If you don’t have a big hungry family, food waste can be a tricky problem. Meals are generally designed to serve four or five people, and many grocery store packages of products are designed for the same. When you’re only cooking for one or two, you end up with odd bits of ingredients left sitting in cabinets and at the back of the fridge.
Here what we’ve been doing lately to make sure those ingredients get used instead of wasted, plus some tips to help you use up your own leftover ingredients with some improvised meals.
Improv Chicken Casserole
I’m proud of my wife. When we moved in together and I took over our cooking, I discovered that my wife was the Pickiest Eater on Earth™. We’ve been together for more than two years now, and I’m still learning to speak my wife’s unique food language. (Crescent rolls, biscuits, cookies: browned is “burnt;” “sweet” usually does not mean sweet, it means chocolate or ice cream.)
For a long time “veggies” meant green beans or broccoli, maybe a little stealthily hidden bell pepper. That was a big problem for me, because I like to cook, and I like to use a variety of ingredients when I cook, especially lots of fresh veggies.
The other day, we were cleaning out the fridge and discovered a handful of ingredients that weren’t quite bad, but needed to be used immediately if they were going to be saved — a little leftover chicken, some carrots and mushrooms, some neufchatel cheese. We’d only been planning on doing a frozen pizza for dinner, so Crystal asked if there was anything we could make with the leftover bits we had. We’d paid good money for those ingredients, so we didn’t want to just toss them out.
We decided we could use everything to make a sort of crockpot chicken casserole, but it needed more some substance if it was going to become a meal. While I was dicing the chicken, Crystal looked in the fridge. “Is this celery any good? And maybe we could add some onion,” she said. I wasn’t sure if I’d heard her right. My wife wanted to add celery and onion to something?
Celery and onion have long been two of my biggest hurdles with Crystal’s picky eating. I love celery and onion. When we first started dating, she hated them. If a recipe called for onion, I’d purposely use half or a quarter what the recipe called for, dice it up super small, and she still thought it was too much. And she has some weird aversion to the smell of celery, which I just don’t understand. I think celery smells clean and fresh.
Rejoicing a little inside, I diced up some celery and onion, sauteed it for a while in some butter, and added it to our casserole. A few hours later, I added some crushed Ritz crackers, and we had a delicious homecooked meal.
The end result: we cleared our fridge of about six ingredients that otherwise would have been destined for the trash can. In a way, it felt like creating a meal out of nothing, because we didn’t have to buy anything extra, and we didn’t use anything that hadn’t been bought to use in another recipe earlier in the week.
How To Improv A Meal
Most meals have a few basic components. You have a protein, a carb, and some veggies. Ideally you keep those pretty balanced, but you can swing a bit extra in any direction and everything will still work out. Add a flavor component if you need it, and you’ve got a meal.
Look at the leftover ingredients you have on hand and start thinking of how to combine them. Chicken, tomatoes, pasta, and some basil is a good start towards an Italian dinner. Ground beef, leftover baked potatoes, some chicken stock, and a little velveeta is a good start towards a cheeseburger soup. You may not have all the ingredients to create the meal the same way you might if you’ve planned it, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still make a delicious meal with a little creativity.
Besides, if it doesn’t turn out, you were planning on throwing those ingredients away anyway, right? You don’t lose anything by trying.
Need some ideas? Check out Supercook.com. It’s a recipe website that lets you punch in the ingredients you have on hand. Add your ingredients, and Supercook filters its recipe list to only show recipes you can make with the stuff that’s already in your kitchen.
Do you struggle with wasted food? What tricks have you found to reduce the amount of food that gets thrown away?
Photo by Michael Derr