Lockdown has brought respect for meal planning

Lockdown has shown us a new way to live: now let’s work on flexible working, proper wages, an end to best-before dates and a new respect for the agile meal planner.

Food scarcity during and after the two World Wars changed the UK’s outlook on food security. Nations sought to increase food production to increase national food security, and the emphasis was on quantity and maximising available calories.

Skip forward to 2019, and the UK imported 53 per cent of its fresh fruit and veg. As a nation, we waste 30 per cent of available food. Still shocking to some people is the 50 per cent of food that is wasted in every household: my home, and yours, too. As consumers – citizens – we throw away 63,000 thousand tonnes of apples every year, 710,000 thousand tonnes of potatoes and 96,000 tonnes of carrots.

The waste charity, WRAP, reports that “food waste from UK households is still around 6.6 million tonnes, 70 per cent of which was intended to be eaten.. associated with more than 20 million tonnes of GHG emissions. The food that could have been eaten (4.5 million tonnes), but ends up as waste, would make the equivalent of around 10 billion meals.”

Food waste
Around half of bought household food is wasted. Image Nick Saltmarsh.

What is to be done? Max LaManna, influencer and author, asked me this question as part of BBC Earth’s Regeneration series, now airing on Facebook. I’ll admit: I hate the question. The slide into blind middle-class foodie dogma is easy: ‘Just teach people to value food!’ or, ‘If people just learned how easy it is to [insert time heavy recipe], they just wouldn’t waste it’. There are two problems with this argument.

Food is not central to UK culture and family life. Countries with stronger food cultures have mechanised at different rates, and have higher rates of people living in agrarian societies on lower incomes. As such, anyone who wants to help communities avoid returning to subsistence living needs to introduce a new approach to food waste and abandon visions of humble poverty.

22 per cent of the UK’s population live in poverty. I’ve had the chance to volunteer with the Trussell Trust, and with Alexandra Rose Charity; both of which support families who rely on charity to meet their basic needs, and who could be at increased risk of poverty through price rises. Talk of increasing food prices without tackling Universal Credit and austerity will consign more of the UK’s population to hunger

“Education”, I said to Max, “it’s about the state taking some responsibility”. Action from the top: not leaving the responsibility to the individual, or pretending that we have ‘free will’ despite evidence proving how vulnerable we are to amazingly powerful advertising campaignsour lived environments and lived experience.

And then, of course: lockdown, and the resulting change in habits.

Campaigning charity Hubbub commissioned market research in the second week of April, and it found that around half of respondents were wasting less food than before lockdown.

Meal planning
Once niche, now mainstream: Lockdown led to more food and meal planning. 

The most frequent reasons given for wasting less are simple: planning more meals, getting better at eating leftovers, shopping less frequently (so consumers thinking more carefully about their weekly shopping) and using the freezer more effectively.

Seeing ‘meal planning’ as the most significantly cited example of how to waste less surprised me. Pleasantly surprised, but in my professional experience of talking about food waste prevention at home, I’ve been met with resistance about planning. Reasons? “I don’t have the time”, “it’s boring”, “When we try no-one sticks to the plan anyway”.

When Max asked me ‘How can we make the biggest change?’, I think I fluffed it a bit; I was still finding my voice and bricking it about my first TV appearance. Now I say: let’s meet our communities where they are.

Let’s work on more flexible working arrangements for every job that can facilitate it. And proper wages. Food programming and campaigning to help people learn to trust their senses about what out-of-date milk actually smells like, an end to best-before dates on supermarket veg and fruit and a new-found respect for the agile meal-planner


Leave a Reply

  1. I totally agree with your comment on the ‘use by date’ issue. We have wasted way too much because we didn’t rely on our own judgement.

  2. I was taught to cook by my mum and to use everything. A lot of people don’t know how to cook so domestic science or food tech should be compulsory in schools. Educating children is the key

  3. Exactly, I’m old enough to remember when food was not refrigerated, but stored in larders a d meat safes. My mum was a chef, and very co cousin of food safety. We never were ill from her cooking, but it involved more planning, and preserving much of the fruit and pickling some of the veggies. Her main tool was her eyes and nose. She knew many signs of food deterioration and passed them on to me. Rather than being obsessed with dates on packaging we should use our eyes and noses. I know people that bin perfectly good food that is past its best before date by a short margin. Of course pork , chicken a some other products can be dangerous, so use before needs to be observed, more planning. We just need to educate people preferably starting young.

  4. I think it’s all about being out of touch and having no control over our ‘basic needs’.
    Masloe, famously says, that they are, ‘food, shelter and warmth’. Once those are met we can become creative and blossom. These days a lot of people are finding it hard to meet their basic needs because the power to do this has been removed from the individual and given to the ‘companies’. If there was one act of Parliament that I would like to revoke it would be the Enclosures Act. This took the right to ‘common’ land away from individuals and gave it to the highest bidders. Nowhere to grow your food. Just ask local councils how many people are on allotment waiting lists and you will see just how much people want to grow their own food.
    Anyway, best stop ranting. Suffice to say that when people start to grow their own food they learn to respect it, to preserve it, save seed from it and celebrate it.

    1. Lockdown has definitely seen a reconnection with where our food is actually from, and people choosing to start growing their own. Even if it is just a corner of a tiny garden or a windowbox, many feel empowered by growing food and as you say it can help with both physical and mental wellbeing.

  5. Meal planning is so helpful, along with running a shopping list to support this, but I suspect that busy families who have food delivered may forget to check the contents of fridges and food cupboards before it is ordered, perhaps relying on the same items coming each week.. Therefore, ‘new’ food arrives, and ‘old’ food has to be discarded to make space for it.
    I think that ‘overbuying’ is also much easier when using a) a big shopping trolley, then a car to get things home; b) a bank card to pay with and c) supermarkets, with big packs of crisps and biscuits, fizzy drinks etc. ‘special offers’ on things you may not have planned to buy, and a general feeling of ‘plenty’, easily obtained.
    If you have to carry all your shopping home, count out the money to pay for it, and are not offered tempting extras, it’s much easier to buy less and stick to a shopping list.
    I am not suggesting we do things exactly the way we (or our parents and grandparents) used to, and I appreciate that many families are struggling to ‘make ends meet’, but for lots of us, the way we buy food is perhaps too easy – and far too cheap. Farmers, pickers and all those producing fruit and vegetables work hard throughout the year to provide for us with good things, and what they harvest should be priced to reflect this.
    Additionally, how can we ensure that high fat, high sugar and over-processed food (including products made with less care and then imported) are sold at a higher prices and labelled as being poorer quality? I suspect that marketing/huge corporations/politics are all part of the problem – and the answer?!


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