Aiming for zero food waste in the kitchen

24 March 2016

Food in the waste bin

Here in the UK, we’re bad for food waste. Around 14 million tonnes of food are wasted every year. The supermarkets have been falling into line recently in the drive to reduce this figure, with some donating end-of-life food to the homeless or other charities and with others bringing in ‘ugly veg’ boxes, to sell food that would otherwise have been discarded as ‘not-perfect’. 

But this isn’t just a corporate issue. Half of that national waste comes from households. You and me. Day in, day out. Buying food in, letting it rot and throwing it out.

Now I know there are some activists who go to amazing lengths to avoid all kinds of waste, do great things but effectively demonstrate by the lengths they have to go to how much effort you have to make, and how outside of the mainstream it places you to do so.

Within mainstream lifestyles, busy lives and a varied diet, how difficult is it to develop good life habits that bring that waste down? When I made my resolution this year that I was going to eat no ready meals, but only ever cook my own food (unless I was eating out) I knew I had to do better than I had in the past in developing habits that wouldn’t simply lead to a lot more waste.

One of the ironies is that we have more information at our disposal today on how to cook great food at home, you’d think we’d all be cooking way more than we ever used to. With all the celebrity chef TV shows, and the supporting recipe books, we have the information at our fingertips to cook restaurant-standard meals whenever we want if we so desire. Or to cook really cheap meals. Or really fast ones. Or vegan gluten free ones. Really, whatever you want now the information is instantly available.

The new habits you would need to prevent a lot of that waste are probably a lot easier and less onerous than you think

But one thing I noticed is that celebrity chef cookbooks are highly efficient generators of food waste.

For a start, you get meals with quite a few different ingredients. Some of those ingredients are used in quite small quantities. So this week I cooked an aubergine and tomato curry, one of my staples actually. It includes a teaspoon of shrimp paste. Of course, you can’t buy shrimp paste in teaspoon quantities, so you get a jar. The jar has to be used up within a few weeks. So making that meal once means you have to commit to making lots more meals that use a teaspoon of shrimp paste until the jar’s empty. Of course, you don’t do that. Half-used shrimp paste goes in the bin.

Some of the authors will glibly tell you things like “use just the egg yolks, and save the whites to use on something else”. I have had a fair few containers of aged egg whites in the fridge before now, because I didn’t have the focus within that aforementioned busy life to come up with things to make purely for the purpose of using up old egg white. It’s not that I can’t. I’ve made macarons on a number of occasions that use egg white nicely. They take ages, and they’re just sweet indulgences not proper food. So I’ve often not got around to that.

Masterchef Australia dish
This Masterchef Australia dish was the recipe I used for my alternative Christmas dinner last year. It created lots of leftover ingredients. (This is their photo, not mine. Mine didn't look quite as good as this, darn it. Tasted great, though)

It’s funny. The age of the celebrity chef has done a lot to move us one from the ‘bad old days’ of British cuisine where we all ate meat and two veg. Boring old meat and two veg. But it’s worth noting that, actually, a steady diet of meat and two veg was a lot easier to follow without waste. And it doesn’t have to be as boring as it sounds.

That said, I love nice food. I’m not quite ready to give up my more varied diet, with delicious foods.

So I’ve been trying out some new habits to add to my standard approach to food. Just a few things that might have a chance of sticking. These are the ones that have been working well so far. No rocket science. I bet you do all these things already. Your grandparents almost certainly did. But I wasn’t doing these things. Now I do.

  1. Once a week (Sunday, in my case), the main evening meal is designed to use up ingredients left over from other meals that week. I treat it like an exercise in creativity – throwing random stuff together and trying to make it work. This is easier to do when you live on your own, for sure, since you don’t have a family to rebel in the face of your occasionally failed experiments.
  2. Once a week also, I make up a big batch of soup which I freeze and have for lunches through the week. Soup is so flexible – you can throw all sorts of left-over bits and pieces into that pot and it all blends together perfectly well.
  3. If you’re on your own, or half of a childless couple, then when you make any meal that could be frozen, make a big batch and freeze portions for later. That way you can use all of those fresh herbs, that whole bag of carrots etc.
  4. Try out some active substitutions. Does that recipe call for a ‘squeeze of lemon juice’? All very well, but you add a few drops of lemon juice and then end up throwing the rest of the lemon away. Well, what it’s providing is acidity. Sometimes, you can use a wine vinegar instead. Try it. See if it works. If not, well, at least you know.
  5. Plan menus in advance. Don’t buy stuff in supermarkets that you didn’t intend to buy just because it’s on special offer. Buying stuff on a whim is absolutely the stuff that food waste is made from.
  6. We all have a few recipes that become our staples. We might like to experiment and try different things, but there are a few that we come back to time and again. Identify the things you have most trouble using up. Identify a good recipe that you like that uses that thing. Add it to your list of staples.
  7. I have some magnetic whiteboards on my fridge. When a perishable item goes into the fridge, I write it on the whiteboard. When it’s used up, I wipe it off. Half of my food waste came about because of ‘out-of-sight, out-of-mind.’ This means I can look at the fridge door and remind myself what needs using up. (It doesn’t work if you forget to update it! I’m still working on getting that habit to stick, to be honest).
  8. When planning your menu for the coming week, make a point of basing one meal around a store cupboard ingredient. We all have those ingredients that sit there for years and years until eventually we go through and throw out all the stuff that’s years past the use-by date. Make one meal per week based on one such item. Heck, you might even eat that tin of pilchards, you never know …

I can happily report that over the last month, the amount of food waste I’ve produced has been close to zero. Easier through the winter, I think, since so many of the meals I’ve cooked have been curries, stews and other such meals that make reduced waste easy. More challenging perhaps when we get into the warmer weather and the salads and other fresh ingredients come to the fore.

Of course you have to find the habits that will work with the things that you like to eat, and the way that you tend to live your life. The first step is to begin to write down every time you throw out food what it was you threw out  (I don’t mean here when your kids refused to eat their delicious healthy meals because they weren’t chicken nuggets or whatever – I have no answers to that sort of waste!). After a month, review the list and try to identify the habits you currently have that make that waste happen.

The new habits you would need to prevent a lot of that waste are probably a lot easier and less onerous than you would think. It just requires a small investment of time to record and identify what you're wasting, and create a plan for dealing with it.

But hey - I need all the help I can get. Feel free to share any tips of your own in the comments.