7 Tips for Creating a Zero Waste Kitchen

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Did you know that about 40% of all food is wasted in America?

Waste isn’t only a product of food manufacturing and distribution. American households waste an estimated 46.5 thousand pounds of food a year. That’s equivalent to 50 billion meals and 158 billion dollars in food that’s thrown out.

The zero waste movement promotes using resources efficiently to reduce the waste that ends up in landfills. The concept of living with zero waste for families was popularized by the 2013 book Zero Waste Home.

Is going zero-waste realistic for your family?

It may not be as hard as you think. In addition to recycling, there are other things you can do that will make a difference in how much waste your kitchen produces.

Make a Plan

Meal planning is the key to zero-waste cooking. Plan ahead to find recipes that require food you already have and to find ways to use up leftovers. 

Before heading to the grocery store, check what ingredients you already have so you don’t buy duplicates or purchase something you don’t need. For example, if you already have some canned tomatoes in your pantry, check the expiration date before adding more cans to your list. 

The same goes for produce and other fresh foods stored in the refrigerator. Instead of letting fruits and vegetables sit past the point of freshness, freeze them within a few days if you don’t think you’ll need them. Or, plan meals and snacks to use them up. Cutting up veggies for snacks or adding them to soups and stir fries are some of my favorite ways to use up vegetables.

Once you know what food you have on hand, make a list of meal ideas for the week. Then add anything else you need to the grocery list.

Another option for leftovers is to freeze them in small single-serve portions. That way, you’ll have meals ready to reheat when you need a quick lunch or an extra meal.

Use What You Have

Don’t be afraid to make something from scratch without a recipe – some of the best recipes are created by accident! 

Have you ever seen old family recipes? 

Many of the old family recipes from my mother and aunts are written with exact ingredients. It used to be common for home cooks to create meals with a handful and a dash of whatever they had in the house.

So, instead of grocery shopping for specific recipe ingredients, use substitutions. Although measurements need to be exact for baking, you can estimate and substitute (or even leave out) ingredients when cooking dinner.

Don’t Throw Anything Out

Only buy enough fresh food you can make or store before it spoils. And make a plan for leftovers.  

If your family doesn’t like to eat reheated food. try repurposing leftover ingredients into new meals. For example, you can use stale bread to make breadcrumbs or leftover chicken to make chicken enchiladas.

Another zero waste kitchen tip: find ways to use discarded parts of food. For example, if the recipe calls for egg whites only, save the yolks and use them in another dish later (like a frittata!). Or, if a recipe calls for lemon zest, use lemon slices to flavor your water, and squeeze them over baked fish. or use them to stuff the cavity of a chicken for flavor.

Before you compost or toss out vegetable scraps, use up all the edible parts.

How to Use All Parts of a Vegetable

Many vegetables have other parts you probably didn’t realize you could eat. Here’s a list of other edible parts of veggies and how to use them.

ProduceOther Edible PartsHow to Use
BeetsBeet greens (leaves)Sauté chopped garlic and red pepper flakes in olive oil.
BroccoliLeaves, stemSlice and roast the stems (peel the stems before slicing) or spiralize to make noodles
CauliflowerLeaves, stemGrate the stem to make cauliflower fritters.
Bake the leaves to make cauliflower chips.
CeleryLeaves, seedsChop up the celery all the way to the end with the leaves. Add to soups and vegetable smoothies.
Use as a substitute for parsley.
Corn, sweetYoung ears, young leavesRoast or stir-fry baby corn.
KohlrabiLeavesSauté or braise leaves.
OkraLeavesSauté or use in soups.
ParsleyRootSteam, boil, purée, or cream
Peas, EnglishPodsGrill or boil pea pods.
Peas, SouthernYoung leavesEat raw with a vinaigrette or lightly sauté.
PepperCooked leaves, immature seedsSauté, stir fry or use pepper leaves in soups.
RadishLeavesAdd to soup, make pesto or stir fry
Squash, summer and winterFlowers (blossoms), young leavesSauté leaves. 
Blossoms can be sautéed, fried, tossed with pasta and oil or added to an omelet.
Table adapted from Secondary Edible Parts of Vegetables, Vegetable Production & Marketing News, Dr. Frank J. Dainello, editor, April 2002.

Compost bin in yard.

Give Composting a Try

Composting organic food scraps from your kitchen is one of the best ways to reduce how much food gets sent to landfills yearly. 

A compost pile or vermicomposting (worm composting) with a bin are two methods of composting at home. You don’t need a large yard to make a compost pile, only a dedicated area away from where the family sits or eats. A countertop compost bucket is a convenient way to store food waste until you have time to dump it in the outside bin.

It’s important to know which foods are compostable. So before you start, be sure to find out whether the food can go in your compost bin or should be thrown out.

If you’re concerned about odor and attracting small animals, there are other compositing options. Worm composting systems can be done indoors or outdoors.

But, if you don’t have the space in your yard, you’re worried about attracting rodents with a compost pile, or worm composting in the house isn’t realistic for your family, you can participate in a local community-based composting program.

What can you do with the rich soil product from composting?

Compost can be used as mulch or nutrient-rich soil to add to flower and vegetable beds, container gardens, and indoor plants.

Reduce Non-Food Waste 

Grocery stores are full of products with a lot of packaging waste—from single-use plastic containers to cardboard boxes. 

To cut down on packaging waste when you shop, buy items in “family size” packages. Then portion the food into smaller storage containers at home. And the unit cost is also lower when you buy the larger package.

Non-recyclable containers such as large yogurt can be reused for food storage or to-go containers. Plastic containers with lids that you get with Chinese food take-out are great for holiday leftovers to send home with family.

And remember to bring reusable bags to the grocery store! 

Tip: I like to keep bags in the trunk, so they’re available even for last-minute shopping trips.

Invest In Food Storage Containers

Reusable containers are essential for meal planning, which is a key step to creating a zero waste kitchen. Instead of disposable plastic bags and containers, switch to reusable glass storage containers and washable cotton produce bags.

Mason jars are great for storing nuts, dry beans, lentils, and other pantry foods or, for portioning individual servings and making homemade dressings. Look for mason jars with wide mouths so they’re easy to fill and clean for reuse.

Freeze or Preserve Food

Storing food properly and preserving food are easy and effective ways to keep food fresh longer. 

Canning is great for veggies, fruits, pickling, and sauces while freezing works best for meat, fish, fruits, and other perishables. Freeze extra loaves of bread, homemade muffins, chicken broth, soups, and tomato sauce. And pack leftover dinners in freezer-safe containers for quick meals when you’re too busy to cook.

Don’t forget to label packages with the food and the date it was stored. An organized refrigerator makes it easier to see what you have at a glance. That way, you can plan meals faster, rotate your stock by date and your family knows what’s available to eat.

Wrapping It Up

Making your kitchen a zero waste kitchen doesn’t have to be complicated.

Begin with the tips that are easy for your family to incorporate today. Even small shifts in how you cook and store food will cut down on the amount of food your family throws out each year.

Do you have any zero waste cooking tips? Let me know in the comments below.

About Jennifer Messineo, MS, RD

I’m a food loving Registered Dietitian. I help families plan meals, reduce food waste and save money on food!

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