can see what you’ve got.
Learn a back-pocket recipe for lonely veg
Stir-fry and soup are my go-tos to use up random vegetables that are too small to make a side dish on their own. Put together a half head of broccoli, a lone carrot, half a bell pepper, and a leek and you’ve got yourself a stir-fry—and almost any root or shoot can get tossed into a soup pot.
Think like a restaurant owner
While my fridge is much smaller than the walk-in coolers of the restaurants I once worked in as a college student, I still try to practice FIFO, which stands for “first in, first out.” This basically means that when you’re unpacking your groceries, you consciously put your newly purchased foods behind the older ones. I also try to store all my leftovers together in a prominent spot, so they won’t get lost in the fridge!
Buy your produce "naked”
When I’m shopping I try to buy as much as my produce without packaging as possible, because it’s not just grocery and shopping bags that are the problem: it’s all the bags, including produce bags. Says Lily Cameron, author of Simply Sustainable, “The beauty of avocados and bananas is they come packaged in a protective (and compostable) wrapper: their skin.” You’re going to wash everything at home anyway, so you shouldn’t be worried about placing your produce straight into your basket, but if you are, consider investing in a set of produce bags.
Make the switch to loose leaf tea
If you’re a regular tea drinker like me, those individually wrapped tea bags add up to a surprising amount of waste. And the tea bags are worse for the earth than I knew. In their book Living Without Plastic, Christine Wong and Brigette Allen reveal that “96 percent of tea brands use bags made from synthetic fibers containing polypropylene. And the fancier, pyramid shaped ‘silky’ tea bags are made of nylon, which, when heated, leaches phthalates into your cup.” Um, no thanks!
Skip the receipt
When you’re ready to check out, Cameron suggests to request paperless or no receipt (something I’m trying to get better at remembering!) She notes that not only will you save the waste, the paper is often coated with BPA, a suspected carcinogen.
Upcycle your baggies
I am the mom that actually washes and dries Ziploc plastic bags for reuse. I understand that most people find scraping peanut butter and jelly out of a bag tedious, but may I suggest at least reusing the ones that barely get dirty? Even one extra use reduces waste. I also love to reuse the free(!) Ziploc bags that tortillas come in for storing other foods long after the tortillas are gone.
Do the plate trick
Instead of wrapping a bowl in plastic wrap, simply rest a plate on top of the bowl’s rim. This works with both a soup bowl and a salad plate or a larger mixing bowl and a dinner plate.
...Or give beeswax a try
I don’t use my beeswax wrap for all the things I use plastic wrap for (for example, I’d never wrap gorgonzola or a half a raw onion in my wrap), but it’s handy for an awful lot of things. I especially like to use wax wraps for on-the-go sandwiches and wrapping avocado halves. Also, know that not all waxed wraps work equally well—check to make sure they’re not too stiff.
Three cheers for upcycled jars!
A lot of people want to rush out and buy new glass storage containers when they focus on reducing plastic in their homes, but I am all about the upcycled glass jar. Soak your containers in hot water, scrape with a glass scraper, and you’ve got yourself a free and waste-free place to store food.
If we end up with plastic quart and pint containers, I’ll rinse them out, too and save them for my next MealTrain or to send my father-in-law home with leftovers.
Cut back on paper towels
After years of trying, my family has finally broken our paper towel habit. Two things that really helped: Swedish-style dish cloths, which can be used to clean up spills; and old T-shirts cut into rags, which I don’t feel bad about throwing out if I have to use one on something truly gross. But you don’t have to go cold turkey: To start, just place your roll of paper towels in a less convenient location, like under the sink.
Maybe someday I’ll write a whole post about my love of composting. In the meantime, I’d like to just encourage you to give it a try. Start by storing your fruit and veg scraps in a bag in the freezer for a week and bring them to your local composting program (often at farmer’s markets or community gardens). Once you experience the thrill of a near-empty garbage pail and if you have the space, consider graduating to a home compost bin.
Try low-waste cleaning
DIYing your cleaning products is a noble endeavor (Cameron has tons of recipes in her book Simply Sustainable), but I confess, I still like the convenience of store-bought formulations. My less wasteful solution has been to seek out concentrated cleansers that you add water to at home, reducing the packaging waste to almost zero.
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