No one likes throwing out food at the end of the weekend, but it seems like an almost inevitable part of the Sunday night pack-up. Perhaps you planned for and brought more food than you needed, or maybe you waited too long to use that fresh produce you bought at the farm stand on the way up. Fear of running out (and the difficulty going to the store once you’re there) means you overbuy, but since it’s a short stay, you can’t always use it up. Regardless of the reason, it becomes wasted food, a large—and avoidable—problem in Canada.
According to a recent report by Second Harvest, a food rescue organization in Canada that captures surplus food across the supply chain and prevents it from winding up in landfills, nearly 60 per cent of food produced in Canada—about 35.5 million tonnes—is lost and wasted annually. “Of that, 32 per cent,” claims Second Harvest, is “avoidable and is edible food that could be redirected to support people in our communities.”
To learn more about waste prevention tips, we asked “food waste warrior” and author of the “Waste Not, Want Not Cookbook” Cinda Chavich for some easy tips on cutting food waste up at the cottage this season.
1. Know what you have and don’t over buy
When it comes to reducing food waste at home, or at the cottage, the key is proper planning. Don’t make complicated meals that require a lot of unusual ingredients that you can’t use up. Know what you have in your refrigerator/freezer and pantry to avoid duplication, plan to cook what’s you have, make a list, and buy only what you need.
2. Plan for leftovers
Cinda suggests using leftovers in another dish the following day. Plan to cook once and eat two or three times by repurposing today’s steak into tomorrow’s fajitas, steak salad, or satay beef subs. Chef’s call this “prepped food” – they always pre-cook and shred chicken for salads and tacos, and often pre-cook things like pasta for deli salads or rice to use in chicken soup or fried rice. You can also cook a big piece of protein with leftovers in mind with simple, seasonal vegetables. Some dishes— like chili, soup, and lasagna—are even better the next day when the flavours have had a chance to marinate, and lose nothing when they’re reheated.
3. Take advantage of fresh and local produce
Bring the cooler (with freezer packs to help keep things fresh) and stop at local farm stands and markets to buy seasonal fruits and vegetables. This cuts down on plastic waste and packaging, and insures you’re getting the tastiest and most nutritious foods, often for the best price too. When planning for a week at the cottage, bring what you need for every meal except one or two – those days you can cook from the garden, the freezer and the pantry exclusively. It’s tempting to buy too much when you encounter the bounty of fresh fruits and veggies at a farm stand, but make sure you have a plan.
4. Cook backwards
Whatever time of the year, buy what’s in season, ripe and ready to eat, then build your meals around what’s available, rather than starting with a specific recipe. Cinda calls this “cooking backwards” – start with the ingredient and build a dish around it. This is also the best way to cook when you’re miles away from a grocery store. You’ll need to be able to open the fridge or pantry, see what you have, and decide what to cook.
5. Stock up smart
Nothing to cook? If you have a well-stocked pantry of dry goods, a great, simple dinner always awaits. There’s nothing wrong with cooking out of cans (the staples on the shelf at every good cabin). The key to cottage cooking is a well-stocked pantry, a good selection of spices, and some staples — like bacon, tortillas, berries, and ice cream — in the freezer.
Make sure your pantry has cans of tomatoes (whole, chopped and pureed), tins or tetra paks of chicken broth and coconut milk, canned salmon and tuna (and even smoked oysters/anchovies or sprats for appetizers), beans and chickpeas, olives, pesto, sundried tomatoes and salsa, olive oil and vinegar, peanut butter, chilies and soy sauce, pasta, and crackers, and you have the basis for a variety of meals, from pizza and pasta sauces to tacos and stir fries.
FRIDGE AND FREEZER
Everyone sees something different when they open their fridge, however every fridge should include staples like eggs (a versatile option for any time of day), butter, milk, and chopped onions, garlic, and ginger.
6. Keep track of what you have
When you leave the cottage after a weekend, bring any fresh/perishable food home or package, label and freeze for next week. Keep a running list of what you have on hand, and what’s running low, so you can replace it next time you’re out. Use a blackboard on the wall, or a list on the fridge door, and cultivate the habit of keeping track of the food in the fridge.
7. Eat fragile first
Whatever food you bring to the cottage — whether for a weekend or a couple of weeks — plan to “eat fragile first”. That means consume the foods that have the shortest shelf life in the first few days, while they’re at their best, whether that’s the tender butter lettuces and fresh basil, or the ripe strawberries and local corn (the sugars in corn start turning to starch the minute it’s picked, so eat it right away). Hang onto sturdier things such as potatoes, watermelon, apples, carrots and cabbage for coleslaw, and greens like Romaine lettuce and kale that won’t wilt. Pantry foods, all with an indefinite shelf life, include dry pasta, rice and grains, legumes (lentils and beans, both dried and canned) and healthy pilaf mixtures of quinoa, millet, barley and wild rice are all great for hot dishes or as the base for hearty, portable potluck salads.
8. Don’t stress about “Best Before” dates
“Best Before” dates are arbitrary and placed on foods by manufacturers to indicate peak freshness (and to assist supermarkets in restocking and rotating products). Best Before does not equate to Bad After, so use your nose to determine if things like milk, cheese, or yogurt are off. Canned and packaged shelf stable foods are good to eat almost indefinitely. Perishables like meats usually have a few days beyond their “Use by” dates if kept refrigerated. You can also freeze or cook them on the Use By date to increase the storage life.
9. A freezer is your best friend
Many foods can be frozen to extend their shelf life—think ripe bananas, bread, butter, cakes, casseroles, grapes, avocados, nuts, pizza dough, tortilla and pita, shredded cheese and cooked meats. Just make sure to wrap foods very well and exclude all of the air (use zippered freezer bags or a vacuum sealing machine to prevent freezer burn).
If you have an excess of pesto, tomato sauce or paste, and almost any chopped fresh herbs mixed with olive oil, portion the leftovers in ice cube trays and freeze to use in your soups and sauces anytime. Have a dedicated plastic ice cube tray at the cabin for freezing items, then pop them out and store the cubes in a zippered plastic bag.
If you prepare curries, soups, lasagna, or pasta sauces at home to take to the lake, freeze them for transport, keep them in a cooler, and then pop them in the freezer at the cottage (or let them thaw slowly over a couple of days in the fridge). This way you’ll have a fast dinner for days when you get off the water late and need to feed people fast.
10. Gold VS Garbage
Think about nose-to-tail, root to shoot cooking. Use it all up. Carrot tops make pesto. Beet greens in a saute, omelet or frittata. Cinda even recommends using excess lettuce in a creamy soup or green smoothie.
If you have a roasted whole chicken or a bone-in roast, make bone broth by adding some onions, carrots, celery, peppercorns and bay leaves. If you save your vegetable scraps (carrot peelings, onion trim, celery leaves) in a freezer bag, you’ll always have aromatics to add to your stock pot.
Same goes for squidgy grapes, wrinkly apples and overripe bananas that can be roasted, baked into pies and crumbles, or into banana bread. You can also freeze chopped bananas and then whirl up in the blender for a low-cal frozen dessert.
Excess bread or hamburger buns? Don’t toss when it gets stale—chop and toast for croutons for Caesar salad, make crostini, grilled Panini/cheese sandwiches, or a sweet or savoury bread pudding with canned salmon, eggs, dill and greens (spinach or chard) from the cottage garden.
11. Cook before you compost
Use up fresh ingredients that are getting a bit dodgy by cooking them. When cherry tomatoes or bell peppers start looking a little soft, toss them with olive oil and sliced onions, and roast until nicely caramelized for a tasty appetizer, side dish or pasta toss with pesto. Tired looking lettuce can be cooked, too — think of it like any green leafy veg you’d add to a bean soup, stir fry or vegetable curry. You can also add any chopped greens to meat balls, meat loaf, or western omelettes with minced ham and onions.
12. Always compost
Composting your food waste helps create some healthy soil for your cottage garden and plant pots. A closed containment style composter keeps food scraps away from wildlife and makes that healthy compost quickly. Just make sure you never throw food, or food scraps, into the regular garbage — once buried in a landfill, organic material releases methane, a greenhouse gas that’s 20 times more damaging to the fragile ozone than CO2, so always put food waste that you can’t use in the compost bin. That compost then feeds the earth, rather than destroying it.