From “waste not, want not” to stadia filled with food waste

January 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

Last week’s Independent on Sunday ran a story on how each year Britain creates the equivalent of ten times the cubic metre volume of Wembley Stadium in food waste. A shocking statistic and a far cry from the “waste not, want not” culture that I grew up with!

My mother was a child of the war and as such grew up on rationing. This upbringing instilled in her the belief that wasting food was a sin, a sentiment that she passed on to her children at the dining table, and in the kitchen generally. As children we had to clear our plates before leaving the table (which was not always ideal in view of my mum’s view of hearty portions). I also grew up watching my mother plan her grocery shopping and keep the larder stocked with basic ingredients that allowed her to turn the smallest amount of meat, a bowl of fresh vegetables or left-over fruit into a family meal or dessert.

When I first left home money was tight and wasting food was not an option. Shopping lists were short and considered; fruit and vegetables were reinvigorated as ratatouilles, soups, compotes, pasta sauces and bakes… Over the next two decades my income increased and my shopping lists started to include nicer cuts and luxury treats but old habits die hard!  Fortunately, Mr M is also a strong believer in left-overs and gets positively excited  about making a meal out of nothing.

My mother’s attitude to wasting food has been further compounded by my work. As an energy lawyer with a strong focus on renewable energies, including energy from waste and landfill gas projects, I have an “unsavoury” detailed knowledge of the waste sector. In the UK, as in the rest of Europe, there is a strong pressure on diverting waste from landfill, whether by recycling, incinerating it for electricity (and all to rarely also heat) or composting. As fewer than half the local authorities in the UK have introduced segregated kitchen waste collections, much of the nation’s food waste is sent to landfill or for incineration – in fact, enough to fill Wembley Stadium ten times over.

On reading the IoS article, I wondered at what point consumer behaviour changed to trigger such wastefulness where food is concerned, and more significantly what it will take to turn the tide. Will the current economic climate and increased focus on thrifty living reduce waste? Will an increase in VAT (or sales tax)? What about that hot potato of taxing households based on the volume of waste? Or a return to basic cooking skills?

Certainly knowing how to cook and enjoying it helps. And as thrifty left-over meals are usually filling without being overly calorie-loaded there is an added inducement there. I therefore share some of my favourite “reduce, reuse, recycle” ideas for food below that help me limit my contribution to those stadia of food waste around the globe.

Bread: enliven it by toasting it or just popping it into a warm oven. It will be perfectly fine for anything on toast. Or cut it into triangles, spread it with mustard and pop it on top of a stew (overlapping like fish scales) to add a touch of “à la flamand” to your casserole. Use it to make stuffing. And if it is really tired, pop it into the grill to dry it out and blitz it into bread crumbs with which to coat home-made fish cakes.

Vegetables: tired root vegetables, broccoli, leeks… work wonderfully well in soup. Add some curry, coriander, herbs or even blue cheese to spice it up. Leftover vegetables can be turned into bubble and squeak as a side – why should it just be for Boxing Day! Leftover potatoes can be sliced or sautéed, turned into rough and ready rostis or used to make fish cakes.

Fruit: crumbles and compotes! Apples, pears, plums, apricots, peaches, nectarines, blackberries, rhubarb… most can be compoted and/or crumbled. Keep a pack of all spice, cinnamon and vanilla sugar handy as well as plain flour and oats and you will be able to rustle up a warming dessert. Tired and mushy berries can be blitzed into a coulis to be served with ice cream, yoghurt or madeleines – which are incredibly simple to make and always look impressive.

Meat: to avoid left-overs and potential waste in the first instance, divide any meat bought into portions before freezing. Or if you want a bird, go for game instead of chicken or turkey as pheasant, partridge, quail and pigeon are smaller (as well as lean and relatively cheap for organic meat). If you are cooking a casserole, the left-overs get better as the flavours develop; we usually pie them up with a quick short crust pastry lid made from butter, flour, salt, a little bit of water and some “elbow” grease. If the left-over casserole contains only a couple of spoons of meat, throw in a tin of kidney beans and serve it with pasta or rice.

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