Wasting less food gets fancy, but the example can inspire us all

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Watch out world, the waste-less trend may just have arrived. This Friday, chef and food thought-leader Dan Barber will transform his famed Blue Hill restaurant into a pop-up experiment called WastED. For two weeks, esteemed chefs such as Mario Batali and Dominique Crenn will craft menus made from food that might otherwise go to waste, such as broccoli stalks and fiber leftover from juicing. It's the perfect challenge for chefs - an experiment in getting creative in using up leftovers, byproducts, or parts that often don't get eaten. But the good news is that you don't need celebrity chef skills to waste less food. In fact, wasting less food is something almost all of us can do relatively easily on a daily basis by just following some of the same logic that chefs around the world do naturally.

Here at NRDC, we're always thinking about what information people need in order to waste less food in their daily lives, particularly since 40 percent of all the food in the country goes uneaten. To put this into context, the average American family of four ends up throwing away an equivalent of about $1,560 annually in food. At least, however, people are starting to talk about it more and trying to make changes in their lives and businesses, as depicted in last week's excellent New York Times article on the topic.

We've realized the secret sauce of wasting less food and saving money is not radically changing anything, but rather integrating small, easy steps into your current routine. To help you save food and money, NRDC is releasing a book called the Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook with simple tips on shopping, storing, and cooking food as well as recipes and a reference guide to the shelf-life of over 85 food products.

A key tenet of the book is the use-it-up mentality. Here's an excerpt from the book explaining this basic foundation of a waste-free kitchen, which can be adopted in the fanciest of kitchens or by the most simple of cooks.

The kitchen is "Mission Control" for mak­ing the most of your food. It's where the magic happens: the slightly soft car­rots are reborn as a rich carrot soup, the stale bread is transformed into the herbed crust of a fillet. It's also where less magic and more science happens if you're not careful.

Food-waste warriors approach the kitchen with a use-it-up mentality. They are ready to concoct new dishes that make use of whatever ingredients are on hand, not afraid to substitute pasta sauce or salsa in a recipe that calls for tomato paste. They shun tradition and eat breakfast for dinner, or dinner for breakfast, depending on what needs to be finished up. They occasionally resist the urge to go out to eat because they know there's a bunch of food in the refrigerator wait­ing to be cooked. They might even eat something they're not in the mood for.

It might sound unusual at first, but the use-it-up mentality can unleash a world of creativity. What do French toast, fried rice, and bread pudding have in common? They're part of a rich history in which different cultures have created ways to use up food that would otherwise be thrown away. It's not just Old World convention, though. It's likely that the use-it-up mentality is responsible for recipes that now adorn the plates of Michelin-rated restaurants around the globe. It's a state of mind that plays a regular role not just in restaurants, but also in helping me discover new dishes in my own kitchen.

You don't need any new tools or gadgets to incorporate a use-it-up mentality into your own cooking right now, but this chapter lays out some tips and strategies that can help. I should note, however, that the best practice is not to have surplus food in the first place. Toyota is known for its "just-in-time" manufacturing, which leads to minimal overage in its fore­casting. The same principle is true for cooking; the less surplus, the better.

Nothing to wait for here! Get out there and try a dish at WastED. Then go back home and bring that use-it-up mentality into your daily routine. Wasting less food is an ongoing journey of trying new tricks when shopping, cooking, and eating. Play with it, enjoy it, share it. Next thing you know, WastED won't just be an experimental restaurant, but the new norm for all of us.

Photo: Carrot Top Pesto courtesy of Flickr/Jacqueline