Why I Have a Hard Time Throwing Cooking Scraps Away

It's a small, but mighty way to cut down on food waste.

Woman with a bag filled with citrus food scraps

Dotdash Meredith / Shelby Vittek / Julie Bang

When I’m cooking at home, there’s barely a scrap of food that I don’t save. What others might toss into the waste bin—chicken bones, onion peels, celery leaves, parsley stems, carrot tops, potato skins, broccoli trunks, leek greens, kale stems, or Parmesan rinds—is gold to me. Allow me to explain.

For the last decade, I’ve lived in a small apartment without any outdoor space. As much as I'd love to have a healthy compost pile to contribute to, it simply doesn't make sense for me. We don’t have a garbage disposal either, so there’s nowhere for the scraps to be disposed of without them eventually ending up in landfills, where they’ll break down and emit methane, contributing to the greenhouse gas emissions that harm our planet. And so into a plastic bag and then into my freezer they go.

I’ve always hated throwing food—and could-be food—away. I grew up in a “clean plate club” family that praised us kids whenever we finished our food, leaving no scraps behind. Years later, I’d work my first job at a grocery store. If I worked the night shift, one of my tasks was gathering all the items left behind registers and in random places on shelves that customers decided they ultimately didn’t want but also didn’t want to return to their proper place. If they were perishable (produce, dairy, meats, prepared foods), company policy required me to scan them out as a loss and toss them in the bin. I can’t tell you how many cartfuls of food I was forced to push over into a dumpster behind the store at the end of the night.

As I grew older and learned how to cook for myself, I discovered that there are so many ways to reuse these food scraps that both add flavor to future dishes and help prevent food waste, an increasingly urgent issue in kitchens across the country that feels important for me to address. An estimated 30-40 percent of the US food supply ends up getting tossed in the bin, which is not only a waste of resources but an environmental concern as well. By freezing and storing my scraps to use at a later date, I’m playing my role (however small) in helping to reduce that number.

At first, remembering to save food scraps was a conscious act, something I had to remind myself to do while chopping away at my cutting board. But now, it’s second nature to push all the odds and ends to the corner of my workspace to be tossed into the freezer rather than pushing them over into the trash can. As someone who grew up in a frugal family, it feels good to participate in a regular routine that cuts down on unnecessary waste.

two halves of peeled onion on a cutting board with peel set off to side

The Spruce Eats / Julia Hartbeck

How I Organize My Kitchen Scraps

Because I repurpose my food scraps in different ways, I prefer to keep them separate. There are times when I need onion and garlic, but not celery and carrot scraps, for example. If they were all in one bag together, they’d freeze together in a clump and would be hard to separate out later.

To help bring some system to my madness, I organize my scraps into the following categories, which helps when I want to use them in various combinations:

  • Onion, scallion, and garlic scraps and ends, as well as leek greens
  • Celery and carrot scraps
  • Herb scraps, such as parsley, dill, and fennel fronds
  • Fibrous green scraps, such as broccoli trunks and kale stems
  • Squeezed Citrus
  • Mushroom stems
  • Cheese rinds
  • Ginger
  • Cooked chicken carcasses
  • Any scrap meat bones that have not been cooked yet
Basic chicken stock

The Spruce

How I Use My Kitchen Scraps

Now, you might be imagining a freezer exploding with bags filled with frostbitten vegetable peels. If so, you’re not completely wrong. My boyfriend is constantly complaining that he can’t find anything in there. When he opens the door looking for a frozen pizza or burrito, he sees a mess of bags on the freezer door and stacks of plastic containers filled with wilted scraps, bones and cheese rinds—nothing he can pull out, heat up, and eat as-is. But I know exactly where to reach for those tasty scraps when I’m whipping up dinner. When one of us gets sick, I can count on there always being some sort of poultry carcass in there for stock to make a healing pot of homemade soup.

What some might look at and see as a frightening collection of food waste, I see as containers of potential. Those odds and ends will transform into a delicious stock, which will go into risottos, soups and stews. That bag of squeezed citrus halves (a trick I learned from fellow food writer Emily Saladino) will bring brightness in the depths of winter. Saving every bit of usable scraps is a ritual that is good for the environment, good for the palate, and good for me.

Earlier this month, my boyfriend and I left our small apartment life behind for a small house with a backyard. That means I’ll finally have the opportunity to start a compost pile and plant a garden. I’ll miss the routine I’ve fostered of saving every and all food scraps in our tiny kitchen out of necessity, but look forward to carrying that impulse into all of our future homes, and developing new ways of saving seeds and scraps in the process.