If you’ve followed The Urban Nanna for a while, you’ll know that we’re always banging on about reducing waste, and that’s cos we know not only how much of an environmental waste management is, but we also know how damn challenging it can be to feel confident when you’re trying to work out how to reduce your waste output. So we started with a general list of ways you can reduce your single-use plastic waste, and now we’re stepping in to offer a guide-beside bit of support to hopefully help you feel a bit less lost, and a lot more hopeful, starting with a list of ways to help reduce food waste.
How long have humans been managing food waste?
The concept of ‘recycling’ has been around for thousands of years, but in the distant past, it wasn’t about being virtuous or considering environmental impact. Most often, it was through economic or physical necessity: what people used, they worked for, so they were invested in getting the most out of everything. This was definitely true for physical materials like timber, clay and fabric, but it was equally important when it came to consumables like food and drink.
An old saying goes “When you have a pig, you should use everything but the squeal”, meaning that when an animal was dispatched for human consumption, every last piece of that animal was used and valued. Similarly, bread was historically a highly valued product, with recipes and methods for using up every last scrap and crumb being widely known and incorporated into food culture around the world.
When you consider the energy embodied in managing animals and grain crops for human consumption – the infrastructure, the equipment, the labour, the resources, the time – and then consider the practicalities of life for the greater working class of humanity over the past ten centuries… it becomes easier to see why people valued the foods in their lives more highly.
The negative bit
With the state of the environment being what it is (up muck-creek with a verrrry flimsy paddle), and the recent amplifications of supply-chain challenges (the pandemic has merely sped up predicted global issues), it has become increasingly important that humans take stock of where we’re at, and make some small but impactful alterations to the way we exist.
The thing is, change is hard. And life is hard. And change requires time. But we don’t *have* time, because that requires money so we can take time off work, but then we need to work so we can make the money to take the time to make the change, but, but, but…… it’s all a bit of a sticky mess, to be perfectly frank.
Unfortunately, idealistic views about ‘just getting off-grid and living off the land’ are largely impractical and unachievable, because the world has been industrialised so much that there is very little out there with enough to support humans without intervention. And, to be honest, the privilege (and money) required to enable people to invest in getting off-grid is absolutely massive, and attainable to very few.
The positive bit
All this heavy thinking is a bit much to stomach on a Monday morning, it’s true. So let’s take a moment to reframe things and look at it through a different lens. What we want is to get to a place in our thinking where we recognise that Big Things need to be done, but that it’s Small Things that make up Big Things in the first place.
Be like the ocean
Let’s look at the analogy that all humankind is like the ocean. The ocean may be considered as one body of water, but it’s actually made up of billions and billions of water molecules. And whilst as a whole it covers over 70% of the earth’s surface, it’s the individual waves made by smaller groups of molecules that actually shape the landscape around and under the ocean. Those waves can shift sand and living creatures, carry seeds to new lands, and break down huge solid rocks into tiny grains of sand over time, simply by repeating their relatively small, rolling actions.
Yes, this ocean is being impacted by external forces – tidal pull, melting glaciers & icecaps – but don’t forget that all those little waves have the power to bring about great change. So too can we: by slowly and repeatedly making choices in favour of positive climate action, and encouraging others to do the same, we can be a part of social change that has the power to bring about huge structural change in the world we live on.
Enough of the philosophy – how do I reduce food waste?!
Righto! That all got a bit more in-depth than expected, so we’ll just leave the philosophical stuff there for now and get on with a whole stack of ways to help reduce food waste at home. Don’t think you have to do all of them at once, or even ever – even doing one of these things from now on will have positive ramifications in the war against waste. If you’re interested in how and why incremental goal-setting works, we wrote some interesting stuff here. But for now – here’s some inspiration!
Plan ahead & think big
- ‘Shop’ at home first. Frame your meal planning & shopping lists around what you already have.
- Have regular “home foraging” weeks to clear through what’s in the fridge, freezer, pantry and garden. Set yourself the challenge to buy no new ingredients for a week or two and create meals using only what’s already in the house.
- Shop for ingredients at ‘bulk food stores’ like The Source or Thrive. This allows you to buy *only* what you require, and reduces the amount of food thrown out because it’s gone off or gotten a bit stale. Many supermarkets now have sections you can do this in too, but they often provide plastic bags to use – try to avoid that waste by using paper bags instead, or bring those bags to reuse each time.
- If you can’t buy small amounts of what you need, you could try buying in bulk instead (this reduces packaging), and then sharing with friends or neighbours to share the cost and prevent food from going stale before you use it.
Learn to value & store food properly
Learn to store food well in the fridge.
- Use what you have or can get secondhand. Use glass jars, plastic containers, beeswax wraps, plates, reuse plastic bags… there are uses for all these and more. Here are some examples.
- Glass jars. Use for berries, cherry tomatoes, grapes, cut vegetables & fruits, cheese, rice, pasta, dried fruits & vegetables, nuts & seeds, flour, leftovers (both in fridge & freezer – more on that shortly), stock, smoothies, salads, puddings, cereals, pastes, muesli bars & sweet treats…. Getting the picture that jars are useful for just about anything??
- Plastic containers. I prefer these for fridge & freezer storage, as I find that no matter how ‘good’ the seal, a little bit of oxygen (and pantry moth grubs if you’re unlucky) gets into containers in the pantry. I particularly like them for storing meat, sweet treats and vegetables. A large tub in the veggie crisper helps cucumbers, capsicum and zucchini stay fresher for much longer
- Beeswax wraps. I find these most useful in covering smaller open containers like bowls or cups when I put them in the fridge. They’re also good for transporting sandwiches instead of snap-lock bags, and are great for covering large dishes like quiche or pie trays.
- Plates. I use flat plates to store fruit & veg with just one cut surface. Simply plonk the cut surface down onto the plate, into the fridge, and it’ll last for ages. It took me 2 months to work through a butternut pumpkin as I’d just cut off a disk every time I needed some, and the rest would go back on the plate. We also use plates (and saucepan lids) as makeshift covers on top of bowls, cups and dishes in the fridge.
- Reuse plastic bags. If you’ve got them, put them to work! Useful for storing carrots, parsnip & radish (which go wibbly quite quickly otherwise).
- Vases. For all leafy, stemmy veg, chuck them into a vase or glass jar with water and store in the fridge. Broccoli lasts for over two weeks for us this way, and celery too.
Learn to freeze food well.
- A well-stocked freezer is a beautiful luxury, but you can fill quickly if you learn to do it effectively.But it’s also very easy to forget what’s in there. Keep track of what you have in the freezer with a notebook or a whiteboard on the side of the freezer.
- Ice cube trays. If you only use half a can of coconut milk, freeze the rest in ice-cube trays. Same with curry pastes, tomato paste and homemade stock too (if you know you’re not going to use them up in a few weeks). And of course lemon or lime juice. Once frozen, pop out the cubes and store them in the freezer in jars, containers or reused plastic bags. You can even freeze milk and yoghurt!
- Leftovers. Rice, curries, soup, stew, compote/stewed fruit, mashed potato or pumpkin, roast veggies, schnitzels, quiche/frittata, mince dishes. Anything that will fit into a jar, container or reused plastic bag.
- Raw meat. Portion out serves and freeze in – you guessed it – jars, containers or reused plastic bags. If it’s mince, you can use small vessels or large ice-cube trays. If it’s sliced stuff (ham, schnitzel, steaks, fish) separate individual serves with home-compostable baking paper in a large container. Keep like with like – ie don’t mix chicken and fish.
- Freeze whole. Works well for bananas, avocados, cherry tomatoes (excellent for making a super quick fried tomato sauce or adding a punch to soups & stews), berries, cherries, chillies, ginger and garlic. Wash and dry before you pop in the freezer, cos washing things once they thaw can get mushy. For small things like berries etc, freezing them laid out on a tray first and then shoveling into a jar/container/bag means they won’t freeze into a clump, so you can take out just a few at a time.
- Freeze in jars. This one freaks people out, but it’s great! Water expands when it freezes, so things high in liquid will need a bit of room in their jar, so don’t overfill them. Our rule is “don’t fill past the shoulder of the jar, and ensure there’s about 2-3cm air/headspace between foodstuff and the lid. Some people freeze with the lid ajar, and then tighten it once the contents have frozen solid. Word of caution with jars: do NOT try to thaw rapidly, or the glass WILL shatter. Either take out and put in the fridge 24hrs before you need it, or place in a bowl of hot (NOW boiling) water for 10 mints or so.
- Learn to preserve food. When ingredients are in abundance (ie it’s their season to be harvested), they’re often cheapest and of top notch quality. Preserving food at that time allows you to catch & store it’s energy for enjoyment in leaner months. Ways of preserving foods include:
Make the most of your food
- Learn to cook from scratch. Learning to cook a variety of recipes and cuisines gives you skills to create meals around the ingredients you have, rather than shopping specifically for a particular meal. Websites like this one can help you.
- Try cooking a new recipe from a different cultural cuisine once a month – by the end of the year, you will have expanded your skill & repertoire by 12!
- Learn about substituting ingredients. There are websites which help you to explore this, but also just think about what ingredients are similar to each other. If you’re unsure about it, Google “can I replace [ABC] with [XYZ]”.
- Use up every part of foods. For example, ALL of a celery can be used, as can lemons. In fact, there’s SO much you can do with lemon scraps, we wrote a whole separate article about it here!
Reimagine your actual food ‘waste’
- Get Scraptastic! Learn to use up food that looks a bit preloved or wibbly, and to reimagine leftovers into new meals. Find lots more on Scraptastic cooking here. We also post regular stories on social media (and there’s a Stories Highlight in our IG profile) called “Would you eat that?”, where we show how much food we use that would probably be considered waste in other households.
- Make loose-leaf tea and filtered, brewed or plunged coffee. The ‘waste’ at the end can be easily composted or scattered around pots or the garden instead of going into landfill.
- Make your own vinegar. Apple scrap vinegar is the most famous of these, but you can also make vinegars from almost any fruit peelings and offcuts, so check out the recipe here and have a play with different ingredients!
- Make fruit sodas. Tepache is the famous Mexican beverage made with pineapple skins & cores, but this is the kind of thing you can do with just about any fruit scraps. Our favourite is mango, strawberry and raspberry.
- Make kvass from burnt toast. Traditionally made with beetroots, this intriguing fermented drink can also be made with burnt toast. It tastes quite a bit like stout beer!
- Make breadcrumbs. Dry old stale bread in the oven as it cools down after cooking, then blitz and store in an airtight jar in the pantry.
- Turn your food waste into garden gold. Consider getting into composting, or get a worm farm happening in the garden, or use a bokashi bin in the kitchen. All these systems are useful for converting food scraps into nutrients to use when growing plants.
- Worms. We made our own worm farm out of tubs found on hard-rubbish piles, and it processes most of the fruit & veg scraps from preserving. In the past, we’ve used old bathtubs as excellent lo-tech wormfarms, and you can use food-grade tubs with holes drilled in all sides simply buried in the ground as another easy alternative. You can buy worm farms new, but they’re not cheap, so look out for them on buy, swap sell groups online. Also keep an eye out on roadsides, cos there’s a startling number of people who don’t want to move house with a full worm farm, and we see on average 2-3 perfectly good units on collection piles every month!
- Compost. Our bins are simple 60L bins with lids. Some were secondhand, some were bought. All of them have the bases sawed off and holes drilled around the sides. They work a treat for cold-composting, and are excellent for renting, cos we just lift them up, stack them together and then bag up the compost when it’s time to move house!
- Bokashi bin. This is a relatively new system for us, and is working well so far. Used to process ALL food scraps – dairy, meat, eggs and all – these bins ferment food scraps into a lump of nutritious organic matter that can be mixed through regular compost to break down twice as fast. Not cheap, but can be found secondhand often.
- If you don’t have room for composting. Check out ShareWaste. It’s a way you can pass your food scraps onto other people who will gladly use it to make compost.
- Make stock. Collect all your veggie scraps & any chicken, beef or fish bones and offcuts (probs don’t mix the meats though) in a container in the freezer. Once full, chuck it all in a large pot, fill with water and simmer for a few hours. Strain into ice-cube trays or jars, and freeze so you’ll never be out of stock again! If using just veggies, you can powder and dehydrate the leftover bits to make your own stock powder too.
- Save eggshells. These can be dried, lightly roasted (at around 100C) and ground up to either add to soil when planting tomatoes (can be useful in preventing blossom-end-rot) or fed to chickens in a mash to help them build strong sheels in future eggs.
There’s a stack of info here, so hopefully you’re feeling inspired rather than overwhelmed.
To paraphrase a great waste warrior, Anne-Marie Bonneau:
“We don’t need a few people doing ‘zero waste’ perfectly; we need millions of people willing to give it a shot.”
Start small. Get good at one thing at a time.
Slow and small solutions are the way to bring about big systemic change.
To help you on your journey, there are lots of resources below for you to look into if you like.
All the best, and let us know how you go!
Our website is full of articles & recipes to help you live a more sustainable life.
It also contains useful resources, as well as info on upcoming workshops, coaching and consulting sessions.
A few particular articles you may be interested in:
Rental Permaculture – what it is and how to begin
A New Year – a discussion about goal-setting and why & how it works best
82 Sustainable Goals –a great list of simple ways to begin living more sustainably
“Use It Up” – all of our scrap-busting recipes listed in one place
And here’s a list of all the zero-waste themed articles we’ve written.
Less Stuff and The Less Waste No Fuss Kitchen – Lindsay Miles
A Family Guide to Waste-free Living – Oberon & Lauren Carter
Use It All – Cornersmith
Waste Not and Waste Not Everyday – Erin Rhodes
The Zero Waste Chef – Anne-Marie Bonneau
Milkwood – Nick Ritar & Kirsten Bradley
The Good Life – Hannah Moloney
Futuresteading – Jade Miles
The Earth Restorer’s Guide to Permaculture – Rosemary Morrow
Retrosuburbia – David Holmgren
Costa’s World – Costa Georgiades
Ferment for Good – Sharon Flynn
Homegrown Homemade 2 – a recent bookazine I edited
Preserves & Pickles – Catherine Atkinson & Maggie Mayhew
The new complete book of Self-Sufficiency – John Seymour
Wildcrafted Fermentation – Pascal Baudar
Wild Fermentation – Sandor Elix Katz
Milk Made – Nick Haddow
Wild Mushrooming – Alison Pouliot & Tom May
Not Just Jam – Matthew Evans
Infuse – Paula Grainger & Karen Sullivan
WEBSITES & SOCIAL MEDIA
Compostable Kate has your answers around compost.
Treading my own Path – Lindsay Miles’ inspiring daily life living with less waste
Spiral Garden – Lauren & Oberon Carter
The zero-waste chef – Anne-Marie Bonneau
Going Zero Waste – Katherine Kellogg
Less Waste, Less Worries – Laura
Cornersmith – Alex & Jaimee
Share Waste – match scraps with composters around the world.
The Source bulk foods – bulk food stores across Australia
CERES organic grocery & bakery – a beautiful social enterprise in Brunswick VIC
Thrive – bulk food stores in Victoria