• Kristin Cole

6 Takeaways about Food Waste I Learned from Tiny Living

Updated: 6 days ago

Do you wish you could shine a light on every category of your life - from relationships to money to your material attachments - and actually have the time and physical space to see what comes up? If so, you might consider living tiny as a way to discover and integrate your values from a place of true introspection. It doesn't have to be permanent; whatever length you embrace it will reap huge rewards and you will grow from the challenges.

Our dog, Finn, enjoying the front garden

In 2017, together with my wife and small dog, we rented a fully furnished 375 sq ft cottage in Southern Oregon that we thought would merely serve as a transitional home. Little did we know that this lifestyle would teach us important lessons for 2.5 years before we moved on to our slightly bigger living space.

What was incredible about this period was that our food waste was almost 0%. Tending a veggie plot and contributing to the shared compost pile was key to this success but beyond that, there were other takeaways I'd like to share:

1) Approach grocery shopping through a new lens

I’ve learned that a fridge works most efficiently when its contents are spread out and given room to breathe. Without proper air circulation, you’ll quickly be left with sad looking food. In my case, the irony of having a small fridge is that its total usable area shrunk even more if I followed this guidance. As a result, my grocery outings had to become more frequent (once to the mid-week farmers market and twice to the food coop) and my selections, even more intentional. I asked myself whether each item required storage in the fridge or could rest at room temperature? Potatoes, apples, citrus, avocados, late summer tomatoes, most herbs, and fresh farm eggs always found a home on the countertop.

This approach to shopping reminds me of my time in Europe where the day’s meals would be planned every morning based on the finds at the market, bakery, and butcher. And because you use a small basket or bag, there are no oversized carts barreling through wide aisles full of foods that will most likely end up in the landfill. How I wish this concept were more widespread in our country! But even so, I’m grateful for the revival of small, artisanal shops that focus exclusively on single offerings and on educating the customer. The simpler the better, right?

2) Extend the shelf life of produce

Once the bounty makes it home, it’s essential to prepare it for longevity using the most appropriate storage method. Tech companies like OneThird are doing amazing work to prolong the shelf life of foods before they even reach us home cooks.

But what about inside our own kitchens? Since we are not generally taught these skills, fresh produce can fall victim to the harshness of the fridge environment. Naked greens for example, will rapidly dry out as water evaporates from their leaves. The same goes for hardy carrots, turnips and beets if the greens are left attached to the roots.

I suggest separating the two and lightly swaddling the greens. You can use a damp tea towel to wrap them and cover that bundle with a plastic bag, although make sure to reuse leftover bags in this case - no need to add more single-use plastic to the world. If you do notice your delicate produce starting to wilt, just toss it in a sauté or a smoothie where its appearance won’t be as noticeable.

My favorite unsung hero, though, is the beeswax wrap which is mostly believed to be a tool for covering leftovers. Yes, they do that well but also offer SO much more value! This natural breathable second skin prolongs the freshness and nutrient density of any fruit, vegetable or bunch of herbs for days on end. My favorite brand, Abeego, is the very original and in my opinion, most effective wrap out there. I consistently live by their motto “Keep Food Alive” and admire their reverence for nature and creating a product that truly enhances the planet.

3) Keep your cooking techniques simple

My tiny home experience felt much like camping at times or even catering on rustic farms, which I have done often. It truly tests your sense of resourcefulness and ability to think outside the box. In my case, that meant working with a two-top electric burner, large toaster oven, Vitamix (we brought this), two pots, two pans and some miscellaneous utensils.

Our minimalist, yet super practical kitchen

As a result, I relied heavily on simple cooking and one-pot meals. One of my go-to techniques was and still is sautéing veggies in a shallow mix of water and liquid aminos (soy sauce or tamari also impart that umami flavor) until the sauce has thickened. Off the heat I’d add a punch of acid with apple cider or rice vinegar, along with a drizzle of grassy olive oil and lots of fresh herbs. Super simple and delicious. And for a more filling meal, it’s easy to add in leftover quinoa, rice, chickpeas, or just crack an egg on top and steam with a lid (or alternately, a pan or aluminum foil) – all served right from the cast iron pan.

Another favorite was toaster-roasted veggies, tossed in coconut oil and sea salt, with spices added afterwards so as not to burn them. Without a full-size oven, we saved electricity and a swath of heat within our tiny space.

Last but not least, soups were a staple for using up whatever was on its way out and experimenting with flavors. A hidden gem for food waste prevention!

4) Plan some meals and improvise the rest

Our approach to dinners was straightforward and satisfied the needs of our household. My wife appreciates the anticipation of recipes while I prefer more improvisational cooking. Solution: the first meal or two after we get back from shopping are made from a recipe and as the fridge starts to empty out and look hopeless, I sweep in with creative concoctions that manage to use up all the remaining food in the fridge. Feel free to challenge me with your weird fridge and pantry leftovers :)

5) Your pantry is your lifeline

Another trick for reducing food waste is to keep stock of essential items in your pantry that can become the supporting cast for a meal featuring your fresh items. Or even star on their own. Most dry or canned items are fine for consumption beyond their expiration date but it’s always a good practice to move through them regularly.

I designated space for 12 quart-sized mason jars to fill with grains, flours and nuts and eight small jars for loose spices from the bulk section. This way, I was able to determine some essentials in each category but also had room to rotate new flavors and maintain freshness. Dehydrated refried black beans were a mainstay for their easy portion sizes, versatility and cost-effectiveness. Particularly delicious flavored with cumin and fresh oregano and spread over tortillas or chips for chilaquiles.

6) Food grown close to home is rarely wasted

Back view with the veggie patch and fig tree in the foreground

If you nurture a seed or seedling, I can guarantee that you will treat the entire plant with utmost respect when it comes time to harvest. And that respect naturally extends to savoring the entire plant and squandering none of it. Otherwise, what a waste of resources that would be – a waste of your time, energy, water, soil and love.

Living tiny instilled in me the joys of growing and harvesting our little plot, savoring fresh herbs, nurturing a compost pile, and sharing food with the community. Ashland is truly a special place for its generous spirit; neighbors and co-workers alike would take any opportunity to share their abundant harvests, either baskets of fresh fruit or baked goods. I miss that.

These guiding principles can help navigate your own experience in the kitchen and save so many valuable resources, especially time and money. If you'd like to learn how to apply some of these learnings to your own life and kitchen, check out my consulting services.

Kristin Cole | 2020

Chapel Hill, NC

  • LinkedIn