Of all the sustainability issues we face, food waste seems by far the simplest and easiest to tackle especially for individuals. And what’s more it saves you money, so it really is a no brainer.
According to a study done by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) in 2015 the UK wastes 10 million tonnes of food a year (a quarter of all food purchased!) and 70% of that comes from individual households. Not only does this have a price tag of £20 billion attached to it, but it is also associated with more than 25 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. This equates to £810 worth of food thrown away by the average UK family each year.
As with so many things prevention is better than cure. WRAP presents a hierarchy of what to do with food and drink waste in terms of preferred option to least option, with prevention as the most preferred option. The great thing is that prevention is bit that individuals have the most control over. So, unlike with so many other sustainability issues, food waste is one area where each and every one of us can make a big difference.
There are a number of chefs already tackling food waste in the kitchen. Massimo Bottura started Reffetorio Ambrosiana in Milan to show that food waste could be delicious. The Refettorio serves 100 local homeless each night with products that would otherwise go to waste. His book Bread is Gold provides very visual evidence that food waste can just as easily pass for a Michelin star meal. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Leftovers is a more practical guide to cooking with leftovers. While Shane Jordan became a chef through volunteering at food waste charity, Food Cycle, and has written up his experiences and tips in his book Food Waste Philosophy.
This post aims to summarise the experience of professional chefs into a handy guide for any cook wishing to cut down on waste. This goes way beyond just cooking to cover:
How to wage war with food waste
This particular paragraph of Shane’s book Food Waste Philosophy describing one of the chefs he respects struck me as important:
“Kathleen Jannaway was born in 1915 in London. Her mother died shortly after Kathleen’s birth. Her father had been disabled by TB in his hip as a boy and only outlived his wife by a few years. Kathleen was an only child and was brought up by her paternal grandparents. She described her childhood as hard and impoverished. Her grandmother was a good manager and never allowed them to go hungry.”
According to Shane “cooking is an underrated talent” and if you’re reading this blog, you will probably agree with that. But what I think is so often missed in an appreciation of cooking is the ability to be a ‘good manager’ not just a cook. Whenever my parents travel, they have this agreement that my mother always does the cooking and my father the washing up. My father always complains that my mother has used every single pan and utensil possibly available to her in the kitchen when she cooks. This is one example of bad management, but there is potential for bad management in everything from shopping to storing and cooking food.
Professional chefs have to learn to be good managers not just good cooks, because they rely on their good management financially. Unfortunately in today’s world of over-abundance many home cooks don’t have to be good managers like Kathleen Jannaway’s grandmother. Cosseted by the ever-full supermarkets, it is easy to get lured into a false sense of security that there is a seemingly endless source of food and drink that appears as if by magic. However signs that our food system is under pressure are becoming increasingly evident.
Recently the Extinction Rebellion’s urgent call to action brought climate change and our environmental impact to the fore as have reports like EAT-Lancet. In the past wartime enemies have made dramatic and very visible attacks on us, but climate change is a much subtler enemy. We mustn’t be deceived. The disaster is waiting to happen. It would perhaps help for us to consider ourselves at war with climate change. As Massimo Bottura pointed out in Bread is Gold: “We learned that limitations inspire creativity. When putting food on the table is a challenge, miracles happen in the kitchen.”
“We learned that limitations inspire creativity. When putting food on the table is a challenge, miracles happen in the kitchen.”
With most women in the workplace now nearly every household has two working parents and time is short, but rather than becoming more professional and efficient in the kitchen, our cooking and management skills have largely fallen by the wayside. The tips below will help to correct this so that you too will soon be making miracles happen in the kitchen.
Plan ahead and plan for leftovers
“For me, shopping starts before I leave the house, with a cursory check of the fridge and cupboards to see what’s running low and what I might have in abundance. I then note the things I might want to turn into meals in the next few days and the kind of ingredients necessary to complete those dishes. But I also make sure there’s a good amount of play in the plan and plenty of blank space on my mental list so that I can take advantage of what I find when I hit the shops.”
– Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
If you’re anything like me and rushing home from work stopping at the supermarket on the way, you may not have the opportunity to check your fridge before you shop and you probably can’t rely on yourself to check the fridge before you leave for work in the morning or remember what’s there for a full day even if you do. What you can do, however, is a weekly shop on the weekend and if you plan it well, it will save you shopping and even cooking later on in the week. If you’re life is too haphazard and spontaneous to plan a whole week of food, you’re better off shopping as you go, but only buying exactly what you need for that one night.
“Don’t get tempted by offers and don’t shop when you’re hungry!”
Very sound advice from Shane Jordan! According to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall “one of the biggest causes of food waste in recent years has been the increase of supermarket two-for-one or three-for-two deals: seemingly irresistible offers on fresh food which tempt us to buy more than we can possibly eat in the time before it goes off.”
“One of the biggest causes of food waste in recent years has been the increase of supermarket two-for-one or three-for-two deals.”
Eat wonky veg
Wonky veg has been increasingly in the press recently and for good reason. Where on earth did our obsession with picture perfect food come from? What’s wrong with a slightly stunted carrot or a slightly small tomato? If you keen to save imperfect fruit and veg from going to waste Oddbox is a great way to start. They send you a box of fruit and veg (or just veg if you prefer) each week. It comes with a list of what’s in your box and why it was going to waste. I found that it made me eat proportionately more veg as well, because you have to eat the whole box before it goes off and suddenly all your cooking is centred around vegetables.
I have found it helps me to tick off what I have received on the list (as I get the small box not everything is included) and the cross it off when I have used it so that I know what I still have left to use before the next box arrives.
Organisation is key
Not everyone is super organised and neat and tidy (I certainly am not), but keeping control of your kitchen cupboard, fridge and freezer makes a huge difference. If you don’t know where you put your potatoes, how can you tell whether you have any left when you check and how do you know which are the ones that need eating up first? The freezer often becomes a trough of oblivion. Somehow, because you know that things keep indefinitely in there, you forget they’re there at all. I recommend every time you put something in the freezer beyond your normal freezer staples, that you plan then and there when you are going to eat it.
What to keep in your store cupboard
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has a whole section of his book dedicated to this, which I highly recommend you read because he tells you what to do with everything and which type to buy. This is just an overview to get you started.
- Spices and dried herbs
- Capers and olives
- Coconut milk
- Alcohol – wine, vermouth, beer, cider, brandy and even whisky which can be excellent in puds
- Pasta and rice
- Nuts and seeds
- Oils, vinegars, salt and pepper
- Dried/tinned pulses – chickpeas, kidney beans, lentils are my favourites
- Pomegranate molasses
- Soy sauce
- Tinned tomatoes
What to keep in your freezer
Not everything freezes well, but these are some of the things that I’ve found work really well for me:
- Bread (even if you like to eat fresh bread, it’s unlikely you’ll finish the whole loaf before it goes mouldy unless you have a whole family of hungry mouths to feed, so putting the rest in the freezer to use for toast is a great strategy)
- Bacon (especially ready chopped pancetta)
- Fresh chilli (if you anything like me, you won’t want to use a whole one, but they keep well in the freezer and come out easy to chop)
- Ginger (you can grate it into dishes straight out of the freezer and it works a treat)
- Peas (always!)
As an aside I have found that a hand-held blender does wonders for food waste. I don’t actually own one, but my housemate does and should she ever move out, I would go out and buy one!
How to extend shelf-life through correct storage
Not everything keeps best in the fridge. Squashes and pumpkins, for example, deteriorate more quickly in the fridge. Celery keeps better in the fridge if it is kept upright in a jug of water. Potatoes and tomatoes lose their flavour in the fridge and eggs, although they may keep longer in the fridge, lose some of their quality. For how to store your eggs, click here. For how to store everything else, Hugh’s book is your go-to place.
Understanding use-by and best-before dates
This is clearly a big issue because both Hugh and Shane bring it up in their books. It was also one of the points of discussion at a talk with Bee Wilson on her new book The Way We Eat Now.
My brother has always laughed at me because I will whip right out of his hands whatever he has deemed unfit for eating and is about to throw into the bin. I can’t bear to see good food go to waste and just because one part of the food has gone mouldy, doesn’t mean the rest is no good. To take an extreme example, it’s a bit like if there was something wrong with your toe and the doctor decided there was no point in you living at all! Fortunately that’s not what doctors do. If the doctor really can’t do anything to save your toe, he/she will likely cut it off so that the rest of you can carry on living. This carrot, for example, made a delicious carrot and squash soup with cumin, onion and coriander.
Shane makes the point in his book: “sometimes I feel that people have lost their sense of smell”. It’s normally pretty obvious when milk, cream or meat has gone off. It starts to smell bad and change colour. Yet so many people just trust the best before date or the use-by date blindly and throw out tons of good food that way. Hugh’s book explains what use-by dates and best-before dates actually are:
Use-by dates: “This appears on perishable fresh foods like fresh meat, fish and dairy products, prepared veg, some deli items, and chilled ready meals. You’ll see it mostly on things you would put in your fridge. These dates are conservative and make some allowance for inconsistent fridge temperatures and storage habits of the general public…it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily risky to consume.”
Best-before dates: “Whereas ‘use-by’ relates to food safety, ‘best-before simply relates to food quality. It applies mainly to ‘ambient foods’ – tinned foods and dry-store goods, such as pulses, rice, biscuits, cereals etc. that do not require refrigeration. It’s a manufacturer’s way of saying that flavour or texture may diminish after this time. But the food can be safe to eat for weeks after that.”
I can certainly vouch for that. Growing up our larder was consistently full of tins years out of date, but we still cooked with them and aside from one incident with some condensed milk, I don’t remember there ever being any problem. Indeed no-one even noticed the condensed milk incident until years later when I opened another tin of condensed milk and discovered it was white rather than orange like the one before. Since the orange one was the first tin of condensed milk I had ever opened as a child, I had just assumed that was what condensed milk looked like – an unlikely colour for milk I’ll admit, but then all I knew was that it tasted like caramel and was going in a millionaires shortbread. While I wouldn’t use orange condensed milk again, clearly it was still safe to eat, even if it didn’t look right.
“When an animal has died to feed me, that’s quite a thing. And no part of it that can be made tasty should ever go to waste.”
– Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
Perhaps surprisingly the actual process of cooking is not where the biggest food waste reductions can be made, but there are still a few changes you can probably make.
Chopping vegetables efficiently
Ironically for this post Tesco’s tagline “every little helps” provides some excellent advice. When trimming vegetables, or even meat for that matter, you can probably save quite a bit more good food than you currently are by simply chopping closer to the ends or more precisely around a core. It’s worth making sure you keep your knives sharp for this, but do please make sure you are confident with your knife skills before taking a sharp knife too close to your fingers!
Recognising what’s edible
In some cases just knowing which bits you can and can’t eat helps. For years I would only chop and eat the white bits of spring onions and throw the green bits away until an Indian friend of mine looked at me aghast one time while cooking together. Similarly coriander stalks and broccoli stalks taste excellent and can be thrown in along with the rest. Bee Wilson’s book talks a lot about “recognising food”. I found that the more you discover that what you would have thrown away is actually edible, the better you become at recognising good food. My most recent discovery involves beetroot stalks. I had bought some fresh beetroot to make a daal and just before I threw the leafy stalks in the bin I became curious to find out whether they tasted any good. Given that many other stalks of edible vegetables are good to eat, why not beetroot stalks? Sure enough, they were excellent! I actually came to the conclusion I preferred them to the beetroot itself! They taste a little like celery, but slightly saltier and more flavoursome. Like celery they can be a bit stringy, through.
Another classic example of an edible stalk is garlic scapes (or stalks). They eat them in great quantities in China and after a year living there I was a complete convert. So it was with dismay that I returned to the UK to find that literally nowhere sold them, despite the fact that garlic is abundant in any supermarket. The Garlic Farm on the Isle of Wight is currently the only farm in the UK that is selling garlic scapes commercially. The rest apparently get churned back into the land!
Stop using the scales!
This isn’t just a tip for the home cook, but for professionals too. Pizza Hut managed to reduce their cheese waste by half with the introduction of a cheese calculator that measured cheese by the cupful. This enabled them to adjust the pack sizes they were ordering accordingly.
As Hugh explains in his book “in my ingredients lists, you’ll notice quite a few ‘abouts’, ‘handfuls’, ‘bits’ and ‘splashes’. That’s because I don’t want you to be put off trying a dish because you’re 50g short of something. There are almost always very good potential swap-ins anyway.” Our Saucy Dressings recipes are similar, they are designed around standard pack sizes and make suggestions for potential alternatives if you don’t have a particular ingredient.
The creative cook
Inevitably, despite doing all of the above, you will still end up with some leftovers or food past its best, but somehow or other it is normally possible to raise them from the ashes like a phoenix. You can get endless inspiration from both Hugh’s book Leftovers and Massimo’s book Bread is Gold.
Hugh’s book is a little more practical and approachable for the basic cook. His recipes are simple, presented with lots of space and large imagery to make the instructions clearer and less daunting and include tips for how to embellish the recipe with additional/alternative ingredients. He also has a very helpful single-page brainstorm of what to do with the most common leftover ingredients.
Massimo’s book is more inspiring, however, and is more effective at getting the creative juices flowing, but the writing is more dense and you have to read the introduction to each recipe to really get the benefit of the chef’s knowledge and creativity in coming up with the recipe. Here are just a few examples from the first few chefs that cooked at the Reffetorio:
“There were large quantities of questionable strawberries to clean and separate for a gazpacho (a perfect substitution as tomatoes weren’t in season yet, and the soup’s pink colour was a fun surprise). A gratin was a brilliant solution for the less than perfect condition of the zucchini and meat.” – Chef Daniel Humm
“Jessica and Laura had spent the morning picking out the green basil leaves from the browned bunches. Davidelooked at the little pile of leaves and shook his head: not enough for a classic Ligurian pesto – a mixture of basil, pine nuts, Parmigiano cheese, and olive oil. So he suggested adding other aromatic greens, like mint. Then when it turned out there were no pine nuts, I said, “What about breadcrumbs?”” – Chef Massimo Bottura
Later Chef Rene Redzepi would use popcorn instead of pine nuts for his own pesto.
“That night, they served a soup called panada made with stale bread and Parmigiano rinds.” Chefs Enrico & Roberto Cerea
What becomes apparent if you read enough of these individual approaches is that it all comes down to understanding flavours on their very basic level. Which characteristics do individual ingredients share with each other that mean they can replace each other where necessary?
You’ve probably heard of the cook book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat or watched her series on Netflix. This would be a good place to start if you’re a complete novice at combining flavours to come up with your own recipes, or you could browse the leftovers section on Saucy Dressings. There is also a new book called Secrets of Great Second Meals by Sara Dickerman just out, which looks like it could have some good tips.
“The most remarkable thing about my mother is that for 30 years she served the family nothing by leftovers. The original meal has never been found.”
– American writer Calvin Trillin
At a recent conference, food waste activist Tristram Stuart, spoke about preservation methods to reduce food waste. The one he has got most involved in is fermentation. His company Toast Ale makes beer out of waste bread. While making alcohol isn’t perhaps the easiest preservation method to carry out at home, there are plenty that are:
- and of course using your freezer!
Other methods including drying and fermenting are also possible if you’re keen to learn.
Using leftovers outside the kitchen
And finally if you can’t think of any way to use your food in the kitchen, Hugh has a whole section of his book dedicated to what to do with leftovers outside the kitchen – everything from cleaning materials to garden fertiliser!
You can buy the books recommended in this post on Amazon here: