Zero Food Waste – Shopping, Preparing and Eating

I wrote the content for a talk I was due to give at Airfield Festival of Food in Dundrum, Dublin 14 but the venue for my talk didn’t lend itself to listing off a string practical tips so I changed the topic to a more general look at the benefits of sustainable living. Not being one to waste (zero waste joke!) information I’ve turned the content for my Food Waste talk into this article. Enjoy!

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How to Reduce Packaging Waste

I had intended to look at all aspects of sustainable ethical groceries in this article but there would just be too much to go through so I’m limiting this section on grocery shopping to packaging only. You can read up on the sustainability and ethics of food here and avoiding food waste with menu planning here. I’ve also written about the carbon footprint of meat and dairy here.

Finally a study has come out to prove that the belief that plastic food packaging reduces food waste is a myth, and in fact it actually increases it. I’ve long found that fresh food wrapped in plastic decomposes far faster than what I buy package-free.

Package-free food shopping is possible if you’re flexible with what you eat. My family is not flexible about what they eat and so a low waste food shop is the best I can achieve, so here are my guidelines for low-waste food shopping in Ireland.

  • Cook as much as you can from scratch. Not only does this help to reduce packaging and cost less, you know exactly what you’re eating.
  • If you bake bread or pizza dough don’t buy new yeast, keep a yeast starter in your fridge instead. Just mix 7g of fast acting dried yeast or 15g of active dry yeast or 30g of fresh yeast with 25g plain flour and 25ml water. Before using, feed the starter with 50g flour and 50g water and keep warm until it gets bubbly. Use 100g of this mixture for the dough and leave the rest in the fridge for use within the next 2 weeks, and continue over and over again.
  • Organise your own reusable containers. I find takeaway container are ideal, and you’ll find no shortage of freebies if you ask around.
  • Where you can’t buy package-free buy the biggest size it comes in. Buying one large packet will result in less packaging than 2 or 3 small ones. The only exception to this is where you can’t consume all the contents before they expire.
  • Buy condensed versions where possible. A can of creamed coconut can be converted to 5-6 tins of coconut milk just by adding water. Think about all the packaging and carbon emissions from transport (and money) you save by doing that.
  • Where you can’t buy package-free aim to buy infinitely recyclable packaging like glass or metal or compostable packaging like paper or card. This rule is made to be broken because a glass packaging from far away is going to use more energy to transport than plastic packaging so just do your best and don’t worry about getting it wrong.
  • If you can only source the item in plastic packaging then consider giving it up, or replacing it with a homemade version, or buying it less often. We’ve also been able to replace the following with homemade versions; biscuits, tortillas, pizza, puff pastry, various sauces, ice cream and cereal bars. I also have a recipe for easy peasy homemade bread but I don’t have time to use it as a replacement for our daily bread usage.
  • If you’ve tried all the above and still have to buy something packaged in plastic then don’t feel guilty. We can only do our best.

Reusable Containers for Zero Waste Living

cotton produce bags

I use cotton produce bags for bread, fruit and veg, pasta, rice, couscous, etc. I like the ones sold by the Dublin Food Coop in D8 the best. They are organic cotton and come in a range of sizes.

stainless steel lunch boxes

I use plastic tupperware and metal lunch boxes to buy fresh meat, deli meat and fish. I’ve bought the brands ‘Made’ and ‘Slice of Green’ and am very happy with both. Tiger and Aldi also stock good quality stainless steel lunchboxes on occasion.

Reducing Waste When Cooking

Over the years a lot of waste has crept into modern-day food prep and cooking. It makes you wonder how our grandparents survived without cling film and tinfoil, here’s how;

Limit Kitchen Paper Use

Although compostable kitchen paper requires energy and chemicals to make, transport and collect for disposal. For this reason it’s far more sustainable to use a washable cloth instead of kitchen paper where possible. I now only use kitchen paper to wipe up cooking oil or to oil my metal wok.

Ditch the Cling Film

There’s been a huge trend towards using reusable beeswax wraps (or vegan ones) in lieu of clingfilm. I haven’t found the need to buy any because if I need to store food I either put it in a jar, Tupperware, or in a bowl with either a plate or a tea-towel over it.

Avoid Baking Paper

I don’t line my cake tins anymore and have found that a layer of butter with flour on it to be more than enough to prevent sticking. To prevent things like meringues or macarons from sticking I have been using a reusable silicone sheet but I’ve been reading up about the uncertainty around silicone at high temperatures and so I’m going to have to try and find a workable non-disposable alternative. I know the risks are unproven but given what we’ve learned about BPA in plastic I’m not taking any risks.

I had hoped to replace my silicone sheets with parchment baking paper by the company ‘If You Care’. They told me that their parchment baking paper is made by grinding wood fibers into cellulose and that no sulphuric acid is used in this process, which is used for conventional baking paper. I’ve since learned that they coat their parchment baking paper with silicone, which as I’ve mentioned above might have health risks, but also makes the paper non-compostable. How the company is able to label it’s products as compostable given this fact is beyond me. I emailed them ask this question but they failed to reply. I should point out that I’ve noticed a lot of manufacturers claiming that their greaseproof or baking paper is compostable, even if it’s coated with silicone. As far as I’m aware silicone cannot be broken down by worms or microbes, therefore making anything coated with it non-compostable.

If butter and flour isn’t cutting it for fairy and cup cakes the ‘If You Care’ offer paper baking cups that are not coated with silicone and are a good sustainable option. When it comes to piping I recommend a good quality reusable piping bag from Wilton. In my experience cheaper ones just allow the contents to seep through which is useless!

Avoiding Tinfoil

We rarely use tinfoil in our house now since we switched to an enamel lidded roasting tin from Argos for only €18. Enamelled metal has had powdered glass fused onto it at high temperature so is chemically inert and non-stick without having any of the health risks association with non-stick coatings. I would have preferred to have bought a higher-end version but this was all I could find and after a few years wear it’s still going strong. I love it!

Buy long-lasting plastic free equipment

It is completely unsustainable to be constantly buying new equipment so as things need replacing opt for long-lasting items, preferably with a guarantee, made entirely from metal or wood or ceramic. The first two are recyclable and the last one can be smashed up and dug into the garden at the end of its life.

Due to health concerns over non-stick coatings I have moved away from it and towards stainless steel frying pansnon-coated aluminium baking sheets, a carbon steel wok with a wooden handle, and a cast iron griddle. I do have to use a small bit of oil with each of these but that doesn’t worry me. Oil that’s high in omega 3 like olive oil or rapeseed is actually very good for you.

Utensil-wise aim for single-piece stainless steel versions. I say single-piece because there is less likelihood of bits breaking off and less places for dirt to get trapped. Where stainless steel is not suitable, aim to use well made wooden utensils made from timber sourced from sustainable forests (FSC certified).

Tips to Reducing Food Waste at Home

When I started publishing this website I didn’t quite understand all the fuss about food waste, sure isn’t it compostable? Then I learned that it’s not just the food that wasted, it’s also the energy and resources that went into making it. Plus the energy used in food production, preparation and transportation, is generally provided by fossil fuels and the pesticides and herbicides used are generally derived from fossil fuels too. That’s when the penny dropped.

We’re constantly hearing that we have to do better when it comes to food waste. I’m sceptical that we’re really as feckless as suggested. When I used to buy multi-packs of fruit there was always food waste in my house. Now that I only buy what I need food waste is a thing of the past. Moving to package-free fruit and veg is the best way to reduce food waste in my experience, but here are a few other ideas too.

Do a food inventory before going shopping

A clever tip I heard is to have a designated area in the fridge and cupboard for food that needs to be used up and when deciding what to eat, check that area first.

Shop for Veg 2-3 Times a Week

Most vegetables won’t last 7 days in a fridge so if you’re only shopping once a week you’re going to struggle to avoid food waste. Find a greengrocer on the way to school, college or work and buy from them on the way home. They’re often quicker to get in and out of than supermarkets and you’ll be supporting a local business.

Buy fruit and veg that’s in season

Buying food that’s in season in Ireland is another great way to avoid food waste. It’ll be more likely to be grown locally and be fresher. has a handy downloadable seasonal calendar that you can refer to or check out the What’s in Season webpage

Incorporate Leftovers into Recipes

I’ve learned to adjust recipes to use up items that accumulate in our fridge. For instance when I buy fresh fennel I freeze the fronds and add it to a salmon pasta dish when I make it.

The recipe finder on BBC Good Food Magazine allows you to search by ingredient and is a great way of using up that one item languishing in your store cupboards. Here’s a few other suggestions;

  • Meat Fat – Store in a jar in the fridge and use to fry vegetables on another day.
  • Bread – Use to make breadcrumbs, croutons, glamoran sausages, coatings for chicken etc, bread and butter pudding, thickener in soups or toasted as a topping for pasta dishes
  • Herbs – Freeze herbs or salad leaves in a container and then just crumble into dishes are required or mix them with oil to make sauces and pestos.
  • Cream or creme fraiche – add to mashed potato, soup or sauces,
  • Egg whites – use to help breadcrumbs adhere to food, make macarons or meringues
  • Egg yolks – make carbonara or custard, use as an egg wash on pastry,
  • Mayonnaise – add to mash potato or potato cakes

Make Soups & Smoothies from aging fruit & veg

Homemade soup is a great way to use up veg that’s past it’s best and if you don’t have time to cook it there and then just freeze the veg raw and defrost it when you do. It will have gone a bit mushy from being frozen but once it’s blended it makes no difference. You can also freeze the soup in individual portions after it’s cooked.

Similarly smoothies can be made with fruit past it’s best or you could freeze the fruit for the next time you’re baking.

I’ve recently discovered the joy of pickling, which is so simple you’ll wonder why you haven’t done it before. You can pickle pretty much anything with a 3:2:1 mix of vinegar-water-sugar. Just google for recipes.

Streamline Recipe Ingredients

I’ve become very good at streamlining recipe ingredients in order to use the same ingredients across a few recipes. For example our curries use the same vegetables as our stir-fries. That way we don’t end up with half a pepper or tin of butter beans languishing in the veg drawer.

Plan for Schedule Changes

I find it great to have some frozen or canned / jarred veg on hand for those days when your best laid plans go out the window. I find that this leads to less food waste overall than overbuying in the expectation that you’ll be able to cook it all during the week. The package-free option is to buy the veg fresh to cook and freeze yourself, but if that’s not feasible buy in plastic bags in the knowledge that a little bit of plastic is better than a lot of food waste. You can get frozen veg in cardboard boxes but beware most frozen food cardboard boxes are impregnated with plastic, so possibly better than plastic bags but not plastic free.

Use your Freezer to Reduce Food Waste

You’d be surprised at all the things you can freeze including whipped cream, mashed potato, cooked rice, grated cheese and raw eggs. If you’re not sure if something will freeze well, just have a go. If you were going to through it out anyway then nothings lost if it doesn’t work out. I freeze things in metal lunchboxes, old takeaway containers and reused jars. When freezing liquids remember to leave a large gap at the top for expansion, and don’t use containers that narrow towards the top -It can be impossible to get things out of them. Also be sure to label items. Nothing worse that taste testing strange blobs of food!

We also freeze sliced bread fresh from the shop in cotton produce bags and just defrost as we need. I actually make school lunches with frozen bread, which slowly defrosts by lunchtime keeping the contents cool.

I also find it easiest to freeze herbs and then just crumble them, still frozen, into sauces as needed.

I also freeze ingredients in portion sizes, like baked beans, that way I have just the amount I need to hand. Jamie Oliver has a great recipes for homemade curry pastes that can be made fresh in large quantities and frozen into individual recipe portions.

Prioritise Dinners to Reduce Food Waste

Most of us have snack throughout the day which can increase the problem of leftovers at dinner time. Not snacking at least 2 hours before your dinner not only makes your dinner taste better (hunger is the best sauce) it’ll result in less leftovers.

Managing Portion Sizes to Reduce Food Waste

An easy way to avoid food waste is to start with the right portion size. Here’s a helpful guide to help you do that.

  • Pasta – 100g per adult, about 60g for a primary-school-age child.
  • Rice – 80g per adult, 50g per child (or about 2½ tbsp per child).
  • Mashed potato About 200g per adult, 100g per child (peeled weight of raw potatoes).
  • Vegetables – 80g (3 heaped tbsp) per adult, about 50g (1-2 heaped tbsp) for a child. Or you can work to  per adult,  for children.
  • Dried pulses and beans – 80g (3 heaped tbsp) per adult, 50g (1-2 heaped tbsp) for children.
  • Meat or fish – 140g per adult, 100g per child.

Storing Food Properly

Avoiding food waste often comes down to storing food in the right way. Here are some tips that I found really useful.

  • don’t wash fruit and veg until just before you need it, as it speeds up decomposition.
  • keep fruit and veg apart as it makes both last longer
  • keep bananas away from other fruit, they gives off ethanol which speeds up decomposition
  • keep potatoes, garlic and onions in a dark, dry place. We keep ours in closed paper bags near the back door.
  • take fruit and veg out of plastic wrapping before storing as they trap moisture speeding up decay. We keep leaves in tea-towels, which allow the veg to transpire without getting wet.
  • store cheese in the fridge wrapped in kitchen paper in an airtight container – changing the kitchen paper when it becomes too damp.
  • store mushrooms in the fridge in a ceramic / glass bowl covered with a tea-towel or similar
  • if your carrots or broccoli are going a bit limp just pop the end/ends into a glass of water and they’ll firm right up
  • cut off signs of decay off fruit or vegetable immediately to stop it spreading. Then prioritise eating it next.
  • only store condiments on the door fridge, as this is warmest part of the fridge
  • I haven’t tried this but I’ve heard lettuce leaves are a great alternative to cling-film!

Conserving Energy in the Kitchen

One thing we don’t hear about much on cookery programmes is energy usage. Here are some tips to conserve energy when cooking.

Optimise the Oven by Cooking Multiple Meals

I avoid using the oven as much as possible because of the energy it uses, and if I do decide to use it I’ll try to cook a few meals or bake at the same time to maximise the benefit of it.

For the same reason I double up stew recipes in order to spread long cooking time over as many meals as possible.

Use your Oven’s Residual Heat to Finish Dishes

You can turn off your oven 5-10 minutes before a dish is cooked and let the residual heat finish it off.  I would avoid doing this for meat and fish, just in case of salmonella.

Chop Food Smaller to Speed up Cooking Time

If you want your meat and veg to cook quicker cut it into smaller pieces. Similarly butterflying a chicken breast or  spatchcocking chickens and turkeys will half the cooking time.

Defrost Food in the Fridge Overnight

Defrosting food in the fridge overnight not only uses less energy than doing it in the microwave, it’s a lot less hassle too. That said, if you’re someone who regularly ends up binning food defrosted overnight then maybe the extra energy use by the defrosting on demand in the microwave is worth it.

Optimise your Equipment

When cooking use the right size pot on the right size burner. A small pot on a large burner is a waste of energy. And put the lid on when cooking to retain heat and use less energy.

I used to use the energy-efficient absorption method for cooking rice until I read a study that found it results in more arsenic in the cooked rice.

Overstocked fridges run less efficiently, plus they make it hard to keep track of food. Conversely well-stocked freezers are more energy-efficient so fill it up.

Check the energy usage on equipment before buying

I’ve read articles about the energy effiency of airfryers versus regular ovens. Some say that airfryers aren’t more efficient than ovens, while others say they are. Having read both it seems to come down to the amount of food you’d need to cook and the wattage of the two appliances you’re comparing. Cooking 4 lots of chips in an air fryer might use just as much, or more, energy than a regular oven, whereas putting on the oven for one portion of chips would be more wasteful than using an air fryer.

The same principle applies to the use of uninsulated slow cookers/ crock pots.

Use a Thermos for Boiled Water

One tip for saving water and energy is to either buy an insulated kettle that keeps water hot for 4 hours or keep boiled water in a thermos to use every time you want a cup of tea.

And before I go here’s an article with some very useful tips on saving water in the kitchen


PS – Check out my other food related articles

Published by Elaine Butler

I am a circular design consultant helping manfacturers prepare for the circular economy

4 thoughts on “Zero Food Waste – Shopping, Preparing and Eating

  1. Congrats on your first talk! Glad it went well 🙂
    Nice post too – tons of info as always. I agree on it all – esp making good use of your freezer. We use a lot of energy keeping them running, so we should make the best use of them!


  2. On preheating the oven, please do preheat with a chicken dish. Putting uncooked chicken into an oven which is only heating up is the perfect environment for the salmonella virus to grow and spread. That is why chicken should initially go into the oven at 220 degrees for 10minutes , as that kills the salmonella virus.


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