Reader’s digest: Waste not, want not

A small green leaf sits within an otherwise empty pan.
(Lucia Marquez-Uppman • The Student Life)

With cross-campus dining starting up again, it’s easy to overlook an eco-friendly and equally appealing culinary alternative: low-waste cooking. Cooking in dorms not only alleviates some of the pressure on dining hall workers, but also saves 5C students long waits in lines. 

Cooking can be daunting, though — especially for students who are living on their own for the first time. If you’re in a stew when it comes to dorm cooking, a low-waste approach is an easy, conscientious and affordable place to start.

The United States faces a massive food waste problem: approximately 35 percent of the nation’s food supply goes to waste and 8.2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions are a product of food waste. In addition to these environmental issues, it is simply unjust for a portion of the population to waste food while others face food insecurity.   

Questioning the ethics of one’s diet can stir up many worries — things such as food production and business practices are often beyond consumers’ control and even entirely concealed from the public. Beating yourself up over the sustainability of the ingredients you use can quickly become financially unsustainable. Environmentally-conscious college students should, instead, focus on minimizing the waste they make when cooking. 

Most of the time, low-waste cooking just makes sense. Take, for example, leaving the skins on your root vegetables rather than throwing them away. Why make the effort to peel your potatoes when unpeeled potatoes take less time to prepare, taste nearly identical and give your meal an extra boost of fiber? 

The phrase “low-waste cooking” often whisks up visions of practices like using food scraps in recipes rather than throwing them away. But low-waste practices include many more hacks: shopping for low-waste groceries, using foods that fail to meet aesthetic standards and preventing food from going bad. 

Low-waste cooking is not a set of rules. Rather, it’s a creative mindset that shapes the way you cook, challenging you to come up with fresh solutions to eliminate wasteful cooking practices. In other words, low-waste cooking breeds innovation.

Before you cook

The first step before embarking on any cooking journey, waste or low-waste, is to take stock of what you have. Dorm and demo kitchens around the 5Cs usually have some basic supplies and even pantry items, but these aren’t always reliable. An affordable and eco-friendly option is to find essentials you need at a thrift store, such as mixing bowls, cutting boards and even pots and pans.

Planning out your grocery haul is one of the simplest ways to reduce food waste. When it comes to perishable goods, purchase less to prevent having excess that goes bad. When you buy produce, opt for unpackaged instead of heavily packaged items. When you buy things in jars, choose glass containers that you can reuse over plastic ones.

Freezing food is a quick and easy way to increase the longevity of your ingredients and leftovers; freezing chopped aromatics and herbs and adding them to your dish when you’re ready to cook can also save you prep time.

While you cook

This is where low-waste methods really allow you to cook up unconventional culinary practices. Think about the odds and ends of produce that would normally be discarded — skins, stems, leaves — and consider how you might put them to use. Now is the time to shed certain food anxieties: consuming “ugly” produce or wilted greens might seem scary, but doing so is often perfectly safe.  

A pack of dish cloths can go a long way. I’ve found that, personally, paper towels are my most prominent source of waste when I cook at college. They can be used for drying dishes, cleaning up messes, drying washed produce, pressing tofu and countless other things — they’re just so convenient. But reusable dish cloths get the job done just as effectively and are much better for the planet.

After you cook

Compost! Take advantage of the food waste bins around campus. Freeze inedible scraps and take note of the bins closest to you. If you have to throw away food, try not to send it to a landfill.

If you find yourself about to throw away food that’s safe to eat, offer it to your friends. If you don’t want to talk to anyone, you could even leave it in your dorm kitchen with a note. Always remember to take care to clean up after you’re done — and leave minimal waste.

Sadie Matz SC ’24 is a loyal Cook’s Illustrated fan from Brooklyn, New York. She cannot drive and will not take questions regarding the matter.  

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