Welcome to our series of posts on the A-Z of zero waste!
An overview of everything that has been shared so far can be found here.
Food waste is a huge problem. We've all been there, looking in the back of your cupboard and finding something incredibly out of date that you bought on sale but don't really know what to do with. Or that sad vegetable in the fridge that you bought on a whim because it looked nice but it didn't go with anything you were eating that week and by the time you get to it, its wrinkly if not a little mouldy. Or emptying your fridge contents into the bin after you come home from a holiday because you overbought the week before and weren't able to use everything up before you left.
An estimated 1/3 of all the food produced in the world goes to waste (1). In the UK alone, we throw away the equivalent of 1 in every 5 bags of food shopping. That's over 7 million tons of food waste every year. An average family of four is wasting so much food that by just reducing their food waste they could save on average £70 a month. Some of the numbers are shocking, like how an average UK household throws away 170 potatoes every year - more than three a week, and how 860,000 apples are thrown away every day (2).
Obviously that's not a sensible thing to do financially, but why exactly is food waste do bad for our environment? For a second, think about the life cycle of food. At the very beginning, energy and resources go into preparing seeds and the ground where crops will be planted, then whilst that plant is growing lots of resources are being poured into it - water, fertiliser, pesticides, and if these aren't being used then different agricultural practices are being used to avoid pests, which use energy too. Harvest time comes which will be a very energy intensive time and different machinery is often used, and depending on the crop it may need to be processed to end up with the finished product. These crops then need to be transported to different facilities where they are either packaged or further processed into different foods, and unfortunately all this requires energy and fuel, which as we discussed last week is still predominantly fossil fuels and other carbon producing energies. Because of this, food waste affects the climate too - "About 11% of all the greenhouse gas emissions that come from the food system could be reduced if we stop wasting food."(1)
More than that, as the global population grows, we need to supply more food. If we continue to waste food at the same rate then there will need to be more deforestation in order to generate additional farmland which means more CO2 is released into the atmosphere and there are less trees to absorb it, less bio diversity and lower soil quality.
"The carbon footprint of food produced and not eaten is estimated to 3.3 Gtonnes of CO2 equivalent: as such, food wastage ranks as the third top emitter after USA and China"(3)
There are so many steps in producing foods - and some foods will have many more. Most of these steps are energy, fuel, water and other resource heavy, so if we then waste this hard grown food, we are also wasting every single resource in the supply chain before it got to us. Not very zero waste.
Reducing food waste is the 3rd single most important solution to reverse climate change (4).
Now, a lot of food waste does happen "up-stream" before the food gets to us and that is harder for us to tackle, but there is still a huge amount of waste that happens in the average home, so here are a few tips on how to avoid food waste.
Check your cupboards and the back of your fridge
You know that phrase "admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery", this is the part where we all admit we have a food waste problem. Unless you have just moved into a brand new home, you will likely have some food in your fridge and cupboards. In those cupboards there will likely be food that you have forgotten about, food you bought but have never opened, out of date food, over ripe food at the back of your fridge, opened jars of condiments that you actually can't remember, and so forth. We all have a food waste problem, we only vary in how big that problem is in our own lives.
Checking your cupboards and fridge is not only to help you see that you may have a problem with food waste, it's also where I would recommend starting every time before you do any food shopping. See if you have any food that is getting near it's use by date or going off. Fresh produce a key area of waste so make sure you have a look to see what you have that needs eating first.
Create a meal plan based on your week
Once you know what foods need to be eaten up you can start to decide what meals you want this week. From someone who avoided meal planning for so long, thinking it would give me no flexibility and was just a waste of time, I do concede that it can cut down on your food waste enormously, but is also really helpful if you're super busy. Make sure when planning your meals that you take into consideration what you have on for the next seven days as you don't want to be making a roast dinner on a day when you get home from work at 9pm or have four after school activities! This meal plan doesn't have to be fully set in stone either, it can be flexible. For example tonight on my meal plan I have "asparagus pasta". I have asparagus to be eaten and today was a long day at work. I'm not sure what asparagus pasta will look like at the end but I know that my asparagus won't go off before I can eat it!
If you're going away for the weekend or on holiday, factor this into your plan so your fridge is emptied by the time you leave, or only contains items that will be fresh when you return. I have a whole post on meal planing if you're interested in learning how I balance it with work as a full time surgeon.
Make a shopping list
Now it comes to making your shopping list. This should actually now be really easy as you can look at your meal plan, and work out what ingredients you will need for those meals. Try to make a rough note of the quantities you will need so you're no over-buying food you won't use. A shopping list sounds boring but knowing what food you need and what you don't is basically the core of avoiding food waste.
Know what your cupboard staples are
I personally find it helpful to also know what my essential cupboard staples are and to ensure that I always have enough of these even if it's not on my meal plan. I will always find use for tins of chopped tomatoes, chickpeas and lentils in whatever recipe I'm following so I make sure I stock up on these. This is because if I don't have these when needed I will likely find away to get out of cooking and buy pizza risking the food in my fridge going to waste, so stocking up on essentials for me can reduce waste.
Now you may head out food shopping, but don't fall for the sales!
Sales, discounts and promotions, although sometimes helpful, often encourage you to buy food you don't actually need, or higher quantities than you need. Have you ever thought about why shops do sales? Shops need to make money, so sales are only done because they convince customers to spend more money and buy more products than they would have without a sale. By all means go for them if the item is on your list and you can definitely eat it all up before it will go bad, but don't go for it if you're not sure.
Buy odd and wonky
We now live in a society where we expect all our food to look perfect and identical, despite this rarely occurring in nature. Because of this food that is wonderfully tasty and edible often goes to waste because it doesn't fulfil the cosmetic requirements of the consumer. Often this does happen prior to it arriving in the shop but it can still happen in store if consumers aren't choosing items that differ a little from the others. So buy those slightly fat or skinny carrots, the slightly bendy butternut squash or the single bananas as it reduces the risk of these items never being chosen and starting to go off before they're bought.
Store food correctly
This is a big one. Once you have your food home it is essential that you store the food you have bought correctly so that you can extend it's life as much as possible so you will have time to eat it, and so its still as tasty and nutritious when you get to it. There are too many details for me to get into here and so a quick Ecosia search will probably tell you the best way to store any particular food you're querying. Many root vegetables, like carrots, are water dense and dehydrate quickly out of water so storing them in water keeps them crunchier for longer. The same is true for any vegetable with a cut stalk like asparagus, herbs, kale etc. as storing them in water like flowers stops them wilting. Find out what works best in the crisper drawer and what is best out of it, and what actually keeps better out of the fridge. Dried items like popcorn and biscuits often work best in an airtight jar.
Keep the fridge the correct temperature
If your fridge is too warm your food can spoil too quickly and if it is too cold then more delicate food can get damaged or even freeze. In the UK apparently the average fridge is set to 7ºC, where as it should be less than 5ºC (5). Make sure your fridge is kept at the correct temperature by checking what it is set at. If it is set below 5ºC then try to maintain that temperature by keeping the fridge door closed - no standing at an open fridge trying to decide what food to eat, and by waiting for food to cool before putting it in the fridge.
Ignore sell by dates
Ahhh the confusion of 'Sell By' dates, 'Use by' dates and 'Best before' dates. Here is the low down
- 'Sell By' dates are for shops - ignore these.
- 'Best Before' dates are about quality. You can eat a food after this but it may not be at its best.
- 'Use By' dates are about safety and is the one to pay most attention to. It is not recommended that you eat a product after this date (6). However if you freeze a product before this then you are able to disregard this date.
Food prep tricky items
This might not work for everyone but I have found it very helpful in my busy schedule. If you have an item that takes a long time to prepare, like a pumpkin or dried beans, don't wait until the last minute to prepare them or they're likely to get skipped. Preparing things when you have some more time, like at a weekend or on a day-off can save you time in the week meaning you're more likely to actually cook this item instead of leaving it. Just make sure that your meal plan has this factored in so you're not prepping too far in advance of using the food.
This is a simple one, if you can, don't peel your vegetables if they don't need it. A vegetable brush works wonders for cleaning. Skins of things like carrots and potatoes are nutritious and if you peel them then you're not eating all the available goodness of the plant. By eating the skins you're actually getting more value from that plant and making less waste.
Eat the whole item
Similar to peeling, there are often parts of food that traditionally go to waste more than others - like the stalk of a broccoli, or the leaves of a cauliflower. Eating the whole thing makes the most of all the resources that went into growing it.
Sometimes you will end up with food scraps, for example if your kids just won't eat potato skins, so look into ways to reuse these items. Can those potatoes skins be made into crisps? Can those vegetable scraps be made into vegetable stock? You would be surprised what you can do with those food items before assuming they're no use!
Know your portion sizes
This is am important one. If you don't know your portion sizes then you will almost certainly end up with food waste. This can include knowing how much of a certain food is a portion for you and your family but also includes knowing how much food you eat per person, per meal, i.e. I eat less at lunch so if I served the same size portion as I eat at dinner, there would we food left over, and I eat less than my husband.
Sometimes for many reasons we end up with too much cooked food. Perhaps you weren’t as hungry as you though or your kids didn’t finish their meals. If there isn’t enough left to leave for another meal, try to find uses for left overs and fashion them into another meal. Left over rice can be made into egg fried rice, mashed potatoes into gnocchi or roosti, bread can be made into croutons, and beans can be made into refried beans. The internet is definitely your friend here so check out Love Food Hate Waste or search on Ecosia.
The freezer is your friend! It can hugely reduce the amount of waste your produce if you use it wisely. There are so many possibilities of what you can store in your freezer and you can find more details here. Some of the things I use my freezer for:
- Freezing fruit as it’s starting to get soft and then making it into things like smoothies, bananas bread, banana Nice cream, fruit crumbles etc.
- Freezing leftovers to have as emergency meals for the future. We even freeze individual portions to have as lunches if we had a busy evening, just pull out the night before so it defrosts overnight.
- Freezing vegetable scraps to make into vegetable stock
- Freezing remainders of tins of coconut milk, or soup, or tomato purée when you’re not able to use it all up
- Freezing herbs in oil
- Buying food reduced just before its sell by date so shops don’t throw it away and then freezing until you need it.
Some things don't freeze well but you might want to keep them for longer so preserving foods in other ways becomes very handy. Preserving foods can require as much skill as you are willing to put in and can vary from very simple things like salting lemons, preserving herbs in oil or fruits in alcohol, to making cordials, and things like pickling vegetables and making jams and chutneys. These are often skills that have sightly been lost over time but learning just a few of these skills not only helps you prevent food waste but can save money and help you live a more zero waste life if you are able to avoid products in glass as you have made then for yourself. They also make great edible gifts...
Sometimes however food waste does happen however hard you try to avoid it. Ever cut into a perfectly good piece of fruit for it to be completely rotten on the inside? You're unlikely to be able to find a way to avoid this going to waste. But that organic matter is still full of nutrients so make sure you're not putting it into the bin, try where ever possible to compost it. If you don't know how amazing compost is, and how it has the potential to reverse climate change, go read about it here.
Food waste is a huge problem, but by reducing it we are protecting the planet and allowing food supply chains, which are at threat due to climate change, to cope with an every growing global population. It's just a recipe for success.