Food Waste 101

A couple of weeks ago on Facebook, I asked what issues you’re struggling with on the zero waste front in your own kitchens, and food waste came up – specifically, what to do with it if you don’t compost.

Although skunks are kind of cute. Look! Skunk babies on the girls' playhouse steps a couple of years ago. They act like kittens.

Although skunks are kind of cute. Look! Skunk babies on the girls’ playhouse steps a couple of years ago. They act like kittens.

This isn’t really a problem I have – um, we live on about 3/4 of an acre, and I have an actual ravine on the property that I can just toss scraps over. (I know, that makes me sound like a hick and a slob. But it’s away from the house and it doesn’t smell and it works for us.) We don’t throw everything over the edge because that would feel too much like littering. And I’m not about to toss meat and dairy because we have raccoons, possums and skunks, not to mention cougar (welcome to Oregon!), and I don’t want to tempt any of these creatures into the same space as our precious Skilly. We’re talking veggie and fruit trimmings, really.

But there are weather-related times when I don’t have access to said ravine, and I’m always up for a Plan B. So this weekend I basically just played with my food. Or food scraps, I guess.

Sometimes the project is really pretty fun.

The Internet is a vast and wonderful space, so it didn’t take long to amass a rather nice list of compost-alternatives. Some of the top solutions:

  • Feed your scraps to your chickens / dogs / cats / livestock. (Um, I don’t have chickens or livestock, and Skilly is a most unhelpful animal in this regard. But it might work for some people.)
  • Crush washed eggshells and sprinkle at the base of plants to repel insects. (Warning: Failure to wash may attract rodents.)
  • Create a worm composter under your kitchen sink. (You guys, this sounds like a lot of work to me, but apparently it’s quite the thing.)
  • Mulch them. (If you happen to have a chipper/shredder at your house, I suppose.)

My favorites, however, are these:

  • Portion control – only buy what you need, and use it all. (That made me laugh, actually. You’ve got a point, Internet.)
  • Collect vegetable scraps; place into glass jars and freeze. When you have enough, simmer in water to make vegetable broth. (This seems doable.)
  • Blend it up for instant compost. (Also doable.)
  • Collect scraps and freeze to use in meatloaf, soup, sandwiches or other dishes. (Fun fact: My kids HATE meatloaf. Maybe doable.)

First up: Friday night freezer cleanout. I like to do my grocery shopping on Saturdays, and by Friday (who am I kidding, it’s really more like Wednesday because I’ve got two growing girls) we are wiped out of most foodstuffs. Getting a take-and-bake pizza on the way home from work used to be my standard way of dealing with this problem, but that’s a plastic wrap nightmare, so since beginning the project we just haven’t gone there. But hey! I can combat food waste by using what I have! (We should make that a challenge – pantry / freezer clean out week.) I found whole tomatoes, chopped spinach and zucchini chunks in the freezer from last summer’s bounty, and cooked those up with some leeks (last week’s farmers’ market. I never know what to do with leeks, but I can’t resist them). When everything was good and cooked, I whirled it around in the food processor to hide any vegetables from the girls (we do what we must) and then put it back on the stove to simmer into a thick sauce.

And it was fine. I mean, it wasn’t pizza, but we all got fed, which was mostly the point. Eric says this counts twice because not only did we NOT get a pizza, but we used food that might have otherwise gone to waste (I’m really great about freezing stuff for later. I am kind of terrible at actually using it). This is why I keep him around – that boy is great at putting a positive spin on everything.

Spinach stems and salad turnip greens get a new life as ... chopped up stuff.

Spinach stems and salad turnip greens get a new life as … chopped up stuff.

On Saturday I wanted to tackle “scraps for broth” and “instant compost.” Besides doing our grocery shopping on Saturdays, I like to prep and cook as much as I can during the weekend because I just am not up for any of that during the weekday – I tend to go nuts when I’m starving, and it’s best for everyone if we can just reheat a main dish and load up on veggies. So my style of cooking and prepping works well with both of those suggestions is what I’m saying. I peeled and sliced a thousand carrots (give or take, math is hard), and washed and prepped lettuce, spinach, grapes, cilantro, tomatoes, salad turnips, cucumber and bell peppers.

I know way too much about food scrap veggie stock at this point (thanks, Internet!), and I think the general guideline here is: If you wouldn’t put it in your mouth, do not put it in your broth. Basically, make sure everything is washed and scrubbed, free of mold and blemishes, and generally edible. All I can say is that my peelings have never been so clean. I ended up with an entire quart jar of just carrot peelings alone, and then maybe a quarter of a jar of other scraps: Pieces of turnip, tomato, bell pepper, even the cucumber peels.

(THIS blog has a great A-Z list of what you can and cannot put in broth, in case you’re interested, and is how I discerned what could be saved and what couldn’t.)

I also chopped the turnip tops and spinach stems in my food processor “for later” … like maybe a lettuce alternative for my daily sandwich? … and put that in the fridge.

My carrot peels have never been so clean. My salad spinner was a genius.

My carrot peels have never been so clean. My salad spinner was a genius.

Then I got distracted making hummus (using a can of chickpeas in the pantry I’ve been meaning to get rid of forever. Fun fact: I hate chickpeas, but I love hummus) because I had this cute little lemon peel and I knew there had to be something I could do with that. Again, thanks Internet, I covered it in white vinegar and it’s now sitting on my counter because in two weeks it’s going to be lemon-infused vinegar for cleaning. (Abby also keeps giving me science tips. Having kids is really starting to pay off.)

Potential problem for these alternative uses: Actually making that broth and eating those repurposed greens. And having enough freezer space and containers, too, I guess.

I wasn’t so sure the “instant compost” thing was going to work with the remainder of my scraps – not as many as I thought I’d have – but ever undaunted I soldiered on. I cut everything into smaller pieces just to help out my food processor a bit – that thing is kind of old and delicate – and lo and behold, it did work! Oh, it was super gross, especially when I added the remainder of the chickpea juice (it’s all an experiment, I thought it would “thicken” it up, and it did, so yay me).

Uh, but then I had to get rid of that slop. I tried to hide it at the base of some of our more leafy plants so you couldn’t see it, and I was sort of wondering what Eric would think of all of this, but he was like, oh, good, they probably needed it. (Again with the positive spin.)

So. Gross.

Kinda looks like guacamole gone wrong.

This isn’t technically compost, you guys – I had to write a compost story for the paper’s home and garden section not too long ago, and true compost is layers of green and brown material (veggie scraps, dead leaves), watered and turned and internally-monitored because it has to reach a certain temperature for a certain number of days to kill off any weed seeds. But hey, the smaller pieces should break down sooner. I guess?

Potential issues: If you live in an apartment building and you make “instant compost,” where do you put it?

As for Sunday … I didn’t do a dang thing besides read, write and nap, and it was awesome. 🙂

I don’t know if any of these are realistic in the long term – it’s a lot more work and a time commitment aside from the other potential problems I can foresee for some of us – but I like knowing that I have options. And it was also kind of shocking to see how much would have been tossed had I not done any of these things at all.

Next up: Farmers’ market and shopping update.