Chef Adam Weiner describes how to control food waste costs at home with better planning and repurposing leftovers.
By Chef Adam Weiner, CFSE
Last month I wrote part one of teaching about food waste and focused on commercial establishments. This month I will address how to teach about food waste at home.
In sixth grade my son came back from a week at an outdoor education camp a bit upset. When I asked why, he told me they didn’t believe him. After prodding for details, he said that the week’s topic was food waste and the theme of every meal was to start small and eat it all. You could go back for seconds but start off serving yourself small servings and finish it all first.
I asked him how that led to a lack of credibility. He responded, “They said in every house people waste an extreme amount of food. But I told him at my house we didn’t waste anything that was edible. The person teaching the course laughed and said I didn’t understand. I told him it was true, my dad was a chef, and even at home he watched food costs.”
My son continued, “He tried to trip me up by saying, ‘Well, what about onion peels, or small amounts of leftovers not big enough for a meal.’” My son replied - and I am still proud of him over 10 years later - “Well, onion peels go into chicken soup to give it color and small leftovers get put together with other leftovers and my dad makes a casserole which he and his best friend eat when they go sailing.” The instructor basically patted him on the head and said that sooner or later my son would understand how much food is wasted in his house.
Fast-forward three years and my daughter got a job as an instructor at the same camp. During one of the classes the instructor said to my daughter’s group that several years ago he had a boy who thought that since his dad was a chef he didn’t waste anything at home. My daughter piped up, “That was my brother, and he’s right. My dad doesn’t.” Sibling supporting sibling on food waste!
A cute story with a fun ending (including that my son worked at the same camp this past summer) but the sad part is that the amount of food wasted in the average home would make any culinary professional roll his or her eyes with shock and disbelief.
Home food waste usually occurs by:
- Shopping Incorrectly. People will buy a week’s worth of groceries without thinking that they will be gone for a couple days. Before I shop I always look at the calendar and see what nights who in the family will or won’t be home for dinner.
- Impulse Buying. People go to the store and either go beyond their shopping list or buy things off list.
- Portion Control. This is an issue unto itself and it will be addressed in next month’s article. Ironically, that will sync with teaching your students how to prepare for Thanksgiving. I won’t be writing about teaching government nutrition standards, I will be writing about how you can teach your students how much to prepare when they cook for others, either professionally or socially.
- Bulk Buying. Frozen and canned food isn’t too much of a problem this way but fresh food in bulk is problematical. Buying bulk, wrapping, and freezing some is okay--but your students need to make sure they know not to refreeze items that have been previously defrosted.
- Good Intentions. People buy extra with the good intention of eating them. “I will buy more vegetables this week and make salads for my family every night.” The problem is that unless they follow up with those good intentions, there is a lot of food waste. (The opposite of this, impulse buying, also yields waste. People grab things for their carts because of product placement or marketing or packaging and not because they really need or want the product.)
- Bad Food Preparation Techniques. What if your students have a recipe that calls for half an onion do they throw the other half away? Do they use a knife effectively minimizing waste? Do they waste too much food in the preparation process?
- Refusal to Eat Leftovers. My family is really good about eating leftovers because I never serve them as leftovers. I reinvent the food. I personally think that the microwave is one of the biggest causes of food waste. People get tired of eating the same dish over and over again, which is what microwave reheating is all about. Some creative ideas for leftovers:
- Fried rice with leftovers
- Stir fried leftovers
- Noodles with vegetables and proteins are great stir fried or just with the leftovers as a topping, or worked into a sauce
- Frittatas and omelets
- Creative stews, chili or soups
- Salads with the leftovers (such as leftover pasta or potatoes becoming pasta or potato salad) or as a topping (such as a creative Cobb Salad.)
NOTE: Fridays in my class is very often creative leftover day. We take all of the odds and ends and leftovers out of the walk-in and I challenge the class to use them in new creative ways. This shows them you can make great dishes without spending a lot of money. You could (and should) do the same thing in your class to save money and show students how not to waste food. After all, many specials at restaurants are based on something that was left over or of which the kitchen had too much product in the first place. That doesn’t mean the dish is bad or inferior. It means it was a great dish made from product that would otherwise go to waste. By the way, commercially this technique is called “repurposing.”
In summary, not wasting food is a complicated issue for the country and for the world. However, it is a relatively simple issue for our classes and for our students at home:
- Start small. Buy just what you need.
- Learn proper food preparation techniques.
- Finish it all. Either the first time it is prepared or by being creative with leftovers.
Chef Adam Weiner, CFSE, teaches a 20-week Introduction to Cooking program for JobTrain on the San Francisco Peninsula, and is a frequent presenter at CAFÉ events throughout the nation.