I Tried To Eliminate All My Food Waste For A Month—Here’s What I Learned

Resisting the urge to toss produce scraps is worth the inconvenience.

March 27, 2017
veggie scraps in pot
Leah Wynalek

One evening, as my boyfriend sautéed veggies for a stir-fry, I watched him toss a handful of chopped rainbow chard into the pan—bright pink stems and all. I’d never even thought to cook the stems like that. Sure, I’ve seen pretty mason jars of pickled stems while scrolling on Pinterest, but canning has always been on my “I’ll get around to that one day” list. Yet something about those sizzling chard slices suddenly made me feel guilty for all of the unwanted bits of produce I’d carelessly tossed in the trash.

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In the U.S., we waste 30 to 40 percent of our food supply, and each person throws away more than 20 pounds of food every month, according to statistics from World Food Day. That explains why food waste makes up the largest part of our landfills, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. If that’s not upsetting enough, a report from the World Resources Institute found that, worldwide, nearly a quarter of all calories produced for people to eat don’t actually get eaten. In summary, I felt guilty about throwing away perfectly usable produce because I should feel guilty—I’m a part of our major food resource problem.

Related: 11 Ways To Cut Food Waste In The Kitchen

So what’s a food waster to do? Start composting, yes. But as someone who doesn’t garden, I also wanted to make better use of my purchased produce inside my home. I live alone and shop frugally, so wasting half cartons of milk or leftover chili isn’t a problem for me. Chucking spoiling green onions left in the back of my veggie drawer because I bought them specifically for one recipe is another story. That’s why I decided to try my hardest to stop trashing food (coffee grounds, mushroom bottoms, everything) for a month. Here’s what I learned throughout the process.

food scraps in freezer
Leah Wynalek
People may think you're crazy at first

Though I did allow myself to compost scraps like banana and orange peels that would be tough or time-consuming to repurpose, I wanted to make sure I learned how to use most of the scraps I would normally relegate to the trash bin and tried to save most of my beet skins, cauliflower leaves, you name it. Basically, I became a vegetable hoarder. Whenever I chopped vegetables for dinner, I sealed the unwanted ends into little sandwich bags (because I lacked more appropriate gallon-size ones), and then stored them in my freezer to make a big pot of veggie stock in the future. The first week, when I stopped my boyfriend from throwing out a handful of sweet potato skin peels, I worried that my challenge would drive him nuts by the end. But our next meal, he wisely saved a batch of mushroom stems and asked if I wanted to stash them in the freezer—I happily squirreled them away.

homemade broth in storage containers
Leah Wynalek
It's worth investing in storage containers

Remember that vegetable hoarding thing? As the number of bags in my freezer multiplied, I began to feel a new sense of guilt over the amount of plastic I was using. As a 20-something, I still don’t have the kitchen arsenal that I’d like, but I figured even I could shell out for some additional storage so I could continue my project and still pack lunches in my usual containers. This small investment made a huge difference, and as the containers filled, I looked forward to the vegetable stock I planned to make.

Related: 8 Ways To Reuse Plastic Bags

diy coffee ground scrub
Leah Wynalek
DIY scrubs can get messy

I love cooking and baking, but not so much crafting or making anything beyond what I can eat (priorities). So the heaps of wet coffee grounds I produced every morning presented an interesting challenge. Because I was resistant to adding them to the composter—that felt like a cop-out—I started storing used grounds in my fridge. Every day I would look in there, consider mixing up a homemade facial scrub, and then think, maybe tomorrow.

Finally, when the amount of grounds got ridiculous, I picked one of the first recipes from my Google search and stirred them together with ground oats, raw honey, and cinnamon. The result was a sticky, difficult-to-spread mush that I was supposed to rub on my skin and let sit for 20 minutes. I lasted all of 10 before rinsing off the Oompa Loompa-colored residue it left behind and cursing the grounds that now flecked the bottom of my shower. Then I tossed the remaining mixture in the composter. (You may have better luck with one of these DIY facial cleanser recipes.)

pumpkin seeds
Creative-Family/ Getty
It's okay to stick to what you know

I’ve always saved beet greens to toss in salads and roasted squash seeds for snacking, and I still relied on these smart practices. Knowing that at least a couple resourceful tricks were already second-nature made me hopeful that I could turn some of my other lessons from this month of no food waste into habits, too.

veggie stock
Leah Wynalek
Homemade veggie stock is way better than store-bought

Four weeks later, it was finally time to unload my freezer of all the most unloved vegetable parts—including kale stems, pepper tops, and carrot peels—and simmer up a gigantic pot of stock. Throughout my hoarding process, my boyfriend and I joked about how weird this broth was going to taste, which is why I was so surprised when it turned out a normal dark brown color and tasty to boot. That night I used it in the most flavorful minestrone I’ve ever concocted. The best part? I had even more small batches of my stock in the freezer for later usage. (Here are 8 genius ways to use all of your produce—even the scraps.)

compost bin
Martin Poole/ Getty
It's still necessary to compost

Even after you use vegetable parts to make stock, you have soggy leftovers to deal with. Likewise, homemade scrubs are still going to filter down the drain or wind up in the trash. The take-away: Even well-used food waste needs somewhere to go. I’m fortunate enough to work for an environmentally conscious company that has compost bins for food waste in all of its kitchens, and to rent from a landlord who has not one but two composters in the yard. But those who live in tiny city apartments likely don’t have these conveniences. Composting can be smelly, but it’s worth doing some research to find out the best way to do it. (Here’s how to find the right compost bin for you.)

kale stems
Leah Wynalek
Intent is half the battle

Despite my composting luxuries, I still often wasted food in the past simply because it was easier to toss unwanted bits in my kitchen trash than walk outside (or save them in a dubious bag in my fridge for a few days until I remember to take them outside to the compost bin, as I did the past four weeks). But creating a challenge for myself made me reconsider every food scrap from onion skins to kale stems. I became more mindful in the kitchen because trashing scraps now had a self-imposed consequence. (Check out this app that rescues your restaurant leftovers.)

Even though my experiment month is up, I don’t plan to go back to carelessness. Maybe I won’t always make use of so many odds and ends, but I definitely plan to keep the composter as a close friend. For me, that’s a step in the right direction.