You can make more than just alphabet soup from these commonly wasted ingredients!
I’ve just been waiting for someone to ask me for my food rescue recommendations. Now that I’ve gotten started, it’s hard to stop! Here, I’ve compiled a list of many of the ingredients I rescue regularly and keep in my freezer.
Flash freezing is the secret to much of my food waste management. You’ll want to do this especially if it’s something you don’t want to use all at once or you don’t want it freezing in a big clump. Just lay the food out, unwrapped, on a cookie sheet. Put it into the freezer for a short time—twenty minutes or so—until it hardens. Once it’s frozen solid, you can store it in a bag or a container, and individual pieces will stay mostly separated. You can then just pull out whatever amount you need.
Apples I don’t know about you, but I find half-eaten apples around my house regularly – apples the kiddos took a few bites of and left. I even rescue these half-eaten fruits. I rinse them, cut off the bitey parts, and cube up for a snack or put in the freezer to add to smoothies. You can do this with slightly mushy yet uneaten apples, too. You don’t have to take a bite of it first, I guess.
Bananas: We all know frozen brown bananas make great banana bread, but how many people keep tossing brown banana after brown banana into the freezer for this purpose and never make that much banana bread?
Bananas are also great in smoothies! Just plop the whole frozen banana in the freezer when it’s past its prime (I have a section of my freezer dedicated to this). Blend it up with fresh or frozen yogurt, a little honey, and any other frozen fruit or veggies you like – either store-bought or fruits and veggies you’ve saved in the freezer.
Mushy bananas that are not great for snacking are great blended into a homemade banana oat pancake mix. Super simple, delicious, and nutritious.
T2T Tip: When you’re ready to peel your frozen bananas, put them in a bowl of really hot water for 30 seconds and the peel will slip right off.
Cauliflower that’s turning brown is great chopped up in curries. You can also mash or rice it, then freeze it for a ready-to-go side dish anytime.
Bell Peppers – A versatile veggie that freezes well! Chop and freeze for soups, stir-fry, curries, or tacos.
Broccoli stems make an excellent addition to a slaw. Throw them in your ramen, on top of a baked potato, even on pizza!
Coconut Milk is a good example of a canned item I freeze often, is coconut milk. You can use an ice cube tray and then store in a bag or container. Add a cube or two to your stir-fry right at the end for a richer flavor.
Cherry Tomatoes: Even cherry tomatoes can make a quick sauce if you have too many. Rinse, dump in a pan and mash slightly. Cook down for 15-20 minutes, season, and then blend, and freeze. I do this when my cherry tomatoes have gone wrinkly, but are not rotted. The active time cooking is under 5 minutes, so even if there’s only enough for a small amount, you can take out a few frozen containers when you’re ready to put it into a meal.
Green Chilis or Chipotle in Adobo: Mostly, I think my family is a bunch of weenies when it comes to spicy food. Personally, I’d just add the whole can to any dish, but if that’s too spicy for you or your family, just use what you need and put the rest in the freezer. They’ll last quite a while.
Pumpkin: When you add a small amount – ½ cup or so – of canned pumpkin to soups or stews, the pumpkin flavor won’t take over but adds a nice creamy texture and deep flavor. Whenever I open a can of pumpkin but don’t use it all, I pop the rest in the freezer and add to dishes as needed. Pumpkin pancakes are another great use for canned pumpkin! I always make lots of extra mini pancakes and freeze them. Pull a few out of the freezer, cook them in the oven for a couple minutes and add jam for a quick and tasty breakfast.
Rhubarb: when it’s ready to harvest, you get a lot! Good news is that it’s fairly easy to preserve. Cook down with a tablespoon of water, a pinch of salt, and sugar to taste. It makes a yummy sauce for ice cream or yogurt. You can also mix with other fruits like the soggy strawberries below.
Soggy Strawberries can make some recipes better. Cut them roughly and cook them down into a quick sauce topping. It only takes a couple of minutes on the stove. The overripe fruit is perfect because it will be very sweet and the sauce won’t require any added sugar.
Rinse, flash freeze, add to your stock of smoothie ingredients in your freezer.
Stir strawberries, soggy or not, into plain yogurt. (This way you can buy a large tub of plain yogurt and flavor it any way you like. Crushing up a bit of the lemon biscotti from Paglias would make a tasty topping too!)
Also, a good topping for ice cream or thicken it up a bit by cooking longer and you have a simple homemade jam.
Tomatoes: you can freeze the whole tomato, no prep, if you’re really in a hurry. Really, just place the whole thing in there and when you’re ready to use it, thaw slightly and the skin will come off easily. Then it’s ready for soups or marinara.
Tomato Paste – I like to freeze this flat in a bag or on a cookie sheet. Then just break off however much you need.
Veg Heavy Tomato/Pasta Sauce – I like to make a big batch of pasta sauce with LOTS of veggies to freeze. It’s a good way to utilize lots of tomatoes and other veg in your fridge. Chop up onions, red, yellow, or orange bell peppers (if I use green, I use only a small amount because the flavor can take over), celery, carrots, zucchini, and even a few stray mushrooms. Simmer and cook down until all veggies are tender then blend until smooth in a food processor or blender. For seasonings, I add basil, oregano, parsley, garlic, and salt and pepper. A really small pinch of cinnamon adds a warm flavor to the sauce. Depending on how sweet and flavorful the tomatoes that you use are, you can also add a little sugar or honey as needed.
Wrinkly Grapes: When the grapes get sad and wrinkly, they get neglected in the fridge. Rinse and place in a bag or container in the freezer. They make a great cold, refreshing snack and it doesn’t matter if they were wrinkly or soft once they’re frozen. Also, a good smoothie ingredient!
Yogurt: You should freeze some yogurt, rescued or not! Put into individual containers in the freezer to use later in smoothies. If it’s a large container, spread on a cookie sheet, freeze, then break up and store the chunks in a plastic bag.
Zucchini are the end of summer excess no one knows what to do with. You can only eat so much zucchini bread. I don’t find that zucchini freezes well whole, but if you chop and even partially cook then freeze, you can blend into vegetable soup or cube for a creamy addition to any fruit smoothie!
Creativity is key to stretching budgets and taking advantage of good, free food.
How do you keep over 2.4 million lbs of wholesome, edible food from going to waste every year? You count on partnerships with organizations that can deliver this food directly to people who need it. Table to Table volunteers to pick up food and deliver it to more than 50 agencies that serve hungry, homeless, and at-risk populations in Johnson County. That’s estimated to be 2 million meals delivered in the form of groceries or prepared and served by the staff of those agencies. Table to Table has 40 routes per week that pick up from many different types of donors. Restaurants, bakeries, hospitals, food warehouses — volunteers arrive not knowing what they will be loading in the vans. It also means the organizations won’t know exactly what food they will be getting when the van stops at their location.
Dairy, meat, produce or baked goods, kitchen managers and chefs work with what they receive to plan menus and meals for the people they serve every day. These organizations are a model of flexibility and creativity which enables them to use just about anything that may be delivered on a T2T truck. Since the food is delivered for free, it also significantly decreases their food budgets. They can reallocate the funds they would have spent on food to feed people on other essential services they provide to our community.
Watch the short videos below to hear more from two of these organizations’ staff that work closely with Table to Table.
We know you’ll be as impressed as we are by all they’re doing to feed people and build community with food and service.
Salvation Army Chef Allen Sanders
Allen Sanders grew up in Rockford, Illinois and moved to Iowa City 33 years ago to cook at the University of Iowa. When he retired from the university he was missing what he’d been doing his entire life, so he went to work at Salvation Army Soup Kitchen.
“It’s a wonderful experience,” said Sanders. “The volunteers here are great. We are a good team. Table to Table helps us so much with the food they provide. You never know what’s going to show up in the trucks. Every day is something different, but I always find a way to to utilize what I get and make the best meal I can make.”
Shelter House Kitchen Manager Cartis Washington
Cartis Washington, Kitchen Manager at Shelter House, has cooked his entire life. Cartis’s experience cooking many different types of restaurant cuisines has given him a unique way to plan meals and menus. It could be Asian, Italian, Spanish or Soul – he likes to switch things up when he’s making meals. Shelter House provides three meals a day and Table to Table helps out in many different ways with food. A hearty breakfast, take away meals for drop in clients and a hot dinner.
When Cartis is not working he’s spending time with his four year old daughter at the library or the Children’s Museum. He likes to try and get her to try new foods, which can be a challenge. We imagine his creativity in the kitchen and experience feeding hundreds of different people each year gives him an advantage when sitting down to eat with a toddler.
Now that you’ve been rescuing those leftover ingredients, you’re going to need to eat them at some point or all that effort is wasted!
Smoothies, Soups, Stir-fries, Slaws, Curries, Tacos, ‘Pick your own toppings’ ramen, baked potato, and pizza are all great types of food to add whatever is in your fridge or freezer!
I can’t think of many ingredients I couldn’t add to at least one of those things! We make something from this list at least a few times a week. 1) because they’re all delicious and 2) because they help us use up everything in our fridge and freezer. I’ve made many-a-meal by tossing together small bits of random ingredients in my fridge or freezer.
Carrots, peppers, sweet potatoes, potatoes (one of the most wasted veggies), cauliflower that’s starting to brown, leftover proteins, leftover chickpeas, or frozen beans. One piece of chicken may not be enough for a meal on its own. A curry is a great way to stretch leftover protein.
A baked potato is merely a vector for toppings! Baked potatoes are a good way to use small amounts of lots of different ingredients. Add any of these things and more as toppings for a pretty filling meal: broccoli, cauliflower, shredded chicken, taco meat, shredded cheese.
When I was a kid, my sister and I used to swear that Lipton Noodle soup in a box was the instant cure when we were sick. We called it magic soup. I still believe in its power, but I now have a homemade version as well that is super quick to throw together if you have some of the ingredients in the freezer.
Sauté a fresh or frozen mirepoix (carrots, celery, onion), fresh/frozen chopped bell peppers or sliced mushrooms. Add your frozen stock and let it boil (I just dump the whole chunk of frozen stock in the saucepan and leave the lid on – it will thaw in a few minutes). Once it’s boiling, add a handful of pretty much any noodle (I like to use broken bits of spaghetti, but will use whatever I have), and some salt and pepper. Ten minutes later you have a brothy, homemade noodle soup full of flavor and nutrients. I make this for my kids whenever they are homesick. And now my 9 & 10 year old boys know how to make it, too, so they can make magic soup for me and my husband if we’re sick!
While not a meal on its own, a frozen mirepoix from rescued onion, carrot, and celery that you’ve made ahead is a great start to many meals. Pretty much any soup, stir-fry, or slow-cooked meal that I make starts with a rescued frozen mirepoix. On top of the traditional ingredients, when I have extra veggies that won’t be used up before they turn, I’ll chop ’em up and throw’ em in the freezer. You can do each veggie separately to use as needed, or just a big bag of all 3 mixed together. This combo adds a lot of flavor to dishes, and having them prepped in advance saves time when you want a homemade meal fast!
‘Pick your own toppings’ ramen
You can keep a “ramen bag of goodies” in your freezer. This quick and easy lunch is so much better when you add some fresh/frozen veggies. Celery, cabbage, julienne carrots, bell pepper, radish — if you have it, you should try it!
I like to think outside the pizza box. Not every pizza has to be a standard tomato sauce and cheese. I like to roast any leftover veggies and put them over a flatbread crust with a little garlic and olive oil. Add a few slices of fresh mozzarella and that’s-a-pizza! Pizza is a great way to use up leftover specialty cheeses. Stronger flavored cheese on pizza allows you to add just a little bit and still get a lot of flavor.
We mix up a smoothie of some sort nearly every day in my house. I guarantee you probably have a narrow view of what a smoothie can be. You can throw literally any fruit, compressed and wilted spinach, zucchini, kale, and more. Freeze all of it ahead of time and pull it out when you need it. You can also package up the dregs of yogurt at the bottom of the container and freeze it for use in a future smoothie.
Stir fry is a no-brainer for all kinds of veggies past their prime. Not only can you cook up any and all veggies, but you can also add a different sauce each time. The possibilities are endless!
‘Slaw’ doesn’t have to be just your basic green cabbage and carrot coleslaw. You can use lots of veggie or fruit ‘scraps’ to make various slaws. Don’t throw away those broccoli stems! Just cut the really woody part off the bottom, peel the tough parts, and use a mandoline to julienne the stem. You can also cut them into matchsticks by hand, but it will take some time. Combine with onion, carrot, cabbage, peppers, or all of the above! Add a sweet creamy sauce, a tangy vinegary sauce (or some combo of the two) depending on your tastes. You’ll have an easy side for burgers, grilled chicken, and a great topping for your food rescue tacos.
Now about those TACOS!
At least once a week we eat something taco-y. Because they’re amazing. And also because you can turn anything into a taco. Have a piece of protein left from dinner? Heat it up, fry a corn tortilla, and make a quick slaw.
Table to Table has kept 22 million pounds of food from going to waste since April 1996. As Iowa’s original food rescue organization, our unique food rescue model maximizes the amount of food we can rescue and gets it to people who can use it quickly. Route-based rescue allows us to ensure maximum amounts of food are used by our partners before it goes to waste. In fact, our partners report that most of the perishable food we collect each day is distributed to a family who can use it within six hours of our delivery. But what do we mean when we say “route-based rescue”?
Well, it looks like this!
It’s nearly as complicated to implement as it looks. The good news is, our program staff are experts and our partners are committed and that’s what it takes to make this work.
A Single Route
To put it simply, this is what a single route looks like on any given day. We do this 8-10 times per day!
Each day, volunteers hop in a Table to Table van and drive to a few of our food donor partners. They load the van with produce, dairy products, meat, bread, pizzas, pre-made chicken wraps — you name it! They then drive to a few of our recipient partners, who select what foods they’ll need that day from the T2T van.
The benefits of route-based rescue:
- More food from donors. Volunteers follow a specific route at the same time each day to ensure that our donor partners know when they’re coming and have food donations ready for them. They can easily determine whether the food they have will still be good by the time Table to Table will arrive.
- Recipients can plan for food deliveries. Our recipient partners know when to expect their food deliveries for that day and have some consistency in what we’ll deliver. When the Coralville Pantry knows we’ll deliver 50 gallons of milk from the Kalona Creamery on Thursday afternoon, they know they won’t have to buy any to meet the need of their pantry members.
- Maximum matching of donations to recipient partners. T2T volunteers can become experts at their route. They serve as daily ambassadors to collect feedback about what donors will give and what recipients can take. Our program staff uses this information to make adjustments.
- Rapid delivery of short-dated foods. We don’t bring food back to T2T for storage. Volunteers are transporting food directly from the donor to the recipient using a temperature-controlled van in a matter of hours. The produce that’s picked up this morning will be in a family’s refrigerator by this afternoon. Each month on average we collect 100,000 pounds of fresh produce, meat, and dairy products.
- Valuable food free to our partners! Many recipient agencies have no other source for these fresh foods, and certainly not another free source. Good food. Free food. It’s a win-win.
Thanks to our route-based model, we are able to rescue more than 2 million pounds of food annually in Johnson County, and our partners make sure it gets to those who need it. Without our route-based rescue, much more of this food would go to waste, never making it to the community and to family tables.
“What does this sell by date mean on my jug of milk? Can I still use it in my breakfast cereal, or is it past the point of no return?”
The Bottom Line
Manufacturers want grocers to turn their product. Grocers don’t want returns or complaints on food that’s lost some of its “ooomf”. Consumers want some guidance on how long their food will be good. All of these are reasons for offering food dates, but it may not be a reason for throwing food away.
According to USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (1):
- A “Best if Used By/Before” date indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
- A “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It is not a safety date.
- A “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It is not a safety date except for when used on infant formula
- A “Freeze-By” date indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
Did you notice a common theme in those definitions? “It is not a safety date…”
And since a sell-by date is all about inventory management for a grocery store and not your fridge, you may be able to eat those eggs for a month or so after their sell-by date.
Food dates are just one reason that consumer behavior leads to a loss of ~20% of all the food produced in the United States. Read more about the 5 things YOU can do to reduce food waste in your own home.