Cooking More Sustainably with Mei Li from Food Waste Feast

A top view of a wooden table with colorful food on top of it.

A seasoned restaurateur and Just Zero Advisory Board Member, Mei Li, is on a mission to reduce food waste. A few years ago, Mei and her sister, Irene, co-founded the project Food Waste Feast to help home cooks minimize food waste in their kitchens. On a regular basis, they share practical food storage tips and creative ways to use leftovers. In running their Boston-based restaurant, Mei Mei, which has since transitioned to a dumpling company under her sister’s management, Mei gained an extensive knowledge and passion for cooking more sustainably.

Mei is also an experienced author. She and her two siblings wrote Double Awesome Chinese Food, a cookbook emphasizing the importance of flexible recipes that allow cooks to use what they have on hand. And just last year, Mei and Irene published Perfectly Good Food, their newest cookbook dedicated to tips and tricks that help people use up all of the food in their fridge, rather than letting it go to waste.

I was ecstatic to chat with Mei about Food Waste Feast and sustainable cooking. This conversation is part of Just Zero’s 30-minute virtual interview series. An initiative showcasing the efforts of environmental advocates and businesses nationwide fighting against polluting and wasteful systems.

The following is an excerpt from our interview with Food Waste Feast Co-Founder, Mei Li, which has been edited for clarity. You can watch or listen to the full interview using either the video or audio player, above.

Lauren Fernandez | Just Zero: Mei, thank you so much for joining us today to talk more about how we can reduce food waste. Let’s dive into our first question. Can you tell us more about Food Waste Feast, and what led you and your sister to found it?

What led you and your sister to found Food Waste Feast?

Mei Li | Food Waste Feast: Food Waste Feast is really my idea of wanting to let people know what you can do to cut down on food waste in your own kitchens. I used to love to go to my friends’ houses. They’d say [things like], “Oh, I don’t know what to make to eat.” I’d pull open their fridges and say, “Okay, look at what we’ve got. We can take these carrots, […] this broccoli, and I know you’ve got pasta in your cupboard. How can we kind of make this into a meal?”

Through loving to do that for my friends, making up meals at home, and through some of this professional experience, we made up a whole bunch of recipes called “Hero Recipes.” The idea is that these Hero Recipes can kind of swoop in and rescue whatever you’ve got in your fridge.

You can make pasta with infinite ingredients. You can make pickles out of what you’ve got. You can make stock with the ends of your onions and the peelings of your carrots. All these things that people often throw out can be used to make amazing dishes. It made me realize that there’s so much good food out there that people don’t know what to do with.

We wrote a book, called Perfectly Good Food: A Totally Achievable Zero Waste Approach to Home Cooking. We say it’s achievable because we want to make it something that is actually realistic for people. There are so many reasons why it’s satisfying to not throw out the food you’ve spent your hard-earned money on.

Just Zero is doing so much to minimize the impact of food waste. If you can cut down [on waste] at home, that’s a great individual step that can help people feel better.

Lauren Fernandez | Just Zero: I think that’s a perfect segue into our next question. I know you’re currently based in Scotland, but you’ve lived many years in the United States. Can you share why we waste so much food in the United States?

Why do we waste so much food in the United States?

Mei Li | Food Waste Feast: Great question. There is so much there, and there are definitely problems up and down the food chain. On farms, it might not be economically viable for the farmer to get every last bit of edible food from the fields. Maybe the food is getting rejected because it doesn’t look perfect. And that’s really sad, because an ugly tomato can still be a delicious tomato.

The same thing happens in supermarkets. They don’t want to sell the really weird shaped vegetables, even though they taste great. One of the things I love now that I live in Scotland is that I can buy a bag of what they call “wonky potatoes.” They’re weird looking potatoes, but they still taste great. The more that supermarkets and businesses encourage people to accept [imperfect foods], the less likely they are to go to waste.

A lot of [food waste is created] at restaurants too – food they can’t get to or food left on the plate. But the amazing thing about a lot of these businesses is that it’s their job to use up as much food as possible. It helps them avoid losing money. That’s what we did when I used to run a food truck and a restaurant. We realized that anytime we bought food, and it didn’t get used up, we were wasting money.

Then there are a few structural things that are also in the mix, like expiration dates. There’s no national standard for what it means to have “best by,” “use by,” “eat before,” or all these things. So, a lot of the time people think, “that date has passed by; I have to throw that out.” But most of the time, with a few exceptions, an expiration date on a package is [just a suggestion]. It’s the manufacturer’s best idea of when the product is going to be its best quality.

If stored properly, even things like yogurt and cheese can be eaten [after a suggested expiration date has passed].

Lauren Fernandez | Just Zero: I think that makes sense. Having this kind of education and knowledge is so important to helping us reduce food waste. And like you said, there’s so many layers to why [we waste so much food]. It’s definitely not an individual problem. There’s a lot of structural problems that we have to address as well.

You mentioned you and your sister recently published your cookbook all about cooking creatively without any food waste. What has been the reaction to the book?

What has been the reaction to Perfectly Good Food?

Mei Li | Food Waste Feast: We have so many people telling us their number one tips and tricks that they use in their own houses. We also receive lots of questions like, “is it okay to eat a strawberry if another strawberry in the container is moldy?” My answer is yes; just wash it carefully and eat it as soon as possible.

There are some cases where it is okay to say, “I’m not going to eat that.” But ideally, you can compost it. That’s a big thing that we also love talking about. My husband, who I’ve talked to about food waste for probably a decade now, didn’t realize the impact of food going into a landfill, as opposed to food going to compost. If you compost your food, it turns into something that is beneficial. It becomes this rich soil that helps plants grow. In a landfill, it turns into methane. Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas and it’s very bad for the environment. That’s why it’s so important to compost rather than put things in the trash.

People have been cooking for so long across every culture. They have dishes that are designed to use up leftovers and eat more vegetables and less meat. We’re not doing anything new. In a lot of ways, we’re bringing that back.

Lauren Fernandez | Just Zero: Absolutely. Many of our family members have been doing this for generations, and people around the world do it too.

I remember getting together with friends when we were college students living on tighter budgets, and sharing what we had. Those are some of the best memories I have – bonding over food together and knowing we were not letting things go to waste.

I feel like we’ve talked a lot about how to cut back on food waste in our homes, but how can individuals play a role in addressing food waste in their city, their town, their state, or even nationally?

How can individuals play a role in addressing food waste in their city, town, state, or even nationally?

Mei Li | Food Waste Feast: That is a really great question. Having a dedicated food waste bin in your own home is great, but you don’t have to have your own compost bin. I used to live in North Carolina, where they would come pick up my food waste from home, take it away, and give me new bins. In so many places, food waste collection services are starting to pop up.

If you Google around, you can also find people in your town or city who can help you reduce waste of all kinds – whether it’s food waste, textile waste, or plastic. I found an amazing group called Towards Zero Waste, which helped pilot compost collection drop-off points across the neighborhood where I used to live in North Carolina.

Here in Scotland, my favorite grocery store has a shelf called the “Too Good to Waste” shelf. Everything that has its expiration date coming up within a day or two is put on the shelf at a discount. This is amazing for everybody. It’s great for the store because they can start to move that product out. They also make money on something they would have thrown in the trash, even though it’s still perfectly good to eat.

Lauren Fernandez | Just Zero: I love the idea of connecting with local stores and businesses to take away their excess food. When I was a teenager, I worked at an Einstein Bagels, and every day when I was closing the store, a mother and her daughter would pick up all the excess bagels we had. They distributed it to food banks and communities of people who were experiencing homelessness or food insecurity. It’s really exciting to see what can happen at a local level and even a larger level. And how many people are willing and want to be part of these types of solutions.

So, as we’re approaching the end, I wanted to ask if you could quickly share what are your top three tips for folks just starting out on their Zero Waste cooking journey?

What are your top three tips for folks just starting out on their Zero Waste cooking journey?

Mei Li | Food Waste Feast: There are a few systems I like to implement in my kitchen. Number one is having scrap bags in my freezer. I have two reusable bags that I keep in the freezer. One of them holds all the vegetable scraps – carrot peelings, the ends of my onions, the bottom of the celery, and anything that I am not using and can make stock out of. I also have a freezer bag for leftover fruit that I use to make smoothies.

I also like to have a little area in my fridge called the Eat Me First box. That’s where all the things go that I want to use up. The Eat Me First box has the apples that are starting to go a little bit wrinkly and need to be eaten first. When I buy more apples, the older ones go into that bin. So that’s super useful.

Clean-out nights are also useful – not only for the fridge, but also for building in those nights where you eat something from the freezer. I also recommend labeling and dating things. If you label and date it, you can build in a night for eating what’s there. All these little things add up in a way that can really help you cut down on your food waste.

Lauren Fernandez | Just Zero: I love all those ideas. I’ve implemented some of them. They are so fabulous and work so well, especially the catch-all bag when you have a young child. I cannot tell you how many times mine has said “I can’t eat these blueberries because they’re too squished” or “they’re too sour.”

On that note, I just wanted to say thank you again, Mei, for taking the time to join us today. The information you shared was incredibly valuable. I also wanted to say thank you to all of our participants. We’re so grateful that you took time out of your afternoon to join us. We hope that you enjoyed today’s interview and that you were able to leave with some new resources that will help you on your food waste reduction journey.

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