How to Use, Store or Preserve Garden Produce to Reduce Waste
We talk a lot about how to GROW food here at Homestead and Chill, but how about ways to use it? In fact, “How do you use all the food you grow?” has quickly become one the most frequently asked questions I get on Instagram! That, along with “how do you store it all?” or “what’s your favorite way to preserve everything?” So, let’s talk about all of that – and more!
The short and sweet answer is: we eat it! Well, most of it at least. I’d say we consume about 70% of our homegrown produce fresh, preserve about 20%, and the remaining 10% goes to the chickens, compost, worms and/or friends. As simple as that may sound, it isn’t always easy! It takes a concerted effort, dedication, and a bit of creativity at times. And we certainly aren’t perfect in our endeavors.
I’ve shared a number of recipes here over the years, but in reality, we rarely follow “recipes” in our day-to-day cooking. So, get ready for some serious garden-to-table food inspo! In this article I’ll share the ways we use our homegrown food, including recipes and meal ideas for both fresh and preserved produce, tips for cooking fresh veggies, how to harvest and store produce to extend its lifespan, places to donate excess to, and other creative ways to reduce food waste in general.
I hope this will spark some inspiration on how you can make the best use of your homegrown goodies too!
Grow What You Like
Start by growing crops that you enjoy eating most, because it’s far easier to use and consume your favorite fruits and veggies than ones you’re not as fond of. If you don’t like to eat kale, don’t grow kale! Though I will say, homegrown produce is always exponentially better than anything you’ll buy, so don’t be afraid to experiment and grow a small amount of something new or different to you. Perhaps you’ll be pleasantly surprised! As a matter of fact, I used to “dislike” radishes, and now they’re one of my favorite things to grow.
Grow A Reasonable Number of Plants
At first glance, it looks like we’re growing A LOT of food in our 19 raised garden beds. But upon closer inspection, you’ll see that we’re only growing a handful of each type of plant. That definitely makes it easier to use things up! We aren’t overwhelmed with an excessive amount of one kind of veggie, and many of the crops are ready to harvest at different or staggered times.
It may take you a few seasons of experience and experimenting to find the right balance of plants for you or your family. For example, there were years we planted WAY too many hot chili peppers. We don’t eat a ton of those fresh, and despite our best efforts to preserve the rest, there is only so much fermented hot sauce, pickled peppers and homemade chili powder we can use… So we grow far fewer hot chilis now, and plant more sweet bell peppers instead.
This also varies depending on your personal goals and growing seasons! Do you hope to simply enjoy a smattering of homegrown veggies over the summer months? Or is it your intent to be self-sufficient, and therefore grow and “put up” as much food as possible? Can you grow year-round, or do you need to pack all your production into a few short months? Clearly that will influence how many plants you grow – and how much effort it will take to use or preserve it all!
Eat What’s In Season
This may sound obvious, but it actually takes a good deal of practice and thought! Rather than trying to “fit” our homegrown produce into existing recipes or meal plans, we make a concerted effort to create and cook meals primarily based around the produce that’s currently available in the garden. We don’t eat out, and try not to buy additional produce at times when we have plenty homegrown.
In our garden, that means we’re eating tons of zucchini, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, peas, green beans, and basil all summer. Yes, even if we’re feeling a bit tired of them by the end of the season! Then in the winter we don’t eat those things at all (that is, unless they’re preserved) and load up on leafy greens, root veggies, cabbage, cauliflower, winter squash, and broccoli instead. This also applies to things we get from the farmer’s market or grocery store.
Okay, I get the idea.. But how do you eat all those vegetables?
Being vegetarian, fresh produce makes up a large portion of what’s on our plate. Our dinners often consist of lightly sautéed mixed seasonal veggies served with either whole grains and legumes (such brown rice or quinoa with black beans or chickpeas), lentils, or a veggie burger patty – served “Buddha bowl” style. We also occasionally eat eggs, brown rice pasta, or potatoes as the “base” with our veggies, and may toss in an organic corn tortilla or slice of homemade sourdough bread from time to time.
We also eat a lot of big salads (especially for lunch), veggie-loaded soups and sandwiches, and tostadas with beans, cheese and vegetables. Avocado, fresh herbs, pumpkin seeds, hemp hearts, and other nuts or seeds are a welcome addition to most any meal! “Snack plates” or mini charcuterie boards is another easy and satisfying lunch idea. Simply load up a plate with fresh cut seasonal veggies, fruit, your favorite dips (I’m a big nut butter fan), and handful nuts or chunks of cheese.
“What we eat in a day” could be a full post of its own, but keep reading for a list of example meal ideas and recipes at the end of this post! Then if you’re still feeling stuck for ideas, feel free to browse some of our favorite recipe books here. Now let’s talk about ways to cook, store, and preserve your garden veggies.
Quick Tips for Cooking Fresh Veggies
Our favorite way to cook vegetables is in a large cast iron wok. We’ve used it dang near every night for over a decade! Yet rather than tossing everything in at once, I like to add the firmest veggies first (or the ones I want to cook longest), followed by medium-firm or faster-cooking ones about halfway through, and then toss in the leafy greens to wilt just before turning off the heat. I also like to separate the stems from certain greens, adding those sooner than the tender tops. That way, nothing gets mushy or overcooked.
For example, things like onion, broccoli, cauliflower, mushrooms, and carrots go in the wok first, followed by zucchini, green beans, snap peas, bok choy or swiss chard stems a few minutes later, and finally things like chopped kale, mustard greens, arugula, swiss chard or bok choy tops at the very end. I also tend to strip away tough kale or collard stems and not use those at all.
In the wok, we sauté the vegetables with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil or butter. To keep things interesting, we rotate through a variety of seasonings or sauces: fresh herbs, curry or turmeric powder, cumin, onion powder, taco seasoning, pesto, roasted tomato sauce, nutritional yeast, or tamari. Though most times, we keep it pretty simple with just salt and pepper. Fresh garlic and onion always add a lot of flavor too!
Of course there are many other ways to cook veggies: steamed, fried, boiled, baked, in soup… Roasting vegetables in the oven is particularly delicious! I especially love herb roasted cauliflower and marinated Brussel sprouts. The caramelization process brings out a wonderful nutty, sweet flavor while reducing bitter vegetal notes. In the summertime, we love to bust out our favorite veggie grill basket to cook herbed potatoes, squash, peppers, onions, eggplant and other seasonal goodies outside on the BBQ. Marinated portobello mushrooms are divine cooked right on the grill as well!
Homegrown Produce: Harvest & Storage Tips
When it comes time to harvest goodies from the garden, there are a few different ways to approach it. You can harvest a little at a time, perhaps just what you need for each day or meal. Everything will be extra fresh that way! Then you also don’t have to worry about storing as much volume, or things going bad or limp in the fridge. It’s a great approach if that is what your schedule allows!
Years ago, we got in the habit of doing a big harvest every Sunday for the week ahead – and it stuck. Our big all-at-once harvests admittedly take up a lot of space in the fridge, but I find it exceptionally convenient to have everything already cool, crisp and on hand when we need it. Similar to a big grocery store haul, SEEING it all in the fridge also encourages us to use it even more! If we had to pop outside every time we prepared a meal, not only would it take more time, but I think we’d actually use far less of our garden produce.
I plan to write an article about the best ways to store fresh produce soon, since there are many nuances and tips depending on the type of fruit or vegetable we’re talking about! Such as, you know it’s best to leave (uncut) tomatoes out at room temperature, right? Right. In the meantime…
Here are a few general tips to store produce for maximum freshness and lifespan:
- Harvest crops early in the day and/or when the weather is cool. Crops that are cool and firm at the time of harvest will be more likely to stay that way in storage compared to warm limp ones! Especially if you get them inside and into the fridge quickly. In the interim, keep your harvest baskets (and harvest photoshoots) in the shade if possible.
- Most fresh garden produce will stay crisp and perky when stored in the refrigerator inside an air-tight container. We reuse a lot of old plastic produce bags over and over. It’s not ideal but works really well – especially for big bulky harvests of leafy greens! The greens stay crisp for well over a week if the bag is clipped shut. I also really like these reusable silicone food storage bags, particularly for more compact items like green beans, snap peas, zucchini, radishes or carrots. You can also use a large tupperware-like container, including a glass container with a tight lid. Add a tiny splash of water to containers/bags of leafy greens and root veggies (except potatoes).
- Remove the leafy green tops from root vegetables before putting them in containers or bags for storage, including carrots, radishes, beets, or turnips. You can store and use those greens separately (yes, they’re all edible!), but they’ll also be the first to rot. With the tops removed, root veggies should stay good in cold storage for many months.
- We do not wash produce before storage, with the exception of very dirty root vegetables (like carrots or radishes) – we rinse or brush those off first. Also avoid prepping or cutting anything until you’re ready to use it. Things will stay good far longer when left whole!
Preserve The Rest
Preserving homegrown food is a fantastic way to reduce waste, reap the rewards of your bounty into winter, or simply enjoy something when it’s no longer in season. It’s also an opportunity to transform food items into something different, like a seasoning, jam, pickle, or condiment, which helps to keep things interesting and palatable!
If you browse through the “Preserve Your Harvest” section of Homestead and Chill, you’ll quickly spot my favorite ways to preserve things: ferment, freeze, dehydrate and pickle. We do dip into hot-bath canning on occasion too, but far less than the other preservation methods. Long-term cold storage (such as in a root cellar or refrigerator) is another simple option. I’ve listed some of our favorite preservation recipes below, and if you Google “ways to preserve xyz” you’ll see countless ideas!
I highly recommend investing in a few quality food preservation tools. My top-choices include:
- A food dehydrator to dry fruit, veggies, herbs, flowers and more. We absolutely love our Excalibur dehydrators and use them almost non-stop! They’re large capacity, quiet, efficient, made in the USA, and BPA-free. I also love how little space dried goods take up in storage.
- A Kraut Source fermentation device makes lacto-fermentation a breeze! We’ve been using them for years to make pickles, sauerkraut, fermented hot sauce, and other delicious probiotic-packed goods.
- These durable BPA-free freezer containers are great for freezing soups, sauces, broth, jam and more. They’re reusable and protect food from freezer burn.
- My good friend Crystal just published a stellar new book called “Freeze Fresh”. It’s PACKED with information on not only how to best freeze fresh produce, but also includes recipes for how to use the frozen produce – which can be the trickiest part!
Our Top Preservation Recipes
- Simple Roasted Tomato Sauce (or can)
- The Besto Pesto: Lemon Walnut Parmesan Basil Pesto
- Homemade Vegetable Broth Using Saved Kitchen Scraps
- Homemade Pumpkin Puree
- Roasted Tomatillo Salsa Verde Recipe (Green Salsa)
- How to Freeze Tomatoes (plus tips to defrost and use)
- How to Freeze Zucchini (Summer Squash) Two Ways
- All of our soup recipes are freezer-friendly, including Tomato Basil, Creamy Roasted Carrot & Sweet Potato, Potato Leek, Butternut Squash with Sage and Apple, Hearty Kale Lentil Stew, and No-Chicken Noodle Soup
- Homemade dried seasonings like garlic powder, onion powder, chili powder, turmeric powder, and lemon peel powder
- Preserving Basil: How to Dry Basil in a Dehydrator or Oven
- Herb “Sun-Dried” Tomatoes
- Simple Apple Cinnamon Chips or Rings (or oven)
- Homemade Seasoned Crispy Kale Chips Recipe (or oven)
Ferment and/or Vinegar Pickle
- Simple Sauerkraut or Super Green Sauerkraut
- Vinegar pickles: pickled cucumbers, quick pickled red onions, refrigerator pickled peppers
- Lacto-fermented “pickles”: dilly green beans, radishes, carrots, and beets
- Apple Cider Vinegar with whole apples or apple scraps
- Sweet & Spicy Fermented Pepper Hot Sauce
Don’t feel bad if some of your homegrown goods end up in the compost! Like, at all. Creating free organic fertilizer at home all while diverting food waste from the landfill and reducing your carbon footprint couldn’t be further from wasteful! Sure, hopefully it’s only a small portion of your edibles hitting the compost, but still. Our worm bin is one of the key ways feed our garden plants – so we need to keep those worms fed, happy, and pooping! Learn 6 different ways to compost at home here, including tumblers, worm bins, hot and passive piles, and more.
Sharing is Caring
Ding-dong-ditch-the-zucchini anyone? When you’re blessed with an abundance, share it! Give away excess homegrown produce to friends, family, colleagues and neighbors. I’m sure they’ll be stoked! You could also consider setting up a roadside “free food” library, or donate to local organizations that help folks in need. Contact your local food bank or homeless shelter, or use this handy zipcode lookup tool from Ample Harvest to find a food pantry that accepts garden donations near you!
Maximize Use, Minimize Waste
The garden presents endless opportunities to nourish yourself AND reduce waste; sometimes in ways you don’t even realize! For instance, did you know that carrot and radish greens, broccoli and cauliflower leaves, fava bean greens, and even the young tender seed pods from bolted radishes are all edible? Check out our fava bean green pesto recipe here!
Daikon radish greens are especially delicious sautéed, or in green juice/smoothies. Carrot tops can make a mean pesto or chimichurri. Older broccoli and cauliflower leaves may be a little tough, but can be treated much like collard greens. And don’t forget leek and onion tops! We save and dehydrate those to turn into leek powder or onion powder.
Similarly, we save and eat most of our thinned seedlings as microgreens. Hellooo radish, kale, and broccoli sprouts! The spoiled chickens get some too. Just don’t eat the seedlings from the nightshade family like tomatoes, peppers and eggplant – they’re toxic.
There are also numerous ways to “up-cycle” food scraps – and turn them into something even better! For instance, we save and use citrus peels to turn into dried lemon peel powder or natural non-toxic household cleaner, and make homemade apple cider vinegar from apple peels and cores (or damaged, mealy fruit). We also save veggie scraps and trimmings in the freezer to later turn into homemade vegetable broth. It’s been a couple years since we’ve brewed kombucha, but we always used to always add garden produce to flavor our booch! See our favorite seasonal “second ferment” flavor combos here.
Grow Things Beyond “Food”
For some gardeners, having an excess bounty would be a dream come true! Many folks are contending with a limited amount of growing space, and therefore can only grow a select few plants anyways. However, if you’re blessed with an extra large garden and find that it’s producing more food than you reasonably keep up with, grow something else! In addition to veggies, use extra garden space to grow herbs, perennials, shrubs, flowers for pollinators, or cover crops that will naturally enrich the soil.
Garden to Table Recipes & Meal Ideas
To wrap it all up, here are a few more vegetarian meal ideas based on things we commonly eat. I’ve linked a few recipes for you as well, though we don’t follow them all that often! After all, one of the keys to successful garden-to-table eating is getting comfortable enough in the kitchen to be able to throw meals together without following a strict recipe at all times. Being able to tweak and adapt a recipe to what you have on hand or in the garden is also essential!
- Plain yogurt with granola (light on the granola) topped with hemp hearts, pumpkin seeds, walnuts and/or almonds and seasonal fruit like blueberries, strawberries, figs, apricots… Whatever you grow!
- Overnight oats with similar add-ins as above
- Smoothies or fresh juice with garden greens, veggies and/or fruit. I’m especially fond of carrot, kale, celery, apple, ginger and lemon together!
- Scrambled eggs, black beans, sautéed veggies, guacamole and/or salsa
- Sourdough pancakes with homemade fruit preserves, fresh seasonal fruit, ricotta cheese, walnuts and/or pumpkin seeds.
- Loaded avocado toast on homemade sourdough bread.
- Lately we’ve been making “turnip taters”. We mix half shredded garden turnips, half potatoes (red potatoes or sweet potatoes are especially good), and then cook them like hash browns and serve with eggs, beans, avocado, etc.
Lunch or Dinner
- As I mentioned, we make “Buddha bowl” type meals the majority of our dinners. The bottom base will include a modest amount of brown rice, quinoa, black beans, pinto beans, chick peas, lentils, and/or potatoes (including sweet potatoes). Then we pile a heaping portion of seasoned veggies on top, usually sautéed, sometimes roasted or grilled. We finish it all off with a little avocado, kraut, cheese, nuts, seeds, or hemp hearts.
- Soup with seasonal veggies, broth, herbs, a grain and/or legume, plus seasonings. We make a lot of “kitchen sink” style soup, tossing in everything we have or need to use (not following a recipe). Yet I’ve posted several soup recipes here, including carrot sweet potato soup, roasted butternut squash, no-chicken noodle, kale lentil and more.
- Fiesta-style wild rice stuffed squash – the perfect solution for overgrown zucchini!
- Quiche or frittata with seasonal veggies. Kale, spinach, arugula, tomatoes, zucchini, bell peppers and onions go especially well with egg dishes.
- Sourdough pizza loaded with garden veggies and even homemade sauce. We alternate between using roasted tomato sauce or besto pesto on our pizzas.
- Vegan roasted sugar pie pumpkin 3-bean chili with a side of sourdough cornbread.
- Zucchini fritters with yogurt dill lemon sauce.
- Zoodles with garden pesto, black beans, fresh tomatoes, and a side of sourdough focaccia – shown earlier in this post.
Lunch or Dinner continued…
- Veggie sandwiches. You can stick with classic toppings of hummus, avocado, tomatoes, lettuce, and pickles, or add roasted/grilled zucchini, eggplant, peppers and pickled onions. Check out the beet and apple sandwich below!
- Tostadas, tacos or burritos with sautéed, stir-fried, or grilled veggies plus all the other normal fixings
- Pasta with garden tomato sauce or pesto (fresh or from the freezer) with fresh sautéed zucchini, snap peas, cauliflower, and basil from the garden. We had this the other night! I really love these organic brown rice noodles.
- A veggie burger patty with sautéed veggies and other fixin’s. Costco has some decent organic veggie patty options. We also make our own black bean and quinoa patties and freeze them for future use.
- A bowl of madras curry lentils with sautéed seasonal veggies on top, plus a side of sauerkraut
- Biryani (Indian rice) stuffed winter squash
- Pan-blackened shishito peppers
- A big steamed artichoke with dipping sauce and a side of seasoned brown rice and black beans. I love to cook brown rice with a fresh bay leaf for a great pop of flavor! If you’ve never cooked or eaten a fresh artichoke, learn how here. They’re my favorite!
Are we feeling hungry yet?
I sure am! 😂 I hope this post gives you plenty of ideas of how to use and preserve your homegrown produce so nothing goes to waste! If you have any other clever tips share them in the comments below. Please keep in mind that it took us many years to get to this level of garden-to-table living. It’s an acquired skill, so please don’t feel intimidated! Just do your best and have fun doing it.
I also just realized I didn’t even get into our 20+ favorite vegan and vegetarian holiday recipes today, so be sure to check those out here. Thank you for tuning in, and enjoy!
Really appreciate the time and effort you put into this article, I love all the information!
OH MY!!! Yes, I’m hungry now! This was absolutely awesome to read through! I’m sure I’ll be visiting this article many times to get ideas! THANK YOU SO MUCH!