I’ll square with you. I was quite close to winning the “Biggest Treehugger” superlative in my high school’s yearbook, but I’m no Greta Thunberg. I’ve always cared about the environment, and was raised to take quick showers, turn off lights when exiting a room, and save Ziplock baggies to wash and reuse. But the marrow of the matter is that my reasoning for becoming an anti-food waste savant was that I think cooking with constraints is a fun hobby.

I’m a passionate home cook, and my fiancé and I enjoy the challenge of using every bit of produce we receive in the weekly bag of fresh vegetables we pay for through a local program. My partner writes a newsletter about the surplus grocer around the corner and our obsession with cooking down every last ingredient in the home — even takeout sauces and the globs of oil at the bottom of fish tins. 

It was his idea to start composting, and when I complained of the goopy, putrid, fly residences created by collecting mounds of fresh rot in our apartment, he purchased the Lomi home composting machine, which whirs, grinds and breaks waste down into dirt in just a few hours.

Why is a zero waste kitchen important?

In the United States, food waste is estimated at between 30%-40% of the food supply, according to the USDA, and globally, wasted food is to blame for about 8% of all greenhouse gas emissions. So it is perhaps unsurprising that the concept of the “zero waste kitchen” is getting a modern zhuzh and is regaining popularity, a chic glow if you will. 

How do you make a zero waste kitchen?

So what exactly does it mean to have a “zero waste kitchen”? It’s a term that, at its most stringent definition, means eliminating all food and packaging waste in your cooking process. For many home cooks (myself included), it’s difficult to actually accomplish generating “zero” waste, but this term is used somewhat aspirationally by folks who are interested in simply reducing their tossed leftovers and trashed food scraps.

Good ways to reduce waste in your kitchen and get closer to “zero” include planning your meals and prioritizing the perishable foods you have on hand that will go bad sooner than others, thinking about ingredients that can be used across several meals, and sticking to recipe yields that your household can actually finish off. Repurpose your leftovers, including takeout food from restaurants, compost what you can’t use, and store food properly to extend its shelf life as long as possible.  

What is zero waste cooking?

So what’s behind the zero waste cooking trend? 

There are scads of TikTokkers, like @SpicyMoustache and cookbook author Carleigh Bodrug, who have built massive followings around the topic, posting videos about how to avoid wasting specific ingredients, like ginger, wasabi and squeezed lemons. Grocery delivery companies like Imperfect Foods have been popular for years, capitalizing on the debunked notion that farms throw away ugly fruits and vegetables. And there are smart fridges, too, which monitor expiration dates and encourage people to eat what’s lingering in the drawer by suggesting recipes. 

Individual brands are even keen to be associated with the principles of thrift and function, like Salt & Straw, the famous Portland, Oregon-based ice cream company, which sent me their new line of “upcycled” ice creams made with salvaged ingredients like cacao pulp, day-old bread loaves turned into bread pudding, and the milk of spent barley that’s been saved from the beer brewing process. The whole series has been certified by the Upcycled Foods Association, something I had no idea even existed prior to writing this.  

Bodrug has a series she dubbed “recession recipes,” which gets at one driving factor for reducing waste; with grocery prices going up, stretching ingredients saves money. But there are more abstract reasons people are interested in reducing the amount of waste in their kitchens.

As the writer Helen Rosner points out in her recent New Yorker piece about the promises of “home composting” machines like my Lomi, what a person gets out of using them is “a feeling: the pleasurable, bourgeois satisfaction of having done the right thing without working too terribly hard at it.” She continues, “Food-waste processors neatly produce lighter-weight, lighter-footprint waste, but that’s not their primary purpose: they are machines for the efficient alleviation of guilt.”

In award-winning chef and author Tamar Adler’s recent cookbook, “The Everlasting Meal Cookbook,” readers find a treatise on creatively working with the ingredients in your fridge and cupboard. It’s a genuine index with the heft and feel of an encyclopedia. If you already know what you’re doing, it’s a handy compendium. It got me thinking with Adler’s suggestions for things that tend to end up directly in my Lomi, like corn husks, which can become wrappers for tamales or steamed fish; or a new life for the old jar of chow-chow that can be subbed for cornichons in my next tartar sauce. 

And there’s the new cookbook, “Perfectly Good Food,” wherein authors Margaret Li and Irene Li provide what they call “a totally achievable zero waste approach to home cooking.” It’s full of practical advice and recipes from the “use it up” and “anything goes” school of thinking, “Make-It-Your-Way Baba Ghanoush” and “Anything You Like Galette.” However, the old trout in me wonders — if you don’t scan your refrigerator and cupboards and instinctively envision a meal based on the ingredients you’ve got on hand, and more than that, have a desire to salvage and get creative, can you be re-programmed by reading a cookbook? 

It’s a net-positive if these books and this movement spurs even one person to change their cooking habits, and I’m glad if these tools are useful for those interested in reducing their food waste. However, I didn’t receive any anti-waste education. I learned by doing. 

I’m inclined to agree with the food writer Tejal Rao, who recently wrote in The New York Times about how “trying to waste as little as possible is a creative act, undervalued,” she argued, “only because it happens in the realm of the home kitchen.” 

“No-waste cooking is just another way of maximizing the pleasures of your food, of making the most out of the least. It’s not a trend — it’s what cooking is, most of the time, without requiring any kind of special name.” 

It’s great that more people are embracing a less wasteful mentality in the kitchen. However, I still remember feeling like a weirdo going to school with reused Ziplock bags and a smorgasbord of leftovers, and like other critics, I’m a bit skeptical about the power of cookbooks to change the ingrained habits of those who are accustomed to throwing things out. My sweet dad has been married to my frugal, save-every-morsel mother for over 44 years, and he goes through the motions, but avoiding waste doesn’t come naturally to him, even now. 

I wonder if watching anti-food waste influencers transform onion peels into onion powder on TikTok or reading a snout-to-tail cookbook will actually inspire people to act. I sure do hope so.