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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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. I’ll look at other aspects of grocery shopping in the next issue.
You may have heard the term Zero Waste in the media. In a nutshell it describes a way of living that’s all about avoiding waste, whether that’s physical waste in your bin, or energy or food waste. Why? Because recycling isn’t a planet positive activity and although better than landfill or incineration it contributes to climate change, therefore we should avoid it wherever possible.
Zero Waste food shopping is possible to achieve in some parts of Ireland, especially if you’re flexible with what you eat. My family is not flexible about what they eat (see previous article) and so a low waste food shop is the best I can achieve. 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.
- Buy package-free wherever possible. You will need to have your own reusable produce bags or refillable containers to do this successfully (see below).
- 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 version where possible. For example a can of creamed coconut can be converted to 5-6 tins of coconut milk 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.
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.
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.
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 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 ‘If You Care’ do baking cups are not coated with silicone and are a good sustainable option. I would recommend a good quality reusable piping bag from Wilton. In my experience cheaper ones just allow the contents to seep through!
Although recyclable tinfoil is no longer widely recycled in Ireland due to issues over food contamination. I only ever used tinfoil when roasting meat and I really struggled to do without it but after a bit of research online I heard about lidded roasting tins and found 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 year of use it’s still going strong. I love it!
Buy long-lasting plastic free equipment
It is completely unsustainable to replace perfectly good equipment with new items so as things needs replacing opt for long-lasting items, preferably with a guarantee, made entirely from metal or wood or pottery. 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 cooking equipment with it and so, slowly over time, I’ve switched to stainless steel frying pans, non-coated aluminium baking sheets, a carbon steel wok with a wooden handle, and a cast iron griddle in a charity shop, which is great !
Utensil-wise I’d recommend aiming 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).
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.
Check what you have
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 aren’t going to 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.
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. Stopfoodwaste.ie 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 item that we accumulate at home. For instance when I buy fresh fennel I freeze the fronds then add it to our 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
Soups & Smoothies
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 with fruit that’s 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.
I’ve also become very good at streamlining recipes so that I’m using the same ingredient in each. 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. You can get frozen veg cardboard but I’ve just learned in the cardboard is impregnated with plastic and therefore recyclable. So the best option is to buy fresh and freeze 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.
Use your Freezer
You’d be surprised at all the things you can freeze including whipped cream, mashed potato, cooked rice, grated cheese and raw eggs. And if it’s something that you’re going to have to throw out anyway, why not have a go at freezing it. What have you got to lose? I freeze things in old glass jam & mustard jars. Just remember to leave a large gap at the top for expansion and to label it. Nothing worse that taste testing strange blobs of food!
We also freeze sliced bread fresh from the shop in cotton produce bags and then just defrost as we go. I make school lunches with frozen bread, which slowly defrost by lunchtime keeping the contents cool.
I also freeze ingredients in portion sizes as soon as I buy them, like bakers yeast or half a lemon or soft leaved herbs. That way I always have just the amount I need to hand. I find it easiest to freeze soft leaved herbs like basil and tarragon in a container in the freezer and then just crumble them, still frozen, into sauces as needed.
Jamie Oliver has a great recipes for homemade curry pastes that can be made fresh in large quantities and frozen into individual recipe portions.
Most of us have developed a habit for snacking which can increase the problem of leftovers at dinner time. Avoid snacking at least 2 hours before your dinner. Not only will your dinner taste better (hunger is the best sauce) you’ll end up with less waste.
An easy way to avoid food waste is to start with right portion size. Here’s a helpful guide I came across a few years ago
- 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.
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 – change the kitchen paper every week to keep the cheese fresh.
- store mushrooms in the fridge in a ceramic / glass bowl covered with a tea-towel or similar
- if you need to store half an avocado submerge it in water to prevent it going brown.
- if your carrots or broccoli is going a bit limp just pop the end/ends into a glass of water and they’ll firm right up
- if you see a spot of decay on a piece of fruit or vegetable cut it off 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!
One thing we don’t hear talked about much on cookery programmes is energy waste. Not only is this unsustainable, it costs you money! Here are some tips to conserve energy when cooking.
Optimise the Oven
I avoid using the oven as much as possible because of the energy required and if I do decide to use it I’ll cook a few meals or bake at the same time to maximise the benefit of it. For the same reason I avoid cooking stews that need to simmer for a long time and similarly if I do cook a stew I’ll double the recipe and freeze half.
Use your Oven’s Residual Heat
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.
Defrosting food in the fridge overnight not only saves far more energy than doing it in the microwave, it’s a lot less hassle too.
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.
Overstocked fridges make it hard to keep track of food but they also rung less efficiently so avoid doing so. Unlike fridges well-stocked freezers are more energy-efficient so fill it up.
Check the energy usage on equipment before buying. I assumed that an Actifryer would be more energy-efficient that putting the oven on. Turns out I was wrong. The same is true of uninsulated slow cookers/ crock pots. (source: hotairfrying.com)
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 pour water from your regular kettle into a thermos when you boil it. Both prevent you having to reboil the kettle 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