For many people, cooking, eating, and sharing meals with loved ones are some of life’s greatest pleasures.
Yet, for those of us who are concerned with the health of the planet, cooking and eating aren’t without problems. The amount of waste created by food production and preparation is one of the greatest issues facing the sustainability of our food system.
At the same time, creative solutions to food waste are on the rise. Through efforts to compost food scraps and eliminate single-use plastics, restaurants, chefs, and sustainability organizations are testing out new ways to reduce food waste.
Zero-waste cooking is an action you can take in your home, too. With a bit of planning and practice, you can reduce waste from your meals and have a more sustainable kitchen.
This article explains what zero-waste cooking is and how to get started.
The notion of zero-waste cooking is just about as literal as it sounds — it means trying to leave behind as little food and packaging waste as possible when cooking and eating.
A zero-waste lifestyle can also extend past the kitchen. Some people apply similar waste-reducing concepts to clothing, beauty and wellness products, and more.
One way to think of zero-waste cooking is in terms of the old dictum “reduce, reuse, recycle.” It involves the following:
- Reduce. Use less of — or do without — unnecessary ingredients. Cook smaller portions to avoid excessive leftovers.
- Reuse. Repurpose food scraps instead of throwing them out. Use reusable containers to buy foods in bulk.
- Recycle. Compost leftover food scraps. Buy food from food rescue organizations that ensure that farmed produce doesn’t go to waste.
These are just a few of the steps you might take in a zero-waste kitchen.
Is it really possible?
It may not always be possible to eliminate every last bit of waste from your meals. The structure of our current food supply and the abundance of processed foods makes this task incredibly difficult.
Opponents of zero-waste even argue that this lifestyle isn’t realistic.
They believe that since some amount of waste is a necessary byproduct of economics and human consumption, it’s better to focus on managing waste efficiently instead of trying to eliminate it completely (
These arguments might sound convincing on the surface, but the truth is, working toward a zero-waste lifestyle isn’t about being perfect — none of us are. Very few people are able to completely eliminate waste from their lives.
Rather, zero-waste cooking is part of a greater movement to live sustainably and reduce your impact on the planet. It’s about doing the best you can with what resources you have available.
There are many ways to live a zero-waste lifestyle. Zero-waste cooking is one avenue that chefs, foodies, families, and individuals alike use to reduce the environmental impact of preparing and eating food.
One of my favorite things about zero-waste cooking is that it feels like a decision that benefits so many people and places — my family, others in our community, and the planet.
I’ve noticed it can also help your pocketbook as you do more in the kitchen with less. Reducing your waste might mean giving up certain things you can do without or making dishes on your own rather than buying them premade, both of which can save you money.
What’s more, zero-waste cooking can be creative, experimental, and downright fun — though, in the end, the main reason why so many people are trying zero-waste cooking is because it’s a simple way to reduce their environmental impact.
Reduces food waste
Current estimations for how much food goes to waste each year are astounding.
Though it’s hard to pinpoint an exact number, researchers believe that businesses and individuals combined throw away as much as 25–40% of all the food produced in the United States each year (2).
That’s nearly 133 billion pounds (60.3 billion kg) of food — worth $161 billion (3).
In some cases, a single individual might waste up to 660 pounds (300 kg) of food over the course of 1 year (
By repurposing food scraps, doing your best to not let food spoil, and purchasing only as much as you need, you can cut down on your food waste.
Reduces your use of plastics and packaging
Zero-waste cooking also reduces waste from food packaging and serving containers, including takeout boxes.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that more than 23% — or nearly a quarter — of all trash sent to landfills is packaging and containers, a significant amount of which is food-related, single-use plastics and other materials that aren’t often recycled (5).
Plus, much more waste from food packaging goes unaccounted for as litter that pollutes roads and waterways.
Zero-waste cooking reduces food packaging via tactics like using reusable containers to buy in bulk, preserving your own foods, using fewer ingredients, and making most of your meals at home.
Zero-waste cooking is not only fun and thrifty but also benefits the planet by reducing food waste and the reliance on single-use takeout containers and disposable packaging.
Zero-waste living is a concept that’s taken shape over the past 40 years or so.
Although no scientific evidence directly links zero-waste cooking to better human health outcomes, it may benefit your health in several ways.
Aids environmental health
When we throw food away, it not only wastes the food itself but also the abundance of resources — including water, energy, land, and labor — that went into growing, preparing, and distributing the food.
Wasted food is also a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. These gases absorb heat and trap it in the atmosphere, which leads to global warming.
When food rots in landfills, it releases methane — a potent greenhouse gas even stronger than carbon dioxide (5).
Thus, less food waste means fewer greenhouse gas emissions and a healthier planet for all.
May improve people’s nutrient intake
Less food waste also means more food to go around for others.
Some chefs and entrepreneurs focus their zero-waste efforts on rescuing food that would otherwise go to waste and redistributing it to people in their community who are in need or just want to make sure that good food isn’t wasted.
Due to their perishable nature, many nutritious fruits and vegetables spoil before they can be eaten (
Ensuring that these nutrient-dense foods are eaten instead of discarded may help others increase their intake of health-promoting nutrients like vitamins and minerals.
Plus, by avoiding food containers and packaging, you may reduce your exposure to harmful chemicals used to make plastics and other food-grade materials (
Though zero-waste cooking isn’t tied to specific health benefits, it may indirectly bolster health by encouraging the consumption of whole foods, reducing exposure to harmful chemicals, and improving the environment around us.
There are many ways to practice zero-waste cooking.
Each of us lives and eats within unique circumstances. We have access to various types of kitchens and cooking equipment, eat on different schedules, and may have dietary needs and preferences to consider.
Thus, your zero-waste cooking methods probably won’t look the same as others’. That’s to be expected — and even celebrated, as everyone has their own ways of reducing waste.
Here are 6 common zero-waste cooking techniques, though many more exist. You may even develop your own ideas after getting familiar with the basics.
1. Plan your meals
In my experience, planning my meals is the most important step to keeping a zero-waste kitchen.
Meal planning not only means deciding what you’re going to eat during the week but also entails thinking about how and when you’re going to prepare your meals, as well as the ingredients you’ll need.
Many people plan an entire week’s worth of meals or more rather than one day’s, though the exact time frame varies from person to person.
A few things to consider when planning zero-waste meals are:
- perishable food on your shelves that needs to be used soon
- recipes using foods you can buy in bulk
- how to use the same ingredients across several meals
- recipes that won’t require obscure ingredients that you might not use again
- what serving size is manageable for your household
- how long leftovers will keep
2. Think twice when eating out
Knowing what you plan to eat lessens your chances of ordering takeout, which usually comes in disposable containers and easily leads to food waste from extra-large portions.
Millions of tons of paper, plastic, and glass packaging end up in landfills each year. Though not all of that comes from takeout and restaurant meals, they’re certainly large contributors. Around 45% of the materials in landfills come from wasted food and food packaging (5, 9).
That’s not to say you can’t ever order takeout while practicing a zero-waste lifestyle.
In this day and age, busy schedules, social time with family or friends, or a desire to support your favorite restaurant are all common reasons to order in or go out to eat.
With a few small adjustments, you can enjoy occasional takeout while minimizing waste. These include:
- being conscious of portion sizes
- ordering dishes that won’t leave you with leftovers
- choosing restaurants that offer compostable or biodegradable to-go containers
- seeking out restaurants that support zero-waste efforts, such as food donation
- ordering directly from a restaurant rather than a meal-delivery service
- bringing your own reusable to-go containers
- declining plastic utensils, bags, and straws
3. Repurpose what you can
Finding ways to reuse leftovers, scraps, and overlooked parts of fruits and veggies, such as stems or peels, may be one of the most exciting parts of zero-waste cooking. In my experience, it’s the step that leaves the most room for culinary creativity.
It may be daunting initially, but a big component of zero-waste cooking is experimenting. The more you work with repurposing foods, the more confident you’ll become.
Plus, you can repurpose food scraps in an infinite number of ways. Here are a few:
- Sauté or make pesto with veggie leaves and stems.
- Use leftover bones, meat, and veggie scraps to make broth.
- Freeze cheese rinds and use them to flavor soups.
- Juice leftover fruit and veggie scraps.
- Season and roast squash seeds.
- Replant roots or trimmings from onions, celery, lettuces, and other veggies you can regrow.
- Use coffee grounds and eggshells for garden fertilizer.
- Use fruit peels to infuse oils, vinegars, and bitters.
4. Compost what you can’t reuse
Composting is a process by which natural organic matter is turned into nutrient-rich soil. It’s also a great way to keep food scraps out of landfills.
All it takes to get started is a compost bin or an area in your yard where you can dispose of scraps.
Composting is a great way to recycle leftover (10):
- fruits and vegetables
- coffee grounds
- tea bags
However, not all scraps can be composted. If you’re worried about rodents or flies getting into your compost pile, avoid adding foods like (10):
- oils and other fats
5. Shop with zero-waste cooking in mind
When I first started trying to zero-waste cook, I learned it’s important to get in the right mindset before stepping foot in the kitchen. In other words, much of zero-waste cooking truly starts with planning and shopping.
Making thoughtful decisions at the store has just as much impact on waste as the decisions you make at home.
Some easy ways to zero-waste shop include:
- bringing your own bags
- buying in bulk when possible
- avoiding items with unnecessary packaging
Paying close attention to expiration dates and estimating the shelf life of any perishable food you plan to buy are equally as important.
You can also research food rescue organizations in your community. Food rescue groups work with farmers, distributors, and grocery stores to save food that would otherwise be thrown out, instead redistributing it at affordable costs.
6. Store food for maximum shelf life
Although we intend to eat the food we buy, sometimes it inevitably spoils while sitting on the counter or in the back of the refrigerator. We’ve all been there before.
It may seem basic, but storing food properly is an oft-overlooked way to prolong the shelf-life of perishable foods.
To store food properly, keep your fridge and countertops clean so that they’re free of bacteria or other microbes that could cause food to rot quicker. If you notice food beginning to spoil, immediately separate it from the rest of your food so that the bacteria don’t spread.
It may also be best to go ahead and eat food that seems as if it won’t last much longer.
However, if food has grown mold, turned mushy, or begun to smell, you shouldn’t eat it. Even in a zero-waste kitchen, it’s better to compost or repurpose what you can rather than risk getting sick from eating spoiled food.
If your fridge has humidity-controlled crisper drawers, storing foods in the appropriate drawer is a good idea. You can also keep foods you might not use very often, such as flour or nuts for baking, in the fridge or freezer to extend their freshness.
7. Preserve your own foods
Preserving foods that may spoil soon, or that you have too much of to begin with, is a tried-and-true way to make food last longer.
The most common types of preserving done at home are:
- Freezing: fruits, vegetables, meats, bread, etc.
- Pickling: cucumbers, carrots, green beans, squash, etc.
- Canning: jams, jellies, applesauce, tomato sauce, corn, apples, peaches, etc.
- Dehydrating: fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, meats, etc.
Zero-waste cooking starts with planning your meals, after which you can determine how to cook and eat the foods you buy while leaving behind as little waste as possible.
Reducing the waste generated from meals and snacks is a great way to lessen your environmental footprint and support good health and proper nutritional intake.
You can start with small changes like buying foods in bulk, taking your own bags to the store, and eating any and all leftovers.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg, as zero-waste cooking comprises a broad set of sustainability efforts that can be as simple or as complex as you’d like.