If you’re struggling to come up with a New Year’s resolution, or even if you’re not – one of mine is to spend less time reading tacky tabloids – consider this an opportunity to adopt a new attitude to food, and commit to wasting less.
The reality is wasted food is a part of all our lives. A few bites in the bin after dinner, half a loaf of mouldy bread, a squidgy parsnip – and frankly it’s often much, much more than that, isn’t it?
We’re all guilty of it now and again, but there are very convincing reasons to waste less food, not the least environmental and economical. What and how you waste really depend on your habits and way of life, and there are changes anyone can make to move things in the right direction.
Read on for some tips and ideas on how you can cut down on wasted food in 2022.
Plan Your Meals
Plan out your your meals and cook a deliberate amount of food (i.e. four portions), then eat only that portion. (Not a bad idea for general weight maintenance, anyway.) It’s much easier to remember to eat a leftover portion if it’s a full meal in itself rather than a few annoying bites you have to supplement with other things.
Repurpose Cooked Ingredients
It may sound counterintuitive, but cooking too much of something by design can be an inspiring way to reduce waste. The concept here is a healthy quantity of something already cooked can be made into a wonderful dinner, and one needn’t possess celebrity-chef credentials in order to achieve this. Allow me to explain by example: if you’re making mashed potatoes, cook lots. Leftover mashed potato is a very tempting leftover ingredient – the base of fishcakes, bubble and squeak, shepherd’s pie – and can offer great inspiration. I’m much more inclined to use a bowl of fluffy mashed potatoes than a couple of wrinkling potatoes in the back of the fridge drawer.
Cooked cabbage is a favourite leftover ingredient of mine. Another bubble and squeak candidate, it also belongs in a fried rice or a stir fry. Indeed, there are so many foods and ingredients that lend themselves to cooking in ways that celebrate their existence, rather than feel like austere leftover compromises. Leftover cornbread becomes a delicious stuffing. Stuffing becomes a breakfast dream when crisped in a pan with a fried egg. A single portion of beef stew can be transformed into a pie for two when cooked under some puff pastry and served with cooked greens. And then there’s leftover chicken, my all-time favourite second-time-around ingredient.
Eat at Home
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t indulge in a restaurant meal now and again – of course you should, if you like. What I mean is, avoid the crutch and convenience of restaurants, cafes and fast food when you could realistically go home and eat something made from the groceries you’ve already got lying around. Summon up the energy, even if it’s just baked beans on toast, and save the food from its otherwise inevitable waste-bin fate. You won’t always be popular, but recite the refrain, “we have food at home”, and you will be right.
Take Part in the Great Grocery Challenge
Once a month, commit to a few days where you buy absolutely nothing. I call it the Great Grocery Challenge. Get creative and use only what you have lying around. You may not eat the freshest, most spectacular meals of your life, but you’d be surprised what you can conjure up. Roasted vegetable pasta is a great one for this, as are soups, curries and chopped salads.
Freeze Leftover Cooked Meat
Cold, cooked meat is one of my favourite things to find in the freezer. Some of the most incredible meals can be created with even the smallest amount. When brought back to life in a frying pan, crisp, sticky and gently spiced meat is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Lamb with Middle Eastern spices and honey, packed into a pita with some crisp vegetables, is one that can’t be beaten. A couple slices of steak sprinkled with flaked salt and cooked alongside a fried egg is a heavenly breakfast, lunch or dinner. Shredded pork with Chinese five spice and chilli flakes, sprinkled into a lettuce cup with some hoisin and finely shredded cucumber is one of my favourite leftover treats. Often these are solitary delights, depending on quantity, but consider these your reward for ensuring the meat ended up on your plate rather than in the bin.
Label and Date Everything in the Freezer
You may optimistically stuff a bag of something in the freezer and think, “I’ll remember what it is”. You won’t. And then you’ll throw it away. Everything that goes in the freezer needs a label and the date it went in. I stick a piece of clear tape on my airtight containers and then label it with a sharpie marker; it doesn’t always have to be a throwaway plastic bag.
In addition to labelling and dating, I often include instructions to myself on what to do with it, whether it needs salt or a squeeze of lemon at the end, and what to serve alongside. Anything to help guide me in its future use, and to reduce the number of available excuses to ignore it later.
Identify the Serial Offenders
This one requires some individual reflection. Consider which foods or ingredients you use a little of, but tend to waste the rest. My serial offenders are tomato paste, tins of anchovies, heads of celery, cooked rice and cream cheese. I’ve cracked the tomato paste and the tins of anchovies – both freeze perfectly – and I’ve got a few recipes that use celery as a major ingredient (such as chicken noodle soup, antipasti salad and Caesar braised beef). Cold, cooked rice belongs in a fried rice or a stuffed pepper. Cream cheese is probably the simplest one to use but somehow I always find myself with something blue growing from it before I finish it. I’ll work on it.
Now it’s your turn: what are your serial food waste offenders? Any ideas for reducing waste with leftovers or ingredients? Let me know in the comments!