10 delicious ways to reduce food waste this festive season

Reserve prawn heads and shells to make a flavour-boosting oil.
Reserve prawn heads and shells to make a flavour-boosting oil. Photo: William Meppem

Australia, what happened? We were doing so well! Food waste in 2019 was going down, composting was up, and we were becoming increasingly savvy consumers learning to say "no" to impulse buys at the checkout.

But then a global pandemic hit and things changed. A report from agriculture financial specialist Rabobank shows Australian household food waste dropped from an average of 12.9 per cent of food purchased in 2019 to 11.1 per cent in early 2020. Now we're back to wasting 12.7 per cent of our weekly grocery shop, costing the average Australian household an all-time high of $1043 a year. 

Whole pineapple cake with pineapple skin syrup from Cornersmith's new cookbook Use It All.
Whole pineapple cake with pineapple skin syrup from Cornersmith's new cookbook Use It All. Photo: Cath Muscat/Murdoch Books

Reasons for the uptick in food waste are fair enough, such as cooking more at home, buying less familiar ingredients and experimenting with new recipes. Hands up anyone else whose first Basque cheesecake attempt was a deflated mess? As we resume regular transmission post-COVID, however, it's time to reboard the reduced-waste train.

From wet lettuce in the crisper to those Cheezels you left on the back deck too long, the potential of food waste at Christmas is huge. But the potential for use-it-all deliciousness is even bigger. Here are 10 tips to reduce food waste this festive season.

Make a list and check it twice

"Plan, plan, plan," says Anita Vandyke, author of A Zero Waste Family, published this month by Penguin. "Plan your menu from snacks to desserts and don't deviate from that list by bringing home excess food. It's also a great idea to shop from your own pantry and create dishes using jars, condiments and sauces you already own." 

Jaimee Edwards agrees. "It seems like the most blindingly obvious thing, but don't over-cater," says the Sydney-based co-author of Cornersmith's new cookbook Use It All. "If you always end up with leftovers that go uneaten, maybe reconsider how much you're cooking."

The ultimate baked beans.

Ham skin is fully of wonderful smoky flavour. Photo: William Meppem

Keep the skin and bones

The few days after Christmas are a stock-lover's dream. A gravy train of trimmings and bones. Beyond chicken and pork bone broths, turkey stock can form the basis of a knock-out sauce, while strips of ham skin can be used to flavour soups and bean dishes. "All the wonderful hammy, smoky flavour is in the skin," says Edwards. "I've added it to slow-cooked baked beans before. Admittedly, ham skin is pretty gross to pull from a dish before it's served, but the flavour is lovely."


Prawn heads are flavour gold

Before you put discarded prawn heads in the neighbour's wheelie bin, consider making prawn-infused olive oil. Fry dried prawn heads and shells in a tablespoon of oil over a medium-high heat before adding half a cup of extra virgin olive oil and reducing to a simmer for 20 minutes. Cool, strain and drizzle on shellfish pasta, salads or paella for one heck of a flavour boost. Prawn oil will keep covered in the fridge for a month.

Have fun with cheese

Post Christmas Day, many fridges are a crime scene of half-eaten cheddars, hardened brie and blue veins in need of life support.  Think of each block as an opportunity to create something greater; all the better if there's extra ham. "I love to make a super deluxe mac-and-cheese," says Edwards. "Ham and cheese toasties are a classic, of course, as are big cheesy omelettes."

And what if that cheese was left exposed to become dry? "Finely grate it and moisten with a little cream," says Noela MacLeod, former president of The Country Women's Association of Victoria and author of Thrifty Household, newly published by Murdoch Books. "Beat well, add mustard to taste, and you have a delicious cream cheese spread for biscuits and savouries."

Gift box the pav 

"Wash all those takeaway containers you have been gathering throughout the year and package little gift boxes of leftovers for guests to take home," says Vandyke. "Decorate them with twine or ribbon to make it a bit more special." Much better than letting pavlova wilt on the bench and certainly nicer than a paper plate covered in cling wrap. 

Give new life to lettuce

Poor old lettuce. It's one of the most wasted ingredients in home kitchens, but MacLeod has a solution for reviving sad leaves. "To crisp a limp lettuce, squeeze lemon juice into cold water and leave to soak for a few minutes," she says. Boxing Day sandwiches ahoy.

Pudding ice-cream for hot afternoons

Another wodge of leftover pudding can seem insurmountable a few days after Christmas, especially in 38-degree weather. "Put it in the freezer," says Edwards. "Break up your leftover pud, soften some vanilla ice-cream, stir everything together and refreeze. It's a really tasty post-Christmas dessert." Replace pudding with crumbled fruit mince pies for equally refreshing results.

DIY fruit syrup

Specifically, fruit skin syrups using the outer layers of all the mangos, citrus and pineapples Australians enjoy through summer. "Simmer pineapple skins with sugar and spices for a cracking cocktail syrup," says Edwards. "White rum with sparkling water and a dash of pineapple skin syrup is fantastic."

Orange crush

And those forgotten Cheezels? From the so-bad-it's-good files, crush with a good pinch of salt and make a Bloody Mary rim, or mix the orange snack dust with cayenne pepper and supercharge fried chicken.

Mango skin syrup recipe

If you eat mangoes like we eat mangoes, you'll end up with skins and pips aplenty. Both have lots of flavour that you can't chew through, but you can extract. Making this syrup is bottling the essence of mango. Drizzle over cakes, fruit salad and ice cream or invent a cocktail and use this as the base.

  1. Wash and roughly chop the mango skin from 1-2 mangoes and place in a saucepan with the mango pips, 2 cups water and 1 cup caster sugar.
  2. Add a few slices of ginger or the last knob in the fridge and some lemon or lime peel. A little lemongrass is nice, too.
  3. Set over low heat and simmer for 15-20 minutes, then strain.
  4. If you want a thicker syrup, place it back on the heat and reduce further.
  5. Pour the syrup into a clean jar or bottle and store in the fridge for up to one month.

Makes: about 350ml 

Recipe image and text from Use It All by Alex Elliott-Howery and Jaimee Edwards, Murdoch Books, RRP $39.99.