You Should Be Eating That! (Waste Not, Want Not in the Garden)

Waste Not Want Not in the Garden
According to 2022 statistics, throughout the world, about 1.4 billion tons of food are wasted every single year. The U.S. wastes more food than any other country, throwing away 40 million tons each year. That's the equivalent of 219 pounds of waste per person...and 30 to 40% of our entire food supply! We can do better.

And as homesteaders, we can not only do better, but we can find food where others only see something worth throwing away. The fact is, our society doesn't always recognize food - even great-tasting food. We throw away (or compost) a great deal that could fill our families' bellies. Here are some examples. 

Broccoli and Cauliflower 

In North America, we waste so much of the broccoli plant! We wait for the seed heads (florets) to get to just the right stage of maturity, snip them off, eat them, and compost the rest. But the truth is, every part of broccoli is edible. 

First, instead of just eating the florets, make sure you eat the stems, too. Chop them up into pieces about half the size that you chop the florets, then cook them all together. The thick center stalks are edible, too, though they should be peeled before cooking. All these parts of the broccoli can also be blanched for three minutes and frozen for later use. 

Every part of broccoli is edible - not just the florets or heads.

Perhaps even more neglected are broccoli leaves. They can be cooked and eaten exactly like any other leafy green. Ideally, harvest the leaves after harvesting the broccoli head. (Although it is okay to harvest leaves before the head matures, it does reduce the plant's ability to photosynthesize; be sure to always leave at least three of the top leaves on each plant.) The leaves will keep in the refrigerator for two or three days if you don't wash them before putting them in an open plastic bag in the crisper drawer. You may also freeze the leaves; blanch them for two minutes first. 

Broccoli divided up by edible part. Left to right: Stalks, stems/florets, and leaves.

If the leaves have thick center stems, cut them away before cooking, eating, or freezing the leaves. (But those leaf stems are food, too, so don't throw them away. They need a longer cooking time than the leaves, so they should be prepared separately - perhaps with the broccoli's main stems.) 

Broccoli stems and peeled stalks, blanched and ready to freeze.

And yes, cauliflower stems and leaves are edible, too. You may find that the very bottom of the thick center stalk is too tough for your palate, but the rest of the stems are quite tender, even without peeling. 

Many root crops, including radishes, offer much more than just their roots for food.
Radishes, Turnips, and Beets  

These vegetables are grown for their roots...but the leaves are edible and tasty, too. Don't be put off by the somewhat prickly leaves of radishes and turnips; those prickles disappear as soon as the leaves are cooked. And beet leaves? They are a true delicacy, being sweeter than most leafy greens. 

With turnip leaves, you'll want to remove the thick center stems before cooking (but the stems can be eaten, just as with cauliflower and broccoli leaf stems). All these leaves are best eaten within a few days of harvest; store them unwashed in the fridge, in an open plastic bag, in the crisper drawer. Radish, turnip, and beet leaves can also be blanched for two minutes and then frozen. 

Sauteed radish greens served alongside pork chops and asparagus.

Radish seed pods are yummy!


And if you want to have even more fun with radishes, let them go to seed. Their seed pods are quite tasty eaten raw, or lightly cooked in, say, a stir fry. 

Squash blossoms, stems, and leaves are edible.

Summer and winter squashes (including pumpkin and zucchini) offer a prolific harvest for most homesteaders, but did you know it's not just the fruit of the plant that is edible? That's right, you can also eat squash flowers, squash leaves, squash stems, and squash seeds. 

The flowers are often battered and fried or stuffed and steamed. To avoid reducing the fruit crop of the plant, manually pollinate female flowers before removing the male flowers for eating. 

In some countries, the leaves are the main crop harvested from squash plants. The easiest way to eat squash leaves is to only select the younger examples, which are cooked like any other leafy green. (Always leave behind more leaves than you harvest so the plant can continue to grow.) When eating bigger, older leaves, some people like to rip out the center stems, tearing away the stringy part at the heart of the leaves. I recommend harvesting the leaves just before you cook them, although they can also be blanched for two minutes and then frozen. Avoid eating squash leaves that are affected with powdery mildew

Ricotta stuffed squash blossoms. Courtesy of Sharon.

Squash stems are edible, too. Some chefs slice them to look like penne pasta by cutting the ends at an angle (after first scraping the outer part of the stems to remove their stringy fibers). Next, blanch them for 10 seconds, then drain thoroughly and lightly cook in pasta sauce. I've also seen square stems scraped, cut into pieces, stuffed with ricotta, and fried. 

You are probably familiar with roasted pumpkin seeds, but the seeds from any type of squash can be roasted and eaten. Toss in olive oil, season with plenty of salt and pepper, and roast in a 400 degree F. oven. Watch the seeds closely so they don't burn, and turn them once during cooking. 

And while we're discussing avoiding waste in the squash garden, note this: If you end up with winter squash fruit that won't have time to mature before a hard frost hits, eat them anyway. Young winter squash can be eaten just like summer squashes. 


For some reason, many people believe tomato leaves are toxic. This is a myth, perhaps left over from the days when the entire plant was thought poisonous. Like many greens, tomato leaves are best harvested shortly before cooking, and you should keep more leaves on the plant than what you take away, unless your tomato plant requires hard pruning. Cook them like any other leafy green, but bear in mind they have a heady aroma. 

Save those tomato skins!

Tomato leaves are best, I think, added to a traditional pesto or tomato sauce (pureeing a few leaves along with the other ingredients). Other ideas for using tomato leaves include infusing them in olive oil or dehydrating the leaves and sprinkling the resulting powder on pizza, eggs, or pasta. You can also use the stems and leaves of tomatoes as an infusion for soups; just wrap the leaves in some cheesecloth that's tied into a bag and drop them into soup during the last 10 minutes of cooking. Remove the bag before serving. 

Tomato paste made from dried tomato skins.

And if you ever peel your tomatoes (say, for canning) don't throw away the skins! Instead, dry them in a dehydrator at 135 degrees F., then powder them in a coffee grinder. Now whenever you need tomato paste, mix two parts of this powder to one part water. You can also use the tomato skin powder as a seasoning to sprinkle over eggs, pizza, or meat. 


When harvesting celery don't compost the leaves; eat them! Use them sprinkled over food, much like you'd use fresh parsley. Or dehydrate them at 135 degrees F., grind them into powder, and use the powder as a seasoning. You can even make your own celery salt; just mix together half celery leaf powder and half non-iodized salt. (I have a whole post on making celery salt here.)

Don't toss celery leaves!

Brussels Sprouts and Cabbage 

All cabbage leaves are edible.
Most people only eat the "baby cabbages" that Brussels sprout plants produce, but you can eat all the leaves off this plant. Harvest them as the plant grows (being sure to leave behind at least four of the uppermost leaves) and use them just like cabbage or other leafy greens. The same is true for the leafy tops that appear before the plant goes to seed. 

The stalks of Brussels sprouts are edible, too. Wait until you've harvested the main crop (the small heads most people recognize as Brussels sprouts), then use your sharpest knife to cut the stalks into manageable sizes. The stalk pieces then need cooking. The traditional way to do this is to braise them for two to three hours, but you can shorten this time considerably by using a pressure cooker. In an Instant Pot, for example, pour in a couple of cups of stock or bone broth, add the cut stalks, and pressure cook for about 45 minutes. Remove the stems and allow them to cool until you can handle them. Cut vertically down the center of each stalk, revealing their soft inner core. With a spoon, scrape out the stalks, keeping the soft inner parts and composting the tough outer layer. The soft parts taste a bit like artichoke hearts and can be used as part of a dip, as a stuffing, or as a mash, all by themselves. 

The tender "marrow" inside Brussels sprout stems. Courtesy of H. Alexander Talbot and Wikimedia.

As for cabbages, it's not just the tight heads that are edible. All the leaves may be eaten, though t

he older, larger leaves can be a bit tough. (To help tame tough leafy greens, remove the stalks, then stack the leaves. Roll them into a cigar shape and slice very thin before cooking.) 

Carrots are more than orange roots!

If you aren't saving the green leaves of your carrots, you're missing out! They make a nice parsley substitute. Or use them in place of basil in pesto, or chop and sprinkle them over salads, soups, stews, and stir-fries. 

I do not recommend harvesting the leaves before you pull up the carrots; there are some wild plants that have leaves closely resembling carrot tops and unfortunately, they are deadly. So always pull up the carrots first, then chop off the leaves and use them. The unwashed leaves may be stored in an unsealed plastic bag in the crisper drawer for several days, or you may freeze them. 

Sweet Potatoes 

Although most people grow sweet potatoes for their root crop, the leaves of sweet potatoes are also a tasty and nutritious harvest. Eat them raw or cooked. In their raw state, they are a bit bitter, making them a nice addition to a salad. Cooked, they are mild and sweet and can be used as a spinach substitute. 

Sweet potato stems are also edible and are traditionally used in stir fries. (It's smart to cook the stems separately from the leaves because the stems require a longer cooking time.) Usually, the stems are peeled, but some people find this step unnecessary. Try it both ways and see what you prefer. 

Irish Potatoes 

In North America, we have a habit of peeling potatoes before eating them. Yet not only are the skins edible, but they are packed with nutrients. For this reason, I cook my potatoes with the skins on - even when I make mashed potatoes. But if you prefer to remove the skins, save them and roast or fry them after seasoning with salt and perhaps some paprika; they make a tasty treat! 

Fried potato skins topped with Parmesan. Courtesy of John Ong.

Pea Shoots 

Pea shoots are edible. Courtesy of Charles Haynes.
While most Americans just eat the seeds and pods of the pea, pea shoots are a popular Asian food. The "shoots" are just the young, tendril-tipped parts of the plant. Sauté them whole (traditionally, in a stir fry) or add them raw to salads. Ideally, harvest pea shoots right before eating, though they will keep a day or two in the fridge in an unsealed bag in the crisper drawer. 


Did you know that watermelon rinds are perfectly edible? In fact, they are traditionally used to make pickles! (Click here for the recipe.) Peeled and julienned, they also make a nice addition to stir-fries, or they can be shredded and sprinkled into salads. 

Watermelon rind pickles.

Watermelon seeds can also be eaten raw or cooked. Some people even roast them like pumpkin seeds. 

Kohlrabi bulbs, stems, and leaves are edible.

When your lettuce is done producing leaves for the season, save the center stalk. Peeled and chopped, it's excellent roasted. Or slice it into thin rounds and sauté. 


Not everyone may be familiar with this odd-looking vegetable that is grown for the round ball it produces just above the soil line. But even people who love growing kohlrabi often don't know that the leaves and stems are edible, too. Cook them just like any other leafy green; to store them or later use, blanch them for two minutes and then freeze. 


Once you've eaten your fresh corn (or you've removed the kernels to freeze or can it), be sure to save the cobs. They make an old-fashioned jelly with a sweet corn flavor that many people feel resembles honey. (Click here for the recipe.)

You may also wish to hang onto the corn silk. While it's not typically consumed as food, it does make a dandy herbal tea (just put about 1 tablespoon of chopped corn silk in a tea ball and steep in a cup of hot water) and is traditionally used as a treatment for bedwetting, urinary tract infections, gout, and kidney stones. 

Corn silk is useful. Courtesy of Emilian Robert Vicol.


Bean leaves are edible, and while they are safe to eat raw, most people prefer them cooked. Young leaves are favored because they are more tender; just be sure to keep most of the bean's leaves on the plant so it can continue to grow and mature. 


All parts of sunflowers are edible.
The leaves of sunflowers are edible (eat them like any other leafy green), and the cooked stalks taste something like celery. But more people enjoy eating the buds lightly steamed or blanched. Add a bit of butter, salt, and maybe some minced garlic, and you've got a rare treat. Of course, eating the buds means you'll get fewer flowers and seeds, so some people prefer to eat raw sunflower petals in a salad, just before allowing the head to dry so the seeds can be harvested. 


IMPORTANT NOTE: Please remember that not all parts of all vegetables and fruits are edible. In fact, in some cases, they can be deadly. So while every food mentioned in this article is safe to eat, do careful research before consuming something not mentioned here.

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