Tips for reducing food waste

First published October 2008, updated August 2011

Most people have been brought up not to waste food – I guess few of us haven’t heard the “eat up, there are children starving in X who would love that food” or “if you don’t eat your vegetables, you can’t have dessert”.

Even with these good intentioned exhortations and threats, food waste continues to be a massive problem.

When we had our bakery years ago, my father used to hate the amount of food he’d throw out each day. He wasn’t even allowed to give it to charities.

When I worked in the fast food industry some years later, things were a little better through the usage of computer systems that would tell us how much of a product to cook at certain time of day. Still, there was wastage – in that case it wasn’t just food, but a waste of life – the chickens that were slaughtered, only to be dumped in a bin.

Between agricultural, commercial production and domestic consumption, a criminal amount of food waste occurs. According to a 2008 report from the Stockholm International Water Institute (PDF) global losses and wastage may be in the order of 50 percent between field and fork.

In their report, SIWI states that as much as 30 percent of food, worth some US$48.3 billion at the time, is discarded in the USA alone. A similar percentage is wasted in the UK.

More than food… water and emissions

But it’s not just food we’re wasting – it’s water. Based on the USA’s losses, again according to SIWI, it’s the equivalent of wasting 40 trillion liters of water, which is enough water for half a billion people. The energy that goes into creating the food we waste also contributes to significantly to carbon dioxide emissions.

Food waste reduction tips

Aside from the moral, ethical and environmental issues, reducing food waste can save you a ton of money each year! In countries such as the USA, Canada, Australia and the UK, food waste reduction can put a thousand dollars or more back into your pocket every 12 months!

Here’s some ideas:

– Fridges tend to hide a lot of food – it gets pushed to the back and forgotten until such time that the fridge is cleaned or an awful smell starts emanating from it. Check your fridge weekly and bring foods that will expire soon to the front (in retail this is called stock rotation) to encourage family members to eat it, or use as ingredients in the next meal you cook.

– Likewise, do the same in your food cupboards regularly – we cleaned out our pantry prior to moving and the amount of food we threw out was shocking.

– While buying in bulk can save you money, it can cost you more if you purchase items in large quantities with a short use-by date or that lose favor with your family. Only bulk purchase items you know will be consumed before the food spoils.

– Discourage “dreg ignorance”. In many cupboards and fridges, it’s not unusual to find packets of chips with just a handful left, or just a swallow of orange juice left in the container. It usually sits there until it’s thrown out. Implement a strict “No Dregs Left Behind!” policy for your home.

– Supermarkets are designed with one thing in mind – to get you buying more that what you originally came in for. Resist impulse buying as the extras you purchase will only be tacked onto the list of what you need rather than replacing an item, so the risk is something will be wasted as a result.

– Don’t shop from memory. I used to have a great memory when it came to shopping, but as the years roll by I find that no matter how hard I try, I cannot remember all the things I need to buy. This results in me buying too much of one thing and not enough of another – and waste sometimes occurs.

– Consider planning meals well in advance. This way you can ensure you have the ingredients you need on hand and can reduce superfluous spending and waste.

– Improper storage generates massive amounts of food waste. Leaving packets open, refrigerating stuff that doesn’t require it and vice versa rapidly speeds up food spoilage. Ensure you have the right tools for the job such as airtight containers etc. It’s worth spending a bit of money on proper storage containers as cheap ones simply won’t last the distance, adding more waste to food related issues in your home.

– Portion control. No doubt there’s particular meals you prepare that seem to generate more waste than others. That’s fine if the leftovers will be eaten the next day, but if not, then you really need to look at portion control by slowly reducing the amount you cook of whatever it is with the help of kitchen scales until you hit a sweet spot where bellies aren’t left grumbling, nor stuffed to capacity.

– Get creative – use the Internet. Not so long ago, we were pretty much confined to the range of cooking experiments we could try by our home cookbook library. The Internet has changed that and whatever it is you have too much of in your cupboards that’s threatening to be tossed out, I’m sure you could find a squillion recipes for online!

– One important point; particularly in a society where obesity is hitting epidemic proportions – overeating is waste. If you eat more than your body needs, you’ll either gain weight or have to burn it off somehow; perhaps through non-productive exercise which is a little like idling your car engine just for the heck of it.

Use by vs Best before

I have no problem with swallowing stuff that is past the best before date and (so far) I’ve never had a single case of food poisoning.

“Best before” simply means that – the food (according to the manufacturer) tastes best before that date. You do need to exercise a bit of caution of course – smell, sight, taste; but eating something that is a few days past its best by date is highly unlikely to kill you if it’s been stored properly. I often wonder if the “best before” date is a ruse from the food industry to have us chucking out more and then buying more.

The “use by” date on the other hand is one you should probably observe more closely. Again, it’s not unusual for me to eat items past this date, but I certainly don’t do so with milk, meat, egg or dairy products as it’s just too risky.

What to do with food waste

Even being super-careful, you’ll still have waste from time to time and there’s always unavoidable wastes such as vegetable peelings. Don’t send these to landfill, compost them or get a worm farm – worms love most kitchen scraps!

Have some food wastage reduction tips? Please add them below!