Stop Throwing Away These 5 Food Scraps

Cookbook author Irene Li shares five common ingredients that you should be using, rather than throwing out or composting.

By Amy Traverso

Aug 15 2023


Which ingredient leftovers should you be using, rather than throwing away?

Photo Credit : Sri Lanka

Leave it to sisters Margaret Li and Irene Li to make frugality fun. In their latest book, Perfectly Good Food: A Totally Approachable Zero Waste Approach to Home Cooking, the former owners of Boston’s Mei Mei restaurant offer very easy, extra tasty ways to use up all the foods in your refrigerator, save money, and cut waste with recipes like Cream-of-Anything Soup, Herby Green Rice with Meat or Tofu, Low-Key Fruit Jam, and Clear-Out-the-Pantry Granola. Anyone who has felt the pinch of inflation these past few years will appreciate the money-saving possibilities of this approach. Any busy home cook will appreciate the value of being able to make dinner without another trip to the store. But the food waste piece is also critical because about forty percent of the food grown in America is thrown away. Forty percent! 

Perfectly Good Food

We asked Irene to share ideas for using five common ingredients that you’re probably throwing out or composting, but which can be used to delicious effect in everyday cooking. 

1. Citrus Rinds

You can store citrus for weeks in your crisper drawer and freeze the rinds and juice for later use. “We have  a preserved citrus recipe but there are countless things you can do with the rinds and the pith,” Irene says. “You can make extract, you can ferment them. My husband is a cocktail person and we go through so much citrus. When you start looking at that ingredient in a different way you’re like oh my gosh we’re rich!” Among the recipes in the book: Citrus curd (the tangy-sweet sauce), What’s-in-Your-Fridge Citrus Cake, and Preserved Citrus.

2. Vegetable Stalks and Stems

“A lot of time, it’s just about altering the texture of the tougher parts of vegetables to make them more workable,” Li says. Usually, that just means cooking the kale or Swiss chard stems a bit longer before you add the tender greens. Same with broccoli. “Chinese cuisine uses broccoli stalk in a lot of recipes in equal share with the florets, so the idea that you’d throw away the stem was so crazy to me,” Irene says. “You can use kale stems in a stir fry or puree them for a soup or a sauce.” 

3. Onion and Garlic Peels

You might not use these every day, but you can save them in the freezer and use them in a chicken or vegetable stock. “We also have a scrap chili oil recipe that makes use of onion skins,  garlic peels, and scallion stems,” Irene says. “If you were to amass them over time, the feeling is ‘Wow, we have all this stuff!”

4. Overripe Fruit

When fruit grows a little soft (but hasn’t spoiled), freeze it and use in smoothies. “Margaret takes this approach with her kids,” Irene says. “If she has fruit that is not prime for eating out of hand it goes into the freezer labeled “Fruit for Smoothies.” If her kids don’t finish the smoothies, they go into a popsicle mold. She calls it ‘fruit three times.’ I have to use this with myself, to be honest.”

5. Potato and Carrot Peels

“Margaret’s Scottish husband loves mashed potatoes and he’s kind of a purist about them and doesn’t like the peels in the mash,” Irene says [Margaret, the book’s primary author, recently moved to Glasgow with her family]. “So she saves the russet potato peels, tosses them with salt, oil, parmesan, or whatever she has on hand and bakes them until they’re crispy. I think she takes great joy in making him eat those peels. This approach also works with carrot, beet, turnip, or other root veggie peels. 

The potato peels remind Irene of one other tip: If you’ve got the oven on to make one thing, look at the vegetables in your fridge and see if there’s anything you could roast now and use later. “It’s not just about making the best use of the veggies, but also the electricity or gas,” Irene says. “While the oven is on or the water is boiling, could you roast off some sad tomatoes or could you boil some spinach and use it later? That way you buy yourself some time, even if you don’t know what you’re going to do with the item.”

Do you have any creative ways to use up leftover food? Let us know in the comments below, and check out the book Perfectly Good Food: A Totally Approachable Zero Waste Approach to Home Cooking for even more ideas.