With food prices soaring with no end in sight, it is extremely important to use our food purchases and harvests wisely. How we manage our kitchens and decrease food loss will become even more critical in the face of increased economic pressure that seems to be increasing at breakneck speed. The people of this country have been blessed with such food abundance in the past that many people automatically assume the supply of food will continue to be endless in the future. The average person has no idea where their food comes from nor how it is constructed, processed, and shipped. One of the most appalling realizations of this country’s food ignorance came while I was listening to a radio talk show host engaging a west coast “animal rights” advocate. She was castigating all of us “animal killers” for the practice of slaughtering animals for food. The radio host asked her if she was a vegetarian. To my shock, she answered “No, I eat meat”. There was a long moment of silence. The host then asked her where she purchased the meat she consumed. She then said glibly, “well from the store where they make it” of course! I felt as if I had been hit with a hammer.
This moment, and several other encounters with people who have had no idea about food production caused me to examine my own food beliefs. I came to the conclusion that most of us take our food production way too causally. It is so easy to be wasteful and careless about our food if we don’t see the effort of others who provide nourishment to all of us.
I have always had a love of gardening, but when we moved to the Rocky Mountains I was easily frustrated with how hard it was to produce food compared to the fertile plots we had left in Ohio. After several seasons of fighting poor soil, rocks and critters I gave up. Then, several years ago, the Lord began prompting me to return to my gardening, food preservation, and the teaching what I call the “lost kitchen arts” concerning food management and conservation.
The first steps were to understand how to reduce waste. What has developed over time is the process of managing a “zero” waste kitchen. What do I mean by the term “zero waste”? It is a process of looking at the food you purchase, produce, and consume and find ways of managing it with producing as little waste as possible. I have been shocked at the amount of food I used to waste and why I wasted so much.
Where does your food come from? Do you know how it is produced and who produces the products? What are the ingredients in your food? Do you know what the unpronounceable chemical names listed do to and for your food? Do you know if your food is genetically modified in some manner? Do you know if your food has been safely handled in its production to keep you safe from contracting food borne illness? If these are questions you can not answer, then you need to begin educating yourself to become better informed so you can make good food choices in the future for you and your family.
Once armed with a little knowledge you can begin to control what food comes into your home and how to care for it properly. Many of us in the “prepper” community have found that gardening is a central element to our security. The process of learning to produce some of our own food helps us control the cost of our food and also gives us the ability to know our food has been safely handled and isn’t full of pesticides and chemicals our bodies don’t need. There are countless articles, videos, and books about food production. Begin to practice food production even if it’s just a few pots of herbs on a windowsill.
Next we look at how we care for the food that comes into our possession. Buy or harvest what you need, understand how to store it properly for maximum longevity in your cupboards, refrigerator, or freezer. Many times folks take their fresh produce and shove it in the refrigerator. By the end of the week, a good percentage of it is brown, slimy, and forgotten in the back of the fridge. It’s then dumped into the trash, plastic bag and all. God forbid we touch the icky mess! Wash your vegetables carefully and let most of the water drain. Then carefully pat most of the moisture off. Things like leaf lettuce, kale, celery, head lettuce will last longer if you package them separately and store them in the crisper drawer. If you use the “ziploc” type bags, place your produce in the bags and squeeze out as much air as possible. Oxidation is a threat to all foods and spoilage occurs rapidly.
Many times we trim the outer leaves of our vegetables or throw away the stems and peeling. I will save these bits and pieces over a day or two being sure to keep them well refrigerated. I then toss the lot into a pot of water and simmer till I have a vegetable stock that I strain and use for soups, stews, or add to my home canned tomato juice to make my own “V8” type of drink. The left over well cooked material is saved in my counter top covered container to add to my compost pile. When I have a lot vegetable debris from a days worth of canning, I will take the scraps and put them in the blender with enough water to liquefy them. I take this liquid and pour it directly into my raised beds. The liquid drains into the soil and in a day or two the green mat than forms on the top of the dirt is dried. I just crumble this residue into the soil. It’s like “instant” compost! There is no smell and will not attract flies. Even if you are living in a subdivision and have raised beds, this “composting” method will add nutrition to your soil.
If I have any bread, cracker, or cereal leftovers, I toast them slightly, let cool and then crumble in the food processor. To these crumbs I add assorted dried herbs and use for seasoned coating for meat. At the end of each month I go through the refrigerator and pull out the extraneous jars of jellies, fruit juice, ketchup and other condiment bits and pieces and simmer them together to make flavorful dipping sauces. Bits of hard cheese are grated and stored for use on pasta or vegetables. I make a white sauce with butter, flour, and milk and then add all the soft cheese bits and pieces to make yummy cream sauce for vegetables or poured over baked potatoes.
Meat must be handled with extreme care. Today we see many cases of food borne illness due to organisms contaminating meat at some point in the production of or the processing of meat products. It is imperative to keep meat stored cold, covered, and separated from other food while in the refrigerator. If meat touches any surface in your kitchen you must thoroughly wash the area with soap and water. I follow that with a bleach water rinse. Wash your hands with warm soapy water for at least 20 seconds anytime you handle meat products. Keep all meat products separated from contact with other foods in the refrigerator to prevent cross contamination. When there are sales on a particular meat product, I buy all the budget will allow and can it in the pressure canner. I take the fat trimmings and render them. This fat can be repurposed for feeding the birds in the winter, making bio-fuel, or burning as a light source so I freeze the rendered fat in small portions. I also save used cooking oil that could be burned as lamp oil.
It is important to the zero waste concepts to cook only what you know you will use. I will often cook a double batch of a meal to save fuel but have already made a plan on what to do with any leftovers. How often have you cooked extra food and just let it grow fuzz in the refrigerator? We’ve all done it, but if you plan ahead and immediately freeze leftovers you have saved fuel and the food. Don’t cook more that normal portion size requires for most meals. Not only will that habit prevent overeating but also prevents leftovers migrating to the back of the refrigerator where it will grow the next batch of bacteria.
In my zero waste kitchen, I reuse or repurpose all containers if possible. Glass jars with tops that can be closed with a regular canning lid are washed well and saved for storing beans, rice, or other appropriate supplies. The 2 liter soda bottles store extra water. Even used paper towels and the compressed paper egg cartons are soaked in a little water and added to my compost bin. Of course, coffee grounds and tea bags, and egg shells go back to the soil too. Aluminum foil is washed and dried, folded and kept for a second or third use. Plastic “Ziploc” type bags are washed and dried and reused. The only exception to that is if I have stored meat in the bags. No sense in playing Russian Roulette with salmonella! All other containers are rinsed and placed in the recycle bin. Cardboard boxes from cereal and the like are flattened stored in bundles for use as fire starter material. If I have too much saved then it’s easy to cart off to recycle. I save the tubes from paper towels and stuff them with dryer lint and a little baby oil for fireplace “logs”. Get into the habit of looking at “waste” and try to imagine it in some other form. My grandson came up with the idea of using lids from canned food to make mobiles to hang near the garden to keep animals and birds out of the plants!
Look around your kitchen. How do you use your precious food? How do you prevent waste? You might be very surprised how much your “garbage” decreases by using some of these tricks. In the process you will become more in tune with your food and how you use it.
Lastly, but most importantly, thank God for the abundance of nutritious food available. Use it wisely now so you will be better prepared to stretch what you have in the time of need.