Fight inflation in the kitchen

The total came to nearly $90 – four painfully small canvas totes of groceries that did not include meat, cheese or eggs. Had I been shopping at an ultra-fancy Amazon-owned health-halo organic market, this might have seemed reasonable, or even a bargain. Instead, I was at the (sadly) best option in our poor, rural county: a grim, dark and untidy corporate chain store with exploitative policies, limited fresh produce and extensive displays of cheap soda, chips and cookies. Shopping here is not pleasurable, by any stretch of the imagination; both the atmosphere and the prices leave much to be desired.

Unless you’re named Musk or Bezos, you’ve likely noticed that inflation has started to bite, and to bite hard. In the twelve-month period ending this past March, the U.S. inflation rate was 8.5% – the highest it’s been since late 1981. In the simplest economic terms, inflation means that our money doesn’t go as far as it used to. The huge conflagration of various challenges we’re facing right now – a global pandemic, the pointless war in Ukraine, climate change, housing instability, supply-chain disruptions, insatiable greed – means that we’re all experiencing inflation to varying degrees. The good news is that in almost all cases, you can control how much inflation affects your individual household by adjusting your own behavior. No surprise, then, that one of the easiest places to accomplish this is in the kitchen.

Before we really start whining about grocery prices, however, I want to make it perfectly clear that the average American spends far less on food as a percentage of their household income than do most other developed nations. The best available statistics indicate that we spend about 7% of our budget on food, whereas in the U.K. it’s closer to 9.5%, and around 15% in France, Spain and Italy. On a relative basis, our food is devastatingly cheap here; this is because we have absurd federal farm subsidies and because we’re a net exporter of food, which means we produce a lot. (Our cheap food is obviously both terrible for the environment and our own health, but the system holds!) Unfortunately, we’re very spoiled and therefore accustomed to cheap food, which means that we’re far more sensitive to price increases than other countries. (See also: $90 for four tiny bags of groceries, above.)

If you, too, are starting to feel the sharp stick of inflation in your own food budget, we hereby present some easy ways to keep your food costs down, eat healthier, and reduce environmental impact. It’s a win-win-win!

There is simply nothing nice to say about CAFO meat in tubes.

Eat less meat and dairy

We’ve discussed this numerous times here at Finding Quiet Farm, and it’s so obvious that it’s almost awkward to present it as a revolutionary idea, but reducing or eliminating your meat and dairy consumption is absolutely the easiest way to improve your diet and spend less on food. Meat prices overall are up an average of 20% in the past year; the recent avian flu outbreak means that chicken and egg prices have also skyrocketed. Raising animals for meat in CAFOs is one of the biggest contributors to climate change and environmental degradation; consumption of animal products is conclusively linked to a nearly endless list of health problems and premature death. In short, eat less (or no) meat and dairy, and buy what meat you do eat from a local regenerative farm. Also, get eggs from backyard chickens – either your own or someone else’s!

Strawberries a bit soft? Perfect for baking or smoothies!

Minimize food waste & ignore expiration dates

Another subject that we’ve beaten to death over the years here – Americans waste about 40% of all food. If we want to trim our grocery spending, it starts with being realistic about what we’re actually going to eat instead of aspirational shopping that results in huge amounts of waste. I’m not at all a fan of the warehouse stores like Costco, with their massive plastic clamshells of spinach or grapes or asparagus; unless you’re feeding the Brady Bunch, it’s pretty likely that produce will spoil before you finish it. Those stores entice shoppers with their “bulk discounts,” but that’s not a discount if most of it ends up in the trash; also, their excessive and unnecessary packaging is infuriating. Unsurprisingly, most food waste is perishables like greens and fruit, so be ruthlessly honest with yourself about what your household will actually consume.

On the same topic, please please please do not ever pay attention to expiration or ‘best-by’ dates on packages. They’re not regulated and they’re designed expressly to keep you throwing things away and buying more. Use your eyes, your nose and your common sense – if something smells strongly of alcohol (fermentation) or is actively moving, probably compost it. Otherwise, trim off the mucky bits and eat it – transformed in a soup or a smoothie, if need be. Expiration dates are a large-scale corporate racket designed to keep us spending. Ignore them entirely.

What do you have on hand that you can use up?

Pantry challenge / use what you have

We’re quickly moving towards the season of abundance here, and that – coupled with inflated prices – means I’m challenging myself to use up everything we have right now, both in the pantry and the freezer. The typical American household has a lot of food on hand, but like our overstuffed closets, much of it gets ignored in favor of “new.” For a week, or a month, or whatever timeframe you can manage, challenge yourself to eat what you have. Use up that little bag of red lentils, the frozen container of chili, the rest of that pasta, last summer’s canned tomatoes. Make a frittata or a stir-fry or a soup out of the odds and ends of vegetables and herbs in the crisper. Create flavorful meals by working with what you have, rather than buying more. Also! Eat your leftovers. Plan your weekly meals thoughtfully so that leftovers (or ‘favorites,’ in our house) can be either frozen, incorporated into packed lunches or used for future meals.

Frozen summer sweet corn: the secret ingredient in delicious soups.

Use your freezer

Never forget about your amazing freezer, the greatest food-saving appliance ever invented. Brown, too-soft, overly ripe bananas and other past-its-prime fruit: frozen on sheet trays and used for smoothies and muffins. Vegetable scraps: stored in zip-top bags for stock and soup. Sliced bread: saved for toast and bread crumbs, rather than going stale and hard on the counter. Incredible sale price on organic blueberries: frozen for baking when fresh fruit is too expensive. Fresh summer sweet corn: sliced from the cob and turned into spicy corn chowder in winter. The list goes on and on – your freezer can help you save money and eat better. Use it.

Hummus is so expensive to buy but so quick and easy to make at home.

Cook from scratch

Big Food has made billions convincing us that not only do we not have time to make things, but that we probably can’t. This is completely false! Yogurt, granola, salad dressing, hummus, bread…all of these (and many more) are far cheaper and healthier to make at home, plus you can control the ingredients and you avoid wasteful packaging and shipping. Five minutes of effort yields a jar of delicious salad dressing that will last for weeks; yogurt takes a few hours but that time is mostly devoted to the slow culturing and requires no real supervision; granola can be baked in huge batches and with far less sugar than packaged varieties; homemade bread, of course, produces results that can never be replicated with storebought. Keep in mind, too, that even cooking dried beans rather than using canned means substantial savings. Avoid, if at all possible, food products where someone has done most of the work for you.

A small portion of the food we harvest each year.

Grow your own

The best way you can fight inflation, of course, is to turn your back on Big Ag entirely and grow your own food. A $3 packet of tomato or lettuce seeds and a bit of water will yield hundreds of dollars of organic food. Plastic clamshells of ‘fresh herbs’ that turn into brown sludge after two days can be instead harvested fresh from window boxes as needed with about $20 of supplies. Even the smallest backyard or sundeck can produce a staggering amount of homegrown food if managed correctly, and the satisfaction of producing your own food is unmatched. Find out what grows locally where you live, and buy seconds for freezing or canning. Join a community garden, or partner with neighbors to grow collaboratively. Plant a vacant lot. Ask who might offer gleaning in your area. There are myriad ways to obtain fresh, nutritious food that don’t involve the supermarket; it takes a bit more work, but the payoff is worth it.

Are you making changes to the way you cook and eat because of higher prices? We’d love to hear what your household is doing to adjust!

What we eat (and don’t eat)

“Build back better. Blah, blah, blah. Green economy. Blah, blah, blah. Net zero by 2050. Blah, blah, blah. This is all we hear from our so-called leaders. Words that sound great but so far have not led to action. Our hopes and ambitions drown in their empty promises.”

I don’t pay a great deal of attention to teenagers, mostly because I’m not learning dance moves on The TikTok, but I’d have to agree with Greta Thunberg’s comments above. The preposterous dog and pony show currently taking place in Glasgow is just so much performative rhetoric with absolutely no follow-through. Honestly, the planet likely warmed another ten degrees from all of the hot air passionately emoted in Scotland. Please note that this summit is titled COP26 for a reason – because twenty-five conferences have been held previously, and precisely nothing was accomplished through any of those gatherings, either. Also, pro tip for the U.N.: everyone knows that if you want to host the most glamorous climate-change party you should invite some big-name guests, and when Russia and China both decline your invitation, your party starts to look a little sad.

Our smoky, hazy, summer wildfire sky.

Let’s look on the bright side: we’re finally, finally having some hard conversations about the devastating realities of climate change! Now let’s look on the realistic side: it’s far past time for us to acknowledge that we cannot stop or even slow climate change! The moment for that was forty years ago, when scientists first started warning of these eventualities. Countries have never once even met emission-reduction goals, never mind exceeded them, and we’re quickly headed for a far greater increase than the oft-mentioned 2°C. In late 2021, the only realistic approach is to concentrate all of our efforts on adapting to our changing weather patterns and our warming planet. It’s ridiculous to think that we can alter the current trajectory, but we may as well acknowledge that adaptation is what humans do best – it’s exactly why we’re in this doomsday scenario, because we’ve adapted to living and breeding everywhere, limited resources be damned.

What frustrates me most about a bunch of useless politicians prattling on about green economies and renewable energy – plus a bunch of shouty protesters taking to the streets with their cobalt-filled smartphones! – is that collectively, we’ve chosen to ignore the solutions that already exist. It’s almost as though we didn’t think that climate change was a tricky-enough problem, so we said, “How can we make this more difficult and more expensive?” Instead, all we actually have to do is look at the answers we already have – and the two best and most obvious both save people money AND have a huge impact on overall methane emissions. Yes! Everyone talks about decarbonization, but perhaps our energy would be better focused on methane reduction.

Lovely car, but electric vehicles aren’t going to save us. Not by a long shot.

This is not intended to broadly oversimplify the hugely complex problem of climate change, but the Environmental Defense Fund puts it like this: “Cutting methane emissions is the fastest opportunity we have to immediately slow the rate of global warming, even as we decarbonize our energy systems. It’s an opportunity we can’t afford to miss. Methane (CH4) has more than eighty times the warming power of carbon dioxide over the first twenty years after it reaches the atmosphere. Even though CO2 has a longer-lasting effect, methane sets the pace for warming in the near term. At least 25% of today’s warming is driven by methane from human actions.”

And so, the obvious question would be as follows: what can we, as individuals, do to reduce our methane emissions? The answer is remarkably simple yet hugely impactful: eat less (or no) meat and stop wasting food. These are basic actions that don’t require complicated technology, new infrastructure, job retraining or trillions of incentive dollars. They also directly benefit our health and save us money.

Cheap hormone-drenched feedlot beef in plastic tubes. Yummy yummy!

According to the EPA, well more than a third of the United States’ methane emissions originate from agriculture, primarily feedlots and manure lagoons (such an attractive phrase – the American meat industry is decidedly grim). “When livestock and manure emissions are combined, the agriculture sector is the largest source of CH4 emissions in the United States.” Obviously, then, reducing the number of animals we raise for food is a simple way to reduce methane emissions. In Glasgow, however, not much was said about meat consumption, likely because at least in America, the livestock and agriculture industries are incredibly powerful. Shaking that tree is going to take quite a bit more than twenty-six international climate summits.

It’s no surprise that Americans are one of the top consumers of animal flesh in the world; we were raised, of course, on “meat and potatoes.” When it comes to our food expenditures, meat represents the lion’s share of our grocery budget. Using broad-brush statistics, Americans consumed about 265 pounds of meat per person in 2020, at a cost of $4 per pound. (These numbers are roughly averaged, as beef is substantially more expensive than chicken and pork.) That’s three-quarters of a pound of meat per person, per day, every day. Considering that we have the highest rates of diabetes, heart disease and cancer in the developed world – lifestyle diseases strongly correlated with our excessive meat consumption and shockingly poor diets – decreasing the amount of meat we eat would reduce methane and save lives, plus save us all money on groceries and health care. (The hospital industry is a huge GHG emitter, too, so if we stayed out of hospitals because we were healthier we’d again be helping both ourselves and the planet. See how it all comes together?)

Livestock should be on pasture, not in feedlots.

As an additional incentive, millions of acres of land are cleared to raise livestock and feed, primarily corn and soy. Returning these acres to natural prairie grassland in the U.S. or tropical rain forest, as in the Amazon, would also help sequester tons of carbon dioxide in the soil, rather than pushing it into the atmosphere. Raising livestock also uses astonishing amounts of water; in the American West, where most beef cattle can be found, there is no longer any water to spare. In short, the overall benefits of minimizing or eliminating meat consumption are staggering – and certainly not discussed nearly as often as EVs or taxes on oil and gas companies.

Methane is generated not only from livestock and their waste, but from any decomposing organic matter thrown into landfills. Food waste, then, is another massive beast entirely; more than 40% of all food produced in the United States is never eaten. If food waste were a country, its emissions would be third-highest in the world, after the U.S. and China; globally, food waste accounts for about 8% of the world’s total greenhouse gases. This is such low-hanging (and obviously rotting) fruit – when organic matter is decomposed properly in a well-managed compost pile, it produces nutrient-rich humus that can then be used to grow more food. When smothered in non-biodegradable plastic trash bags in a landfill, however, its emissions are greater than the entire airline industry. And the solution is just so simple and again, saves money – buy less food, don’t cook more than you’ll eat, use up your leftovers and scraps and start a compost pile. The answers really aren’t that complicated, and no one needed to convene tens of thousands of people in Scotland to figure this out. Sure looks impressive on social, though.

Composting organic matter is such a simple way to reduce methane emissions.

It’s easy to lose faith entirely when our world leaders are so smug and so hypocritical, and so intent on making blah blah blah promises they have no intention of keeping. If you’re feeling entirely depressed and hopeless about the state of the world – as most of us likely are – just know that individual choices do make a difference when taken collectively. Reduce or eliminate meat in your diet and stop throwing away food. These small actions might not seem like much, but it’s certainly a better approach than giving up entirely.

How to start composting

Americans produce about five times as much trash per capita as does the rest of the world: a truly shameful statistic. Even while the news shows images of food bank lines stretching for miles, we still manage to waste far more food (about 40% of everything we buy) than the average human. Most of this food waste ends up in landfills, which are rapidly reaching capacity; by some estimates, over half the waste in municipal landfills could be composted and used to build soil fertility. It’s also frustrating to see thousands of plastic trash bags filled with grass clippings and raked leaves headed to the landfill where they won’t decompose effectively when rebuilding the soil is one of the very best weapons we have against climate change.

QF Compost 01 sml

Our original compost pile.

If you’re looking to reduce your own waste stream, starting a compost pile is one of the best and easiest solutions. And if you’re cooking at home more these days, as most of us are, you might find yourself producing a lot of food scraps that could be put to much better use than the landfill. Composting has long been presented as too challenging / too time-consuming / too complicated / too messy / too smelly / impossible on a small scale. If managed correctly it is none of these, and is one of the very best ways to make your own plants better, even if you’re simply growing fresh herbs on a sunny windowsill.

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On hiatus

Over the next eight weeks (at least in the U.S.), we’ll careen wildly from one overwrought celebration to another. From a holiday where we decorate with fresh, healthy vegetables but celebrate with cheap processed candy (while leaving the vegetables to rot in the landfill) to a holiday where we throw away the equivalent of fourteen million turkeys to a holiday predicated entirely upon excessive spending, consumption, packaging and waste, the next two months are a difficult and challenging time of year for many people – including us.

And thus Finding Quiet Farm is on hiatus for the rest of 2019, though we’ll stay busy. We’re going to bundle up, hunker down and get to work on all sorts of interesting tasks, both indoors and out. We’ll be back in the new year with farm updates, lots of book recommendations, and photos of all our projects. We’ll be quiet and productive and we’ll skip the holidays entirely, thanks very much.

Take good care of yourselves, friends, and cook something tasty and nourishing. We hope to see you back here in 2020.

How to save the world

Last Friday, millions of people around the world marched as part of a “global climate strike.” The march was intended to draw world leaders’ attention to the climate crisis in advance of the U.N. General Assembly taking place this week in New York City. While the sight of millions of mostly young people taking to the streets to make their voices heard is heartening in theory, teenagers in expensive sneakers carrying smartphones and pithy signs aren’t going to change the perilous trajectory we’re on.

Despite the fact that we are by far the world’s largest consumer and by extension the world’s largest polluter per capita, the U.S. is the only country in the world still debating the very existence of climate change. While other countries have their heads down working to find solutions, we’re still arguing over whether this is actually happening, and if so whose fault it is. (Spoiler alert: ours.) This disparity will be on full public view this week at the U.N.; once again, we’ll look like idiots on the world stage, a role in which we’re becoming increasingly comfortable.

Here’s the painful truth: we can’t protest the idea of large corporations destroying the planet, because we are the reason those corporations exist. If we didn’t buy their products – if we didn’t upgrade our iPhones every year, if we didn’t rob each other at gunpoint for thousand-dollar puffer jackets, if we didn’t accept and then dispose of two million plastic bags per minute – these corporations wouldn’t be able to plunder the planet. We are the problem, and by that logic we also have to be the solution.

Mental health professionals have reported a sharp uptick in the number of people seeking treatment for depression related to the environmental catastrophe we’re facing. It’s a massive, complex problem, and it’s easy to feel hopeless when confronted with its scale. On a personal level, I’ve long since graduated from severe eco-anxiety and now find myself teetering on the cliff of abject climate despair. I don’t think we’re going to be able to fix this, but we can’t choose to do nothing and watch the world implode around us. With that in mind, here are five things we can implement immediately that might just make a difference.

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Enough

Back in the Ye Olden Days, N and I worked on boats. One of these boats – the one we met on – was a scuba diving liveaboard that plied the waters between St. Maarten and St. Kitts, in the Netherlands Antilles. Much of our history together, along with thousands of other people, was erased earlier this year with the landfall of Hurricane Irma. The island we knew so well doesn’t exist any longer.

Thanksgiving magazines

Every year, they promise the PERFECT Thanksgiving. And every year, we buy it.

On this particular dive boat, there were as many as eighteen guests and eight crew. I cooked, and N guided dives. And because provisioning in the Caribbean is never easy, the weekly menu was set by the home office, and it was the same, week in and week out. We had Taco Night, and a barbecue, and because most of our guests were American, every Thursday was a full Thanksgiving spread. Because – trust me – there is nothing you want to eat more in the middle of a humid Caribbean July than the heaviest meal known to man. Every. Single. Thursday.

Thanksgiving turkey ad

We’re so rich in this country that we will give you a free turkey!

I’ve cooked well more than fifty full Thanksgiving meals in my time on this planet thus far, and I’d like to state here and now that I am done. Unsurprisingly, N cannot stand the meal either. I’ve talked about this before in my classes – how much I really, really loathe this season – but this year, it’s worse than ever. I simply cannot embrace the excess. The waste. The sheer, utter, obscene overconsumption just for the sake of pointless tradition.

Stone Barns-11.jpg

Over two hundred million pounds of food will be thrown away on or shortly after Thanksgiving. The USDA conservatively estimates that over one-third of all turkeys raised for this one day will be thrown out, uneaten. These animals lived a horrible life and died for nothing. This is the season both for abundance and for waste, when we’re both begged to donate to hundreds of needy charities yet told at every turn that we need to buy more, eat more, consume more. I can no longer support America’s most gluttonous holiday: we’re the only country in the world that celebrates Thanksgiving, and we do so with such little regard for the shocking overconsumption that we promote to the rest of the world. And then there’s the day after Thanksgiving.

NJB_1413

Because nothing says “giving thanks” like buying a bolt-action rifle on Black Friday.

A holiday devoted to proudly eating oneself into a “turkey coma,” followed by camping out so we can buy ever-larger televisions or the latest iPhone? Or a new gun? What is there to celebrate, honestly? While this holiday may have actually originated as a rightful celebration of having enough, now it’s about having more. More of everything. More food, specifically the dishes we just “have to have at the table.” You know, Aunt Mildred’s casserole that everyone secretly hates but it’s tradition. And so it sits there, congealing, and is quietly thrown out at the end of the evening because no one, no one wants to take it home. Or the two meat main courses, because everyone really needs both ham and turkey. And everyone really needs eight different side dishes. And everyone really needs three desserts. And everyone really needs to throw all this excess food away on the Sunday evening after Thanksgiving because, quite frankly, everyone is f*ing tired of looking at it.

Turkey.jpg

How about this year, we declare it enough. We have enough. Enough food. Enough electronics. Enough guns. Enough unused things in our house collecting dust. How about this year we agree to eat less, to buy less, to not feel sick at ten o’clock at night while we’re camping out at Bed Bath & Beyond. How about this year, we don’t worry about what do with all those leftovers because we just cooked enough. How about this year, we just decide that what we have is enough. And how about we leave it at that.

Food waste + helpful tips!

Thankfully, we’re finally, finally talking about food waste in the U.S. Chefs have long been painfully aware of the staggering quantities of perfectly edible food thrown out in restaurants and hotels on a daily basis, but only recently have we started discussing how much food is wasted in grocery stores and, more personally, at home.

Waste tomatoes

Trash tomatoes at a greenhouse operation in eastern Colorado.

I want people to cook at home, obviously, and I also want people to save money. I teach classes on how to reduce food waste, and I typically cite statistics like “40% of all edible food produced in the United States is thrown away uneaten” and “The average American family throws away over $2,000 worth of food every year.” I like to augment these cheery facts with even more cheery facts, like that the annual value of all edible food thrown away worldwide is over $3 trillion. That, however, isn’t even a comprehensible number, nor is the idea that food waste takes up more space in landfills than any other item – including the devil of them all, disposable diapers. Decomposing food contributes more methane to the environment than all livestock together; if food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest polluter in the world, after the U.S. and China.

Waste strawberries

All destined for the trash and no, they won’t be composted.

Let’s be realistic: I can drone on and on, citing all sorts of numbing statistics, but it makes for boring reading and quite frankly, no one really wants to read a blog where they’re lectured for their appallingly bad habits. Plus, eco-anxiety is an actual thing, and many of us, myself included, feel utterly powerless about our ability to do anything in the face of insurmountable problems like climate change. But minimizing your own food waste is something you can actually do to both save money and save the planet, rather than just wring your hands helplessly. So let’s keep it a bit more positive and I’ll just present a professional chef’s tips for minimizing food waste at home!

Zuccini

We grew these! Unfortunately, only one would be saleable at a standard grocery store. Our aesthetic expectations are utterly unrealistic.

But wait! Before we get into the helpful tips, let’s boost our positivity even further by highlighting organizations actually doing something about food waste!

Cucumbers

We grew these too! Same story as the zucchini above; only one is the correct size.

Americans throw away food for lots of different reasons – mostly because food here is cheaper than anywhere else in the world, and we’re really picky – but at home there are two key factors: meaningless expiration dates and poor planning. A bit of effort on your part will not only save you lots of money, but also keep food out of landfills. It’s a true win-win! (Fun fact: sell-by dates were introduced in Marks & Spencer storerooms in the 1950s; they first appeared on consumer-facing shelves in U.S. and Europe in the early 1970s.)

Waste Honey Jars

Honey doesn’t spoil. Ever. It’s been found in edible condition in Egyptian tombs. So why the expiration date?

At the Store:

  • Shop with a list and buy only what you need. Before going to the store, check out the coupons and promotions. Make a meal plan for the week and incorporate ingredients on sale, and review the contents of your pantry, refrigerator and freezer. How will you know what you need if you don’t know what you have?
  • Avoid “bulk club” buys unless you’ll actually use it. Warehouse-style shopping – i.e. ten pounds of spinach or quinoa – might seem like a bargain at the time, but if you let it spoil it just means money wasted. It seems counterintuitive, but there are times when spending more for a smaller amount is the better choice. Be honest with yourself about how much your household will actually eat.
  • Use the bulk department for spices, grains, beans and more. In addition to reducing packaging, you can buy exactly the amount you need and try lots of new ingredients too!
  • If you only need a tiny amount of an ingredient, consider the prepped food available in the store’s salad bar. This might avoid buying an entire package that you’ll then throw away, plus you’ll save on prep time.
  • If you only need half a cabbage or a tiny portion of cheese, just ask nicely. Most stores will be happy to provide exactly what you need instead of what they’ve already packaged.
  • If you’re going to buy a special, expensive ingredient for one recipe, figure out other recipes in which you can also use that ingredient rather than wasting it.
  • If you shop at your local farmers’ market and you’re planning on doing any canning or preserving, buy seconds. These are just as delicious as the first-run produce, but you get to pay less and your farmer doesn’t have to throw their hard work away.

Waste Salt

It’s a rock. I’m fairly certain we will expire long before it does.

At Home:

  • Most importantly, remember that all best-by dates are only a guideline. Please, use your common sense when deciding whether to throw something away simply because an unregulated date on the package says to. These dates are totally confusing, essentially meaningless and they contribute hugely to our food waste issue.
  • Shop from your own pantry and challenge yourself not to buy food for a week, two weeks or a month. Use up everything you have before buying more.
  • Learn to repurpose your food: when you make your weekly meal plan, also consider the meals you’ll make from the leftovers. Batches of whole grains or rice can be used for numerous meals.
  • Store your produce properly. Certain items should stay on the counter (tomatoes!) and others should go in the fridge (apples!). Know how best to keep everything fresh.
  • Use your freezer – if you’re not going to use something, freeze it. Bread freezes beautifully, as do most vegetables, meat and fruit. Use small containers and wrap items well; label and date everything.
  • Portion control is important. Start with a small amount on your plate, and get seconds if you want them rather than taking a huge serving and throwing most away. This goes for serving kids, too.
  • Devote one dinner per week to “favorites,” and eat leftovers rather than throwing them out.
  • Start a compost bin and be amazed by how much less trash your household produces; the compost you make will do wonders for your vegetable garden. Even better: get a flock of backyard chickens and enjoy fresh eggs while they enjoy your fruit and vegetable scraps.

Waste compost

Our compost pile looks a mess, but it turns into the most incredible soil.

What can you make with random odds and ends?

  • It mystifies me that people regularly throw away bread and buy croutons. If you’ve got stale bread, you’ve got croutons, crostini and bread crumbs. Tear or cut bread into chunks, toss it in a little olive oil, salt, pepper and garlic powder and toast in a 300 degree oven until golden and crispy. Slice slender baguettes into thin slices for crostini and toast as for croutons. Store in an airtight bag. Process in a food processor or blender to make bread crumbs; store crumbs in the freezer.
  • Just about any listless vegetable can become part of a delicious soup. Dice vegetables into small pieces, simmer in stock, and finish with a drizzle of good olive oil and a sprinkling of sharp cheese.
  • Tomato sauce can take a lot of extra vegetables without you even noticing! Add in not-so-perfect carrots, celery, greens, onions, squash…and puree the whole thing. The tomatoes will dominate, trust me.
  • And all those vegetable trimmings from your soups and sauces? Add onion tops, celery leaves, carrot peelings and other odds and ends to a zip-top bag and store in the freezer. When it’s full, simmer to make homemade vegetable stock. Add chicken or beef bones too, if you’ve got them.
  • Parmigiano rinds are every Italian grandmother’s secret to the most flavorful soups, stocks, broths and risottos. Store in the freezer and use as needed for extra umami punch.
  • Fruit no longer nice enough to eat fresh? Cut it into small pieces and freeze it on a cookie sheet. Once frozen, transfer the chunks to a zip-top bag and use for smoothies.
  • Speaking of smoothies, all your greens – kale, spinach, chard – can be thrown right in with your fruit and yogurt. You might notice the color, but you won’t notice the taste.

Above all else, consider the amount of time, effort and money that went into the food you’re eating – and respect that by treating it carefully and mindfully!

Work with what you have

We’ve returned home after five months away and are trying desperately to reinsert ourselves back into our normal lives. This is proving to be substantially more difficult than we had anticipated, but thankfully the task of cooking is always there to ground me. My aspirational motto for this summer (and forever, really) is “Work with what you have.” It’s easy to wish that circumstances were different, or that we had an alternate set of tools at our disposal to complete a specific task, but in the kitchen, as in life, sometimes you simply have to work with what you have. And so my task for the summer, at least, is to cook from our existing food supplies rather than buying more.

Grains and pulses

Dry beans, grains, seeds and legumes are a pantry staple.

By most estimates, about 40% of all edible food produced in America is thrown out (more, if it’s fresh produce) instead of eaten. This is a statistic that I cite often in my classes; I ask my guests to calculate their own food budget and determine how much money they’re throwing away. I’ve even gone so far as to put actual dollar bills in the trash can (later retrieved, obviously) because for some reason that sludgy green bag of decomposing kale in the bottom of the crisper drawer doesn’t seem to equate to real money to most people. Apparently we care about our food waste problem, but we’re just too busy to do anything about it.

Sauces

How to add flavor and interest to your food.

Americans spend less money on food than any country in the First World. Calories are cheap here and we’re obsessed with aesthetic perfection, plus we have absolutely no idea what all those “best by” and “use by” dates actually mean. (Answer: nothing. There are no regulations. Use your common sense; it’s designed to protect you from food poisoning. Plus, food manufacturers and grocery stores love those misleading labels because the sooner they expire, the sooner you buy more.) That means that not only do we waste food before it even arrives in the grocery store, but we buy more when our fridge and freezer and cupboards are already filled to the brim. Hence, the summer challenge.

Baking

I bake frequently, so I keep a well-stocked baking pantry.

One of the most important concepts I try to get across in my cooking classes is the idea of cooking without a recipe. I would love not to hand out recipes in class, but am well aware that this would not endear me to my guests. I want people to feel comfortable working towards a basic end goal; i.e. “Tonight I’d like to make a stir-fry,” rather than “Tonight I’m making Mark Bittman’s Beef with Broccoli and I have to stop by the store on the way home to buy beef and broccoli and fourteen other specialty ingredients.” If you look in your fridge and you’ve got a little leftover steak plus some carrots and peppers (because you already used all the broccoli earlier this week), and you know you have rice in your pantry along with Asian basics like soy or hoisin sauce, then you’ve got a meal. Start with what you have, and figure out where you’re going from there.

Spice dishes dark

So much flavor hidden in these little dishes.

In addition to teaching people specific recipes (which I invariably deviate from in class – people hate this) I also teach how to stock your pantry. Oils and vinegars, sauces and condiments, spices and seasonings, grains, pasta, beans and legumes, plus freezer basics like frozen vegetables (which get a bad rap but are in many cases better and cheaper than fresh) all come together to form the basis of some truly amazing meals. I know that people who are new to cooking require the comfort and guidance of a recipe. But I also think that as you grow and develop as a home cook, you should challenge yourself to work with what you have, rather than buying exactly what you need. Oh, and those specialty ingredients you bought for that one recipe you made months ago but never used again? A quick online search for “What should I do with tahini?” goes a long way towards using those up.

Freezer

Don’t judge. I’m working on it.

So please, friends, try this at home. I’m willing to bet that you have at least two weeks’ worth of food in your house already. Challenge yourself – for a day, a week, even a month – to only cook with what you have. See if you can come up with interesting, delicious and healthy options to use up all that food you’re stockpiling. Learning how to trust yourself and improvise a bit in the kitchen is one of the biggest steps towards becoming a better cook, and I promise you that the reward is worth the effort.