Waste not: A week without binning food

Carrot peelings, stale pitta, coleslaw: going five days without waste is not easy


It’s the bank holiday. I’m only starting. These wrinkly apples don’t really count. I rehearse all these reasons to no one in particular as I drop the apples into the compost. It’s something I do typically without a second thought, but not this week.

For five days I want to see what it takes to live without binning any food. So I think some second thoughts: how the bees pollinated the flowers on the apple trees, the sun ripened them, how people picked and sorted them; how much energy it took to keep the apples fresh for months, to ship them to the stall where I bought them. All that insect, plant and human effort finishes with the dead end that is me, the consumer who bins the hard-won food.

Guilt on a plate. I fish the apples out, rinse them, slice them into chunks and cook them with maple syrup and cinnamon. Goodbye food waste. Hello stewed apple for breakfast.

We could argue that food waste is freedom from scarcity. Frugality is a throwback to harder times when food was kept in small pantries and the next mouthful wasn’t always a given. Most of us have happily left behind the hard graft of growing and guarding our own food. It has freed humans, many of us women, to do more satisfying things.

Most of us have better things to worry about than a couple of wrinkly apples. We take the abundance for granted. How else could we stomach throwing out a third of the food we buy, the average amount of food waste per household?

But abundance comes with a high price. Three years ago the UN estimated that our wasteful global food system is the third-highest source of greenhouse gas emissions after the US and China. The 1.6 billion tonnes of food wasted every year soaks up enough water to fill lake Geneva three times over. Our diets are also suffering. In our house we don’t bin the Haribo or the Pringles. We are binning the fresh foods we should be eating more of. So how hard is it to stop?

Day One This meal is a show-stopper. After a swim in Seapoint we head to Bullock Harbour and buy a live lobster. “It’s not called Mr Pinchy. It’s called dinner,” I warn a sentimental child. On the way home we buy crab, carrots with tops and a large head of savoy cabbage.

My husband makes a vat of coleslaw with home-made mayonnaise and enough crab salad to feed a much larger family. The byproduct of the mayonnaise are three egg whites in the fridge that need using.

The day ends with the smell of cooking as lobster shell simmers on the hob with the carrot tops and an assortment of vintage vegetables. We’ve kept the carrot peelings in a bowl. I feel certain there’s a deep green corner of the internet that will suggest a use for them.

Day Two The porridge quantities are gauged with much more care and the pot is scraped near-clean. A trip to Ikea does not end with meatballs because I know there is food in the fridge that needs eating. It turns out that one whole egg is all you need to turn three egg whites into pale but passable scrambled eggs.

There is some leftover pasta and sausages fried on a pan and served alongside the anaemic eggs. Not all of it is eaten. I accept defeat.

When the reheated leftovers are leftover it’s time to throw in the towel. My lunch is pale scrambled egg and coleslaw. I’ve had worse. Dinner is butternut squash risotto made with the lobster stock. The carrot peelings are drying out in their bowl on the counter. Recipe website thekitchn.com suggests making crisps, with the promise that I will wish I had a time machine to go back and retrieve all my vegetable peelings to turn them into crisps.

Night falls for a second day with the smell of cooking as the carrot peelings slowly turn crunchy in the oven. They’re fine. But I’ll pass on that time machine.

Day Three A large part of not wasting food is keeping track of what you have, with regular fridge audits, but things get forgotten. That crab salad got pushed to the back and is saved just in time and decanted into a box for lunch. With coleslaw. It is, mercifully, the last of the coleslaw. I’ve found a packet of smoked bacon I’d forgotten about. Spaghetti carbonara for dinner.

Then some timber-hard wholemeal pitta breads are fished out of the bottom of the bread bin. Breadcrumbs are an option but the pittas are so hard I fear for our blender. So instead I snap them into shards, soak them in sweet eggy milk with a half leftover bagel for around an hour then sprinkle it all in sugar and dot the top with butter.

The boys eat it but not with any great enthusiasm. Two half-eaten bowls end up in the fridge.

Day Four Bread pudding instead of toast for breakfast. Then a day away from home and I realise how much hands-on attention needs to be paid to this project. I’m coming back on the train thinking about the tub of rocket wilting in the veg drawer. I should blitz it to pesto with some olive oil and sunflower seeds. Too tired, I eat a bowl of muesli for dinner. Day Five Bread pudding is my new coleslaw. Food waste haters have to enjoy eating something more than once. Warmed with a splash of milk and the last of of the strawberries sliced on top, it feels like more of a treat for breakfast. We’ve ended the five days with a freezer drawer full of stock, an emptier veg drawer and a lighter bin. I’ve thrown out one 300g portion of pasta with sauce and a third of a tub of hummus that time forgot.

There hasn’t been an enormous amount of extra work and I reckon we saved around €30 by eating home-cooked lunches. Low waste week hasn’t made for bad eating (slightly repetitive maybe). Lunch is the rocket pesto over the last of the roasted butternut squash with cheese and kale. Keeping up a near-zero waste regime would be difficult but I’ve learned some new tricks.

“What’s for dinner?” is a daily question in our house. Let’s look in the fridge and figure it out, will be the answer from here on in. Now could someone ask Marie Kondo to write a sequel to her clothes-folding book? The Planet-Changing Magic of Eating Up, anyone?

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