Upcycling Ideas: Solutions to Imperfect Produce

Last Update: April 20, 2023

Is there anything better than finding good uses for things that would otherwise go to waste? This is the beauty gof upcycling, a practice that’s quickly becoming a movement, especially when it comes to making the most of surplus food and feeding those in need. Here’s a closer look at this forward-thinking food trend.

What Is Upcycling?

Upcycling is a process that repurposes items traditionally considered waste. Whether it’s using old bicycle parts to create a beautiful work of art, organizing a drawer using paper towel rolls, or finding good uses for surplus or unattractive food, upcycling demonstrates that a little creativity can go a long way when it comes to diminishing our waste on a global scale.

Upcycling Ideas for Kids

Teaching children the genius behind upcycling will help them not only understand the importance of taking a conscientious approach to waste, but also have a whole lot of fun in the process. Looking for ideas? Here are some of our favorite raw materials for upcycling crafting:

  • Paper towel or toilet paper rolls: Great for making rocket ships, castles, or napkin rings.
  • Egg cartons: Add some pipe cleaner antennas for bug-making fun.
  • Plastic bottles: Cut them in half, decorate, and use as colorful planters.
  • Old magazines: Compile clippings and introduce the kids to decoupage.

Cool bottles with damp paper towels

The Difference Between Upcycling and Recycling

While the names may be similar, upcycling and recycling are not the same thing. Recycling breaks down items to be reused—paper, aluminum, plastic, or glass is shredded, smashed or melted to be recast into new items.

Upcycling, on the other hand, focuses on repurposing items that might otherwise head to the dumpster. For example, upcycling food can result in transforming unwanted produce (tossed aside for its less-than-perfect appearance but not its freshness) into delicious recipes. Or it can mean finding ways to use surplus food and produce to feed those in need.

Food Waste in America

Did you know that 30 to 40% of food is wasted in the United States? On top of that, 41 million Americans struggle with hunger. The good news is we’re looking at a very solvable problem. When food waste is combined with proper distribution through wasted food programs, it can go a long way to rectifying this epidemic and ensuring we nourish one another rather than feed a landfill.

Farmers market

Imperfect Produce Waste Statistics

Trying to meet arbitrary cosmetic standards isn’t just an issue for people, it’s also a problem for produce! Up to 40% of the nation’s produce waste is simply due to exterior imperfections (like size, shape, or minor bruising). That’s roughly $165 billion in produce every year. Instead of feeding a family in need or acting as a nutrient-rich ingredient in your next recipe, this wasted produce is left to rot in landfills. Thankfully, many food waste programs are recognizing this untapped food source and working to redirect this not-so-perfect produce to where it can be put to good use.

Where to Find Imperfect Produce & Help With Food Waste

Whether unattractive or in abundance, all delicious produce deserves to be enjoyed. Here are some companies that are leading the way when it comes fighting food waste.

Imperfect Produce

“Ugly” but only on the outside, this company sources less-than-attractive produce that would otherwise be left behind (or tossed in a landfill) and delivers it to your door at up to 50% less than you would pay at the grocery store.

Food Forward

In an effort to fight hunger, Food Forward collects fresh produce that would otherwise go to waste from markets, public, orchards, or backyard fruit trees and donates it to hunger relief agencies.

DC Central Kitchen

The country’s first community kitchen, DC Central Kitchen works to fight hunger and train jobless adults for culinary careers by preparing 3 million meals for homeless shelters, schools, and nonprofits every year. The organization also successfully prevents the waste of millions of pounds of nourishing food.

Boston Area Gleaners

Surplus farm crops are put to good use thanks to this company’s quick thinking efforts, which rescued 360,000 pounds of produce in 2015 alone!


This San Fran-based company uses a smartphone app to manage donations and deliveries of excess food in six different Bay Area cities.

Food Cowboy

Another mobile tech-based company, Food Cowboy works to prevent food waste in the supply chain by connecting restaurants and wholesalers to charitable organizations that are fighting hunger.

Food Recovery Network

With more than 192 chapters over 42 states, this student-led movement has prevented the waste of more than 1,300,000 pounds of food since 2011.

Imperfect Produce Recipes

These recipes deliver big flavor no matter if they’re made with “ugly” imperfect produce or the best market finds (we promise, no one will know the difference). Put your unique fruits and veggies to good use, and get cooking.

Kabocha Squash Soup With Pancetta

This Paleo soup recipe calls for blended buttery kabocha squash, ginger, nutmeg, fresh sage, and chopped pancetta.

Veggie Tots

Sneak some veggies into your little one’s meal with these tots made from minced broccoli and cauliflower.

Carrot Pancakes With Sorrel Pesto

Your family is sure to flip for these carrot pancakes made extra crave-worthy when topped with sorrel pesto, a rich fried egg, and a sprinkle of Maldon salt.

Vegetable Rosti

Pack some veggies into your comfort food with this traditional Swiss casserole, made with potatoes, peppers, ghee, and eggs.

Vegan Sweet Potato Casserole

Did we mention we like casserole? This vegan take on a classic is just as good as the kind your grandma used to make, only this time it includes vegan marshmallows.

Pesto Chicken Pot Pie

Chicken pot pie is always a winning dish (and a great way to to use up your veggies), but adding pesto to the filling is an unexpected and surprisingly delicious improvement.

Zucchini Noodle Cacio e Pepe

Need a recipe for your malformed zucchini? Zucchini noodles (or “zoodles”) are a low-carb, delicious addition to any meal, and this take on the cheese and pepper go-to is downright decadent.

Cranberry Pecan Apple Crumble

We go to pieces for just about any crumble recipe, and this plant-based rendition is no exception. Top apples with coconut sugar, maple syrup, and gluten-free cranberry granola and then leave it to bake in a cast-iron skillet.

Paleo Berry Crumble Pie

We’re berry sure you’ll love this Paleo recipe, made with blueberries, blackberries, and strawberries nestled in a gluten-free almond flour crust.

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Jillian Gordon

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