Reducing household food waste

This week, I took part as in interviewee this week in a very interesting  Food Waste research study about household food waste and was shocked to think about some of the statistics.

“Research by the NSW Government shows that the average NSW household throws out $1,036 of food per annum. In looking at food waste around Australia, Do Something calculates that Australians throw out $7.8 billion of food every year. That’s a huge waste of money! “(Food Wise)

Although in our household, we put some scraps in the worm farm, not having chickens anymore means that I dispose of a lot more that I would like to at the moment.  It was reassuring to feel that personally, I think we’re doing okish. It made me very keen to hurry up and establish a garden compost area, that’s for sure. Once I stopped to think about what I wasted, even though I make conscious efforts not to waste food, I decided I wasn’t going to leave my efforts at being interviewed.

What I found particularly interesting is beginning to really see the psychology around food waste –  I  realised that this was the angle  coming through the via the interview questions.

I had a moment of realisation that my philosophy around food could do with a bit of tweaking because:

Composting food that was edible into your garden or worm farm, just because it started to spoil before you ate it – is still a gross waste!

my kitchen

If your worms eat food that went off because it languished in the cupboard or fridge, it is a waste of an edible resource that has taken a lot of energy to produce, travel and store for consumption.  If you consider that parts of the worlds population suffer from hunger and starvation,  you start to realise that managing food waste is not just about composting and recycling. It is more importantly to look at purchasing and storage. Buying perishables in quantities that you actually need to use or learning to store them properly to reduce spoilage, preserve them for future use. Never buying something you won’t use, just because it’s a bargain. 

Changing habits.

So, my brain has been ticking over since Wednesday, I’ve decided to try and turn this into a project of sorts for our household.

Think about it. If we are on average, spending $1000 a year on wasted foods to line our bins, or feed our worms our fertilise our garden, we definitely should be motivated to make changes to the way we buy and store food. Not just for the environment, and ethical reasons, but for our household budget.

My little plan for little changes

The average weekly shopping bill in Australia is apparently around $200 week;  $400 a fortnight.

I think I maybe spend less than average on our food ($140 per week for a family of 4 which includes fruit and veg,  fresh and frozen plain seafood, lean meat). I’ve not included nappies or cleaning items  etc.. in this.

Changes I have already made

About a year ago, I consciously stopped buying all pre-processed food for the freezer, and ready-made sauces and packets. No pasta sauces (except the odd jar of pesto until my basil takes off) . It makes things slightly trickier, but I have always had a well stocked spice cupboard, as as long as you keep your stocks of basic staples up, making your own sauces is really only a tiny bit more time intensive. The quality of the fresh fruit and veg went up as I stopped purchasing it from a supermarket.  (I love going to the local farmers market, but doing a family sized shop on a Saturday morning with two young children is quite difficult). Approximately 50% of our food budget is on fresh veg and fruit (from First Froots which is market fresh and stores easily for a fortnight and longer).  This bill will drop over spring and summer as our veggie patch starts providing, particularly this year with the big beds.

a cheeky meal from my veg patch

I buy less meat that ever before, despite our family being larger now and pad it out with things like lentils. I just don’t feel the need to eat lots of meat. I’ve always been a lover of vegetarian meals and have always used chick peas and other pulses for adding volume to meat meals too. We eat red meat and chicken on average, once a week and fish  2-3 times a week – veggies are consumed daily.

I also changed my concept of fast food by buying a tiered steamer just after my second child was born. Fast food in our house (if I haven’t thought about dinner) is steamed vegetables and fish (15 mins) or alternatively, on the cook top I like to make something like a quick lentil dahl (25 mins) using tinned lentils.

Sometimes we get Chinese takeaway on a Saturday night and this is really our entertaining budget and is a nice treat, so I’m not seeking to change this just yet, however it is of course a waste to buy takeaway, if you then waste edible food because it wasn’t used. Hmm. That’s one to think about, especially as I have all the lovely flavours for Chinese stir fry in the cupboard. Still, it is nice not to have to cook on a Saturday night.

I am home during the day at the moment, but I mostly don’t start cooking until just before 5 as I’m all doing housework or gardening . I’m not great at cooking during the day or even thinking about food beyond the next day.

Change 1: If I planned ahead more, I know I could consume less, so this is my first change to  make. Meal planning.

Meal planning. It strikes terror into me. I don’t want to think about food that much! It must be done. If I can properly pre-plan 3 meals a week this will be a significant change for me. By meal planning, I could reduce my dependence on tinned chick peas and lentils as I could use the supply of dry pulses that I have, but hardly ever use because I never think ahead.

Another thing of dread – school lunches! I have a daughter about to start school and need to get creative with lunches as I have so far managed to send no pre-prepared food in the three terms at kindy. I make her kindergarten lunch twice a week which is:

  • wrap or sandwich (with cheese, spinach or rocket leaves, tomato, cucumber, sprouts, tiny bit of ham or chicken, hummous and tsatiski) or couscous salad
  • snacks: chopped veggie sticks, plain popcorn (popped in the morning using brown bag method), sultanas, pepitas, rice crackers, plain yoghurt
  • fruit

This is the same as our lunches at home, except sometimes I also cook pasta or rice or couscous at lunch as my 16 month old isn’t a sandwich or salad fan yet. It’s going to be harder when it’s 5 days a week instead of 2 and I’m going to have to start making flapjacks or muesli bars. I do buy oat-based ones for home and have avoided sending these in her lunchbox as I know she will eat them first. At the moment, it’s usually only the small tupperware tub of yoghurt that comes homes and is wasted. Everything gets eaten at kindy, or as a “picnic” when at home. Also, part of being at home was an idea that I could help my husband out by making him a lunch to take to work, but so far, this hasn’t happened. Making lunches 5 days a week for school, I’m hopefully that I can make all four of a packed lunch so that we all eat the same thing regardless of where we are. That means no more dilemmas about whether to make a big filling tea, or something light because we’ve all eaten differently at lunchtime.

Change 2: Routinely making some time to make more: muesli and grain bars, biscuits and dips

Also, although removing most of the pre-processed food from our shopping significantly reduced our bill but I could go lower. My approach to shopping is to buy premium quality but less of it. So I would rather use less cheese but have great stuff, rather than a giant block of average cheese. The block I buy is $8 – $9 which is very expensive, but it has less salt than all other cheeses which is very important to me and I just cut it very thin!  I would find it hard to compromise on this, particularly my preference for local or farm dairy foods; I like to buy A2 milk; local free-range eggs; free range local ham and premium cloudy juices. I still buy pre-made hoummous and tsatsiki, and biscuits and crackers. I do make sure that I have a tin of spaghetti and baked beans in the cupboard for emergencies, but again, I do have the ingredients to make my own, so I could change this.  I know I could spend less on shopping if I properly monitored it and planned more and also make better sized batches, freeze them and not have the ‘use by’ issue, especially with dips. One challenge at the moment is that my oven currently doesn’t work and I’m finding that difficult in terms of it being tricky to bake or make large batches of meals like moussaka to freeze ahead, but I have been using the Weber Q to ‘bake’ using the indirect method. Cooking outside is harder though, but as the weather gets warmer, this will get easier and eventually I’ll sort out the kitchen oven!

Steamed market-fresh simple veg – my favourite fast food

Change 3: Learn more about which fresh fruit and vegetables are suitable to freeze and the techniques for freezing them.

As I don’t buy frozen pre-prepared foods, I have a large freezer which currently only has icecream, a few loaves of bread, some sausages,  plain fish fillets, frozen berries and some homemade breadcrumbs. I buy so little meat that I only freeze meet for about a week before taking it out to use. I almost wish I could turn it off, but I think a better strategy would be to put it to better to use. I use the freezer to preserve cooked foods, but my knowledge gaps is with using it to preserve any fresh produce (fruit and veg) that I might not use straight away. (e.g this week I have half a bunch of celery left that I just haven’t been able to use and it went off. There are techniques to freezing celery and had I known them, I could have put the unused celery into the freezer when I used the first half at the start of the week – duh!) This will be important knowledge for me if my veg patches turn out as big as I intend!

Change 4: Accountability – I’m going to try and keep track of food and food waste in my household over Spring and Summer and perhaps even keep an honest tally of what is thrown away.

I think this is really the only way to get a good concept of what we do waste. I’d love to work out how much money we save and then do something cool with that money.

I’d love to spend closer to $100 a week, and even less than that in the height of the veggie patch growing season. I don’t know if that’s unrealistic. I’ve found a blog called $120 food challenge by Sandra Reynolds with tips for feeding your family for $120 a week. I’m very excited about this idea.

I also know from the experience that my worst track record for buying convenience food was when I worked full time, before having children. I know that when I’m back in full-time work with 2 school -aged children, all of this idealism may seem like a rosy phase in the dim distant path. It gets so hard when you are not in the house by day. However,  this is why I want to change my apparent hate for meal planning now. Now is the time for change. If I can teach myself to plan meals, then it will be less of a chore, and then when I do end up back in full-time work, I’ll have taught myself tips and techniques to keep going.

Small steps, small changes and slowly. Let’s see how we go.

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