Opinion: MeRRRy Christmas!

Like many of us, I’ll be braving the supermarket aisles over the next few days, ready to feed visiting family. This year, however, in more straitened financial circumstances (aren’t we all?), I’m very aware of how much food I’ve wasted over Christmases past, and determined not to make that mistake again.

Research by environmental organisation WRAP shows that each year we throw away one third (6.7 million tonnes) of the food we buy, over a quarter of that still in its packaging. The average person will have thrown away their own weight in food between January and December. And Christmas is the worst time of year, when food waste rises by a staggering 80 per cent.

There are a number of different reasons for this waste, including buying too much in the first place, cooking and serving too much at individual meals, throwing away food we don’t need to, and not knowing what to do with leftovers.

Many of us shop at Christmas as if for a siege. Most large supermarkets are shut for only one day between Christmas and New Year, with 15 hours’ closure from New Year’s Eve to New Year’s Day.

Supermarkets blandish us into buying food we don’t need, or over-buying food we do need, for example two-for-one offers on perishable food most of which then goes straight into the compost. A firmly-put together shopping list (I keep one in my ‘Christmas’ folder on my computer!) is invaluable; and internet grocery shopping can be helpful in tracking spending as you go and avoiding the enticements of carefully-designed store displays.

Love Food Hate Waste have produced an online Christmas portion calculator which is helpful in planning what is likely to be the biggest meal of the year.

Then there’s my personal bugbear, the misunderstanding of frankly misleading date labelling on food. There’s mostly no need at all to throw away food at one minute past midnight on the earliest date on the packaging, yet vast quantities of food are wasted in this way.

And after all that, if you still have food left over, there are lots of imaginative recipes to try for using it up.

You could even use the money saved to sponsor a January FOCUS in a target ward for May’s local elections, and help deliver it to walk off all those mince pies.

Reduce, reuse, recycle, and have a MeRRRy Christmas!

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7 Comments

  • Malcolm Todd 20th Dec '11 - 2:20pm

    Doesn’t that oft-quoted one-third figure include things like potato peelings, chicken bones, etc.? I’m sure you can use them if you’re starving, but do we have to eat like we’re starving?

  • A few years ago I realised that shopping for the “just in case” visitors was a waste of money and food. Mostly they don’t come and if they do they’ve already been fed or are going on to a meal elsewhere. Now I treat Christmas as a weekend with a few extra treats and we enjoy it just as much.
    MeRRRy Christmas indeed to one and all!

  • Paul Walter Paul Walter 20th Dec '11 - 4:32pm

    It depends on the potato and the state of the skin, and what you are cooking, but I often eat potato skins, they are supposed to be one of the most nutritious parts of the potato.

    http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-the-nutritional-value-of-the-potato-skins.htm

    Chicken bones make excellent soup – although there are obviously residue bone remains left at the end of the soup-making process.

    http://caloriecount.about.com/chicken-bones-nutritional-benefits-q12126

    This WRAP document goes into the details of the thinking behind that “one third” estimate:

    http://wrap.s3.amazonaws.com/the-food-we-waste.pdf

    UK households waste 6.7 million tonnes of food every year, around one third of the 21.7 million tonnes we
    purchase. Most of this food waste is currently collected by local authorities (5.9 million tonnes or 88%). Some
    of this will be recycled but most is still going to landfill where it is liable to create methane, a powerful
    greenhouse gas. The remaining 800,000 tonnes is composted by people at home, fed to animals or tipped
    down the sink.
    􀂄 Most of the food we throw away (4.1 million tonnes or 61%) is avoidable and could have been eaten if it had
    been managed better. Truly unavoidable food waste, like vegetable peelings, meat carcasses and teabags,
    accounts for 1.3 million tonnes a year or 19% of the total, with the remainder being ‘possibly avoidable’ food
    waste – items such as bread crusts that some people choose not to eat and potato skins which can be eaten
    when food is prepared in certain ways but not in others.

  • For “Just in case” visitors its best to get stuff that can go in the freezer – either leftovers of what you’re already having, or something you can freeze immediately and defrost only as/if necessary, particularly perishable things like bread so you can only get it out as needed. Contrary to what they tell you, apart from pork, most things can be stored in the freezer for over a year (though if you’re keeping things that long it is a bit of a waste of energy running such a big freezer!) – even cheese can be frozen though it goes a bit crumbly and dried out after – fine if you’re only going to use it for grating anyway. Other “just in case” recipes can use dried or canned food – dried lentils can be boiled up very quickly to make soups and stews, and other pulses can also be revived quickly if you have a pressure cooker. My boyfriend keeps a can of “emergency sardines” in the cupboard for if I turn up and eat him out of house and home… only trouble being he’s rediscovered he rather likes sardines and keeps eating them himself! Things like tinned tuna, ham, corned beef etc. can fit the bill for a swift cold buffet lunch. And of course there are the vegetables that keep “forever” out of the fridge: potatoes, onions, swede, beetroot, parsnips, pumpkins and other hard-skinned squashes that last well if kept somewhere cool (but not freezing) and dark to make a swift roasted veg meal / side dish, hearty soup or vegetable curry (that Pataks curry paste is useful) or just a baked potato-and-something. I find the possibilities endless… but then no useable food ever left our family table – it was either eaten by whoever was”family dustbin” at the time, or went back in the fridge for the next day. Even bread crusts were cubed by my mum and frozen, to fry as croutons to make our soup look posh!

  • Lorna Dupre 22nd Dec '11 - 2:02pm

    Thanks for the interesting and informative comments, everyone. Malcolm, as Paul shows in his comment, things like peelings and bones account for less than 20 per cent of our food waste; and there’s nothing better than a good soup made from the carcass from a roast (I’m looking forward to lots of lovely turkey soup in late December and early January!). Wise advice from Maureen and some excellent ideas from Bryony too. Liberal Eye – you’re absolutely right that the supermarkets are the only winners in this. As for misleading pricing, soft fruit like peaches and strawberries has never been sold at anything other than ‘half price’ in my local supermarkets for the last three years! Half of what price?! Clearly labelled designed to mislead customers into thinking they’re getting a bargain.

    One other point I didn’t have space to make in my original piece: I blame the decline of school cookery lessons for a lot of this – as a nation we’re now on our second generation of people who don’t know the most basic thing about cooking anything that hasn’t got a microwaveable film lid on it.

  • Sid Cumberland 22nd Dec '11 - 2:04pm

    Cheese: most French cheese is almost ready to eat when it’s reached its use by date.

    Chicken: buy a good one, and get three meals out of it: a roast chicken dinner, a chicken salad, and soup made with chicken stock and seasonal vegetables.

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