The Little-Big Matter of Food Waste

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Repurposing leftover rice from takeaway is one big way to prevent perfectly good food being thrown away and food waste reduction glory badges!

Repurposing leftover rice from takeaway is one big way to prevent perfectly good food being thrown away and food waste reduction glory badges!

I want to talk about Food Waste. You see it falls within a subject that is very close to me - global sustainability. This is a post that I have been debating for a while on phraseology. Because, I really don't want to get preachy or gratingly hipster-y on you. Yet, it is an important topic and should be given due  gravity. Especially because, it is also one those incredibly, slip-through-the-cracks variety of unsustainability that each of us, however, good we are, always have room to be better about.

I am going to give it a go by telling you my experience and how I am still shocked at how much I still waste. And, I would love to hear from you, about your perspective and we can trade notes!

As an Asian in not well-to-do family, I had to clean my plate. Waste not want not, is an etched-in philosophy. Food in my house tended somehow to be made in larger quantities than the three people who lived in it. But, leftovers were never thrown away. They manifested themselves as lunch or in redesigned formats for the next days' meals. Nothing edible went into the bin and few things rarely spoiled for lack of attention. We simply could not afford it.

These steamed collard green leaves are wrapped around a stuffing of brown rice cooked with beets and a little stock. Ready to be sauced and baked for a scrumptiously hearty meal.

These steamed collard green leaves are wrapped around a stuffing of brown rice cooked with beets and a little stock. Ready to be sauced and baked for a scrumptiously hearty meal.

When I moved to the US, at first, caught between hectic work schedule and new flavors that I did not always take to, I became guilty of letting some produce and failed/unloved dishes wilt away ignored in the recesses of the fridge. Over time, I got better at cooking, and more conscientious about cooking from the fridge/pantry, and, managed to bring uncooked waste to zero. Overall, between the childhood drill and grown up responsibility, I thought I was doing rather well in the whole mitigating waste department.

Until, I realized I was not. There was so much more I could do. The jolt to my system came from a course I did with John Hopkins University recently, that clearly outlined the role that an individual plays in the food system. Contrary to what the industry and activists yell and would like us to believe, the food system, even as flawed as it is in the US, is controlled, driven and orchestrated by us, the consumers, the eaters. Yes, the system leaks like a faulty value but the most loss happens from our taps, in our homes; whether resources or consumption.

Leftover stuffing tossed with any remaining leaf bits makes a great meal in of itself with a splash of yogurt and slivered nuts.

Leftover stuffing tossed with any remaining leaf bits makes a great meal in of itself with a splash of yogurt and slivered nuts.

To put things in perspective, these are a few realities I had to face - 

  • 30% of all food produced in the US is wasted; dumped in trash, thrown away in grocery stores when slightly damaged or post-sale date.
  • 40% of all food waste happens in homes. Which means we as individuals waste 3x more than happens on the farm, through the wholesaler, distributor and retailer.
  • The amount of food wasted contributes to 3.3 Gigatons of CO2 released into the air; an amount that is unnecessary burden on an already taxed environment.
  • 1/2 the food wasted in the US households alone can feed 35 million more people around the world and there are 805 Mn people in the world who are hungry according to WFP. 

When I first heard of these stats, I was still smug about how little my lifestyle as a conscious and determinate food eater, and more so, a savvy and creative food blogger had an impact on these numbers. That was until, we ordered readymade food via Seamless. 

The ubiquitous app that allows time starved individuals in high impact cities like NYC to order food in more often than you think about it, is perhaps the easiest trap for food waste. Especially, when you order from Asian restaurants. Unmindful of portion sizes and keeping in mind simply the immigrant notion of value equals price and quantity, they deliver more than any one can eat in one sitting. Which is okay, if the leftovers get eaten later. Most often, they are not. Because, most consumption happens either at the desk in an office during those midnight oil hours. Or, they are those orders that taste fine when you are starving but you cannot bear the sight or smell of them the next day.

Salad and stuffed vegetable. A fresh and divine comfort!

Salad and stuffed vegetable. A fresh and divine comfort!

I realised I fall into the category squarely. I don't order in often but when I do get Asian, inevitably the mounds of rice they send will the curries languishes in my fridge until mold and waste time kicks in. With my new armor of stats, this time I could not let that happen. Neither would I make that mistake in the future again.

I did not have the option of not getting the rice! Have you tried telling the person on the other end "no rice with massaman curry"? I am either left hanging to a suspiciously dead phone as there is stunned silence on the other end, IF the person understood what I was saying. Or it is ignored. Notwithstanding, they send me the rice anyway! So, the only option is to make something off the leftovers. 

Which, is what I did, and have done for the subsequent orders. I repurpose them into stuffed vegetables, fried rice, make more curries to eat them with. So far, they have worked out. I still have work to do with the philosophy and I do not always have a solution. For example, what can I do with the roti that Indian places insist on packing when I cannot tolerate wheat, especially, refined ones?!

So, today, I want to share the recipe for a vegan and gluten free Enchiladas,  beet infused stuffed collard greens in tomato sauce that is not just good for you, it makes you feel good too, from the heart right to the belly!

Another area of self-improvement I identified was in using the less recognized portions of produce. I remember the story I used to be told of my grandmother would portion the fruit of the banana to her three kids and husband while she would relish the pulp sticking to the inside of the skin. Not only is that nutritious but also mindful of extracting the most. Similarly, the pods of peas are very edible and highly nutritious. There are so many bits of vegetables we ignore and need not. Beet leaf pesto, anyone?! Amazing! Crunchy Swiss Chard stem salad? So many ideas!

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Now, it's your turn!!

how DO you reduce food waste?

You may not think of it deliberately, but you surely do in little ways. It would be great to hear more ideas and share thoughts!  


I have attached a few links for ideas and additional reads that you may be interested in...

Cooking Ideas


red rice + Collard Greens ENchiladas

{Gluten Free + Vegan}

1 bunch collard greens, atleast 6 large leaves

1 takeaway container (1-1/2 cups) cooked brown rice

3 medium red beets, cubed to half inch

1 small onion

2 cloves of garlic

1/2 cup of stock or water

1/2 tsp paprika

1 cup tomato puree

toasted almonds for garnish

salt, pepper and olive oil as needed

Steam the collard greens until soft and pliable, about 4 minutes.

Heat oil in a pan and sauté the onion and garlic until soft. Add the beets with the stock and cook covered until tender.

Season with salt and pepper and spice with paprika. Add the rice and cook until 90% of the liquid has been absorbed. The rice will be a deeply hued red!

Drizzle olive oil at the base of a baking dish and coat a couple of tablespoons of puree at the base.

Gently flatten each leaf of the collard greens and spoon a generous amount of the red rice in the center and fold the leaf over to wrap into parcel.

Place the parcel seam side down in the dish. Repeat till you have wrapped all the leaves.

Pour the remaining puree on top of the packages. Drizzle more olive oil on top and season with salt and pepper. 

Bake at 350 F for 20 minutes until the tomato puree has darkened and everything is soft yet firm.

Cool for a few minutes and serve with garnishes and yogurt.