Zero Food Waste 2015: Week 2 (plus Braised Coconut Chickpeas and Spinach)

zero food waste challenge 2015Last week, I got fed up and added a new 2015 goal: zero food waste. I’m planning to keep a running public list of everything edible I have to toss, as well as use these Wednesday food posts to discuss how I’m making this happen. This week: no-waste food tip #1 (laddering); a report on how I did at the grocery store (not as well as last week!); and a totally delicious packed-lunch recipe.

No-Waste Food Tip #1: Laddering Meals

Laddering is the practice of building one meal off of leftover ingredients (or just leftovers) of previous meals. It’s obviously related to meal planning, because in order to do it effectively you have to think about the whole week (or two-week sequence) as a unit, but it’s a distinct skill. With basic meal planning, I might buy tomato sauce and pasta to have on Monday, steak (hah! not on my budget) and spinach to have on Tuesday, and chicken breasts and carrots to have on Wednesday. Often, however, I end up having to buy too much of something perishable and it goes to waste since it’s not in the dish I was making.

Laddering solves this problem. In laddering mode, I think to myself: huh, I’ll have twice as much spinach as I need to go with the steak. What can I have on Wednesday that would use exactly that quantity of spinach without my needing to buy more? And I might decide to make a stir-fry, or a flexible dish like the one below. At its most elaborate, laddering can turn a potentially dull week of leftovers into a kitchen adventure, as in this lovely article by Jane Smiley about an infinite pot of French onion soup (I have followed her lead and done exactly this, and it works great.) But it can also be simple, and a good excuse to look for some new recipes if you just don’t know what to do with a spare quarter-cup of sour cream.

I ended up laddering several times this week. Before I went shopping last Saturday, I checked the fridge and found I had half an avocado and some chopped cilantro from the posole I’d eaten for lunch. As it happened I had just seen a recipe for avocado and kale salad, for which I had everything on hand but the kale, so I bought a bundle — which had more than I needed for the salad. So I took the extra, diced it up, and stirred it, along with the cilantro and some coconut flakes that have been hanging around my pantry for over a year, into the spinach-chickpea dish below. Voila: zero food waste, and as a bonus, the kale added a lot more nutritional value to the stew.

Weekly Grocery Shopping Report

This was a more expensive trip than last week’s. I stayed within the bounds of the cash in my wallet, but I’m now having to be tighter on spending money than I was last week, when I indulged in such things as a movie (only $6! And a classic Italian tearjerker!) and a latte (first one in months!)

Grocery store:
Banana, $.17 (yes, just one. I love being able to buy only what I need of something.)
Can of chickpeas, $.85
Lemon, $.89
Parsley, $.99
Sweet potatoes, $2.49
Coconut milk, $2.19
Fresh ginger, $.20
Mozzarella cheese, $3.99
Mushrooms, $6.00
Pasta, $1.49
Chicken broth, $2.59
Dishwashing gloves, $1.19
1 lb baby spinach, $4.12 (Because I am now CHEAP, I noticed it was a day past its expiration date and asked the cashier about a discount. He gave me 25% off. I only saved $1.37 but I felt it was important for flexing my frugal muscles!)
Bottle of Marsala, $11.99 (ahah, no wonder I don’t have any $$ in my wallet anymore. So much for the frugal muscles!)
Total with tax: $39.97

Whole Foods:
Kale, $1.50
Italian sausage: $5.28
Granola (bulk), $.99
organic lemon, $.99
Almond croissant, $1.99 (too indulgent in an expensive week, shouldn’t have done it)
Total with tax: $10.76

Farmer’s market:
Apples, $2.50
Coffee (1 lb whole bean), $12.00
Ground ginger, $1.75
Total: $16.25

Grand Total: $66.98 (!!!!!!!!!!!)

The coffee and marsala really did me in here, but what can you do — can’t manage without coffee! And I needed the marsala for the pasta dish I made as one of my two ‘mains’ this week, plus I can keep using it all year until it’s gone. And I stayed inside my cash, so again, not too bad.

Braised Spinach & Chickpeas
Adapted (only a little) from The Kitchn and rewritten/commented by me

4 generous or 5 smaller portions

2 tsp oil
1 small onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 c sun-dried tomatoes, rehydrated (if necessary) and chopped)
1 lemon, zested and juiced
optional: chopped fresh ginger and red pepper (I didn’t use the pepper, and did use ginger but regret it — too much work for too little payoff. If I’d had some red chili paste in the fridge I might have stirred some in though; it would have been good in this.)
1 lb baby spinach and, optionally, other greens — I shredded all my extra kale. The tougher the leaves the finer you should chop them.
1 can coconut milk (I used light, as I usually do, and it was fine)
3/4 tsp salt
1 tsp ground ginger
Sweet potatoes (I used one per serving)
toasted unsweetened coconut flakes

Prick the sweet potatoes with a fork and roast them at 400 in the oven for approximately 1 hour.


In a small bowl, pre-assemble the garlic, tomatoes, lemon zest, and, if using, fresh ginger and/or pepper. Have any additional greens pre-chopped and ready to go, and drain/rinse the chickpeas; things move relatively fast and you don’t want to be prepping while you cook.

Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a big dutch oven; mine is 7 quarts and was perfect. Saute the onions for about five minutes, then dump in the bowl with the garlic etc and give it another two or three minutes, stirring frequently. Add the chickpeas and cook another two or three minutes, again stirring frequently, until the chickpeas are golden and coated with the garlic mixture.

If you have other greens, add them now, along with a little water. Stir, scooping the hot chickpea mixture over the greens to help them wilt. When they’ve started to cook down, begin adding the spinach, one large handful at a time; when each is wilted and fully incorporated, add the next, until you’re done. You may need to add a little water, depending on how dry things seem — a very small amount is fine. I put the lid on the pan for about a minute and let it steam while I opened the coconut milk to be sure the spinach was really wilted.

Stir in the salt, ground ginger, lemon juice, and coconut milk. Bring to a boil, then let it simmer for about 10 minutes. Taste to check the salt/lemon juice levels and add more if necessary.

By this point the sweet potatoes should be about done. Peel the skin off (be careful about steam; if you’re packing this up for lunches just wait til everything cools down before you peel) and divide them between bowls and/or office-going tupperware, mashing them slightly with a fork. Ladle the stew in, and top with toasted coconut and cilantro. Reheats fine in the microwave at work all week 🙂

37 thoughts on “Zero Food Waste 2015: Week 2 (plus Braised Coconut Chickpeas and Spinach)

  1. Great job on the no food waste! We’ve done pretty well lately too. I think it helps when it’s cold outside- I would rather make something with what we have than go to the store!

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Thank you! I’m committed and excited to see what I can do this year. I agree that it being cold incentivizes just making do with what you have 🙂

  2. I LOVE that you asked for a discount on the spinach!! That is true frugal finesse, my friend. 🙂 Love what you said about laddering the meals – that saves us a ton of cash each month and allows us to feed our family of six for under $500 each month.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      It was actually pretty hard to do 🙂 I was pleased that I went for it! The guy didn’t object or anything, just put it in, but it was a little embarrassing. I don’t know why! Laddering is so important because I *always* have leftover bits of whatever, usually vegetables that I had to buy too much of for whatever dish I’m making.

  3. I’ve never heard the term laddering before, but I like it! I’m doing that tonight. We’re having a chicken dish and using up the leftover rice from the other night.
    That spinach and chickpea dish sounds really good…and I might even be able to get my spouse to like it!

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Using up leftover rice is great! There are so many things to do with it and yet it so often languishes in the back of the fridge. In fact, you could put this chickpea dish over rice instead of sweet potatoes (or in addition to them.) 🙂

  4. Alicia says:

    I do this – though I didn’t know there was a term for it. I’m all about using up everything. I had half of a big bag of brussel sprouts left that were going a little iffy, so I “cleaned” off the outer layers and then now they’re ready for dinner tonight. Better than dying in the fridge 😛

    1. thesingledollar says:

      I think I might have made it up, actually. That’s what I’ve always called it but I’m not sure it’s in common use 🙂 Cutting off the bad parts is also a great option. How do you make sprouts? I like to roast them, sometimes pan-roast then do a sauce. Mmmmm. 🙂

  5. Trista says:

    I’m a very boring eater. I live alone and I don’t like to cook. So basically I eat the same meals quite frequently which leaves for very little food waste. I do really like the idea of laddering meals. I sort of did that last week. I bought broccoli slaw to use as a topping for tacos. Once the tacos were gone I used up the rest in omelettes for breakfast.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      I can get really boring too — I also live alone, and while I do like to cook (obviously) sometimes I just have low enthusiasm for the proposition. I eat a lot of cheese sandwiches and scrambled eggs those weeks 🙂 That broccoli slaw idea is genius — “sticking things in eggs” is almost always a good idea.

      1. Ms. LoL says:

        “Sticking things in eggs,” YES! lol I think it’s the single person’s version of “sticking things in soup.” 🙂 It’s really amazing how easily things can go together okay if they’re not spiced. Just this morning, I sautéed the teeny bit of green cabbage and onion I had in the fridge, popped in some rice and then the itty bit of pasta sauce. Really strange meal, but hey! No waste! lol

        1. thesingledollar says:

          There you go! I *also* stick things in soup (or more often in stew-like concoctions, as I did stirring the kale into my chickpea dish.) Thanks for commenting — I used to really like your blog and was sorry you stopped writing, glad to see you’re still around 🙂

  6. Elroy says:

    My wife’s favorite is soup. We buy the rotisserie chickens from Costco for $4 and then boil down the carcass for broth and then throw in what is around, veggies, meat herbs etc. Cleans out the fridge […]

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Oh, that works great! I love rotisserie chickens — just cuts down on the prep so much 🙂

  7. I’ve never heard the term laddering before, but it’s something I try to do when I’m on top of things. This month we’re getting back into eating at home so I just put anything I could think of on the meal plan!

    Good luck with the zero food waste challenge this year! That’s definitely an area I could improve!

    1. thesingledollar says:

      I’m beginning to think I made the term up! I’ve been using it forever but nobody else seems to have heard of it either 🙂 Anyway it works really well. Thanks for the good wishes and good luck to you too!

  8. ARBM says:

    This recipe sounds delicious… and I think I have most of the ingredients sitting at home… I may have to adjust my meal plan this week to include this recipe!

    Good job on the food budget and the zero waste, it is impressive. I am really trying to have zero waste in the food department, it is often the fresh stuff that goes bad when I get lazy and order take out. When I’m actively meal planning, I definitely try and use what I have in the house and “ladder” my meals if I can.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      It’s super good — I definitely recommend it! And I agree, the fresh stuff has always been my problem. That’s why I thought I’d do well with a formal challenge — it works for me with money when I have to report on the blog, why not with food?

  9. I have never heard of that term before. The one problem I have with my food budget is that I’m a very picky eater so meal planning it tough because I never know what I’m going to want, and secondly I suck at and hate cooking. I do it out of necessity, but my food is so boring, and I just have no desire to get better. So I’ve moved on to plan b: find a rich guy who loves to cook. 🙂 hee! What do you think?

    1. thesingledollar says:

      That is the BEST plan. If you figure out how to make it work let me know 🙂

  10. dojo says:

    Really cool job on your goals. We’re wasting less food lately, but few years ago we’d really be reckless with it. Even if food is still something we can easily afford, wasting it is still wrong.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Yeah, there are really two good outcomes from this goal — saving money *and* not wasting! I’m pleased with my first two weeks — now to tackle the rest of the year!

  11. Yum, bookmarking this recipe- i LOVE chickpeas. Food waste has been a HUGE problem for me too. Especially when I go to my boyfriends place for a couple nights. I come back and everything in the fridge is rotten.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      You know, I found it a particular problem in New York — it’s easier now that I don’t live there anymore. I think landlords just buy really cheap fridges that don’t work that well!

  12. Tarynkay says:

    I love the term “laddering”!

    I just discovered the show Chopped. I know it’s been around forever, but I guess I live under a rock or something. Anyhow, I’ve been finding it really inspiring for ideas on using up odd bits of things.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Ooooh. I don’t have a TV so I miss stuff like that. Please pass along any particularly good tips!

  13. Yum! I’m loving the recipe posts! And you’re very right, can’t live without coffee!

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Alicia can, apparently! But I can’t 🙂 I’m glad you’re enjoying the recipe posts — I enjoy writing them up.

  14. This is awesome. What a great way to make sure you’re saving money and resources as much as possible. Have you heard about restaurants that do this?

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Thanks! I’m really excited to see how much I can do this year. I have heard that restaurants do this but I don’t know details; I’d love to learn more about that.

  15. Tarynkay says:

    You can get the episodes on Netflix and food network. Com if you want. That is how I watch it.

  16. marty says:

    I love how you are making yourself for what you eat or more importantly what you DON”T eat! Its like you have your own little food budget its clever and I might try that just so I can see how much I really eat since my food budget has gone down lately

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Thanks! I do much better with everything when I’m publicly accountable, it seems 🙂

  17. Kristin says:

    I love the term laddering! I tend to do something similar- I’ll usually pick a protein for the week (usually chicken) and make it work for a few different meals in 1 week – whether it’s in a stirfry, tacos or baked.

    I have very little food waste now that I stick to a tighter grocery budget each week. I think the two go hand in hand as I no longer overbuy each week.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      I agree — being on a fairly tight cash budget for groceries is really preventing me from overbuying, so I’d already cut down on my food waste compared to before when I just spent “whatever” on food. But I thought I could do better with regards to not tossing old vegetables and such, hence my challenge to myself 🙂

  18. Hey, good for you getting that 25% discount on the spinach! A definite indication of developing frugality muscles. My daughter’s boyfriend, who had recently suffered food poisoning, noticed that our salad dressing was way passed its due date (April 2014!). It had been on sale (go figure), and I went back and got a refund. I can be too trusting. From now on, I will pay attention to expiry dates!

    1. thesingledollar says:

      April 2014!!! That’s pretty bad. This was just one day after its date and I looked at it pretty carefully to be sure that it was still ok-looking 🙂

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