To Reduce Food Waste, Eat Your Books

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This online service that lets you search your own cookbook collection to optimize the ingredients in your fridge and pantry.

If you frequently find produce wilting away in the bottom drawer of your fridge, or long-forgotten baking ingredients stashed in the corner of your pantry, you may have felt the pang of guilt that comes with food waste. Next time, turn to the recipe index site Eat Your Books, and learn how to use up those mismatched ingredients before they go to waste.

The concept is simple: Plug in whatever you want to use — leftover salmon, a half head of broccoli, an extra leek that’s been sitting in the vegetable drawer — and out comes a list of recipes from your own cookbook collection or saved food magazines, the titles of which you’ve uploaded to the site. Often, the list includes page numbers, so you can go straight to the cookbook you need and find the recipe you want right away.

Founder Jane Kelly, a Wayland resident, says she started Eat Your Books in 2009 as a way for her and others to easily search their own cookbook collections. “I had a lot of cookbooks, about 700, and it would really annoy me that I would go to cook dinner and I’d search for a recipe on Epicurious because it was just so much quicker than looking through all my cookbooks,” Kelly says. “I thought, if I had a search engine like that for my cookbooks, I’d use them. Then I had that lightbulb moment.”

Fast forward to today: Eat your Books has indexed about 12,600 cookbooks into a database with 2.5 million recipes. Their weekly food and cookbook newsletter shares new titles, reviews, food articles, and recipes. (Sign up here.) When members sign up, they plug in their own cookbook or magazine titles, and the system allows them to search for the recipes on those books or publications they already have at home, detailing in which books to find which recipes. (No more guilt about never using your cookbooks. …). 

As awareness of the food waste problem spread, Kelly and her members realized that they could use the index to plug in those ingredients sitting in their fridge waiting to be used. 

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According to the non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council, households generate the largest share of the estimated 125 to 160 billio tons of food wasted in the U.S. each year — about 43 percent. 

“I don’t think people actually think how much money and resources they are wasting when they throw out food,” Kelly says. “That food took a lot of work — the farms, the workers, all of that energy, all those fuel costs, the animals that died — and you let it go to waste in your fridge because you just didn’t get around to thinking what you wanted to cook with it.”

Kelly says that households can save money by shopping their fridge and pantry first, but they can also create meals they really want to eat, using their own cookbooks that they know and love. “Our members say all the time ‘I’ve got this and this I want to use up, give me a recipe,’ and they find stuff they never could have found. Even if you own twenty-five books, taking down twenty-five books, and looking in their indexes, that takes time. It’s opening your entire contents.”

The more books or magazines you enter, the more variety you’ll have to search. You can tag/categorize the books and recipes however you’d like (maybe “favorite family holiday meals”) for personalized searchability and even organize them into menus. 

The Eat Your Books search engine also allows users to filter by specific cuts, cuisines, and preferences such as vegan, vegetarian, or gluten free.  

“You can apply as many of those filters as you want,” Kelly says of the search function. “When we set up our indexing, we said ‘we’re going to index everything that somebody might search for,’ and that’s everything right down to herbs and spices.” 

Bluedot Living chose three random items from our fridge: chicken, mushrooms, and tarragon, and put the Eat Your Books index to the test. Kelly’s search for me came up with 1,400 recipes featuring those three specific ingredients. Most user libraries will have fewer recipes, but there were also 190 online recipe links, including a Roasted Tarragon Chicken with Crispy Mushrooms from Melissa Clark, which had run in the New York Times. We all agreed that sounded like a good contender. 

You can try using up condiments as well, probably one of the more challenging problems of food waste. I think of all the times I’ve filled up a trash bag full of bottles from the fridge door. Kelly agrees. “So often we buy stuff for a recipe, a bottle of pomegranate molasses or tamarind syrup or something like that, and it just sits there because you don’t really think about other ways you can use it, because you bought it for that one recipe,” she says. “With Eat Your Books, you can say, ‘what other recipes have I got that use pomegranate molasses?’”

Kelly walks the walk when it comes to doing her part as a concerned citizen. She has purchased an electric vehicle and started volunteering with Energize Wayland, a town website that promotes actionable items to help mitigate climate change at home. She recently initiated a food waste collection system at her condominium to divert food from the trash. But since food and cookbooks are her passion, she loves that her business can help meet the food waste challenge facing every American.

Eat Your Books offers different levels for engagement. You can sign up for the weekly newsletter with recipes and news of all the new cookbooks being released. There’s a free membership that allows you to plug in a limited number of your cookbooks or the full $40 yearly subscription that allows you to search all your cookbooks. This is one service that could pay for itself. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the food an average American household wastes each week adds up to about $30. That’s $1,560 a year going into the trash.

And finally, Kelly says, you don’t let the cookbooks you bought go to waste either. “Why do you have all these books sitting on your bookshelf if you’re not using them?” Kelly says. “Our members say they feel less guilty when they buy new books because they are actually using them.”


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Catherine Walthers
Catherine Walthers
Catherine Walthers, Bluedot’s food editor, is a Martha’s Vineyard-based writer, culinary instructor, and private chef. A former journalist, she is the author of 4 cookbooks, including Kale, Glorious Kale, Soups + Sides, and Raising the Salad Bar. She wrote an environmental guidebook called A Greener Boston published by Chronicle Books in 1992. Follow her on Instagram @catherine_walthers.
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