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12 Tips For Reducing Food Waste

On Tuesday night I saw the documentary Dive! It’s a documentary about people living off America’s food waste. It’s one I’d recommend: short, to-the-point, educational and inspiring.

Here’s how the documentary is described by the makers:

“Inspired by a curiosity about our country’s careless habit of sending food straight to landfills, the multi award-winning documentary DIVE! follows filmmaker Jeremy Seifert and friends as they dumpster dive in the back alleys and gated garbage receptacles of Los Angeles’ supermarkets. In the process, they salvage thousands of dollars worth of good, edible food – resulting in an inspiring documentary that is equal parts entertainment, guerilla journalism and call to action.”

And the trailer:

Food waste is a problem in so many ways. It’s estimated that a third of all food produced for us to eat ends up in landfill. A third! Food that’s taken land and energy to produce, required water and nutrients, needed labour to ensure it grew, could be harvested and processed, fuel to transport…and then it ends up in the bin. If that’s not the biggest unnecessary waste of resources, then I don’t know what is.

Meanwhile, whilst we’re throwing all this perfectly edible food in the bin, people are going hungry. I’m not just talking poor people in less developed countries in overseas nations. I’m also talking about the people right here in our communities. In America one in six people are at risk of hunger. In the UK almost 1 million people have used food banks to get access to food.

The majority of this wasted food will end up in landfill, taking up valuable land space. Because of the sealed landfill environment, food waste breaks down here anaerobically, releasing methane gas (a greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere.

You’d expect there to be some food waste at all steps along the chain, but food waste on this kind of scale is completely unnecessary!

There’s clearly a broken system that allows this kind of food waste to occur, and there’s a need for change. However, as consumers, we can still take some responsibility. It is estimated that half of all the food we actually buy goes to landfill.  There’s plenty of scope for us to make changes to the way we shop, and the way we think of food.

Here’s some ideas to help you reduce the amount of food you throw away!

Things We Can Do to Reduce Our Food Waste

1. Understand best before and use by dates.

If something is stamped with a “use by” date, it should be used before that date. If it’s stamped “best before” it means the retailer thinks it would be better if you used it by that date, but it will be perfectly safe to eat after this date.  Remember, retailers have a vested interest in you throwing the old one in the bin and buying a new one!

2. Use your judgement.

Learn to recognise if something is bad or not, rather than relying on the ultra-conservative supermarket “best before” dates.

3. Don’t buy more than you need!

The special offers and bargains touted at you in every aisle and every corner of the supermarket are there to make you spend more, not save you money, and they can become overbearing and wear you down. It may seem counter-intuitive to only buy one if the second one is “free”, but if it ends up in the bin, you haven’t saved anything. Leave it on the shelf for someone who needs it. If you stop shopping at the supermarkets you will have less exposure to all the advertising, and will buy less as a result.

4. Store it properly.

When you get home from shopping, it’s easy to dump the bags down on the counter and think you’ll sort them later, or just stuff everything in the fridge quickly. But taking the time to sort things out means less food goes to waste. Ensuring that chilled food remains chilled, rotating the new food with the things that are already in your fridge, and putting anything that is prone to wilting in a salad crisper or suitable storage container will extend the life of your shopping and mean there’s less going bad.

5. Use the most perishable items first.

Plan your meals and arrange your fridge so the food that is most perishable gets used up before the longer-lasting stuff.

6. Cut the bad bits off.

If a piece of fruit of veg is bad, cut the bad bit off rather than throwing the whole thing away. If only part of a product has gone bad, use your judgement as to whether or not it’s salvageable.

7. Find alternative uses.

Milk that has started to sour may not be great on your porridge but will work wonders in baking. My mother  uses sour milk to make scones, and they are delicious. Fruit that is going soft can be stewed to make compote, and limp vegetables can be made into soup.

8. Make use of everything.

Rather than peeling your veg, give them a good scrub and cook with the skins on. If you do peel them, keep the scraps and use to make vegetable stock (you can store in the freezer until you have enough). Meat and fish bones can also be used to make stock. Egg shells can be ground down and sprinkled on the garden – they are a great source of calcium. Citrus rinds can be made into candied peel, or the zest can be frozen or dried; if you don’t want to eat them you can use them to infuse vinegar to make a citrus cleaner.

9. Don’t throw food away!

There are plenty of alternatives to sending scraps to landfill. Feed them to chickens (ask your neighbours if you don’t have your own), compost, worm farm, use a bokashi bin or even dig a hole in the garden. For dry goods and things you bought but don’t like, even if the packets are open, try donating to family and friends, or even listing on Gumtree or Freecycle.

10. Buy the ugly fruit and veg!

People from western cultures have become accustomed to buying perfect fruit and veg, but that’s not what it looks like in real life. Even though we know this, we still gave a tendency to look for the “best” ones in the stores. When you go shopping, keep an eye out for ugly, misshapen fruit and veg, and buy these instead. You’re probably saving them from landfill!

11. Speak to your local supermarket and / or independent grocer.

Talk about food waste. Find out if they donate to food banks, if they compost, or if they have any other ways that they reduce waste. Start the conversation.

12. Volunteer at a Food Bank. 

Food banks don’t just need food, they need people. The numbers of people (predominantly volunteers) needed to collect, wash, process and deliver this food  is what stops Food Banks being able to distribute more food to more people in need.

Now I’d love to hear from you! What struggles do you face when trying to reduce your food waste? What successes have you had? Are there any tips you’d like to add? Anything that has worked really well for you? Have you ever tried dumpter-diving?! Please share your experience and leave a comment below!

Do you know what’s in your food? (And can you trust your supermarket?)

If we all knew what went in our food and connected with where it came from, if we all shopped locally and supported independent shops rather than the big supermarkets and if we all cooked a little more from scratch, rather than buying products in packets containing dubious ingredients, then in my mind, the world would be a better place. We’d be healthier, we’d be more connected to the seasons, our food systems would be more sustainable, and local economies would thrive.

But the problem is, supermarkets dominate the landscape, we’re short of time, and so supermarkets seem like a good option. The choices are endless. There’s a lot of “choice” on those shelves that isn’t even real food. Products made with fake ingredients, pumped with preservatives and then packaged and marketed in a way that make them look enticing, often with clever and emotive language, and of course, pictures.

Most of us don’t really stop and consider all this choice. It’s overwhelming. We put our trust in the supermarkets and the companies that sell the products lining the shelves. We let them choose for us. We don’t realise that in many cases we’re being misled. Just because something looks healthy, or comes from the “healthy” aisle, or has “natural” printed all over the box, it doesn’t mean that it is.

We don’t know what’s really in those packets because we don’t take the time to study the ingredients. Most of us don’t have the time. Even if we did, spending hours in the supermarket reading all the labels may not be our idea of fun. But filling our bodies with man-made ingredients, chemicals and preservatives isn’t much fun either, and it certainly does nothing for our health. I’ve thought of a solution. Rather than encouraging you to read all the labels next time you need to buy groceries, I thought I’d make things a little bit easier. I’m bringing the labels to you.

The Bakery Aisle

There’s nothing more ironic than the “treats” lining the bakery aisle, all fillers, preservatives,  mystery ingredients and refined sugar.

tempting temptingingredientsIngredients are always listed starting with the ingredient that there is most of, in descending order. Which means these cupcakes have more sugar and water than anything else. Yes, water. In a cupcake. By adding emulsifiers, water can be mixed with oil and stabilised. It’s a sneaky way to bulk out a product on the cheap. junk15 junk16These muffins contain more flour than sugar, and more oil than water, but they’re still making use of the emulsifiers to bulk out the product with non-ingredients. You might notice at the bottom of the label that they have been “Thawed for your convenience”. So these have been made somewhere else, cooked, frozen and transported, and then defrosted in order to sit on the shelves as a bakery product. junk20Everything about these is wrong. There’s 24 E numbers, a high water content, palm oil is a listed ingredient (demand for palm oil is causing large-scale deforestation and devastating the orangutan population) as well as thickeners, preservatives and added flavourings.

The “Health Food” Aisle

To distinguish between this junk food and all the other junk food lining the shelves elsewhere in the store, the supermarket has labelled this section “health food”.

healthaisleThere is a high proportion of gluten-free snacks, but being gluten-free doesn’t automatically qualify something to be healthy. Nor does the label “organic”.

jnk2 jnk1I tried to count the ingredients of these crackers several times, but had to give up – there’s just too many. Not to mention the brackets within brackets within brackets. Food should not be this confusing.jnk3 jnk4 Mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids are synthetic (man-made) fats. They are also E numbers (diacetyl tartaric acid ester of mono- and diglycerides is also called E472e). Shoppers often avoid E numbers, so manufacturers write the names of the ingredients out in full to make the product appear to be more natural.jnk5 jnk6These organic vanilla bars contain brown rice, sugar, oil and salt. In fact, they contain 5 types of sugar and 2 types of oil. And that’s pretty much it. Doing the maths, these bars are 35% rice, so they are 65% oil and sugar. Yuck. They are a great example of how organic doesn’t necessarily equal healthy.

The Drinks Chiller

Adequate breakfast solutions? Hmm…jnk7 jnk8This “chocolate-flavoured beverage” has 0.5% cocoa. That’s less than 2 grams in a 350ml drink. The four main ingredients are water, sugar, powder and oil. Because the vitamins listed do not state their whole food origin, it is extremely likely that they are synthetic. Synthetic vitamins are not absorbed by our bodies as easily as natural vitamins, and don’t behave in the same way. Synthetic B6 is actually made from petroleum. jnk9 jnk10I find these ingredients crazy. If you want to drink mocha flavoured milk for breakfast, why wouldn’t you add some coffee and a spoonful of cacoa powder to your own milk in the morning, and add some sugar if you like it sweet? Why go to the shops and pay extra for milk solids, modified starch, emulsifier, flavours, salt and artificial sweeteners?jnk11 jnk12Interestingly, this pack claims a serving size is 250ml, whereas the serving size for the chocolate milk in the previous pictures was 600ml. By making the serving sizes smaller than are probably realistic, the calories, sugar and fat content seem much smaller. One serving of this contains 21.25g of sugar. But if the serving size was comparable with the other product and was 600ml, there would be 51g of sugar per serving!

So what are the solutions?

Don’t despair! If you’ve been reading this and feeling guilty, despondent, or overwhelmed, there’s really no need; there are plenty of alternative options and choices out there. Here are just a few that I’ve found helpful.

  • Make your own at home. I don’t mean making everything from scratch, all the time, if that’s not your thing. Figure out what works for you, in terms of what you like to eat, your time and your skill level. There’s always options. If you can’t bake, and haven’t got the patience to learn, what about simple raw desserts like this one?
  • Get yourself a blender. It doesn’t need to be expensive or even new (you can pick one up from somewhere like Gumtree with minimal outlay) and you can make smoothies, milkshakes and even desserts (like this chocolate mousse) in minutes. I use mine almost every day and I wouldn’t be without it.
  • Think outside the supermarket. If you like the convenience of ready-made, look around your local area for a bakery, a deli and a butcher/fishmonger that make things from scratch and sell them fresh. My local bakery bakes their bread every morning on site. The local butcher makes ready-to-go meals daily, and the fishmonger sells chowder, sushi and marinara mix in addition to the usual fish.
  • Farmers’ markets are the perfect place to find local producers, and a great place to pick up all kinds of delicious treats. Usually you’ll get the chance to talk to the people who actually make the products so you can find out what goes into them, hear about new things they are planning to try out, and even make your own suggestions.
  • If you’re time-poor, vegetable box schemes are a great option and often deliver far more than fruit and vegetables to your door. Riverford in the UK deliver organic pies, tarts, soups and vegetable burgers as well as dairy products and pantry staples, in addition to their core business of fruit and vegetables.
  • If you really need convenience options and can’t ditch the supermarket, try the freezer aisle. Freezing food is a way of preserving it, because of this frozen foods don’t need fake ingredients and extra preservatives to prolong their shelf life. That’s not to say there isn’t some junk in this department too, but it can be a better alternative than the chilled aisles.
  • Don’t beat yourself up when you do buy and eat something rubbish, and definitely don’t give up. Just because you ate one Dunkin’ Donut, it doesn’t mean that you’re a failure and doomed to eat Dunkin’ Donuts forevermore. Or that because you ate one, you may as well finish off another 11. Or because you ate one, that you’ll never be healthy/be able to quit the supermarket/be perfect etc etc. Accept that we all have moments of weakness, forgive yourself, dust yourself off, and try again.

Whilst I do think it’s important that we realise what’s in our food, that’s not to say that there’s not a place for convenience – we all have busy lives. But the better our food choices are, the better we feel – both inside and out. Choosing real food helps support farmers, growers and local businesses. Ultimately it gives us more options, better quality, and safer, healthier, more nutritious food, whilst encouraging farming and production systems that don’t deplete soils, damage the environment or harm wildlife. Who wouldn’t want that?

What do you think about convenience foods? Do you have anything you struggle with, or any great tips or things that have worked for you in avoiding junk? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!