So, it’s a new year again. Doubtless many of you will be in the throes of some hideous new eating and/or exercise regime which focuses on abject deprivation and much soul-searching as you route around the fridge at 3am, desperately looking for something which contains more calories than a rice cake.
I always see a new year as a punctuation mark; a comma rather than a full stop. Take a breath and reassess.
Over the festive period, I happened to visit many different homes. I was shocked to see how much food was thrown away after meals and parties. One person even threw out their leftover turkey because they didn’t want to strip the meat from the carcass. It seems it’s time to reassess our attitudes to food waste.
In the UK, there has been a welcome new wave of awareness about this kind of waste recently. At the end of last year, maverick chef, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall launched his latest campaign; Hugh’s War on Waste. Much of this campaign is aimed at the food waste created by supermarkets through their rejection of less than visually perfect produce and the perfectly edible food they actually throw out at the end of every day.
Another aspect of the campaign is very much domestic. The average UK household throws away £700 worth of food a year. In 2013, the Office for National Statistics revealed that the average family spent £56.80 a week on food and non-alcoholic drinks. That means that the average household is throwing away over twelve weeks worth of food every year. Yet, The Trussell Trust, who runs 425 of the UK’s food banks, reports that from 2014-2015 over 1 million people were given emergency food. This is an insane imbalance.
It is time to start making intelligent and informed choices about the food in our homes. Most of us buy the majority of our food at supermarkets and there is a lot of confusion about the different labels and dates on all our packaged food. Every year in the UK we throw away 7.2m tonnes of food and drink, most of which could have been eaten if we were a bit more knowledgable about labelling.
Supermarket food labels explained
- ‘Best Before’ dates are about quality, not safety. When the date is passed, it doesn’t mean that the food will be harmful, simply that it might begin to lose its flavour and texture. It is still perfectly safe to eat.
- ‘Use By’ dates do refer to food safety. The NHS guidelines recommend you do not consume anything after its ‘Use By’ date in case it does you harm.
- ‘Display Until’ or ‘Sell By’ often appear near or next to the ‘Best Before’ or “Use By’ date. These are instructions for shop staff, not for shoppers, so you can safely ignore them.
It goes without saying that food safety should be of the highest importance in the kitchen. There are certain foods that should not be eaten if out of date. Meat, fish and eggs can all cause horrendous illnesses if consumed when they have gone off. However, due to all the red tape supermarkets have to adhere to, some of these dates are flexible. Food is often safe to eat after these dates provided that it looks and smells ok and that it is cooked properly if necessary.
Butchers, fishmongers and greengrocers are not subject to the same health and safety guidelines and red tape as the supermarkets. Carrots from your local greengrocers or farmers market don’t come with a use by date. Our grandparents did not have access to date-stamped food and just used their common sense.
Use your senses
- Sight-If food has any kind of mould or looks very bruised or discoloured this is not a good sign. If that bag of spinach is weeping mass of mulch then clearly there is nothing to be done but if that block of cheese looks and smells fine, it probably is. You would not eat a bruised and wrinkled apple; that is from using your sight, not from what the packet may say.
- Smell-I have a habit of smelling milk every time I open it. Everyone recognises the sour smell of milk that has gone off so if milk smells fresh, that usually means it is, whether it is later than the date on the label.
- Taste-If it looks and smells ok, taste it. Trust your tastebuds. You will be able to tell if that yoghurt really has gone off. The human body is programmed to let you know if it doesn’t think something is fit for it to consume.
It is not rocket science to understand that eating what you buy saves money. If you throw out less food, you are wasting less money. Much of our eating habits depend on our shopping habits.
- Make a shopping list. Try and plan out what you actually need before you enter the shop, rather than randomly grabbing what you think you want. Make a list and stick to it.
- Never go shopping after exercise or if you are hungry. That niggle in your tummy will make you buy things you would never normally consider. I have brought home bags of unnecessary food, as if in some sort of hunger-trance, after going to the gym. Worrying, pointless and expensive.
- Think before you buy- will you eat those three packets of cereal before they go off, even though they are such a good deal?
- Organise your fridge. When you unpack your shopping, don’t just shove everything in, so things get lost at the back-move the newest food to the back of the fridge and the older to the front, so that the older items get eaten first.
Just as some people delight in a fridge full of plastic containers and half eaten scraps, some people lose the will to live when they witness the same. If you like leftovers, then great. If you don’t, you have to work a bit harder to make sure they don’t end up in the bin. Just make sure you never put anything that is still warm into your fridge; this raises the internal temperature of the fridge and makes food prone to develop dangerous bacteria.
Try new recipes. Everyone opens the cupboard and feels utterly uninspired sometimes, so it helps to have a few things in the house that can used to jazz up the most mundane of ingredients. Tinned tomatoes, chilli flakes, honey, good olive oil, wholegrain and French mustard, Worcestershire sauce, ginger and garlic are just some of the things that always help a cook add essential layers of flavour.
The freezer is your friend
I never have enough room in my freezer, as I use it like another food cupboard.
You can freeze so many things. If you know the whole loaf of bread won’t be eaten, freeze half of it. Milk, cheese and even raw eggs (separated) can also be frozen.
You can freeze all meat and fish for up to a year, just make sure it is well wrapped so it doesn’t get freezer burn. As long as any meat used was not frozen to start with, you can freeze things like curries, stews and soup after you have made them. Label them properly to avoid any surprises and make sure they are piping hot when you reheat them after defrosting, to get rid of any nasty bacteria. And never re-freeze something that was frozen.
You really can freeze most things. In reality, it is quicker and easier to give a list of things you cannot freeze. The basis is usually water content-the higher the water content, the mushier a food will be when it is defrosted.
- Vegetables: Celery, cucumbers, lettuce, onions, peppers (especially green), potatoes (especially raw), radishes, sprouts, salad greens
- Fruit: Apples, grapefruit, grapes (unless you’re planning on eating them frozen) lemons, limes, oranges, watermelon, avocado, tomatoes (unless you are cooking them when defrosted)
- Dairy: soft cheeses, cottage cheese, cream cheese, custard, eggs in shells, mayonnaise, sour cream
- Soft Herbs: Basil, chives, parsley, etc
It’s actually a combination of small changes that make a difference. Less food waste means less money wasted, less environmental impact and less guilt. That’s a good enough resolution for me this January.