Low-Waste Cooking Is Possible With a Few Small Daily Changes

Waste less, save more

Michelle Keffer (Courtesy of Michelle Keffer)

Food waste reduction initiatives are (finally) on the brink of being trendy, but whether you're in it for the 'gram or in these quar-times you're bored/broke enough to try new kitchen techniques, making small changes has a huge impact on the environment, budgets, health, and even justice. On her popular Instagram account @zerowastechef, Anne-Marie Bonneau wrote, "A jar of homemade sauerkraut isn't just a tasty, healthy snack. It's also an act of defiance against our broken food system."

Here in Austin, Michelle Keffer (who highly recommends the @zerowastechef page) started documenting her journey on her Instagram account @the_zerowastejourney in 2019 after following lots of accounts. "[Many] seem to have a lot of money and they're all really young and don't have children and they're in cities where they can walk to the grocery and get a baguette, but most of us don't live that way. So one of the reasons I started my IG page was to encourage people like me. I live in Dove Springs; there's not even a grocery store. There's dollar stores and gas stations. And some people don't have transportation here. For people who can't afford to throw away everything they own and make it all bamboo, ya know?"

Keffer admits that despite always caring about the environment, she started to save money. "The whole reason I started going low waste and using reusables when Miette was a baby is because I was broke. I think people get confused because they see the Instagram posts of, you know, a beautiful 25-year-old standing in front of their giant fiddle leaf fig tree in their beautiful modern home, and they think that's the life they have to live to take this journey."

Hillside Farmacy created a zero waste Chicken & Biscuit with veggies scraps. (Courtesy of Choco)

Change One Habit (to Start)

Aiming for lower waste is the goal, and it can be a fun way to break up the meal monotony. If Keffer can't find a package-free option for an item she wants, she tries to make it herself – pretzels, oyster crackers, snack bars. "It seems impossible. Like, 'This could only be made by a robot in a factory,' but it started because some grandma probably hundreds of years ago invented it. We can totally make these things."

The @zerowastechef account offers tons of inspiration and how-tos on making just about anything: ginger beer, sourdough starter, even package tape made with wheat paste and brown-paper scraps.

"The tip is just starting small," says Keffer. "Choose one thing – cleaning out your jars and hoarding them in a corner of your pantry. When you have leftovers, dump them in there. Those tiny little changes make a huge difference and that's a good way to start. The reason I started the page was also to keep myself motivated. Like if I was accountable to these people I will continue to learn and do better. So maybe doing it with friends, like working out. 'Hey what kind of change did you make this week?' Or let your produce hang out naked in your grocery cart. I mentioned that one on my page and people were like 'I didn't even know you could do that in the store.' And I'm like, 'Yeah, your apple is wearing a coat. It's okay.'"

Preparation is Key

More people are at home and grocery shopping habits have changed during the pandemic, and although there is certainly not more time in the day, and financial burdens are growing, small adjustments require no more time or money. It's all about the prep.

Keffer says, "This whole zero waste lifestyle is about being prepared. Having what you need in your car, having your list when you go to the grocery store and only getting exactly what's on your list and not going hungry – because that's when you buy bags of chips and tubs of ice cream. It's prep and planning and it sounds like a lot of work – showering and brushing your teeth and washing the dishes also sounds like a lot of work, but you're in the habit of it. So it saves money, and saves time. And also for your health: Keeping your food stored in plastic – that seeps into your food, and then into your body."

Plan meals for the household, down to the snacks, and set aside time to write it down. Consider what ingredients are already on hand and need to be used first – like strawberries or fish – and figure out your schedule for the available times to cook.

"I do [it daily] because that is my sanctuary. At 4-5pm, Mom's in the kitchen with headphones on, watching the news, and having a glass of wine. That's my 'me time.'" Keffer says. For people who don't like to cook, crockpot meals are great. "Padma Lakshmi, who I love, recently said '90% of cooking is chopping,' so put on your jams and chop up the onions and celery and everything you need and put them in little repurposed jars in your fridge and you're ready to go. Then you just have to dump them in a pot, you know?"

Support Low-Waste Restaurants

Keffer pencils in local takeout in her weekly plan, and she tries to opt for spots that use compostables or let her bring her own to-go containers. But sometimes, the craving takes hold. In a recent Instagram story, she took followers on a journey to order takeout from a favorite spot that she knows uses styrofoam. Keffer goes into the restaurant (masked), orders to the table for the whole fam, with her own glass takeaway containers in tow, and then packages all the food, gets the check, tips well, and takes it all home to eat. Simple, she says.

Il Brutto's "Waste is Gold" dish featured gnocchi with aged cheese skin, squash seeds, and brown thyme. (Courtesy of Choco)

Many restaurants are already on the journey, from to-go packaging to dishes. With the help of restaurant tech startup Choco, five local kitchens participated in a late January anti-waste pop-up. "In the U.S. alone, 40% of all food produced goes uneaten, making up 133 billion pounds in landfills and totaling $161 billion of food waste per year," says Chelsea van Hooven, Choco's global industry advisor. Il Brutto (East Austin), Hillside Farmacy (East Austin), Otoko x Watertrade (South Congress), Foreign & Domestic (North Loop), and Casa de Luz (Barton Springs) each created dishes for the Waste Is Gold event, in part to showcase what they've all been doing regularly, and to highlight what the restaurant industry needs to do to slow food waste. Sarah Heard, chef and co-owner at Foreign & Domestic, made a mushroom crème brûlée entirely of food that would otherwise be wasted.

Use What You Have

"Jars are like the quintessential go-to zero waste thing, because they're free – you already have them," says Keffer. She regularly reminds followers that you shouldn't throw away what you already have – keep it out of the landfill as long as possible – but when you run out, consider making a switch. Food-grade silicone bags are excellent, but often pricey, so use them for specific items, like saving bread products in the freezer. "Beeswax wraps are also great. But really, just putting the bowl of food in the fridge with a plate on top is a fine container."

Using up leftovers – and putting that on the planned list – is a great way to save time, money, and reduce waste. Play Chopped with your "basket ingredients." The same food waste reduction tips in restaurants can apply to home cooks. "The overwhelming theme of the restaurants who took part in Waste Is Gold is to cast the ingredients you might be throwing away in a new light and instead use them to create flavor," says van Hooven.

Heard says: "Celery leaves are a beautiful garnish and people always throw them away. Just about every vegetable scrap can go into broth, and broth is such an awesome way to get the nutrients out of your onion peels and carrot peels or your meat bones ... all of that can go into a broth, and then if you throw [in] some noodles and salt and you've got a full dish."

Find Your ‘Why’

Small changes that personally resonate are the key to sustaining long-range edits.

Reusing jars prevents the purchase of onetime use plastic baggies, saving money and landfill waste. Buy in bulk when possible, to save money and eliminate excess packaging. "Costco is great for anything you just can't find an alternative for – like vegetable oil," says Keffer. She adds that in addition to the bulk sections at H-E-B, Wheatsville Food Co-op is an excellent option, but if it's too expensive for the whole list, try purchasing specialty items like Castille soap. She notes that they're also the only place in Austin that will let you put meat and fish in your own container – even now.

Throwing food into the trash greatly contributes to greenhouse gases, and composting is an easy way to curb that. For those living somewhere that still doesn't offer the city of Austin curbside compost service, she suggests www.sharewaste.com, where you match with someone who has a compost bin in their yard and needs more material for it. It's all about figuring out what works for your household – and you don't have to compost everything that goes through your house or figure out where to recycle the weirdest thing that comes through. Just pick one thing and start there. Consider turning scraps into more food by regrowing celery or scallions or sprouting an avocado pit.

Reducing meat consumption earns a big gold star. "If you're a person that eats meat three meals a day, just eat meat at two meals a day. That makes a huge difference – it snowballs." When you follow accounts t hat cater to your interests, and they share something about another part of this journey, you start looking at more, learn more, and then you want to do more she says. "That's what happened to me. I wasn't a vegetarian [in the beginning]. I think it's fine if you do [eat meat] – there are other things you can do. But if you change your diet a little, you'll notice changes in how your body feels. If you stop putting food scraps in the trash, you'll notice how much better the house smells – you know, little things like that. Little benefits, silver linings."

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