Assorted vegetables

Leftovers isn’t a dirty word to Jenna Smith.

The dietitian with University of Illinois Extension believes consumers can benefit with “meal sequels.”

“I try to educate consumers on how they can go about using that food rather than sending it off to the trash,” she said.

Food waste is a big issue. It is estimated that about 40 percent of all food is wasted.

“A big contributor to that is consumers,” Smith said.

Planning is one way to avoid wasting food.

“That’s really important,” she said. “Have a plan and shop at home, in your refrigerator. Look in the freezer and cabinets and see what you have. Make meal plans based on that information, such as what you need to use up.”

Even discarded parts of foods used to prepare meals have a use.

“There’s a lot you can do with vegetables,” Smith said. “Start saving leftover vegetables that go uneaten. Put them in the freezer, and later you can put that into a soup. That’s an easy veggie soup. Even stems and stalks — parts of the vegetable that you don’t even use — you can still use those in terms of making a stock. Save them in your freezer.”

Homemade broth is a big money saver, since broths and stocks are relatively expensive at the supermarket. In addition, it is healthier.

“When you buy stock or broth in the grocery store, it’s loaded with sodium,” Smith said. “You can make it more nutritional.”

Reheating unused food from a previous night doesn’t have to be boring, especially if a home cook comes up with new uses.

“A lot of times people don’t like to eat leftovers. But I plan on leftovers,” Smith said. “I don’t like to cook every single day. I love leftover day.

“It might be something that you can rework the leftovers to make them more exciting. For instance, if you’ve cooked a whole chicken for another dish, turn it into chicken quesadillas or chicken tortilla soup, something like that.”

Another way of avoiding food waste is storing it more efficiently. Smith recommends that home cooks hold off on washing fruits and vegetables until right before they are used.

“Some vegetables and fruits going to last longer than others,” she said. “Berries, in particular, are very perishable. They’re more likely to spoil quicker with that added moisture. I wash a handful at a time, whatever I’m using.”

She also promotes vegetable bins in the refrigerator.

“Use those vegetable crisper drawers. That’s what they’re for,” Smith said. “… If you’re buying carrots with green tops, it’s best to cut those tops off before you store them. That might help preserve them for a little bit longer.”

Using perishable foods past the “sell by” date is also wise.

“Understanding the date labels on food packages is important,” Smith said. “Something I hear about all the time is people throwing food away just because it’s past the date. Consumers need to understand a little bit more about those dates. The ‘best if used by’ is simply for quality.

“Even with eggs, those are good three to five weeks after that sell-by date. Things are going into the trash that don’t need to be.”

Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.