How to reduce food waste in the home kitchen

Meal planning and taking stock of your pantry equals less waste.
Meal planning and taking stock of your pantry equals less waste. Photo: Shutterstock

Tackling food waste is essential if we are to combat malnutrition and stem the effects of climate change. Here chefs and bloggers share their efforts and suggest ways we can do the same from our home kitchens.

On a global scale, the latest food security and nutrition report published by the United Nations reveals how the number of hungry people in the world has reached a staggering 821 million.

That's one in every nine people, of which 150 million are children. Climate variability was among the key drivers behind the rise in hunger.  

When it comes to food waste, current UN figures reveal that about one-third of food produced for human consumption annually, or 1.3 billion tonnes, is wasted around the world.

In Australia, the news isn't more promising. Government statistics show more than 5 billion tonnes of food ends up in landfill - a result of the 35 per cent of our average household bin waste, which equates to about $3800 worth of groceries per household each year.

Composting is an easy way to make the most of food scraps.
Composting is an easy way to make the most of food scraps. Photo: Shutterstock

Highlighting the urgency for action, a global group of scientists recently unveiled the "planetary health" diet, which promotes eating more nuts, fruits, vegetables and less meat and sugar. 

The diet could help prevent more than 11 million premature deaths while cutting greenhouse gas emissions and preserving land, water and biodiversity, the researchers revealed.

"The food system has little chance of staying within environmental limits without dietary changes towards more plant-based diets," the study's lead author Marco Springmann said.

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Bec Norris, an accredited practising dietitian, switched to a plant-based diet as a way to contribute towards climate change.

"I feel and know that this way I'm contributing towards food security because animal products have a much larger environmental impact," she says.  

If you're keen to follow a plant-based diet, Norris suggests including more fruit and vegetables into your daily diet and introducing more plant-based proteins such as tempeh, legumes, nuts and seeds while cutting back on animal foods. 

If you grow something yourself you'll have more of an attachment and connection to it.

Chef Mark Ebbels

"Over time, you can make other small changes that will eventually accumulate to larger and more positive impacts," Norris says.

Here are some of these other ideas.

Plan before you buy

Meal planning and taking stock of your pantry equals less waste.

Fermenting and pickling scraps gives them a second life.
Fermenting and pickling scraps gives them a second life. Photo: Edwina Pickles

"Planning your meals for the week with no waste in mind is easy as you know how many people you're cooking for on any given day," says Shaun Quade, founder and former chef of Melbourne fine diner Lume. "For the majority of home cooks it's a small repertoire of generally cooking the same thing each week."

Kate Willbourn-Trevett, a blogger at Foodies Collective, agrees that meal planning helps reduce waste especially when shopping with a list.

"I always shop with a list as it helps me avoid buying foods I simply don't need," she says. "Before planning my list I double check my pantry and fridge so I don't double up on items I may already have."

"Additionally, I reorganise my fridge and pantry so older items are at the front and new items are at the back. This allows food to be used before it expires."

Another trick is to never shop while hungry.

"If you have to shop while hungry make sure you take a shopping list with you, and stick to it," Norris says.

And if you end up with unwanted food from your pantry, fridge and garden – or leftovers you simply won't eat – then think about giving them away.

Travel and food blogger Tinger Hseih is gifted a lot of free food to make meals for her sponsors, which she often can't finish. She also dines out frequently, which results in a lot of leftovers.

"To reduce food waste I will donate leftover meals or packaged items to a women's shelter or the homeless in my neighbourhood," she says.

"I believe I save about 30 to 50 per cent of my food waste since I'm donating at least one to three times a week."

Helen Andrew of online swap community Spare Harvest also uses the power of community to fight food waste.

"At Spare Harvest we connect people to exchange what they have spare in their kitchens and gardens so it will be used and not wasted," Andrew says. 

"This way those experiencing budget stress and food insecurity have a meaningful and empowering way to access what would have been wasted for free or a nominal cost.

"Some of our gardeners now grow extra with the intention of gifting it to the community, as they believe that only together we can truly build a secure local food system."

Buy local

Supporting local farmers by buying seasonally produced food reduces food miles and therefore contributes towards fewer carbon emissions. 

Meaghan Blackwell, owner of Melbourne cafe Sadie Black, buys locally produced honey as a way to support a local bee population that's an essential factor in the suburban ecosystem, critical for the pollination of flowers, fruit and vegetables in the area.

"With the Australian beekeeping industry in danger from the deadly varroa mite, we're very passionate about supporting this industry in any small way we can, as it's the corner stone of our delicate agricultural ecosystem," she says. 

Knowing where your food comes from, who grows it and how it's been farmed, especially if you're going to eat meat and seafood, means you're less likely to let it go to waste.

Quade suggests talking to the person behind the stall when buying from your local market. 

"More often than not you'll find it's the actual farmer that's grown those beautiful potatoes you've just bought and when you've met the person that grew them for you, you're less likely to waste the produce," he says.

"Additionally, don't buy strawberries and tomatoes in the middle of winter, even though they'll still be available in your supermarket, as they've been shipped in from another state or even worse, overseas."

Willbourn-Trevett regularly buys so-called "ugly" fruit and vegetables deemed imperfect by many supermarkets. "A lot of food is discarded purely based on appearance and by buying imperfect picks it not only reduces waste, it helps farmers and saves you money," she says.

Cook with scraps and ends

"One of the most common things that end up being wasted are herbs," says Olivia Andrews, culinary director of Marley Spoon, a meal-kit delivery service with a no-waste philosophy.

For herbs such as parsley, coriander and dill, which have lots of untapped flavour in their stems, cut up and mix through your meal for more intense flavour, she says. Or use them to make homemade sauces, adding an almost crunchy texture to your meal.

"The same applies for broccoli and cauliflower; the stems contain just as much nutritional value as the florets and they can be easily peeled and then stir-fried, baked, sauteed, grilled, or even pureed to increase the number of serves of vegies you're eating," she says.

"Bread never seems to last as long as you want it to, so chop up leftover bread into sizeable chunks, store in the freezer and use as croutons or blend them into breadcrumbs for sweet or savoury cooking."

You can also extend the shelf life of most vegetables by pickling them.

"Vegetables like cabbage, beans and carrots and even eggplant, radishes and kale stems can be pickled," Andrews says.

"You just need a clean sterilised jar, some vinegar, hot water, sugar, and salt, add some herbs or chilli for extra flavour and your vegetables can have a second life."  

Better storage

Mark Ebbels, a plant-based chef at TarraWarra Estate in Melbourne, has eliminated all single-use plastics, such as clingfilm and sous vide bags, from his professional kitchen by gradually replacing with aluminum foil, and reusable silicone lids.

"As a chef I would tend to use lots and lots of cling film to protect our precious prepared food, so I never thought I'd be working without it at all, but the process was a lot easier than I thought it would be," Ebbels says. 

"The next step we took to make our kitchen more sustainable was to find suppliers we could buy in bulk and take our own containers or use paper bags. Our next goal is to replace the hundreds of reusable small plastic containers over time with metal ones."

Grow and recycle your food

"If you grow something yourself you'll have more of an attachment and connection to it, and therefore you'll care more about what happens to it and are less likely to let anything go to waste," Ebbels says.

"This connection to food and its origins is missing for a huge segment of our population, and if everyone was vividly aware of where their food has come from and what's been done to it, most of us would probably eat a plant-based diet already."

Quade agrees, knowing where your food has come from simply means you have more respect for it and even simply trying to grow herbs on your balcony or kitchen window – the success and failures you have with it – makes you more appreciative with what farmers go through to grow our food.

In turn, set up a compost bin as it will benefit the garden as well as significantly reduce the amount of rubbish going to landfill.

"From our cafe we compost coffee grinds, paper towels, newspapers and our Biopack takeaway coffee cups and in the same way you can set up a compost system in your garden," Blackwell says.

If you don't have the space check in your local area for compost collection points and recycle your "rubbish" there.