No Time to Waste. This article is part of a joint campaign by Riverford and Wicked Leeks to help people cut food waste and raise awareness.
As an environmentalist and journalist specialising in sustainability, you might expect my food waste to be zero. But full disclosure: I’m far from perfect and this past year has been tough and very busy. As I’ve juggled work and homeschooling, bad habits and cooking shortcuts have crept back in. Now, I want to get back on the eco-eating wagon. So, as part of my reboot in advance of the UK’s first Food Waste Action Week, I’m searching for simple yet enduring ways to reduce the amount of food we, as a family of four, throw away.
A rubbish benchmark
For five days, we collected every scrap of food we didn’t eat to get a baseline. I was shocked to discover that this totalled 3,200g (equivalent to roughly three 1kg bags of sugar, or one 7lb baby) and included everything from biodegradable teabags and veg peelings, to half-eaten macaroni cheese and unwanted crusts of toast. According to Wrap, the UK's Waste and Resources Action Programme, an average UK family creates 20kg food waste per month costing them £60, meaning that our waste (around 13kg per month) is just under average.
I’d highly recommend doing a waste weigh-in. There’s something powerfully tangible about seeing the food waste accumulate on the kitchen scales and it seriously motivated me to up my game while alerting my husband and kids that change was afoot.
One rainy Saturday morning, I carried out a rigorous audit of our fridge and freezer, cleaning every shelf and familiarising myself with everything we already had in stock. I organised everything into categories so it would be much easier to find ingredients. There’s nothing more uninspiring than wondering what to cook for dinner, opening the fridge and then just seeing a hotch-potch of food that doesn’t make any logical sense. While having a clear out I found a few surprises lurking too – a pot of unopened babaganoush that officially went out of date more than two weeks ago, half a mushy cucumber and some wilted broccoli that I revived by slicing, flavoursome stems included, and soaking in ice-cold water for half an hour.
Sniff and taste
Normally, I’d dismiss fresh food that’s more than a week out of date but I tried the babaganoush with crackers for lunch and it was absolutely fine. In fact, I was starting to feel quite resourceful and vowed to use the ‘sniff test’ going forward. A new Defra-supported initiative to ‘look smell taste, don’t waste’ encourages people to use their senses and not be misled by often confusing food labels. In fact, ‘best before’ dates will be scrapped altogether for long-lasting foods, such as salt, which is great news. ‘Use by’ dates are pretty critical for meat and fish but ‘best before’ dates are really a guideline that can be stretched.
Previously, we wasted a lot of carbs, including pasta, rice, bread and cereals, too. The default in our kitchen is to wildly overestimate portions, so tweaked a few things. Firstly, I dug out the wooden spaghetti measurer that was hidden at the bottom of the utensils drawer and the children love using it now. I also put my son’s cereal in a smaller bowl as otherwise he’d just keep on pouring the milk on and never finish it. And when my daughter eats toast, she makes it one slice at a time, safe in the knowledge she can always make more if she’s still hungry. Actually, they’ve loved the challenge – it’s something they can directly engage with in a really positive way.
To peel or not to peel
Determined to drastically cut down on wasted tidbits, I set a few other ground rules too. Carrots, potatoes and other root veg would from now on be scrubbed with a brush, not peeled. Eco-chef Tom Hunt, author of Eating for Pleasure, People, and Planet, recommends a seasonal wholefoods diet based on ‘root-to-fruit’ eating. “The skin of veg and highest concentration of stalks of kale for example are actually really fibrous and prebiotic so don’t peel anything because the highest concentration of nutrients tends to be in and under the skin,” he says. I started including stalks and leaves in my cauliflower bake and explained to the kids there’d be no more half-eaten apples or unpeeled bananas left on the dining table. The phrase ‘ten more bites’ has now become a regular reminder to eat more fruit before throwing away the core. I’ve started freezing fruit a lot more – frozen wedges of lime are a perfect addition to a G&T and overly ripe bananas can be kept for smoothies. Even unused fresh herbs get chopped finely and then frozen in an ice cube tray with some water.
Together, we’ve experimented with some new recipes for ‘use it all loaf’, minestrone and pesto from a new book by Alex Elliott-Howery and Jaimee Edwards called Use It All: The Cornersmith Guide to a More Sustainable Kitchen. With some leftover mash and a tin of salmon (yes, you guessed it, also out of date), I rustled up some rissoles and we made delicious almond macaroons using two packets of ground almonds I’d long forgotten about, improvising with golden caster and muscovado that I already had. Plus, with the leftover egg yolks leftover, I made mushroom omelettes for lunch rather than putting them in the fridge until they’d gone hard. Thanks to top tips from Sydney’s Cornersmith, I was fascinated to learn that egg yolks and whites can actually be frozen too.
While our food waste didn’t disappear entirely, after the second five-day stint, it weighed in at 2,600g and around a fifth less. I did notice that I was shopping less and saving money. In fact, we managed to delay our weekly shop, aside from our fruit and veg box delivery, just by thinking more carefully about planning adapted meals to use food we had in stock. Mitigating food waste begins way before the cooking stage: it starts with a list.
La pièce de resistance
Proper mid-morning coffee has become a real indulgence during lockdown. Usually, I’d transfer my used coffee grounds to my house plants or sprinkle on the flower beds in the garden as they’re known to be rich in nutrients but, well, there comes a point when the plants have enough caffeine. So I saved my spent coffee grounds up for a few days and made Tom Hunt’s brownies albeit replacing the recommended rye flour with what I had in the larder. Wow. A new traybake bar has been set.
And for me, that’s the key. Tackling food waste and therefore reducing our environmental impact doesn’t have to be a restrictive, negative challenge. It can be liberating. Often the most imaginative innovations stem from constraints. Less really can be more.