15 Very Doable Tweaks to Reduce Kitchen Waste

From turning leftovers into "salad-bar lunches" to low-waste cleaning—and everything between.

May 10, 2021
Photo by Julia Gartland

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.

Don't Let Food Go to Waste

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!

Cut Down on Waste at the Store

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.

Food Storage Tricks

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.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Hi, I think where you shop matters a lot. We have a local CSA we like. Of course, we bring our own bags and containers to pick out our items. Yes, we reuse most containers to store leftovers or staples like beans. We are learning to eat things we didn't know we liked, like kohlrabi. As you say, soup is great for using things up. I recently tried making my own veggie stock out of the ends of veggies (before they go in the compost). It's great! ”
— Pfreemanlynde

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.

Make Less Trash

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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Laura Fenton is the No Space Too Small columnist at Food52. The author of The Little Book of Living Small, she covers home, design, and sustainability. Laura lives in Jackson Heights, Queens in a 690-square foot apartment with her husband and son. You can follow her on Instagram @laura.alice.fenton or subscribe to her newsletter Living Small.


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saucy C. July 12, 2021
We have organized our fridge to reduce food waste as much as possible. We have one shelf for leftovers (cooked grains, leftover sauces, whole meals), one shelf for vegetables, and one drawer for fruit. Everything gets put in FIFO - oldest to the left, since that’s what you see first when you open our side-by-side fridge. Vegetables get put in reusable plastic bags which get stood up like file folders if possible. Leftovers in containers get labeled with the date on a bit of tape. It’s helped so much!
j7n May 22, 2021
An old t-shirt or any truly worn cloth will shed a lot of fibers. Not what I want in cleanup. There are hazardous wastes that will irreversibly ruin a cloth and prevent is reuse, such as dissolved beef tallow, jar glue, turmeric, rust. Paper towels are for those. Otherwise a microfiber cloth is better.

A jar can be scraped with baking soda as an abrasive using gloves. Cheap veg oil (yuck), white spirit (still yuck), WD-40, or isopropanol (ethanol is heavily taxed) can dissolve fat soluble glue without scraping from delicate plastic. I have a lot of reused jars. Problem with them is that manufacturer's change the design all the time.

I use plate on a bowl all the time, except for smelly, evaporating items. A ceramic is easier to wash than a plastic lid.

I buy large canisters of soap and use potent cleaners such as caustic soda and citric acid in lighter solution. Commercial versions are watered down, as is for example vinegar (acetic acid is legally forbidden here). Wash a dish soap container, a durable spray bottle, or a glass cooking oil bottle with the nice cap and use it (some cleaners crystallize and clog spray bottles).

I've never seen a checkout where the receipt is optional, except in ATMs.
Pfreemanlynde May 15, 2021
Hi, I think where you shop matters a lot. We have a local CSA we like. Of course, we bring our own bags and containers to pick out our items. Yes, we reuse most containers to store leftovers or staples like beans. We are learning to eat things we didn't know we liked, like kohlrabi. As you say, soup is great for using things up. I recently tried making my own veggie stock out of the ends of veggies (before they go in the compost). It's great!
FrugalCat May 13, 2021
If I have a bunch of drips and dabs of various sauces, I put them in the slow cooker with a pork shoulder or cheap cut of beef. Need more liquid? Add a can of beer. 90% of the time, it comes out delicious, no matter what was put in. The other 10%? Well, just rinse off the sauce?
M May 11, 2021
You can wash saran too. One small piece used for, say, a lemon or onion can be quickly washed and reused a number of times. And if you're struggling to stop using paper towels as frequently, start by keeping a washable towel folded on the counter while you prepare food. When it's right there it becomes more convenient than the paper towel and starts the habit. Also, if you get a large clear bag for whatever reason, it can be a rinsed and re-used proofing bag.

I'm still waiting for food personalities/chefs to teach their recipes while incorporating reusable materials. It'd be handy to know when you don't need saran, foil, whatever, without doing your own trial and error.
Joanne J. May 11, 2021
Keep these articles coming! I love them!!
Arati M. May 17, 2021
Thank you for reading, Joanna!
Alison May 11, 2021
Some of the waste saving habits we've implemented in our house:
1) We save "lightly used" paper towels (my husband insists he still needs these) under the sink in a box. We reach for the "gray paper" when there is a spill on the floor, to clean up the toilets, or other tasks that don't need a perfectly clean towel.
2) Keep a fresh & pretty linen hand towel by the kitchen sinks (changed daily) for wiping hands after washing. I get a little silently wild-eyed when guests use a clean paper towel to wipe their hands then throw it in the trash. (yes, of course, I fish is out when no one is looking ;~> )
3) We keep a fresh microfiber on the bath and kitchen counters for wiping up around sinks. Again, saving a paper towel.
4) Years ago I learned to make my own surface cleaners and bathroom/room spray. (I go through a LOT of vodka. Heaven only knows what our local ABC store clerks think). We save money on cleaning products, cut down on the toxins in our home and cut down on plastic packaging. I use pretty cobalt colored glass spray bottles so I don't mind them sitting out on the counters.
5) If you live in a place that this is possible, you can always leave your appropriate kitchen scraps out for the local wild life. Of course this works only is you have local, desirable wildlife, but we like feeding the foxes, opossums, deer, raccoon and birds in our surrounding woodland.

Thanks FOOD52. I love reading articles with information to help us all do our part to make our world a better place.
Laura F. May 11, 2021
Yes, to all of this! Have your husband read the NRDC report on paper towels and maybe he'll change his tune!
Alison May 11, 2021
Excellent. Thank you! Sometimes a third source can have a magical effect. ;~>
Rachel May 10, 2021
These are great tips!

For cleaning around the house, we bought microfiber cloths in multiple colors and designated functions for them. Some are for kids' dining messes, while others are for floors/other grosser clean-up.

It's saved us so much waste and guilt (and having a fairly infinite supply, so we don't have emergencies)!
Laura F. May 11, 2021
Love the idea of color-coding the microfiber rags--smart!
Joanne J. May 10, 2021
So, the saving little bits of leftovers... My husband and I have been doing this for years. We call it Weird Lunch Wednesday! We take all those little bits and turn them into Wednesday lunch for the two of us. It's actually kind of fun and we get a little laugh out of it!
Laura F. May 11, 2021
Hah! I like the name: I might have to steal that!