MONTVILLE, NJ – It’s always a good idea to have a plan when you cook – planning meals saves time, money and above all reduces waste. To teach residents about reducing waste when they cook and planning healthy meals that are ecologically sound, the Environmental Commission hosted two Zero Waste Cooking and Meal Planning classes late in February.

Environmental Commission member Bansari Shah told attendees that while planning healthy meals on a regular basis can be stressful, it’s important, because food waste is a huge contributor to global warming.

“Eating at home saves money and time, and you’ll use less plastic than take-out food,” she said.

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Shah suggested “bullet journaling” as a way to organize life and help with meal planning, because the journal organizes topics like shopping, appointments and vacations and “is like a brain dump,” Shah said.

“It’s a way to organize your life in one resource if you’re overwhelmed by ‘to do’ lists, and makes your brain clearer,” she said.

One bullet list can be a list of all favorite recipes, simply listed by name, so that when the question of “what’s for dinner?” comes up, something can be quickly chosen from the list. From there, it’s just a question of keeping ingredients on hand for five favorite meals. Another list could be 20 meals the family loves – basically enough for a month or so – with a grocery list.

From there, chef Karen Gobo took over to show the group how efficient cooking can save the day and reduce waste. She made a bean soup and a faro salad to demonstrate the techniques of buying from the bulk section of grocery stores – but only the amount you will eat – and chopping vegetables for more than one dish at a time for convenience. Gobo said she cooks for a family and uses everything in the fridge to eliminate waste.

“I took the leftover pizza and made croutons for their salad,” she said. “By the end of the week, the fridge is pretty much empty and needs to be re-stocked. Nothing is wasted.”

Gobo illustrated how she uses scraps to make stock – “even the skins of the onion and the lemon peels” – which she then freezes to use in the soup she prepared. Her sister Kathy grows herbs for her which Kathy hangs upside down to dry before use.

Gobo had plenty of other environmentally friendly suggestions for food prep, such as using paper containers to freeze homemade stock, which can be purchased at stores like Restaurant Depot, or saving glass jars to put the stock into. She showed the group reusable mesh bags, which can be used to purchase beans and other bulk items or produce. Shah said that ShopRite isn’t too pleased when she uses the bags, but Whole Foods is very accommodating regarding the bags.

Other ideas that Gobo had included:

  • Store food properly. Don’t freeze items that shouldn’t be, and don’t keep it too long in the fridge.
  • Organize the food in your pantry so you can consume everything – make sure you can see it and use it.
  • Be creative with your leftovers – find new ways to use them up. Try incorporating protein into quesadillas, fried rice, Panini or lo mein.
  • Don’t shop hungry – you’ll overspend and buy food you won’t use.
  • Buy local, in-season, and utilize farmer’s markets, because not much gasoline has been utilized to get that food to you.
  • Shop with a plan so that you know what ingredients you need and don’t need to make extra trips, or get too much which will go bad because you forgot you’ll be out tomorrow night and can’t cook up that fish while it’s still fresh.
  • Store your items in creative ways to use up all of the food. If you buy ginger root, peel it and freeze it. If you buy lemons, zest them and freeze the zest for use in another recipe. You can use extra herbs by mixing them with oil and freezing them in an ice cube tray. Orange peels can be cut up and boiled in sugar liquid to make candied orange peels. The bones from a roast can be roasted then cooked with liquid to make stock. Fruit that is starting to rot can be cooked down as compote or jam.
  • Compost.

“I’m 80 percent of the way there, when it comes to ecological cooking,” Gobo said. “We need to take a step back and look at the amount of waste in our leftovers, which will help the environment. Another big step will be ditching plastic bags for reusable or recycled bags. We also need to cut back on disposable items.”

Attendees were very happy with what they learned from the seminar and the empowerment it offered for cooking with the environment in mind.

“I learned how to look at my fridge differently and repurpose foods,” Julie Greenfield said. “It’s a great idea to keep a jar in the freezer for food scraps and then make stock out of it.”

Eileen Strasser agreed that the seminar was valuable.

“Cooking at home in an ecologically sound way is great, and I was glad to learn about the alternatives to disposable items. I come from a big family and I often cook for many – I’m going to be more creative about it now,” she said.

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