Waste not, want not

Last week, I found myself pondering the question of sustainability in a broader context. What I wrote below for my day job at Chefs Collaborative was geared towards chefs and restaurants, but the next time you find yourself out for dinner, consider asking your server where all the food waste goes. And don’t forget to take your leftovers! 

Chefs: at the end of your shift tonight, head into your walk-in and throw half the contents away. Producers: walk straight past your stall at the local farmer’s market and place a quarter of your vegetables directly into the dumpster. Eaters: when visiting a restaurant, tell the server not to bother bringing the second half of your entree. It’ll save time, embarrassment, and a nasty smell in the back of your fridge if it goes directly into the trash.

We wouldn’t dream of doing this, right? No, but the fact is, we do, according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal.These scenarios fairly accurately illustrate how we as a society deal with excess food. From the fields to distribution centers, to supermarkets, restaurants and fast food chains, to your home and into your garbage – and then out to the landfill – the supply chain that brings us an abundance of food also lets huge amounts of food fall through the cracks. Namely, between 25 and 50% of it, depending on how conservative (or optimistic) you’d like to be with your guestimate.

The realities of food waste have been even more on my mind lately, given both my job at Chefs Collaborative and my own personal Depression-era sensibilities. At the Collaborative, we talk a lot about how to effectively build sustainable supply chains that benefit all stakeholders. Addressing what happens to food waste is as important to a sustainable food system as addressing the supply. This is an issue that many in our network are actively grappling with. What if we brought the issue of food waste to the forefront of our discourse when we talk about a sustainable food supply? What if, alongside “where do you source your meat and your produce?”, consumers learned to ask “how does your restaurant deal with food waste?”, and chefs asked farmers and distributors the same question?

I just finished reading “American Wasteland”, in which the author, Jonathon Bloom, argues that food waste is not as simple as teaching people to clean their plates. But, I believe that addressing food waste begins with the consumer and that businesses change their practices – for the worse or for the better – to give consumers what they want.

On the farm, produce that is irregularly shaped and not appealing to consumers or is too fragile to ship is left to rot. (See Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland, for a prime example of how one highly-shippable, highly symmetrically-shaped vegetable nearly killed him as he drove along the interstate in Florida.)  Distribution results in another 10-15% loss of even the hardier produce, then still more is thrown out after hitting grocery store shelves.

On the other end of the food production spectrum are the “value-added” meals that consumers get when dining out from fast food joints, buffets, caterers, and restaurants. 4-10% gets thrown out by kitchens, 17% of meals are thrown out untouched by customers, and 55% of leftovers will stay on the table after the customer leaves.

Clearly the point to make is, there are opportunities to minimize waste – from the farm to the kitchen to the table.

Meanwhile, minimizing food waste is essential for restaurants – for those seeking to manage food costs and especially for those choosing to make sustainability a part of their focus. Chefs, you are not only the tastemakers, you are also the educators who can help customers understand the true cost of their food and the impact of the choices they make.

Here are some ideas for educating your customers and taking steps to manage food waste:

1. Manage customer expectations. Take the opportunity, whether it’s on your menu or in conversation with your patrons, to help them understand the steps you’re trying to take to minimize your food waste.

2. Have a plan for excess. Using everything is already a tried and true practice in restaurants for managing food costs (vegetable peels and stems for soup and sauces, fish and meat bones for stock, meat and fish scraps for terrines, etc). Whether it’s composting, donating to shelters in need, or re-purposing into other dishes, try to keep as much organic food waste* (*that is, peels, vegetable and fruit matter, etc.) out of the trash as possible.

3. Adjust portion sizes and recipes. If you notice that there is an entree or side dishes that are habitually left half-eaten, consider limiting the size or making them optional altogether.

Food waste needs to be a part of the conversation about sustainability, because after all, as much as we are what we eat, we are also, I’d argue, what we throw away. The above suggestions are just three ways you can minimize food waste. Please feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments section or by visiting us on Facebook and Twitter.





Posted by: Jen

Published in: on 15 December, 2011 at 11:43  Comments (1)  

Modern menu building on a budget – summary and wrap-up

These are a great start, but I’d also like to reiterate some of the tips we’ve talked about in our modern menu building miniseries.

1. Know thine habits. By anticipating your hunger patterns and outside buying triggers, you can more effectively plan to have the food you want to be eating on hand instead of ducking in, grabbing fast food, and not eating the food you already have in your fridge.

2. Take stock of what you already have. Raid the fridge and, while you’re at it, make sure food is where you can see it. Nothing worse than finding two rotting halves of an onion. Look through your pantry, too. A great tip from Vintage Eater, vintagejenta, is to put your grains and beans into air-tight, clear glass jars. Again, if you can see it, you’ll use it. 

3. Build a framework to organize your menu. Include entries for the meals you’ll cook for yourself and the meals you’ll eat while out.

4. Figure out what you can buy on sale. It’s about being flexible and also, about knowing what you regularly eat week after week. Watch for those items (or those type of items) while perusing sales flyers. Also, bear in mind what you already have, so that you can pick up additional items to supplement.

5. When you’re done, write a menu. I always play a game with myself to see how much existing stuff I can use up while bringing in as few new items as possible. An empty fridge can be a good thing sometimes, folks, though if you asked 8 year-old Jenny that same question, you’d hear a totally different answer.

If you can plan ahead and organize what you already have, you’ll find that you waste less food and eat a whole lot better.

Next Saturday is our vintage Christmas cookie swap here in Boston and we’re encouraging Vintage Eaters elsewhere to host their own, so for all of our posts this coming week, we’ll provide old recipes that you can use for your own baking. Thanks for reading.

Published in: on 5 December, 2011 at 10:36  Comments (3)  

Modern menu building on a budget – step 5: build your menu

Have your inventory in hand? Saved a ton using coupons and sales flyers? Built your template? Now here’s a sample menu that pulls it all together. First, look at breakfast and follow the asterisk past the shopping list.*

Week of 10/11 Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday
Breakfast Bread with cashew butter, coffee Egg sandwich, coffee Egg sandwich, coffee Bagel with cashew butter, coffee Egg sandwich, coffee
Snack 2 raw green peppers Asian pear 2 raw carrots Eggplant caviar Raw veg.
Lunch Tabbouleh with falafel Squash, stuffed with quinoa, lime, corn, chiles + tomatoes Baked sweet potato with sautéed kale Tabbouleh with falafel Chicken salad on a toasted bagel
Snack Sauteed sprouted wheatberries Radishes Raw veg. Baked sweet potato Mo’ raw veg. Cookies!
Dinner Baked sweet potato with sautéed kale [Dinner out] Whole wheat pasta with mushrooms, onions + garlic Roasted chicken thigh/drumstick with sautéed eggplant Mac + cheese with some sort of veg. Chicken and brown rice soup
Before bed Crispy bar + tea Warm cider Crispy bar + tea Warm cider Crispy bar + tea

Produce: already at the house

2 tomatoes
3 carrots
4 green peppers
9 onions
3 eggplant
1 squash
5 sweet potatoes
5 blue potatoes
2 ears of corn

Shopping list:


1 whole chicken (on sale at Whole Foods)
Sausage/meat for breakfast sandwich


½ doz eggs
¼ lb Vermont cheddar from Shelburne Farms (swap for whatever cheese is on sale)

Dry goods

Whole wheat WF brand bagels – 6 pack (on sale at Whole Foods)
Annie’s Home Grown Cheddar Cheese shells (on sale at Whole Foods)
Envirokidz crispy bars (on sale at Whole Foods)


Wax paper (baggies?)
Apple cider

*When I considered my behaviors around food and mealtimes, I noticed that I had a habit of grabbing a latte and a breakfast sandwich at a cafe whenever I was running a little behind for work. So for breakfast, I got a 6-pack of bagels, eggs to fry, cheese, and sausage to create my own sandwich to go. I also filled the coffee maker the night before so all I had to do was hit a button.

Eating the same breakfast day in and day out is boring, though, so I looked the list of stuff from my pantry (not shown here) and remembered the cashew butter.

Snack time was a great opportunity for me to eat the raw veggies and fruit that came in my CSA.

Now for lunches and dinners. I probably have more time than you do. But notice how the meals repeat? That’s because I’m not going to pretend that I can cook distinct meals for lunch and dinner seven days a week.

That’s why when you cook, you cook enough for two meals, eat one and then the other in a day or so. Don’t forget to build meals outside the home into your menu, if you have any planned for the week.

Lastly, leave a free day or a few free meals in your schedule so you can eat any leftovers that might accumulate. Having a menu like the one above isn’t something you need to stick to religiously. Think of it as a guideline, but if there’s food that needs to get eaten before your regularly-scheduled meal, feel free to swap days around. Waste not, want not. 

For our next post, we’ll wrap up all of these menu building tips into a neat little package and answer any questions you have about how this works. Send questions to us via the comment section below and get excited!

Next week is vintage Christmas cookie week, and we plan to post a few recipes that you can use in your own baking. If you’re Boston-based, we hope you’ll join us for our own cookie swap, December 10, 4:00-7:00 p.m. at the chocolate tarte, 199C Highland Avenue in Somerville, MA.

Published in: on 2 December, 2011 at 10:54  Comments (1)  

Modern menu building on a budget: step 4 – consult the sales flyers

I used to think that consulting sales flyers and clipping coupons was a huge waste of time. And granted, a lot of the time it is. Many food manufacturers create coupons for cheap food to make it seem like you’re getting a better deal than you really are. $1.00 off of some sugary cereal here, $.50 off of some processed item there, and there you have it – a cart full of crap food that will leave you both hungry AND unhealthy. Awesome.

But I’m learning that if you regularly shop somewhere, you can build the bulk of your menu around things that are on sale week after week. For example, take Whole Foods or your local co-op. Think back to our previous post on your buying habits.

Now consider your inventory. What can you put together with the rice in your pantry and the leftover veg in your fridge? How about risotto? Grab your sales flyer, find chicken (it’s almost always on there), grab some stock (or make your own – it’s easy and cheap), use up your leftover white wine, saute the vegetables, bake the chicken and add it all in at the end when the rice is finished cooking. A little parmesan cheese and you’re set.

This is just one example of how you can supplement the food you already have with food you will definitely use. Love eggs? Buy a dozen, but plan out the meals where you’ll use them. Eat a lot of sandwiches? Find the bread that’s on sale.

The goal when you go shopping should be to buy things that will eventually bring the amount of food in your house down. When the amount of food in your house goes down (because you’re eating it and not throwing it away), that means you’re saving money. And in vintage eating, saving money and minimizing food waste is the name of the game.

A couple more tips: Don’t shun store and off-brands because, generally, they’re the same thing as the major brands anyway. Also, don’t forget about your local farmer’s market for in-season fruits and veggies. This produce is often the best and freshest you can get, and nothing beats putting a name and face to the person who grew your food. Lastly, check out my old-OLD post on Fair Food Fight for other ways you can save money while shopping.

Next up is a post where we’ll build a hypothetical menu for you and show you what this all looks like. Thanks for reading! To keep up with us on a daily basis, be sure to follow us on Twitter and become our fan on Facebook.

Published in: on 28 November, 2011 at 12:16  Comments (3)  

Modern menu building on a budget – step 3: build yourself a template

“It is best to look at the three meals of the day and balance them as a unit against yesterday’s or tomorrow’s meals. No longer do we try to balance each meal separately. This is where the intelligent meal planner shows [his]her skill as a nutritionist.”

– Foods: Their Nutritive Economic and Social Values, 1938

For your next trick, you’re going to learn how to incorporate the pantry and fridge items you inventoried last time into a coherent weekly menu. Remember our first post on your eating habits?

We’re going to assume that you’re a three square + three snack kind of eater and that you plan to eat food you make at home four times a week. Draw yourself a diagram like so –

Week of x Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday
Before bed              

Now add your inventoried food to the bottom. Next, we’ll learn to shop for the additional items that’ll make up the meat and potatoes, so to speak, of your menu.

Grab the sales flyers from your local supermarket/co-op, start looking around at your local farmer’s market, and tune in to our next post!

Published in: on 25 November, 2011 at 12:20  Comments (2)