Sunday Dinner

5 Tips for Conquering Kitchen Waste

July  2, 2013

Sunday Dinners comes to us from our own chef/photojournalist/farmer/father figure Tom Hirschfeld, featuring his stunning photography and Indiana farmhouse family meals.

Today: Scared of not having enough food? Tom gives us 5 tips to conquer our fears, and always cook just what we need.

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One of the many qualities a good cook should possess is frugality. I don't mean being cheap, although there's nothing wrong with making great use of inexpensive ingredients -- but rather that a good cook makes use of every viable kitchen scrap so that nothing goes to waste. 

More: How to make the most of your leftovers (or as we call them, ingredients).

Far be it from me to point fingers at how people choose to use their food -- trust me, I am not. I grapple with this concept every day. When I first started cooking, I would double recipes and cook like I was feeding an army. I always had the fear of “What if someone stops by?" implanted in my head. I convinced myself I needed to have enough to feed any and all "walk-ins." This kind of thinking left me with lots of food to eat. I was either going to be wasteful or I needed a lot more freezer space.

It's not that I don't like leftovers -- it’s more that I love to cook each day. I get up in the morning excited about what new kitchen adventures await me. So, for me, having leftovers only serves to stifle the pleasure I get from being in the kitchen.

It pains me to watch foods languishing away in the fridge as if they were hungover sailors adrift in a Tupperware life boat. As such, over the years, I have learned to not cook dinner for 8 when there are only 4.

So for someone who is used to cooking large quantities and needs to cook less -- or has downsized by becoming an empty-nester, but still carries a lingering fear of someone in the house going hungry -- there are ways to conquer the dilemma. After all, isn’t a cook's biggest fear not having enough food?

5 Tips for Being Prepared and Conquering Kitchen Waste

1. A well-stocked pantry doesn’t always relate to the diversity of food on the shelves. It isn’t well-stocked if you don’t have a staple when you need it. I live by the training I got at restaurants: we never waited till the shelf was empty of an item. Instead, we ran our pantries on par levels. If quantities got below a predetermined level, we would order more before we would run out. At home, I do the same.

2. The greater your cooking knowledge, the more options you have. I am always looking for new ideas, because cooking for your family is a job and at any job I always look to do better. The idea for the omelette noodles below came from Jamie Oliver.

3. Shift your thought process from "Will I have enough?" to "How can I make less into more, quickly and only if I need to?"

4. Noodles of any sort are often the best way to increase serving amounts -- and almost everything can be made into some sort of noodle dish. Besides, you can always make an order of Aglio et Olio (spaghetti with garlic and olive oil) and serve it as a side.

5. Don’t stand around making dinner slowly and make it apparent you are waiting for friends or family to leave before you eat. Invite them to stay. The camaraderie is much more important than a full belly. 

Laotian Beef Salad (Larb) with Omelette Noodles by thirschfeld

Serves 4 to 6

For the Larb

1 1/4 pound skirt steak, sliced thinly then minced, or ground beef
6 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 tablespoon lemongrass, peeled and white ends only, minced
1/2 cup shallot, julienned
3 red Thai bird chile, minced
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 tablespoons water
1/3 cup mint leaves, torn
1/3 cup cilantro, torn
1/3 cup green onion, slivered
1/4 cup roasted peanuts, crushed

For the Omelette Noodles

3 large eggs
Half an egg shell of water
A pinch of salt

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by Tom Hirschfeld

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Ashley Vanni
    Ashley Vanni
  • amysarah
  • Midge
  • Jennifer Ann
    Jennifer Ann
  • vvvanessa
Father, husband, writer, photojournalist and not always in that order.


Ashley V. September 2, 2013
What a wonderful read! Vital for Italian-American families, whom tend to push their children and family members to eating more than necessary, in fear they won't have enough for the next day (post famine syndrome and fear based). This is a gentle, enjoyable, and useful way to share with family members we can eat less, and not waste. Thank you! Manja! @livelovemanja
amysarah July 2, 2013
I also tend to cook for the masses. Good advice here. I tend to think of certain things - noodles (pasta, stir fried, or baked in a gratin or kugel); fried rice or risotto; omelettes and fritattas; and soups as palettes for leftover sauces, vegetables, meat, scraps of all sorts. Sometimes frugality is the mother of the best dishes.
thirschfeld July 3, 2013
it can definitely be the mother of invention and you are so right some of the best dishes come out of these situations
Midge July 2, 2013
Excellent advice, as always. Coming from a big Italian family, I still struggle to control the tendency to cook enough for a small army. And you're right, aglio e olio can fix just about anything.
thirschfeld July 3, 2013
Thanks Midge!
Jennifer A. July 2, 2013
Great advice, and the recipe looks wonderful!
thirschfeld July 2, 2013
Thanks Jennifer Ann!
vvvanessa July 2, 2013
Great piece. Excellent tips. Super smart recipe.
thirschfeld July 2, 2013
thank you vvvanessa!
Pegeen July 2, 2013
Tom, thanks for a great piece. So true that the camaraderie is more important - and makes any food taste better! I grew up in a big family and it took me years to learn not to cook for 12: dinner plus extra for must-have leftovers that actually did get devoured by me and my siblings, but totally unnecessary later in life. You're so right - unneeded leftovers cheat you out of the pleasure of cooking something else. And that some practice at cooking will build confidence with substitutions and combinations, to use up what you already have. Thanks again.
thirschfeld July 2, 2013
Pegeen I bet you have some great food stories growing up with such a big family!