Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on Medium.com. The author has graciously given us the OK to share it.
Chefs and home cooks are separated into their two respective camps.
Chefs design recipes that can be prepared on a large scale with flair, while cooking at home is more about getting a simple meal on the table before everyone gets hangry.
Recreating a meal you had in a restaurant is often difficult to impossible at home. Plus, who wants to dirty extra dishes just to make the sauce?
But if there’s one thing I learned from years of hanging around in restaurant kitchens, it’s that chefs are masters of waste reduction. In addition to having to use their skills to turn a profit, they also have a deep respect for ingredients.
And there’s nothing more disrespectful than throwing food in the trash.
According to the EPA, we could reduce what goes to landfills by 20 percent if we eliminate our food waste. It’s estimated that one-third of all food produced gets wasted, and a majority of that is fruits, vegetables, roots, and tubers.
All that work to grow our nutritious food, all for nothing.
It’s probably no surprise that North America and Europe are the worst offenders when it comes to what we throw away at home. So, instead of only idolizing chefs in the media, maybe we should learn a thing or two from their less reality TV-worthy habits.
Here are seven ways to reduce food waste that I learned from professional chefs.
1. Wash your produce before storing
Produce delivery day was always a production in the kitchen. Boring, brown boxes turned into a colorful spectacle of rinsing, soaking, and sorting.
Compare this to the grocery haul you bring home and dump on your counter, then shove into whatever free fridge space is available.
Not only is this unsanitary, but it’s also a nightmare for meal planning and inspiration.
It might seem like a lot of work to wash your produce as soon as you get home, but I promise that the 20 minutes of work will pay off come six o’clock on Thursday night when you don’t have to, somehow, magically wash and dry your lettuce without a salad spinner. Which is basically impossible, by the way.
When your produce is ready to be tossed into a bowl or pan, you’re more likely to eat it. You can avoid the dreaded mushy green pile in your crisper drawer.
Which brings me to the next tip.
2. Line your crisper bins
Once you’ve got your freshly washed produce, the last thing you want to do is pile it on top of last week’s remainders in the crisper drawer.
In a restaurant kitchen, the produce is kept in bins — usually clear — that are lined with linens — usually fresh towels or service napkins. This is both an attractive display of ingredients and a way to prolong shelf life.
This is also something you can replicate in your crisper drawer at home, and it’s the secret to not cursing their design.
Crisper drawers will inevitably build up humidity despite any setting they may have because produce contains moisture. Lining them with a tea towel that you can — and should — wash and replace weekly will help reduce mold-causing moisture and save your food from the landfill.
3. Set your mise en place
French for everything in its place, this habit involves setting up all your ingredients before you start cooking. Bonus points for measuring things out.
I know. It seems like the kind of fuss you would only bother about on a cooking show. But it took me only one sad batch of cookies to get to the point where this habit is non-negotiable in my kitchen.
Aside from helping you ensure that you have all the necessary ingredients, laying things out before you get started also helps conserve energy. You can cook more efficiently, and you won’t be hanging out with the fridge open in search of carrots.
This centuries-old chef habit has the added benefit of making your time in the kitchen more carefree. It’s like a meal delivery service, sans individually plastic-wrapped ingredients.
4. Make your own salad dressing
Look, greens don’t need to be drowned in something that contains 27 ingredients.
They’re fine and dandy with a squeeze of citrus, drizzle of olive oil, pinch of salt, and crack of pepper. These can all be tossed into the bowl separately, but if you insist on having an actual dressing, here’s my tried and true.
- 1 tbsp vinegar (I use red wine or apple cider, but anything works.)
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- ½–1 tsp of dijon mustard (I don’t even measure. I’ve also been known to use regular mustard.)
- Pinch of salt and pepper
Stir and serve on anything. I use it on salads, proteins, roasted vegetables, and melted leeks. Oh, it can also be a marinade if you add garlic and onion. Store in an airtight jar on the counter or in the refrigerator.
You don’t need that single-use store-bought container of “Italian” dressing after all. Some of the best salad dressing you ever had in a restaurant may have been mixed to order.
5. Grow your own herbs
Herbs are both the easiest things you can grow at home and one of the hardest things to find plastic-free. They’re also expensive when you consider the cost of seeds, a bag of dirt, and a couple of terra-cotta pots.
Do your wallet and the planet a favor and grow your own herbs. They can even be grown indoors, just be sure they get some sun each day.
You can start small and still pack the flavor if you choose one, some, or all of these herbs:
6. Make soup
Soup of the day didn’t become a restaurant trend for no reason. Chefs turn scraps, leftovers, and trimmings into beautiful stocks and soups, reducing waste along the way.
Save your vegetable and other scraps in the refrigerator or freezer. Even onion ends and peels count. Cover with water and simmer it into a broth when you have some extra time. Season to taste. You can even store stock leftovers in the freezer.
Use your stock and other leftovers to make soup, adding grains, pasta, or legumes from the pantry if needed. Top with your homegrown fresh herbs if you’re feeling fancy.
7. Use those pan remnants
Those brown bits left in the pan after cooking meat or even mushrooms and hearty vegetables need not be wasted. In fact, they’re the secret behind some of the tastiest things served in restaurants.
- Either keep the heat on or reheat over medium heat and add some finely chopped garlic or onion, or both. I’ve even skipped this and had good results.
- Deglaze the pan by adding a generous glug of acid in the form of wine or vinegar.
- Let it simmer until it reduces into a drizzle-worthy sauce. Remove from the heat and add in a knob of butter or drizzle of olive oil.
- Stir and serve over meat or vegetables.
Voila — a tasty sauce with no extra dirty dishes required.
Once you become confident in your pan sauce, try adding herbs, spices, or a squeeze of citrus.
Cook your way to low-waste luxury
As you start adopting these low-waste habits, you’re sure to notice an increase in your culinary confidence and the quality of what comes out of your kitchen. Mindful cooking means a greater connection to your food and more pride in what you serve to yourself and others. It’s a tasty reminder that reducing your waste doesn’t mean sacrificing luxury.