Waste not, want not

GFS Champion Tim Benton looks to the New Year and considers food waste on national and personal levels (including his own recipes).

Tim Benton

I enjoy cooking, so do the kitchen duty when I am at home. And, of course, Christmas is the most intensive cooking festival. I just totted up that I prepared 141 meals, spread over 32 mealtimes. No wonder coming back to work seems restful!

As food waste is such an issue, we worked hard to minimise waste over the period through a concerted effort of planning, inventorying and negotiation over how to eat left overs. As a result, we threw away very little that was avoidable, perhaps though at the expense of over-consumption!


My first major engagement of the New Year was giving evidence to a House of Lords Select Committee on food waste (previous here) and what the EU should and could do about it. Hard on the heels of the consumption-fest that is Christmas, it is somewhat ironic that the first question was “why aren’t we making faster progress on tackling food waste?”

The statistics are mind-boggling. WRAP estimate that the UK wasted household food comes from a land area the equivalent size of Wales (almost, actually 91% the size of Wales); that the water embedded in the wasted food is about 6% of the UK’s total water budget; and that the carbon embedded in the wasted food is equivalent to about a quarter of the UK’s domestic car usage.  Reducing waste would free up sufficient land that ‘making space for nature’ would be much less of an issue.

As our Global Food Security report on waste (PDF) highlighted there is scope for reducing waste throughout the supply chain. However, two areas really stand out.

Firstly waste on the farm – where pests, diseases and weather take their toll, and where farmers over-produce to ensure meeting contractual obligations of amounts supplied and where blemishes can lead to ’outgrading’ and the whole batch is discarded.

Secondly, waste in the home, where about 20% of food is discarded. Two reasons underlie this: firstly that food wasn’t used in time and dates on labels were passed, and secondly that too much was cooked and portion sizes were too big to be eaten and left-overs were discarded.

Data for the hospitality sector is rather limited but it is very sensitive to regulations on food safety, which necessarily (?) leads to waste: I know that many meeting venues are religious about removing uneaten sandwiches after two hours, throwing them away and citing our food hygiene regulations on minimising food’s time in the ‘danger zone’ between 8 and 63 degrees. At one meeting in December about half the food was thrown away before our eyes!

Ideas from the Twittersphere

So how can we reduce waste?  Suggestions from Twitter, when I asked this question, included:

  • Valuing food more by paying the real cost, and incentivising more efficient use
  • Reducing promotional offers like BOGOFs which encourage people to overbuy
  • Varying package sizes – single people in small flats may not be able to store standard sizes
  • Education: raising the awareness and empowerment of consumers
  • Understanding better storage needs (Andy Dawe, Head of Food and Drink Programme at WRAP told me that the single behavioural change to reduce most waste would be to store fruit and veg in a fridge)
  • Promoting better portion control and recipes for using left-overs
  • Changing attitudes to dates on food and increasing acceptance of “ugly” produce
  • Better forecasting of demand so supply can be matched
  • Taxing waste harder
Food waste posterUS FDA
The message not to waste food is not new.

One issue that makes progress on waste slower than the ideal is that the answer to the question ‘who is responsible for waste?’ is ‘everyone and no one’.

At all points of the supply chain, waste is generated. No single innovation, or regulation, will address the totality. Furthermore, most changes that will give rise to significant reduction in waste require a change in behaviour or attitudes.

Progress is being made: FareShare takes ‘fit for purpose’ food that would have been wasted and redistributes it; WRAP analyses show how domestic behaviour change has been and continues to be brought about.

Ultimately, we, as people, have the most power collectively, although as individuals we often feel disempowered as our efforts may seem miniscule against the scale of the problem. If each of us worked to reduce waste, and if each of us demanded less wastefulness from the food system, the issue would be to a large extent solved.

The poster above was published in 1917 by the US Food Administration. Produced in a time of shortage, it could be summed up as “food is precious, use it well”. A century on, and looking at the growing challenges on the food system, who could argue with that?

Tim’s favourite left-over recipes

Potato cakes

Potato cakes are the ideal way to use up left over potatoes (and even other starchy vegetables like pumpkin, squash, celeriac or a mixture of the above). What you need to do is mix the ingredients to a consistency that allows you to shape the cakes – easiest to do this by hand – so they stick well together and are not too wet nor too crumbly.

A fine way to use leftover food.

Take your vegetable and crush it or mash it if it is not already done so. Add flour (plain or self-raising, the latter may give it a bit of lift as it cooks) and stir in until you get quite a dry mixture. Add flavourings as you like (e.g. salt, pepper, mustard, ketchup, chilli sauce or even cheese). Starchy foods soak up flavourings so it is difficult to over-flavour (though watch your salt!). Add an egg and mix in well. If it is too runny a mixture, add more flour.

Form into cakes by taking a handful and patting into shape. You can shallow fry in olive oil or other vegetable oil. Cook on medium heat for sufficient time that the underside is brown and crusty and then flip over and cook the other side. You can sprinkle the top with grated cheese if that needs using up too; 20-25 mins is normally enough.

Omelettes and frittata

Omelettes are a fantastic way of using up bits and pieces from the fridge. If you use a frying pan with a non-plastic handle then you can slip it under the grill to cook the top side: this often makes the omelette rise up like a soufflé (and turns it from an omelette, traditionally served folded – to a frittata – served flat in slices).

Almost anything can go into an omelette in any combination that takes your fancy. The basis for me always starts with an onion which I typically fry for 5-10 minutes in some olive oil. If I have raw veg that needs using (e.g. a pepper) I fry that too. Once they are on the way to cooking I add whatever comes out of the fridge: old potatoes, broccoli, peas or corn, left over lumps of cooked meat (e.g. from a roast, cut up sausages etc). If you are using up bacon, cook that from the start with the onion.

Let all that fry in oil, turning occasionally so it doesn’t stick. Make up the omelette mix.  For four people, I’d use six eggs and serve with toast (using up stale bread) and salad. Add a splash of milk (or even cream if that needs using): a splash is about what you’d put into a cup of tea. Add flavouring (salt, freshly ground black pepper, a small teaspoon of grain mustard, dried mixed herbs or whatever you fancy). Mix briskly with a fork lifting it out of the bowl to show the egg white has been well-incorporated. The more you mix, the more air you mix and more like a soufflé it will become.

Put the mixture into the hot pan with the other stuff still cooking in oil. Stir it around once to distribute the mixture and the frying stuff well.  Turn down the heat from medium to low and leave be for 10 mins or so (you’ll smell it if it starts to burn). Meanwhile warm up the oven (180 or 200 degrees) or grill.  If you are layering on things (sliced cheese or tomatoes) do it when you have added the eggs. After 10 around mins, the bottom should be well on the way to being cooked but the top still runny. Push under the grill or oven and cook the top for 5-10 mins until it rises a bit and the cheese melts and the omelettes goes brown. Serve onto warm plates.

Soggy doggy doo-dahs

This is a brilliant way to use up blackening bananas which some people hate in the raw. The name came from the kids owing to a resemblance to something you’ll recognise when you cook these. You could call ’soggie doggies’ a more prosaic ’baked bananas with chocolate sauce’ but that misses half the fun.

Like many things this recipe can also be done in the oven or microwave. I prefer the oven because in the 20 mins or so it takes them to cook, you can have served, eaten and tidied up the first course and if the oven had been on for that it is all so easy.

Take the bananas (one per person) and peel and put into an oven proof casserole dish so they snuggle closely together. Into each banana, shove 2-3 lumps of dark chocolate along its length. Put a knob of butter (25g) in the middle and drizzle on a large tablespoon of golden syrup. Scatter over 3-4 teaspoons of cocoa. If you’re feeling worth it, add a splash of brandy or whiskey. Put in the oven at about 180 and leave till the bananas are cooked (they go dark) and the sauce is rich and gooey. Serve with ice cream.

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About Tim Benton

Tim Benton is GFS Champion and an interdisciplinary researcher working on issues around agriculture-environment interactions. Formerly, he was Research Dean in the Faculty of Biological Sciences, University of Leeds, and Chair of the Africa College Partnership, an interdisciplinary virtual research institute concerned with sustainable agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa. He has worked on the links between farming and biodiversity (and ecosystem services) for many years.

One thought on “Waste not, want not

  1. Go back to seasonal cooking…enjoying the seriously good fruits and veg that are in season here in the UK.
    Its getting towards the time for rhubarb…the new seasons pale pink…under a gluten free crumble topping..oh yes!!
    Need also the support of the food journalists and cookery writers…no point in cooking with things out of season…extravagant and wasteful…(you can tell I am from Yorkshire!!)

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