In an effort to reduce food waste while cooking healthy meals at home, it helps to utilize everything in your kitchen, including those leftovers in your freezer and long-forgotten dry goods tucked into the back of your pantry. If you’re equipped with a strange assortment of ingredients and no obvious meal plan, no worries: You just have to get creative.
Below, 10 chefs share pro hacks for getting the most out of your groceries, from extending the life of fresh produce and repurposing scraps to finding a use for stale bread.
USE STALE BREAD FOR SOUP
Nicholas Stefanelli, chef and owner at Masseria and Officina in Washington D.C., won’t let bread go to waste. Instead, he uses stale bread to make pancotto, aka Italian bread soup. Add other ingredients like fresh carrots, celery, onions, tomatoes and herbs, plus some pecorino cheese — and you’ve got a delicious, affordable recipe to make at home.
USE THE CRUST FOR BREADCRUMBS
Whenever you toast some bread, consider saving the crust. You can shred it with a food processor, and let it sit for about an hour to dry. Just like that, you’ve got DIY panko. According to chef Hiroki Odo of the Michelin-starred kaiseki restaurant Odo in NYC, these Japanese-style breadcrumbs can be used to coat meat, poultry and shrimp for deep-fried foods like tonkatsu and tempura.
ROAST A WHOLE CHICKEN
One chicken goes a long way and can provide multiple meals — and different types of meals — to keep things interesting. “When roasting an entire chicken, you can use the breasts for one meal and the remaining dark meat for another,” says Kyle Knall, executive chef at Electric Lemon at Equinox Hotel Hudson Yards. “You can also use the remaining bones to create a flavorful stock for soups.”
If you need some more inspiration for that chicken, Knall likes to braise the dark meat and add it to a chickpea and tomato stew. “Serve it with rice and then store in the fridge or freezer to have leftovers for days to come.” Or use the breasts to make chicken salad, which can be kept in the fridge for sandwiches or salads.
REPURPOSE VEGGIE SCRAPS AND GRAINS FOR BURGERS
Save the scraps from vegetables like zucchini, carrots and onions in a plastic bag and place them in your fridge, suggests Stephen Parker, corporate executive chef at Black Tap Craft Burgers & Beer. “Once you have a good amount, chop them up very finely and add those scraps to a large bowl with any leftover grain you have on hand like quinoa or rice,” he says. “Then grab some ground poultry (I prefer turkey myself), and season with some onion powder, leftover herbs and salt and pepper. Combine the mixture all together and you have a hearty, nutritious turkey burger. Cook it in a cast iron for a nice crust and top with all your favorite burger additions for an easy leftover meal.”
TURN BEEF FAT INTO BUTTER
Cooked some beef? You could discard the fat. But better yet, one of New York’s most prominent meat whisperers suggests rendering down the beef fat and whipping it together with butter to create a spreadable mixture. “Add this butter to the top of your finished meal (or save it for your next one) to enhance the natural flavor of the quality beef you’re already serving,” says Michael Lomonaco, executive chef and partner at Porter House Bar & Grill and Hudson Yards Grill in New York. This gives your meal some next-level umami.
FREEZE OVERRIPE FRUIT FOR LATER
If you stocked up on fresh fruit but aren’t eating it fast enough, don’t let it go to waste. Instead, pop that fruit into the freezer. “I usually end up blending them into cocktails, making smoothies or popsicles for my kids,” says Michael Gaines, director of F&B development for Xperience Restaurant Group.
SUB CHICKPEAS FOR MEAT
If meat’s scarce at your local store, or you want to cut back on your consumption, try chickpeas. This affordable pantry staple is available dry or canned, and can quickly be transformed into burger patties, says Badr Fayez, co-owner of Los Angeles-based Bowlila. His instructions: Roughly chop cooked chickpeas and add green onions, finely chopped carrots, finely chopped cilantro, soy sauce, sesame oil, black pepper and a chili pepper. Mix all the ingredients well and form into patties. Add some oil to a hot pan and sear both sides of the patty to get a nice char. Enjoy in a burger bun or add to a tomato sauce as a red meat alternative for pasta.
BLANCH VEGETABLES TO EXTEND THEIR LIFE
One way to salvage produce before it spoils is to blanch it, says Mee McCormick, founder and chef of Pinewood Kitchen & Mercantile in Nunnelly, Tennessee. Good candidates include broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, carrots, bok choy and cabbage. “If I notice it going bad, I blanch it quickly in hot boiling water for a couple minutes (bok choy is quick at about three minutes, carrots take about six minutes) and then move it to an ice bath,” she explains. “The goal is to have crisp veggies so that when you reheat them, they are not soggy and cook quickly. Once it cools, I place it in a glass storage container in my fridge. The benefit is that I have already-cooked veggies, making meal prep easy, and I didn’t waste valuable fresh produce.”
EXTRA ROOT VEGETABLES? MAKE BROTH
Give root vegetable scraps a second life by turning them into broth, suggests Odo, who likes using daikon radish, turnips, carrots and more. Once peeled, leave them out until dry, then boil everything in hot water with some mushrooms if you’ve got them, as they will add more aroma to the broth. Finish with soy sauce, mirin, a pinch of salt and sugar, and you’ve got a delicious, vegan broth made from scraps you might otherwise have discarded.
STORE HERBS AND VEGETABLES PROPERLY
Not everything should be stored the same way. Certain vegetables and herbs call for different methods to preserve their freshness. “Store herbs, asparagus or celery in water to make them last longer,” says chef Jeff Vucko of Chicago restaurant Travelle at The Langham. “Hearty greens, like kale, can last up to two weeks in the fridge,” says McCormick. “But the key to keeping spinach fresh is covering it with a paper towel,” she adds. That absorbs the moisture which can give spinach a slimy texture.
MACGYVER SOME MEALS FROM YOUR PANTRY
“The pantry is a place that is always overlooked,” says Rick Doherr, executive chef at Cafe Rule & Wine Bar in Hickory, North Carolina. “Everyone has a stockpile of dry and canned goods. Treat the pantry as MacGyver would, and challenge yourself to create recipes out of these items.” He likes to find inspiration on the internet by searching for recipes with items he has on hand. “I will put item names into the search engine and go to images, and then scroll for things to make with that item. It helps me visualize what I want to make.”
Put non-perishables, frozen veg, canned beans and other staples to good use by searching for recipes our Pantry Staples collection in the MyFitnessPal app under “Recipe Discovery.”