Freeze more, buy less: ways to reduce food waste and save money

Bread, fruit, vegetables and salad continue to be the most wasted food in Irish households

Having spent nothing on food in February, Caitlin Weich lists the ways in which the shelf life of food can be extended, or how foods deemed “end of life” by supermarkets can be bought cheaply but still perfectly safe to eat.

“It was disconcertingly easy,” says the 29-year-old writer, who is based in Stoneybatter, Dublin. “In a normal month of eating out and getting takeaways and more fancy foods, I’d spend €400 a month on food,” she says.

Weich is the author of the Wasteless Wanderess blog and successfully completed the fregan February challenge by living off end-of-life “yellow sticker” foods rescued from the supermarket as an Olio app volunteer or food that was donated to her.

“With Olio you don’t have to sign up to be a volunteer, you can sign up to the app and people are giving away food that they’re not going to eat. Someone was moving and had half a bag of lentils, someone else was moving and had peanut butter and gave us that,” Weich says.


There are many other ways to go about spending less and reducing food waste, including learning how to store and freeze meats, fruits and vegetables to make them last longer. “It’s the €2 pack of sausages that you put in the freezer instead of letting it go off in the fridge. Broccoli stems are delicious. We should never throw them away. Peel off the woody bits, and then treat the inside the same as the broccoli.

“If you think of the stem as a quarter of the broccoli, and a head of broccoli is 60 cents, that’s 15 cents you’re throwing away every time if you’re not using it,” she says.

Storing some vegetables in water works, too, Weich says. Celery, for example, can be treated like a bunch of flowers: “Stand it in a centimetre of water in a jar to cover the roots and it’ll keep growing, it’ll stay crunchy for longer.

“The same happens with leeks, scallions and spring onions. It really is that easy. Don’t put lemons in the fridge, as is. Put them in submerged in water. They’ll last up to three months and they’ll keep their flavour.”

Such conversations may once have been niche, but no longer. For years the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) urged people not to waste food because of the environmental consequences. Now that message has been put aside. In a world where prices are rapidly rising, the EPA's focus will be on the €700 a year that is wasted by every family in the State from throwing away 150kg each.

"In 2009 in the recession, money saving was the message; then in recent years the environment was the message; and now we're back full circle again," says Odile Le Bolloch, of the EPA's Food Waste Prevention Team.

Bread, fruit and vegetables, and unused salad remain the most wasted foods in the EPA’s 2020 national food waste attitudes survey, with empty nesters throwing away the least amount of food. A fifth of this group never throw anything out. The 25-34 age bracket threw out the most, particularly fruit, vegetables, dairy, potatoes and meat. Two in five in this grouping want to waste less but say they do not know how.

Food storage

Elaine Butler, a Dublin mother of two who writes the Living Lightly in Ireland blog, shops for fruits and vegetables twice a week, letting supplies run low regularly so that spoilage is avoided.

Everything can find a place in the freezer, she says, from bread to jars of leftover fresh herbs, pine nuts and lemon slices. “We freeze all our bread. I make the kids’ sandwiches with frozen bread, for example.

“I just take it out of the freezer when I’m making the sandwiches in the morning and it defrosts by the time they eat it at lunch. When I started off trying to reduce food waste I researched how to store everything.

“People put everything in fridges but onions and tomatoes shouldn’t go into fridges, for example. We think of the fridge as a magic box that will take care of everything, but it doesn’t.”

“Keep potatoes, garlic and onions in a dark, dry place. We keep ours in closed paper bags near the back door,” she says, adding that spinach and mushrooms stay fresher in the fridge if stored in bowls covered with tea towels.

“You’re trying to allow the vegetable or fruit to give off moisture without trapping it. The tea towel will absorb some of the moisture but won’t make the fruit or vegetable wet like a plastic bag would.”

Spinach kept in a plastic bag will quickly turn into “a spludgy mess”, so the tea towel cover helps: “If you need to extend the life a little longer you can put in a sheet of kitchen paper in the bottom of the bowl, as well.”

Kitchen habits

She has a solution for mushrooms, too: “For me they were always going slimy or drying out. I put them in a bowl, put a tea towel in the bottom and flip the ends of the tea towel over the mushrooms, so they’re wrapped in a tea towel duvet.”

Kitchen habits help, too. Butler has an “eat me first” shelf in her fridge, which everyone in the family knows to use first. Regularly, she cooks soups, stirfrys or curries to use up leftovers.

“If it’s freezable, all the better. And then if we’ve three or four leftover dinners in the freezer we have a leftover night and everyone gets a different dish. It’s a night off cooking,” she says.

Smarter shopping habits also play a part. Never buy ripe fruit, she warns, because often it will have started to go off by the time you get to eat it. “If I start seeing [lemons] about to turn, I quarter or slice them and put them into the freezer, so you can use for fish or a slice for your gin and tonic. I used to always freeze the rind separately for whenever for baking,” she went on.

Equally, people must learn to buy for “their real self”, Butler says.

"So you bought the ingredients to cook a Jamie Oliver recipe but then Wednesday evening rolls around and all you want is the grilled cheese sandwich.

“If that’s happening regularly, then shop for the grilled cheese sandwiches and forget about the Jamie Oliver recipe. Be realistic about what you eat. If you hate salads, leave the lettuce on the shop shelf.”