consumerism economics food shopping waste

How to avoid throwing away food

lettuceOne of the most startling facts I’ve read about recently is that we throw away about a third of the food we buy. I find this strange, considering the way we lament rising food prices and like to claim we don’t make enough to live on. But, if I’m honest, I throw away more than I’d like to myself.

According to research by Prudential, the most thrown away items are:

  • lettuce or bagged salad
  • bread
  • fruit
  • milk
  • cooked meat

It shows our attitude to food, that it’s plentiful, it’s cheap, there’s more where it comes from. We take it for granted, and as the world slides into serious food shortages this year, perhaps it’s time we got our act together. So, how can we avoid throwing away food?

1. Shopping
The easiest way to avoid having to throw stuff out is to avoid buying unnecessary stuff in the first place. Research by Somerfield found that we chuck out 43 million unwanted items every week – things we shouldn’t have bought, really. Supermarkets are engineered to make us buy more than we intended, something I’ll be coming back to at some point. We need to shop carefully, thoughtfully. People who shop with a list buy 40% less than those who just wander round and buy what takes their fancy. Maybe that’s a good place to start.

Buying the right things in the right amounts matters too. There’s no point in buying two for one if we’ll have to throw one away. This can be tricky if you’re cooking for one, or two. If you buy a whole cabbage, for example, you’ll have to eat it every day to get through it before it goes off. I’d resist the pre-chopped smaller bags as they’re overpriced, but you might want to buy half-portions where you can. Better still, have more people round, cook and eat together more often.

And buy realistically. Notorious items include lettuces and bananas. Just buy as many bananas as you need. And as for lettuces, are we actually going to make salads, or did we just pass the salad aisle and load up on good intentions?

2. Storage
Keeping food in the right conditions is another way we can avoid waste. Keep vegetables in the fridge if you’ve got space. Other items you can actually grow – buy a couple of growing lettuces and grow them on the windowsill. Same goes for herbs. My herbs usually die, I have to admit, all except the hardy basil, which conveniently is my favourite. I’m no expert on storage matters. Check out the tips on the love food hate waste website.

Another factor is just knowing and understanding food. A lot of what used to be common knowledge is being gradually eroded by our convenience food culture. We’re not as hands-on with our food as we used to be, so we rely on appearance or sell-by dates too much. For example, people throw away eggs when they’re past their sell-by dates, but an egg lasts a surprisingly long time. Just drop each one in a mug of water before you cook it. If it floats, it’s bad. If it sinks, it’s good to eat whatever the little inked-on date says.

3. Cooking
A lot of food gets thrown away as leftovers, which in my mind is doubly sad, as it’s wasted effort in preparing it as well. The key thing here is to cook the right amounts to begin with. This is partly a matter of practice and working out what works best for us. I know someone who swears by the recommended portions on the packets – most foods have them – and weighs out each ingredient. I’m more laissez-faire than that, but I know that I’ll eat about a cup of rice.

If you do cook too much, freeze portions for another day. And learn to cook with leftovers. I went to boarding school, and we learned a lot about leftovers, let me tell you – pasta stirred into the next days’ minestrone soup, corn on the cob stripped down for tuna salad. A little creatvity will get you a long way.

You can also cook things with food that’s past it’s best. Bread that’s gone a little dry will make garlic bread, or croutons, or bread pudding. There’s a handy index here of recipe ideas for food that needs using up.

If we learn to stop throwing away food, we’ll all save ourselves money. We’ll also cut down on landfill – our 6.7 million tonnes of uneaten items would fill Wembley Stadium 8 times, apparently. And since rotting food gives off methane, we’re contributing to greenhouse gases in a serious way. Stopping food waste would be equivalent to taking one in five cars off the road.


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