Monday, February 17, 2014

Conservation Monday #3: Reducing Waste in the Kitchen

Welcome back to Conservation Monday at Living Design!

While this series was inspired by the drought situation here in California, I want to take a break from the water tips and focus on another way to drastically reduce waste: the kitchen.

When Sean and I first started living together, I was fresh out of college and he had been living at his parents' house for a year since his own graduation. I was used to sharing a fridge and pantry with two roommates; he was used to not thinking about the kitchen at all! The first few months together, I found we were constantly going to the grocery store because I knew nothing about grocery shopping to feed two people. Looking back, I know we generated more waste than necessary due to our inexperience with cooking for two, and with meal planning.

I know we have a long way to go still, and these days some of my frustration comes from the lack of green waste pick-up at our condo building. (We have a worm bucket, but when we do large fruit harvests we have to throw most of the compostable discards in the garbage because it's too much for our worms to handle.) I love reading Zero Waste Home to get even more ideas on how to reduce our waste.

Today, though, I want to share with you 8 ways we've changed our habits to reduce waste in the kitchen.

Living Design: Reducing Waste in the Kitchen

1. Stop buying individually packaged servings. 
For instance, both Sean and I eat quite a bit of yogurt. At first, I bought individually packaged cartons of yogurt. Easy to grab, right? Well, after a while we noticed that if I bought the fat-free variety with aspartame Sean would get headaches. Then I started learning about cutting out artificial thing led to another and now we only buy the large containers of organic, plain yogurt. Whereas we used to recycle 6 to 8 little plastic cartons per week, now we reuse or recycle one large carton per week.

2. Buy dried goods from bulk bins.
If you can buy dried goods like beans and rice from bulk bins, this is a great way to eliminate packaging. Instead of buying canned beans, which take up a lot of room when stored and may have BPA in the cans, or buying dried beans in boxes or plastic bags, I use the bulk bins at our local grocery store. I'm not at the point where I bring my own bags to put them in yet, but at least the bags provided by the bulk bins get reused to clean the litter box.

3. Don't throw away those veggie scraps.
I keep a gallon sized bag in the freezer into which I toss any edible but undesirable veggie scraps. The leafy parts of celery, the stem end of a carrot. Even an unused leftover onion, since you don't want to store cut onions in the fridge too long. When the bag gets full, I dump it all into the crock pot, fill with water and let it sit on simmer overnight. The next morning, I strain the vegetable broth into glass jars, let them cool, then freeze. No more store-bought vegetable broth in cans or paper cartons! (The veggie mush that's left after straining gets fed to the worms.)

Living Design: Reducing Waste in the Kitchen

4. Don't throw away those bones.
Along the same vein as the vegetable broth, I never throw away bones! When I cook a full chicken, I dissect the whole thing that night as we're putting away the leftovers. I typically cook the full chicken in the crock pot, so I leave all the leftover juices at the bottom. Any onion or herbs I used for the chicken stay in the crock pot too. Then, as I put away the leftover chicken, I pull the bones off and toss them back into the crock pot, along with any skin that peels away or pieces of cartilage. Fill with water, set to simmer, add a small dash of apple cider vinegar to help leach the calcium out of the bones and into the broth. Just like the vegetable broth, it sits on simmer overnight, then gets strained into glass jars in the morning. (Unlike the remains of the vegetable broth, the remaining bones have to go in the garbage since worms can't break them down and we have no green waste pick up.)
Use the same method for making broth out of any leftover bones!

5. Learn to eat the whole vegetable.
When we first signed up for our CSA box over a year ago, we had no idea what to do with all the extra greens! Carrot tops, radish greens...these are things you rarely see in the grocery store. I was able to find some recipes online, but my favorite resource has been Root to Stalk Cooking, which I received for Chanukah. Every recipe I've tried from the book has been delicious, and I love that she often combines the "normal" part of the vegetable with the "extra", such as the Carrot Top Pesto I recently made, which is served over roasted vegetables including carrots. Don't ever throw out those "extras" again!

6. Plan a leftovers night. Or two.
One of the tricks of cooking for two is that most recipes are designed for four or more. This means there can be a lot of leftovers! Sean is great about taking leftovers to work, but I don't always have the option of leftovers for lunch (depending on where I'm working any given day.) So, I typically plan a "leftovers night" into our meal plan. If you're following along with my weekly meal plans, you'll notice that Mondays and Thursdays are typically leftovers; this is because for this semester, Sean has class Monday nights and I work longer days on Thursdays. So for right now, those two nights make sense to devote to easily reheated leftovers.
Depending on your own family's needs, the number of leftovers nights might vary. But no matter the family size I think it's a great solution to excess food and busy schedules. Wouldn't leftover pasta be more delicious and healthy than the drive-thru?

7. Use cloth napkins.
Growing up, we had always used paper napkins. As soon as I was buying them myself though, I realized how wasteful they were. Sure, the worms can eat them, but why use a fresh paper napkin with each meal when you can use a cloth one? Cloth feels nicer and can even feel luxurious. It's easily tossed into loads of laundry I'm already washing. And if we don't make too much of a mess, a single napkin can be used for a few days before I decide to toss it in the laundry. Eventually, when they wear out, they will be turned into rags. Far more eco friendly than even recycled paper napkins!
To be fair, we do still keep some paper on hand for things like buffalo wings...there are some messes I'm not ready to deal with on cloth. But with the rare instances we do use the paper, the worms make quick work of it!

Living Design: Reducing Waste in the Kitchen
 cloth napkins look beautiful, and help reduce waste at mealtimes

8. Use rags for clean up.
Once you stop using paper napkins, stop using paper towels as well! This one has taken a bit more getting used to, especially on Sean's part. He was so used to just reaching for paper towels that switching him to rags has been a bit of work. But it helps that I don't freak out about it -- I just remind him that we have rags for that job, next time. And we have drastically reduced our paper towel usage over the last few years. Most people can't believe I haven't purchased paper towels since before Sean and I got married!
I haven't done any of those cutesy things you see on Pinterest, with the cloth wipes sewn to fit onto a paper towel holder. I just have a pile of cut up old T-shirts and worn out socks. But really, they do the job just as well, and since no one else needs to see them, there are plenty of other craft projects I'd rather be doing instead of making my rags "cute".

How do you reduce your kitchen waste? I'd love to hear more tips in the comments!

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