We care about our health and how our choices affect our local environment and the planet. Moving toward a zero waste lifestyle is our way of trying to live lightly on the earth and reduce our carbon footprint. Of all the steps we’ve taken in our zero waste journey, the kitchen has been one of the easiest and most impactful places to tackle waste production. There’s a range of choices you can make that vary in their difficulty to implement. But one way that is rarely mentioned is zero waste cooking.
Reducing Waste in the Kitchen
One commonly talked about way to reduce your kitchen waste is to cook at home as often as possible to avoid buying pre-made meals to-go in excess packaging. Another is to focus on using reusable bags to shop with (including reusable vegetable/fruit bags), and buying less packaged products. This is when buying things in bulk that are not individually packaged comes in handy. But better yet, start growing some of your own food (even if just in pots), or buy what you can directly from local farmers.
Using real reusable plates and utensils can make a huge difference too. Luckily there are a few companies and restaurants that have at least moved to using compostable packaging/plates/utensils. But beware of plastics labeled “compostable” as some are only so when they are industrially composted (exposed to extreme temperatures, intensive churning, etc.). These will not break down in a smaller home sized composting system. Look for “home compostable” labels instead. These products are able to break down easily and safely within simple home compost bins.
And of course, composting, composting, composting! Which includes making your own soil amendments and fertilizers out of waste. For example: using vegetable rinse water, grain/bean soaking water, or cooled cooking water to water plants. All of these waters contain extra nutrients and minerals that are vital to healthy plant growth.
But there’s one category that’s been mostly ignored. Zero waste cooking. I’ve said before that I love to cook. Even though I write recipes for our blogs, I rarely follow them myself. I like to experiment, which is why I leave the baking to Rimakej. This curiosity led me to start researching things like nose to tail eating, and how to safely preserve foods without modern methods. I’ve even found myself reading a few books on culinary history. Sometimes I look at a bunch of ingredients as I’m making a meal and think about what I’m tossing in the compost or to the chickens. Is it edible? Is there a traditional use? What do I know about that item and its properties?
I decided to make veggie stock from scraps after reading about quercetin in onion skins. Later I read about using carrot greens in pesto and salads. Then, I found how to use dehydrated tomato skins to make tomato powder. There had to be more things that I wasn’t getting as much use out of as I could. What about apple cores? Time to make Apple Cider Vinegar! Citrus peels afforded even more edible choices: candied peels, preserves, fresh zest, extracts, and dried peel as a spice or for use in tea. Ginger skins are also a nice addition to herbal teas and soup stocks.
Expanding Zero Waste Cooking
Broccoli leaves and peeled stalks became regular additions to our menus. I like to cook the peeled stalks stir fried with a little garlic. One year for our annual Yule celebration I even left them raw as slices to eat hummus with. No one could figure out what they were, but they loved them! I also started using overripe fruit for making jams, banana bread, or fruit leather. Grape leaves are great for eating stuffed or making pickles crisper. Corn silk can be used as a medicinal tea. And pickled watermelon rinds are one of my favorites. These discoveries yielded an even wilder approach once I really began to forage. Adding prickly pear juice, oak leaf wine, acorn flour, cattail hearts, nettle pesto, and rosehip jam to our growing list.
Additional Helpful Uses
You can even expand to making a light pink ink from beet skins, a dye from onion skins, and a fertilizer from banana peels. What about using lemongrass leaves instead of kitchen twine, rosemary twigs instead of skewers, or banana leaves instead of plates or aluminum foil? Corn husks are used for tamale wrapping, but can also be woven into a hat or braided for rope. Used coffee grounds in excess make an excellent medium for growing mushrooms. And prickly pear thorns make great sewing pins, while cattail leaves can be easily woven together to make mats.