As a family wanting to reduce our carbon footprint, undoubtedly looking at ways to minimise our food waste is important. Food waste is not only costly for the household budget, the environmental impact of the production, transport, packaging and preparation of wasted food is significant. Furthermore, food waste that ends up in landfill is buried without access to oxygen and, rather than decompose quickly and with little gas production as in garden compost, the anaerobic process is slow and creates methane, a potent greenhouse gas (US Environmental Protection Agency).
In our own bin audit, food waste was a significant factor and it seems we are not alone.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, about a third of all food produced for humans is wasted.
Recently Australia’s Minister for the Environment announced the findings of a study called the National Food Waste Baseline. She revealed that in the 2016/17 year, of the 7.3 million tonnes of food waste created, 2.5 million (34 per cent) was wasted at the household level.
…so a third of all food grown for humans is wasted and a third of that is being wasted inside our homes. Even if we compost the food waste generated in our homes, the resources used to grow and deliver it to our kitchen have been wasted. Clearly there is a lot we can do to reduce our ecological footprint in the area of food waste.
Steps to Reduce Food Waste
So, what steps can we take?
Firstly, I’d like to acknowledge that food waste in a household with kids has an extra level of complexity. It is all very well to give advice that says to only buy or prepare what you need. Sometimes (often?!) it is impossible to know what they will eat when they are at the dinner table. You can send a beautiful nude lunch off to school every day just for it to come home untouched because they were too busy to eat. And they change their likes and dislikes sometimes on an hourly basis.
And households with kids are busy places. Quick, easy food preparation is often the primary consideration. And popping to the shops each day to buy fresh produce for the evening meal isn’t only unrealistic, it would send me to the brink of my sanity.
You will need to experiment with these ideas and see what works for your family.
Whether you shop weekly or every day, going to the shops with a plan minimises the chance of bringing home food that you won’t end up using before it goes bad. For me menu planning has been a sanity saver since I had very small children and a process I have stuck with in one form or another for around 15 years. Read my Quick and Easy Menu Planning post for details on my current system.
Only buy what you need
It can be challenging to predict what you will need, particularly with kids, so you can obviously only do your best guess. However, I plan as best I can for what we will need by recalculating recipe amounts based on suggested servings and past experience.
Sometimes, though, if a recipe calls for 300g of something I don’t use very often but it is only packaged in a 500g packet, I may make a larger quantity and save leftovers for another time. Otherwise that remaining 200g languishes in the fridge or pantry until it becomes waste because there isn’t even enough to cook the same recipe. One lovely advantage of shopping at bulk bin stores is that you can measure out and buy the exact quantity you need.
Store your fresh produce to keep it at its best
I have seen it suggested that to avoid fresh produce from going off, I should shop more often. In the context of busy family life this might be unrealistic. We try to shop just once a week because our farmers market is open only on Saturdays. We do, of course, pop to our local supermarket midweek but this more often than not results in many unplanned purchases usually packaged in plastic. For us, then, extra visits to the shop equals extra waste.
It is also impossible to buy, for example, just an ‘inch’ of ginger or a ‘cup’ of basil so to keep fresh produce, well, fresh for the whole week it is important to store it in a way that gives it the best chance.
There are also some foods that just don’t last well so I try to make the meals that use them earlier in the week. I just can’t seem to keep basil for long, for example, no matter what I have tried so if pesto is on the menu, I try to make it the day I buy the basil and the pesto then lasts for ages.
My top tip for keeping fresh ginger is to put it in a container in the freezer and just grate the frozen root to obtain the quantity you require. It lasts for months and I always have fresh ginger on hand.
Store pantry items to avoid wastage and pests
On two or three occasions I have had to deal with an infestation of pantry moth and it is heartbreaking for a waste conscious person to have to toss infested food. Pantry moth eggs come into the kitchen in the food we buy. They are nearly invisible so you really can’t do much to keep them out. You can, however, give yourself the best chance of quarantining the infestation by keeping food in containers with good seals. Good air-tight containers keep pantry items fresher for longer too.
The other thing I have learnt is that buying in bulk, that is buying a large quantity, is not necessarily a saving. If we will not eat that quantity before the product expires and it has to be thrown away instead, that is not value for money nor environmentally responsible. Plus, if we do have an infestation of pantry moth, a larger quantity of food is at risk. I have returned to buying smaller quantities more often or buying exactly the quantity I need for a recipe from the bulk bin store.
Finally, I periodically review what is in the pantry and try to make a menu plan to use up food that has been hanging around for a while so that it gets used before it is too old.
Know the difference between best before & use by dates
That said, food that is past its ‘best before’ date does not necessarily need to be thrown away. I have used some dried goods such as pulses many months after the stated best before date with no ill effects. Use your own judgement on this but if it looks and smells fine, we generally eat it.
Products with a ‘use by’ date, however, are perishable foods that could make you sick if you consume them after that date. Keep an eye on the use by dates and find ways to use up food that is nearing its expiry.
Cook only the amount you need
Again, this is easier said than done when cooking for a family. If you were just cooking for yourself, you can judge your hunger as you put the pasta in the pot. It is more difficult to read what your kids will need. Furthermore, my picky eater sons will often reject the food I’ve made but I still want to cater for them so I can keep offering them a variety of healthy foods. Sadly, much of the time, I am cooking food that I know from the start won’t get eaten! The way I have found around this is to give them small servings and they can go back for more if, miraculously, they eat and enjoy what I have made.
Keep leftovers for another meal
What we don’t eat at the meal, we package up for another time and store it in the freezer or fridge. My husband and I love leftovers. We usually package up lunches with any meal leftovers so grabbing something nutritious, cheap and packaging free for lunch is easy. Many times we can freeze leftovers but things like salads don’t like to be frozen and need to be eaten then next day. Usually not a problem!
We also freeze any leftover portions of rice and pasta because these are really handy for a hungry child for afternoon tea, when someone isn’t eating with the rest of us, or they choose not to eat the meal we have prepared. A frozen container of pasta and some pesto from the supply I usually have in the fridge keeps them happy.
Grow your own produce, especially herbs, and pick only what you need
We waste a lot of herbs. We love fresh herbs in our cooking but usually the recipe only calls for ‘a few sprigs’ or half a cup when we have to buy a whole bunch. Bought from the supermarket, these bunches are usually wrapped in plastic too.
Growing our own herb garden near the kitchen means we can grab ‘a few sprigs’ or half a cup and leave the rest to grow (and stay fresh) for another time.
Use up excess produce
If you do end up with excess produce either from your veggie garden or from buying too much, look for ways to use it up before it is too late. Soups are a great way to use up odds and ends of all sorts of things, including aging pulses in the pantry. Making stock and sauces such as pesto is another. Cutting up and freezing vegetables into meals sized portions can also be a convenient time saver.
Preserving is an art that I haven’t yet got into in a big way but, of course, it is an excellent way to keep excess produce.
Donate or give away excess food
If you have excess produce that still has plenty of life to it and keeps well, such as potatoes, they may be welcomed by a local food bank to pass on to community members in need. Food is often offered up on our local Buy Nothing group too, whether it is excess from the garden or the fridge and pantry.
Composting & worm farm
And if all else fails, compost or feed to your worms your food waste. If you are not sure what can go into your worm farm or compost, I have a cheat sheet for that too. Avoid putting food waste into the bin for landfill for the reasons stated at the start of this post.
My goal is that my family will not put any food waste into the bin for landfill. It is a work in progress. Do you have any more food waste reducing tips and tricks? Please share them with me!
Disclaimer: I am not a food scientist nor an expert on food safety. Do your own research and use your commonsense when storing food and consuming food that has been stored. The this post is for information only. You are responsible for your own informed choices.