Too much on your plate? Waste not, want not

Mon, Sep 19, 2011, 01:00

Irish consumers throw out 30 per cent of food bought in supermarkets, costing each household more than €1,000 a year. Now the push is on to get us to cut back

WHILE MOST Irish people have a lot less money this year than they did three years ago, shrinking pay packets do not appear to have changed the one habit many people have that could save them thousands of euro each year: wasting food.

Research to be published this morning shows that Irish restaurants will throw out a staggering €125 million worth of food this year, or more than €2.5 million every single week. All told, 63,670 tonnes of food waste makes its way uneaten into our bins from our restaurants. Now if you find it hard to imagine what 63,670 tonnes actually looks like, it might be easier if we said it was the equivalent of 7,959 double-decker buses.

The waste does not stop there. There is also the 30 per cent of food bought in our supermarkets that we throw out because it has gone off or we have gone off the idea of eating it.

According to figures published earlier this year by Stop Food Waste, a programme developed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as part of the National Waste Prevention Programme, food waste arising out of store-bought produce is costing the average Irish household more than €1,000 a year.

The issue of food waste was also raised last week by the European Commission, which pointed out that 179kg of food per person is wasted along the food chain every year in Europe while millions starve across the globe. “This volume of food waste is unsustainable and is an inefficient use of resources. It arises at every stage of the food chain from harvesting to homes. It can and must be reduced with proper awareness and education,” Fine Gael MEP Mairead McGuinness says.

She describes awareness on food waste as very low across the EU and says that for consumers to be proactive about reducing it, they would have to plan shopping carefully, check dates, use leftovers and check portion sizes. Apart from the moral dilemma “where millions die for the lack of food every day, such food waste also represents a massive waste of money in these straitened financial times”, she says.

The latest Unilever research suggests that the problem is as bad in restaurants as it is at home. Many people order too much food and then feel guilty when they are not able to finish what they have been given. The Unilever Food Solutions second World Menu Report, called Sustainable Kitchens: Reducing Food Waste, reports that while a good proportion of the food wasted in Irish restaurants is generated during preparation, Irish diners are responsible for nearly two-thirds of the food wasted out of home.

The research, carried out amongst chefs, operators and consumers, found that 48 per cent of people admitted to regularly over-ordering regularly and leaving food behind. Portion sizing was also identified by diners and chefs as a serious problem, with 34 per cent of people saying the reason they last left food behind them when eating out was because the portion was too big.

When people were questioned by Unilever as to whether or not they would rather leave something off their order because they knew they would not eat it, or opt instead for smaller portions, 52 per cent of those polled said they would like to be given the option of leaving certain items off their order – such as bread or other side orders – even if it meant paying the same price. A further 80 per cent said they would like to see the option of smaller portions available on menus to help curb over-eating and food waste.

The research found that more women than men are likely to leave food behind, with 56 per cent of women regularly leaving food behind, compared with 35 per cent of men. Age is also an important factor when it comes to clearing plates, with an older generation more likely to eat everything they are given while younger people are more likely to order more than they eat and yet feel the most guilty when they cannot eat it.

A campaign has been launched, dubbed Unite Against Waste. It calls for the food-service industry to join forces and work with chefs, restaurants and consumers to take action and address the issue of reducing avoidable food waste with a single voice. It is being rolled out in Ireland and 73 other countries.

“The phrase ‘waste not, want not’ comes to mind,” says Unilever Food Solutions managing director Tracey Rogers. “The findings of the World Menu Report demonstrate that the spotlight on food waste is shifting from in-home to out-of-home. As an industry we’ve got the opportunity to pull together and make a real commitment to take action and reduce food waste. We need to up our game and get better at throwing away less, but we’ll only achieve this if we all work together. All of us have a role to play and need to take responsibility. We simply have to waste less.”

To bring the research findings to life, MasterChefjudge and chef and owner of the Rustic Stone restaurant in Dublin, Dylan McGrath, is creating a “Great Irish Waste” menu. He will take food ingredients that had been thrown out, rejected or deemed inedible and turn them into “delicious restaurant-standard fare that’s fit to serve to paying guests”.

McGrath says that while there will always be unavoidable food waste in a restaurant, such as bones or fat trimmings, there’s a big opportunity to reduce wastage through better communication with customers. “In Ireland we love big portions and our plates piled high. As a chef and restaurant owner, I need to strike a careful balance between portion sizes and waste.

“Even though most of the food in restaurants comes back from customers’ plates and goes in the bin, the majority of diners aren’t fully aware of the environmental or cost implications of that waste. This needs to change. Without customers and consumers shifting their mindset, restaurants will struggle to reduce food waste within their business significantly. We as restaurateurs need to listen to our customers more and understand what they want. If we’re sacrificing quality for quantity in order to retain customers, wastage will always continue.”

When it comes to eating and buying at home, bread, apples, potatoes and salads are the most regularly thrown-out items on Irish shopping lists. It’s not difficult to see how such waste happens. We routinely load up on “special offers” that will never be used and often miscalculate how much rice or potatoes to boil. (It’s probably less than you think.)

Sorting out the problem isn’t difficult, and there’s a lot of useful advice available on such websites as and to help you out. Ultimately, however, it boils down to smart shopping, clever cooking and shrewd storage.

Guilt factor: Do you feel bad about leaving food?

Was hauled over the coals once in an Indian for not finishing. Put me off ever going back there.

Margaret Smith

No, often served too much.

Karen O’Connell

Bad, but not necessarily guilty.

Fergus O’Rourke

Not if I’ve enjoyed what I ate before waving a white flag (napkin). – Rónán Ó Conchúir

Of course not. Once you’re honest about the reasons, the restaurant should be able to take it.

Conal Markey

No, I always ask for a doggy bag! And sometimes the dog gets it too, depending. – Dave Gantly

Nope, I paid, I’ll do what I bleeding like with it. – Mojito Joe

No, I reckon eating more than you need is as much of a waste as throwing it out.

Sarah Lahert

When we dine out, we finish everything, so no guilt attached. I get more worried about how much of a tip I should leave!

Ronan Ward

No, you’re paying so you can do what you want with it . . . Within reason. – Aislinn O’Toole

I used to, but after working in a restaurant I realised portions are standardised and some are just too big for me. Guilt gone.

Louise Bermingham

Sometimes I give serious consideration to asking those nearby if they mind me finishing off their plate! – Steven Daly

Yes, and having worked in restaurants, I can confirm that the staff do mind if you don’t clear your plate. As does Holy God, obvs. – Dr Marc Scully

Cook up a shopping plan

1 MenuPlan your meals for a week. Check the ingredients in your fridge and cupboards, then write a shopping list for just the extras you need. Take your list with you and stick to it when you’re in the store. Don’t be tempted by offers and don’t shop when you’re hungry – you’ll come back with more than you need. Buy loose fruits and vegetables instead of pre-packed ones so you can buy exactly the amount you need.

2 Check the datesIf you are not planning to eat a certain item with a short “use-by” date, look for one with a longer “use-by” date or just plan to buy it on the day you require. Be aware of the meaning of date labels: “use-by” means that the food is only safe for consumption until the indicated day (for example, for meat and fish); “best before” indicates the date up until when the product retains its expected quality. Food products are still safe to consume even after the indicated “best before” day.

3 Remember your budgetWasting food means wasting money.

4 Keep a healthy fridgeCheck the seals and the temperature of your fridge. Food needs to be stored between one and five degrees for maximum freshness and longevity.

5 RotateWhen you buy new food from the store, bring all the older items in your cupboards and fridge to the front. Put the new food at the back to reduce the risk of finding something mouldy in your food storage compartments in a few days’ time.

6 Use up your leftoversInstead of scraping leftovers into the bin, they can be used for lunches the following day, go into the next day’s dinner or be frozen for another occasion. Fruit that is just starting to go soft can be used to make smoothies or even fruit pies. Vegetables that are starting to wilt can be made into soups.

7 Serve small amountsTell everybody at the table that they can come back for more once they’ve cleared their plate.

8 Store food properlyFollow the instructions on the packaging.

9 FreezeIf you only eat a small amount of bread, then freeze it when you get home and take out a few slices a couple of hours before you need them. Likewise, cook foods in batches so that you have meals ready for those evenings when you are just too tired to cook.

10 Turn waste into garden foodSome food waste is unavoidable, so why not set up a compost bin for fruit and vegetable peelings? In a few months you will end up with rich, valuable compost for your plants. If you have cooked food waste, then a kitchen composter will do the trick. Just feed it with your scraps, sprinkle over a layer of special microbes and leave to ferment. The resulting product can be used for houseplants and in the garden.

Source: European Commission