Using the Freezer to Minimize Food Waste

I’ve never been much of a daytime television watcher —

(yes, this is a rather odd sentence to use to begin a discussion about food waste!)

— but this post is taking me down memory lane, making me recall some of my earliest parenting days and what was, in all likelihood, a rather obscure cooking show on CBC television.

We had moved provinces with our 8 day-old daughter in the fall of 1996. Nearly 800 km (around 500 miles) from friends and family, and with only one vehicle which my husband took to work most days, there were times when it seemed as though the walls were going to close in around me. And on some of those long afternoons, desperately needing to see and hear another adult, I would end up flicking on the television. I wasn’t much of a cook back then, but one of my favourite shows was the now-defunct The Urban Peasant. Its host, James Barber, is not only responsible for the salmon recipe that became — and remains to this day — our Christmas Eve tradition:

… but I also have him to thank for this very sage advice about parsley:

Wash it and chop it and freeze it, he said, and then you’ll always have a supply of fresh parsley on hand.

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To my I-barely-know-my-way-around-a-kitchen mind, that was a bit of culinary brilliance. It’s also a fantastic way to reduce food waste, because it seems to me that unless you’re using parsley every. single. day, there’s little chance of getting through a bunch before it turns to slime in your fridge.

Freezing that first batch of parsley all those years ago opened up a world of possibilities: what else could I freeze? I wondered, my pre-internet mind churning. Here’s what I came up with:

In addition to parsley, I also freeze that other item that frequently goes to waste: green onions. I wash them and chop them and then toss them into a plastic container, stirring them to ensure a good distribution of whites and greens, and then simply chop out a frozen section with a fork or a knife.

These ARE looking a bit frosty, but they’re still fine!

Also in my freezer? Jalapeño peppers. A while ago my grocery store decided they were no longer going to sell jalapeño peppers singly, but were going to make their customers buy five or six at a time, packaged on a foam tray and wrapped in plastic:

I complained to the produce manager, who sympathised, but said he didn’t make the decisions, and if I felt that strongly about it I should write a letter. Hmph! For a while, I refused to buy them, and made a second stop at another grocery store in order to purchase my single jalapeño, but then, one day, pressed for time, I succumbed and bought the damn package. Not wanting to waste the remaining five, and knowing that sweet peppers can simply be chopped and frozen, I figured there’d be no reason freezing wouldn’t work with jalapeños as well.

I de-seeded and minced them, and wanting to freeze them in one pepper-worth quantities, decided to use the silicone baking cups I use for making butter tarts at Christmastime. I squished the bits together, hoping it would freeze solid in a unit, and … it worked! Once they were frozen solid, I popped them out and transferred them to a plastic container.

My only concern is that now the baking cups seem to smell like jalapeño; I hope our butter tarts don’t take on a peppery flavour this Christmas! (There will be hell to pay if I wreck the butter tarts! 😉 ).

An ice cube tray might have worked just as well with the jalapeños. It’s my go-to tool for freezing tablespoon quantities of tomato paste:

So many recipes call for only one or two tablespoons of tomato paste. Why waste a nearly-full can?

I’ve also used the ice cube tray to freeze tablespoon amounts of the avocado-cilantro cream sauce from the Oh She Glows enchilada recipe. The sauce recipe makes far too much for one meal (IMO), and although we would occasionally use the leftovers to round out a snack of chips and salsa, more often than not a fair amount would still get tossed. Because this was really bothering me (avocados = California + drought = don’t waste them, Marian!) I figured freezing was worth a try. It worked like a charm and one tablespoonful was the perfect amount for one enchilada. Not only did this stretch one avocado to 15 enchiladas (three meals), it also made the two subsequent enchilada-cooking-sessions much less time-consuming.

One can also forgo the ice cube tray and simply drop tablespoon or teaspoon amounts directly onto a cookie sheet, and freeze things that way. This was what I did when I made this vegetable broth concentrate*:

Tomatoes are another great item to keep in the freezer, either fresh from the garden (washed and cored, but left whole, or diced to save time while cooking), or the leftovers from a can of whole or crushed tomatoes when you’ve only used a part can in a recipe. Also from the garden: kale, which I wrote about here.

Because we’re mostly-vegetarian, we eat a lot of legumes, and although I do use some canned legumes, I also like to cook my own from dried. Whenever I do this, I make a big batch and ladle them into lidded glass bowls and then store them in the freezer.

Another group of items I store in our freezer is grains, nuts, and seeds. Whole grains go rancid much more quickly than their processed counterparts because they contain the oily germ layer. Although not everything in the following list actually has a germ layer, I tend to follow the very unscientific, When in doubt, might as well stick it in the freezer! So in my freezer, you’ll find: brown rice, whole wheat flour, quinoa, oat bran, wheat germ, flax seed, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, and almonds. I also keep dried blueberries and both dried and fresh cranberries in the freezer.

And last, but not least, I keep almost all of our baked goods in the freezer. The sandwich bread I buy at the grocery store gets stored in the freezer and taken out slice by slice. I also freeze nearly all of my baking; the muffins and cookies I bake for the kids to take to school go directly into the freezer as soon as they’re cooled. This means I never have to figure out what to do with stale bread, and we never have to regretfully toss days-old baking.

How about you? What do you store in your freezer?


*There are many broth concentrate recipes online, and although I did use the recipe I linked to, I omitted the salt. The salt would have made the frozen concentrate “scoop-able” (because: science 😉 ) but because I like to have control of the salt in my cooking I needed to freeze it in quantifiable units.

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If Meal-Planning Were a Subject, I Would Get a D-Minus

So …

On an internet which is positively overrun with advice on meal-planning, in which meal-planning is held up as one of the best ways to reduce food waste, this post feels somewhat confessional, almost as though I should be whispering the words.

Of course, since I can’t figure out how to change the font size on WordPress, my “regular voice” will have to do.

Here goes: I suck at meal-planning.

I wish this was an over-statement, but I’m afraid it’s not.

Now, my suckiness at this endeavour is not for lack of trying. There’ve been numerous occasions on which I’ve hauled out the cookbooks, searched for the tried-and-true as well as the new, slotted meals (or leftovers) in for every day of the week, shopped for the whole kit and caboodle, and enthusiastically hauled it all home. I even — completely uncharacteristically — bought into the thinking that a catchy magnetized notepad could somehow magically turn me from a non-list-making-planner into a list-making-planner:

Hmm…look at all those BLANK spaces where planned suppers are supposed to go. If I had bothered to write in the date, you’d be able to see that I wrote this in August. And why do I continue to fool myself into thinking stars and capital letters will propel me into doing things in a timely fashion? I managed to make the broth — about two weeks after jotting it down — but I still haven’t cooked the chick peas or the navy beans, or found the time to bake bread. And while I DID make muffins and cookies, I ALWAYS manage to make those, even without a list to remind me.

Despite the fact that I love the theory behind meal-planning — the über-organization which ensures you’ll never again aimlessly wander the aisles at the supermarket, the promise that you’ll never again look at the clock and see the hour hand creeping up to 5 and think Oh crap, what the hell am I cooking for supper? — the actual execution of the plan seems to be where I falter.

Now, perhaps this is a problem unique to me; perhaps I’m just one of those rare people who, upon seeing a list, feels not calm and organized, but rather, pressured. And perhaps this is also just me, but it seems that whenever I have managed to plan an entire week’s worth of meals the propensity was to bite off more than I could chew, to get carried away by enthusiasm and completely over-estimate how willing/able my future self was going to be to be cooking that specific meal four or five days hence. The end result in my kitchen? More food waste than ever before.

But …

Does my failure in the meal-planning department mean I’m floundering every night at 5 o’clock, dashing to the corner store, and then throwing hot pockets into the microwave? No, not at all. Ever since our year without processed food, I’ve been cooking — from scratch — nearly every supper my family consumes.

What seems to work best for me is to do my weekly-ish grocery shopping with one or two suppers in mind at the most. Then, the rest of the grocery shopping is for staples. Rather than having a firm plan set in place, in which I feel I have to cook a certain meal, I prefer instead to take a considered approach: what could I cook tonight?

Practically, this means knowing that I have the ingredients on hand for any of a number of different recipes, and ensuring my pantry, fridge, and freezer are stocked with things I know we use regularly, items such as lentils, beans, pasta, rice, and quinoa, and that I have all the basic vegetables available, such as onions, garlic, potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, celery, broccoli, cauliflower, butternut squash, tomatoes, and spinach, as well as all the basic spices.

In order to make this work, I tend to take a minimalistic KISS (keep it simple stupid) approach. I have about two dozen recipes that I regularly rotate through, and while they’re not the bland meat-and-potatoes I grew up with, they’re also not supremely exotic concoctions with rare spices or sauces I will buy once and never use again. More importantly, they’re also not recipes which call for ingredients which are only good for that specific recipe.

This gives me a lot of flexibility: it means that if I’m not using the cauliflower to make Indian Lentil Cauliflower Soup from the Oh She Glows cookbook, I can use it to make Winter Vegetable Soup with Butternut Squash and Cauliflower or creamy cauliflower sauce to serve with pasta, or I can simply cook it (steamed or microwaved) and it’s a nutritious, if plain-jane, vegetable. Similarly, if I’m not using the butternut squash in the aforementioned soup recipe, I can use it to make Vegetarian Stew with Quinoa, Butternut Squash and Coconut Milk. If the broccoli isn’t used in a stir-fry, I’ll simply steam it and serve it as our veggie. Potatoes can either be used to make Kale, Potato and Cannellini Bean Soup or Lentil Soup with Coriander and Cumin, or they can be cooked and mashed as the topping for a vegetarian shepherd’s pie, or cut up and roasted as home-made fries.

I think one of the most important keys in reducing food waste is to be realistic. If you’re a meal-planner extraordinaire and are successfully making use of all the food you’re buying at the grocery store, then that’s great! I take my hat off to you, and truthfully, I wish I could be more like you! (Because who doesn’t want to be both an organized person and a great cook?). But if you’re meal-planning and are struggling each and every time to execute the planned meals before the food goes bad, perhaps you too would benefit from taking a step back and trying a more minimalistic KISS approach to meals. While I have no doubt that formal meal-planning works wonders for many people, it does seem to me that it is a bit of a “one-size fits all” approach which may in fact be causing more stress and more food waste in those of us who keep trying — and despite our best intentions — keep failing.

(Of course, I do have to acknowledge the possibility that I may be entirely alone in this! Am I?)


Next up: how I use the freezer (sorry, Rita 😦 ) to reduce food waste and to keep staples on hand.

Growing All The Kale

So I know I said my next post would focus on ways I try to minimize food waste, but unfortunately, that topic is still percolating. I’ve been spending a lot of hours at the school library, covering for my fellow parent volunteer who went on holiday, plus, as per the title of this post, I’ve got a whole lotta black dino kale to blame.

I’m shamelessly borrowing a phrase from Sarah, who quipped this spring that she was going to grow all the tomatoes.

My immediate reaction upon reading her words?

YES! Me too! Let’s grow ALL the tomatoes!

While I did find out later that Sarah had thrown the words out there in a bit of a joking manner, I was still *totally* on board with the goal. Three years ago, despite being a newbie gardener, I very nearly did manage to grow all the tomatoes; I had enough, frozen in the freezer, to keep us flush with “cooking” tomatoes from the fall through to the following May. But although I’ve not yet been able to repeat that tomato success (and this year is turning out to be another tomatoey disappointment) the kale is another story.

I like using kale in soups, stir-fries, and lasagnas, and it’s a nice alternative to spinach. Although I can buy kale year-round at the grocery store it’s only the curly type which is available, not the milder black dino (lacinato) variety we prefer. It’s also, no doubt, shipped all the way from California, and well, we’re not anywhere near California. So last year I decided to try growing it myself. I somehow managed a bumper crop and ended up freezing 17 batches, which got us through the winter. It was really nice to be able to simply walk downstairs to the freezer and grab a batch of the most local kale ever. So, wanting a repeat of last year’s success, I put eight plants in the ground this spring, the same number I planted last year.

Although I’m convinced black dino kale is one of the easier leafy greens to grow, I did worry, early on this summer, that — due to my own neglect — we wouldn’t be getting any at all this year.

I’m a bit of a fair-weather gardener, and I have to admit that immediately after planting the garden this spring, I pretty much forgot all about it.

Watering? Nah, I’m sure it’ll rain soon.

Weeding? Um, no thanks … it’s too hot out there; later maybe …

Thinning the seedlings? Yeah, things have been over-crowded before, and it’s been fine; besides, don’t we want a bajillion cucumbers?

And then came the day I finally did go out there, and what did I see? Tiny green caterpillars making lacework out of the kale leaves.

Kale seems to be one resilient plant though, because after steeling myself (yes, I’m also not a particularly brave gardener) and shooing those wee beasties off with a popsicle stick, the plants recovered nicely.

So most mornings over the past couple of weeks I’ve been out in the garden, picking a bouquet of kale from each of the eight plants while leaving the bulk of the plant to continue growing. I (hopefully) shake off all the spiders (see paragraph above, with regards to bravery), and then I bring them in to process them.

I start by washing the leaves:

Then I remove the thick stems and chop the leaves:

The chopped leaves are put into a large pot outfitted with a steamer basket:

After three minutes of steaming, the kale looks like this:

It then gets plunged into cold water and spun dry:

And finally, the kale gets packed into lidded glass bowls or mason jars, and stored in the freezer:

So far I have 18 batches, which should take us through the winter, but there’s still quite a bit left in the garden to process:

Does anyone else have a garden that looks like ours?

(Is it wrong for me to be wishing for an early and heavy snowfall so I don’t have to deal with this overgrown mess? Or at the very least, a good hard frost so all the insects can just go away, please? Yesterday I went out to the garden to gather a bowl of cherry tomatoes and a wasp came into the house with me. I managed to get it out using the container and cardboard trick, but half an hour later, I was STILL shaking*).


* I’m such a wimp 😦 .