Ends + Stems Review: Make Tasty Meals While Reducing on Waste

As a product reviewer, I go to a lot of food nerd extravaganzas. Some of them are multi-acre trade shows where I charge around for three days straight, learning about what’s new. At other conferences, I sit all day and listen to talks about the future of cooking. In the last few years, sustainability and food waste have become big buzzwords at these gatherings. Depressingly, the talk about it is starting to feel like a bunch of hot air.

That said, it was off in a side wing of one of this shows where I recently discovered Ends + Stems, a little company that puts out weekly meal plans which, when cooked together, help you cut down on food waste. Half an onion might be used in Monday’s soup, and the other half in Thursday’s spaghetti. Multiply that by several ingredients over the course of the week, and you might end up with fewer abandoned eggplants on the back shelf of the fridge.

This is an impressive offering for a company with its founder, Alison Mountford, as the only full-time employee. I liked the way Ends + Stems tackles a real problem. It’s estimated that a third of all food is thrown out—more than a billion tons a year. In recent weeks, as restaurants have been forced to close to adhere to emergency social distancing standards, food producers are having to dump their goods instead of shipping them. And behind that sad thought is the cascade of everything that went into making it: water, fertilizer, labor, carbon footprints, and, once you’re aware of all this stuff, guilt.

 

Ends + Stems works like this: you subscribe for $12.50 a month, or $114 per year, declare your preference for omnivore or vegetarian meals, and it gives you three recipes for the coming week. You then tell it how many portions—two, four, or six—you want for each meal, and it gives you a shopping list.

Right out of the gate, there’s all sorts of fun stuff happening. Ends + Stems is part of a trend in which what to eat on a given night is decided for you, something interesting we see in new cookbooks like Meike Peters’ new 365, which gives you a recipe for every day of the year, or services like Sam Sifton’s What to Cook This Week, where the New York Times editor shares what you should eat as part of the paper’s food section.

Put your faith in these folks and you’ll have a tasty and varied diet if you just follow their lead. With Ends + Stems, you have three less “what to make for dinner” decisions to make every week. And while the “send ingredients to my grocery list” button on most standalone recipes on the internet feel pretty useless (I’m partial to a screenshot or a pencil and paper for the shorter ones), having the list for the three recipes in my meal plan makes much more sense. I got in the habit of printing it up and marching off to the grocery store, knowing everything I needed was on it.

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I went with the omnivore plan for the first week: a meal of braised chicken with artichokes, olive oil smashed potatoes, and broccolini; a salmon rice bowl; and a tortellini soup. I also took advantage of the option to add a fourth recipe, rooting around in the archives and choosing a tasty-looking pork katsu sandwich.

Right away, I appreciated the combination of good-flavored dishes with a Tuesday-night-after-work-appropriate energy level. That rice bowl is a good example, having you cook the salmon in the oven at a cleverly low-and-slow 250 degrees Fahrenheit while you make a sauce from soy, peanut, and sriracha and quickly sauté spinach. Half-moons of avocado are spooned on top of the bowl at the last minute and, voila, you’re done. It’s not fancy, or crispy, or caramelized, but it’s plenty flavorful and great for a weeknight.

 

Later that week, the braised chicken felt like a re-introduction to how exciting and transformative using a lot of lemon in a dish can be.

I also came to like the way it quickly empowered me to cook foods that I don’t usually make. Tortellini soup, for instance, isn’t something I’ve ever made, but here I had all of the ingredients and instructions for how to do it. Each recipe also has a big “substitutions” column next to the ingredients. For that tortellini, there are suggestions such as how to make it gluten free, dairy free, or paleo, and what to do if you “must have meat” (use meat tortellini), and what you could substitute for the spinach that you dunk in the hot soup just before you serve it. There’s even a “kids corner” with ideas on how to spice up its appeal to the little monsters. (Omit the spinach and replace with a vegetable they like).

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