A Guide to Upcycling: Save Your Produce From the Bin

Prevent Food Waste by Upcycling Different FoodsWhen life gives you lemons, make lemonade. When life gives you leftover lemonade concentrate, make cake. When life gives you cake scraps, make cake pops. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and there’s always a way to reuse the food items lying around in your kitchen.

With the volume of food waste reaching astounding and unprecedented levels, a new movement encourages chefs to find creative and delicious solutions for reusing leftovers and reducing waste. This trend is called upcycling and it’s not just eco-friendly. It also inspires tasty and exciting dishes. Learn about how to get started with upcycling, especially when it comes to those summer fruits and vegetables that taste great but tend to overripe so quickly.

Food Waste: A Growing Problem

Food being thrown in the trash is a massive issue, and it’s one that’s growing bigger every year. Annually, nearly a third of edible foodstuff ends up in the trash. This isn’t just a problem that contributes to growing landfills and unequal distribution of food. It’s also environmentally unsound because producing food costs money, uses land, and causes emissions. About 940 billion dollars worth of food ends up in landfills. Nearly 10% of the world’s carbon emissions are wasted on food that ends up uneaten, amounting to a greater number of total emissions than produced by the entire country of India.

Reducing food waste means reducing the amount of food that needs to be produced to feed the planet annually, which means a significant cut in the total annual global carbon emissions. Plus, if food is saved from landfills, it could go to the people who actually need it. The amount of food that ends up in the trash is enough to feed the total population of the United States several times over!

Upcycling: A Growing Trend

Upcycling isn’t a new idea. It’s one that was lost to modern abundance. In ancient times, it was normal to use every part of an animal, vegetable, or fruit, because that’s what was needed to keep everyone fed. Of course, this resulted in some fairly-odd dishes, like the Roman “patina de rosis,” a souffle made with eggs, wings, rose essence…and animal brains…

Casserole: Upcycled Food Ideas from the Previous Century

arn all about the different ways to upcycle your food.

As recently as a century ago, homesteaders were maximizing the culinary output of everything in their kitchens. During the Great Depression, when families struggled to keep food on the table, dishes like casseroles were extremely popular because they allowed families to use all sorts of odds and ends — the liquid from canned vegetables, leftover noodles, cooked meat, milk that was just about to go bad, and other kitchen tidbits — in the dish.

Upcycled Food Association

However, in the modern era, upcycling only became “rediscovered” as a trend around the 2019’s, when the Upcycled Food Association was created to unite different businesses that were making efforts to reuse their products. That coincided with the establishment of companies like “Misfits Market” which branded themselves on reselling “ugly” or misshapen, “waste” fruits and vegetables that would otherwise end up in the trash.

By 2020, the Upcycled Food Association’s membership saw a significant increase, and in 2021, the association launched a program to certify foods and brands that were successfully upcycling. Today, hundreds of products display the Upcycled Food Association’s label, and research suggests that the upcycled food market value may have reached more than 60 billion dollars a year, with around half of consumers familiar with the upcycling trend and open to buying upcycled products. The Upcycled Food Association estimates that products bearing its label have saved nearly 400,000 tons of food from the trash each year.

Corporate Upcycling

On the Upcycled Food Association’s list of hundreds of products are some incredibly creative (and delicious-sounding) ideas. One of the most common upcycled certified products are those made with whey.


Whey is a previously unwanted byproduct of cheese and yogurt that’s been given a new lease on life by companies like White Moustache, Superfrau, and Shakewell that use the creamy, sour, high-protein byproduct to flavor drinks, popsicles, and shakes.

Pulp Rescued and Reused

Another common corporate upcycling application sees fruit and vegetable pulp rescued and reused. Kailin Mogentale, who founded Pulp Pantry, first became aware of pulp waste when she saw a friend juice a carrot. Mogentale realized the carrot pulp would end up in the trash, and she thought about the implications of hundreds of thousands of carrot pulps going to landfills as a result of the juice-making industry. Mogentale started a company that uses the pulp to make fruit and vegetable chips, and her business has rescued nearly 200,000 pounds of vegetables and fruit.

Other Creative Corporate Upcycling Ideas

Other creative ways that companies upcycle include using coffee husks and sunflower pulp to flavor and boost the nutrition of baking mixes (Bake Me Healthy), adding okara, or tofu dregs, to ice cream (Salt & Straw), and turning stale bread into bread pudding (Renewal Mills). Fila Manila markets a Filipino standard condiment — banana ketchup – made from upcycled bananas. And these are just a handful of creative upcycled uses for products. If corporations can be this flexible and creative with food waste, the sky’s the limit for a standard home kitchen.

It’s Upcycling Season: Reducing Fruit and Vegetable Waste

There’s no better season to start an upcycling journey than in the summer. That’s because summer is the season when many common, and quick ripening vegetables and fruits are most readily available. It’s also the season when heat and humidity attack produce that’s left out in transit, at shops, and on the counter, leading it to go bad faster.

Fresh produce makes for one of the best products to upcycle, because not only does it add flavor, it adds nutrition and helps people get all their servings of fruit and vegetables daily. For example, chefs Adam and Jeremey Kaye, are a team working on a product called the Spare Burger, where 30% of the burger’s meat is replaced with upcycled veggies, making it more nutritious and more sustainable. There are so many surprising ways to sneak produce that would otherwise be thrown away into products to boost health and eco factors.

Turning Waste into Dessert

Upcycling produce can cut down on food waste.

For example, instead of throwing away bananas that are growing brown on the counter, home kitchens and restaurants can easily upcycle them by placing them into a mixer, along with butter, salt, and eggs. Whisk together flour, baking soda, and salt, and add to the mixer. Then add nuts, chocolate chips, or any other mix-ins, and pour the batter into a loaf pan, and bake at 350 degrees for about an hour and you have delicious, upcycled bananas, saved from the trash.

Bananas make a good option for this sweet dessert, but they aren’t the only produce item that lends itself to cake making. Zucchini bread is just as popular and it’s a good way to sneak some extra nutrition into a dessert, while also using all parts of the zucchini, including the peel and seeds. To make a zucchini bread, you’ll need to add a food processor to your prep list.

Actually, nearly any fruit and vegetable lends itself to bread, and bread-like pastries. Old raspberries and blueberries can enhance dessert breads and muffins, even if they are almost on their last legs. Carrots that are starting to bend, and can’t be eaten fresh anymore make for a good carrot cake. You can also throw the peel in as well and save it from the dump.

Other options for the fruits and vegetables going bad is to blend or grate them, mix them with batter, and fry them in a frying pan or on a griddle to make flavorful and eco-friendly pancakes or waffles. Or, put them in a blender and turn them into a smoothie. Add them to a popsicle mold to make a frozen treat. Or use the blended fruits and veggies in a jam or ice cream recipe. Or, you can do what Kailin Mogentale did and dehydrate the overripe fruits and vegetables to make tasty chips. The goal is not just to keep them from getting thrown away but to learn how to make tasty treats out of them.

Save the Peels!

From broths to casseroles to breads, there are a lot of creative ways that chefs can upcycle peels.

Even when the produce isn’t overripe, some of it ends up thrown away when being used for cooking. How often do we peel carrots and potatoes and simply toss the peels? How often do we open oranges and throw the rinds away? Not only are the peels edible, they are often packed with antioxidants and fiber.

Melon Rinds

Watermelon and other melon rinds are a great example of this. These rinds are low calorie (only about two calories in a one-inch cube) and high in vitamin A, vitamin C, potassium, and magnesium.

Watermelon rinds can be pickled by peeling off the green part, chopping it up, and then boiling it in salt water. Next, put the boiled rinds in a pickling jar with vinegar, sugar, and any seasonings you choose, and keep them in the fridge for at least a week. They make for an interesting conversation piece, a delicious picnic side dish, and a healthy way to reduce waste.

Citrus Rinds

Lemon and orange rinds are another easy and tasty peel to repurpose. Citrus peel can be boiled with sugar into candy, ground into condiments and spices, or zested and used to perk up all sorts of dishes. You can zest a fruit with a citrus zester, a microplane grater, or a vegetable peeler. Just make sure to scrub your fruits well before zesting, to avoid consuming dirt or pesticides. There are quite literally hundreds of culinary uses for citrus zest, including desserts, salads, meat dishes, and more.

You can make a tangy, puckered citrus salt by dehydrating lemons, and then turning them into a fine powder using a food processor. Mix with salt and add to cocktails, meat, and fish dishes.

Fruit and Veggie Peels

Fruit peels make great additions to recipes because of their potent, tangy flavors. But vegetable peels are equally versatile, and just as healthy. Peels from potatoes, onions, carrots, turnips, and other vegetables can be boiled to make a hearty stock or broth, or baked, broiled, fried, or dehydrated into crunchy chips. Alternatively, you can throw them directly into an air fryer for an easy way to crisp up the peels.

Cucumber peels have a refreshing, earthy flavor that can be used to infuse drinks. There are even non-food uses for peels and other fruit and vegetable byproducts, like making cleaning products from lemon or onion peels, or using cucumbers for skin treatments. The possibilities are endless when it comes to peel upcycling.

Stew, Sautes, and Soups

Any food that is boiled or put in a slow cooker is very forgiving to blemish, bruises, and soft spots, so that’s an easy way to upcycle aging produce. Old vegetables, peels, and the other “inedible” parts of vegetables, like the tops of the carrot or the leaves on a celery plant are usually thrown away (veggie leaves can also be used to enhance salads). But, these can be boiled with a dash of vinegar (to extract the mineral content) and some additional spices (bay leaves, salt, garlic, or whatever your pallet prefers) to create a broth or stock.

After the broth has had a good long chance to boil, use a mesh strainer to strain out the assorted veggie bits. The clear broth can be repurposed into soups, stews, risottos, casseroles, or even used to boil pasta and rice.

And the strained vegetables don’t have to go into the trash either. Even after they’ve been used to make broth, some pieces may still be “dehydratable” into chips. Nothing like upcycling the upcycled.

Don’t Throw Away the Seeds

The stems, rinds, leaves, and the “meat” of most fruits and vegetables are edible. And the same is true for the seeds as well. The following fruits and vegetables contain seeds that are safe to eat and are delicious roasted on a sheet pan with a little bit of seasoning.

  • Pumpkins
  • Watermelon
  • Butternut squash
  • Acorn squash
  • Pumpkin
  • Cantaloupe

Use these seeds for a tasty snack or throw them into a salad as a garnish.

And, if you have space outdoors, other fruit and vegetable seeds can be used to sprout new plants.

Completing the Cycle of Sustainability

Of course, despite our best upcycling efforts, there will always be some produce that wilts beyond edibility or peels and carrot tops that have outlived their usefulness after multiple uses. Instead of adding these to a landfill, why not start a compost? Composting is a fantastic way to ensure that even the most worn-out food scraps contribute positively by feeding plants and animals, and potentially growing new food. Make composting a part of your upcycling journey, ensuring nothing goes to waste.

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