The average family throws away about £700 worth of food each year. This is not just a drain on our finances, but also has significant environmental impacts – both in terms of production and waste management – and Christmas is no different.
A report by Unilever said that each year in the UK the equivalent of four million Christmas dinners are wasted – the equivalent to two million turkeys, 74 million mince pies and five million Christmas puddings. And that is before you consider the before and after Christmas buffets, teas and food from other social gatherings.
Research from Loughborough University explored the reasons behind all of this consumer food waste. It is not inherently anybody’s fault, but a symptom of the way that the UK’s food provisioning system has evolved. And it turns out that many of the reasons are solvable.
With this in mind, here are some practical approaches that you can take to reduce your food waste this Christmas (and the rest of the year), which will also save you money and reduce your carbon footprint.
The primary reason for food waste is overbuying. If you are having a large Christmas gathering, plan how much food you will need for the number people attending. Don’t buy extra just in case - you are very unlikely to have too little.
If you feel it absolutely essential to keep some food in reserve, then make sure you buy food that will keep longer. Serve your short shelf life food first, and then if it is eaten, bring out the longer life food.
Before you even set foot in the supermarket (real or online) make sure that you write your shopping list. Then stick to it. Don’t get drawn in by buy–one–get-one-free (BOGOF) or special offers. They are not normally as good a deal as you think and you will buy more food than you need. You will likely end up wasting it, or consuming too much. Either way, there’s no benefit.
When buying meat or dairy or other fresh products, be conscious of 'use by' dates. Make sure the food you buy will still be good to eat when you plan to eat it. These dates are an important indicator for when food may become harmful to eat due to bacteria growth. You do not want to get your turkey curry buffet and find that your raita sauce is not safe to eat.
Do not however confuse 'use by' dates with 'best before' dates. Best before dates are a rough guide to indicate when food might have gone past its best, but they are very conservative and for most foods, quite unnecessary.
In most countries, best before dates do not exist. Assuming the food is not several years old, it is likely to be perfectly safe to eat and still delicious long past its best before date. We should reinstate common sense in determining when food is good to eat or not.
Most fruit, vegetables and cooked meats will last longer if stored in their packaging and in the fridge, so you should keep them there. A full festive fruit bowl might look good, but you are likely to end up throwing items away which have gone past their best.
Partially consumed refrigerated items should be placed in a reusable, resealable tub and put back in the fridge. Refrigeration slows down the growth of bacteria and will therefore keep your food edible for longer. But there are certain foods that don’t fare so well in the fridge, such as bananas, avocados, cake and melon. So it’s worth checking to get the most out of your food.
It might sound like common sense, but take time to consider how much people might want to eat and cook that amount. Don’t cook extra, it will not only take longer, but it will also cost you more and it won’t get eaten.
Many people end up leaving food on the plate. So think about the right amount for a nice meal, not to force your guests to over-consume and struggle with indigestion from those three extra roast potatoes and two pigs in blankets. Christmas may be about feasting, but it is not about gluttony.
Despite your best efforts, there may be some food remaining. Make sure you cover it and once cooled store it in the fridge rather than leaving it to fester on the counter top. To me 'leftovers' is a dirty word. They are not leftovers, they are delicious ingredients for your next meal.
If you really have too much, invite some friends around and get them to help you eat it. They will thank you for it and you will have a better Christmas.
Most importantly, once you have tried these easy approaches to reducing food waste, continue to use them. You will be sure to save money – and help save the planet at the same time.