I normally make a point of staying away from topics that are political and highly driven by personal opinion/values, giving patients the facts without projecting my own beliefs on the situation. GMO and organics are two such topics that honestly, I really don’t want to get into a conversation about with people when they walk into my office – the issues are nuanced and based more in agriculture and economics than in nutrition science, even if they do affect the food supply.
Food waste, on the other hand, is something that each of us is in control of. According to World Food Day USA, we waste ~20 pounds of food per person per month. That is outrageous. Throwing away more food = more food you’ve gotta purchase = direct impact on patients’ wallets. PLUS, when it comes to food waste, you can actually implement practices that reduce or eliminate it. While some may argue that the same is true for GMO and organics, those issues are way way bigger than the consumer. The strategies for reducing or eliminating food waste are actions that can be taken today.
- Save money – Just chucked a bag of two bell peppers that you meant to use for stir fry? There goes $1.50. Never finished those shrimp leftovers? $7. Milk went sour? $2. Getting better at using the last bits of things results in direct cost savings.
- Increased nutrient content – As we’ll discuss, a lot of the ways you can be sure to utilize all your perishable food resources involve adding delicate fruits and vegetables to dishes that otherwise would have way less or wouldn’t have any in them, thereby significantly increasing their nutritional value. BOOM – nutrition ninja status!
- Forced creativity – Challenging yourself to use everything is playing a personal game of Chopped. You need to assess what you have that you must use, figure out what you can use, and somehow put them together into a nutritious and satisfying meal. End of a jar of pasta sauce (must use), spinach (must use), half a bell pepper (must use)? Make a hearty shakshuka with greens and bell pepper, add some chopped onion and garlic to the pan to saute with the pepper and greens before throwing in some chickpeas from the pantry and simmering in the sauce, then crack an egg over it and broil to cook through. Great meal!
- Smoothies – Smoothies are a no-brainer. The food gets all blended up, so it’s ok if it’s a little past its prime. Plus, you can chuck just about anything in there. I have a coworker who routinely adds tomatoes, and I’ve heard of using cucumbers as well. You may want to freeze first for extra frostiness
- Freeze – Speaking of freezing, if you have a large batch of perishable foods (like if you just went berry picking) freezing is an excellent way to keep that fresh flavor and nutrition all year long. Not only does it prevent them from going to waste, but you get the added benefit of midwinter blueberry muffins. Who could say no?
- Sautee and add to… – Sauteeing vegetables that are on the verge of going bad is perfect because the cooking method makes the vegetables softer intentionally (bell peppers definitely come to mind here, as the texture goes before they actually spoil). They can then be used for TONS of things, like:
- Meat(or lentil)balls/burgers/meat(or lentil)loaf – These dishes can easily end up kind of dry and tough, but adding sauteed vegetables to meatloaf or meatballs, or the equivalent vegetarian entree will add flavor and nutrients while keeping the finished product nice and moist. I really love to make a turkey meatloaf with spinach feta and red onions, but you can add just about anything to leaner ground meats in order to make them less dry, thereby reducing fat content and producing a way-tastier dinner! Check out this vegetarian greens “meatless ball” recipe I happened to stumble across whilst writing this blog post: http://food52.com/recipes/37163-fried-greens-meatlessballs
- Egg dishes – Frittatas (aka last night’s dinner and a catch-all for some leftovers we had), scrambles, and quiches are a great way to toss leftover vegetables or even leftover meats into a dish that will extend them to feed a crowd. Got an awkward half a chicken breast and a cup of broccoli left over but need to feed more than one person? Chop it up, add some extra veggies, and make a frittata! Egg dishes reheat well and can be eaten for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. It’s magic.
- Baked goods – You may have seen my pineapple, apple, yogurt, and coconut muffin experiment on facebook recently, but the fun doesn’t stop there. Baked goods can be a great catch-all for all sorts of fruits, vegetables, and dairy that you need to use up. Substituting half the fat in just about any recipe for grated zucchini, carrots, apples, squashes, mashed banana, peaches, or potatoes will again add nutrients and moisture. Yogurt can also be used in place of fat or sour cream in recipes, and milk can always be used in place of water for a richer, more nutritious result.
- Sloppy joes – I’ve been using the Lentil-Tempeh Sloppy Joes recipe from Kim Barnouin’s “Skinny Bitch” cookbook since I lived with my roommate Andrea during our dietetic internship. This book inspired her to be a vegetarian for a while (an evening of drinking upon being reunited after I moved away may have inspired her first burger after toying with the idea of breaking vegetarianism, but that’s another story for another day 😉 ) and this sloppy joe recipe caught my eye while flipping through to pass the time after being annihilated by a hurricane. The only thing I do differently is packing in the veggies. I add extra onions, bell peppers, celery, and even greens sometimes! Any recipe that is essentially a bunch of cooked something mixed with a sauce can be stuffed to the gills with as many vegetables as you have available.
- Soups and stews – Soups and stews are another great “put anything in it and nobody will know whether the original recipe called for that or not” item, much like the sloppy joes. If you have veggies that are really limp and wilted, you can always sautee with garlic and onion (always a good idea) and puree (like this one).
- Intentionally under-purchase – Maybe it’s just a me problem, but my eyes are always bigger than my stomach/cooking schedule when I’m at the grocery store. It’s great to plan ahead to make sure you’ve got all the things you need for meals but when you plan with extra zeal you might end up with 4 zucchinis and nothing to do with them. Intentionally under-purchasing will force you to have a dinner or two where you finally finish those leftovers or scrape something together from refrigerator and pantry scraps that ends up being really awesome. This forces creativity and out-of-the-box thinking, which is also a pretty healthy exercise.
- Keep staples on hand – #8 requires that you have a decently stocked spice cabinet, freezer, and pantry. If the only things you have in your house are half an onion and salt and pepper, #8 will not really work unless you are super into sauteed onions. But if you’ve got a can of beans and some tortillas kickin’ around, heck you’ve got a meal fit for a (very modest and earth-loving) king!