Kitchen Confessions: Reducing Food Waste
It is almost 8pm. I have been avoiding starting the dinner because I’m scared of what I’m going to find in the refrigerator. We haven’t been to shops for more than a week, and to save a little money I am going to try to cook a meal entirely from things we already have in the house.
We are usually careful planners in the kitchen. Every Saturday morning, Elle and I sit at the dining table surrounded by stacks of open recipe books with two sheets of scrap paper – one for the shopping list, the other for the meal plan – and decide what we are going to eat for the week. There are so many things we want to cook, and only about eleven possible chances to eat them (weekday breakfasts and lunches have to be somewhat less creative to fit around our working hours).
Traditionally, this meal planning has been an exercise in excess: one extravagant meal followed by another, beginning with (usually) something very time-consuming on the Saturday, and ending with something fun and easy for Friday. Recipes that we have cooked are stickered and given a rating from 1-4 for future reference.
Recently however, we have been reconsidering some of our cooking habits. Rising food costs and our increasing horror at food waste have forced us to question the number and variety of ingredients we buy for our recipes. Our fascination with discovering new recipes, new ingredients, and new cuisines has cluttered our fridge and larder with a plethora of opened-but-still-mostly-full jars, bottles, tubes, packets, and tubs.
A quick glance in the refrigerator today reveals jars of gochujang, galangal, ginger and garlic pastes, not one but two open jars of chipotle chilli paste, bottles of chilli-garlic, black bean and oyster sauces, and both picked sushi ginger and diced stem ginger in syrup… Things are clearly getting out of hand, and I haven’t even looked in the larder yet.
Many of these ingredients are expensive, and have a significant environmental and human impact: water footprint, food miles, chemicals (unless you buy organic) and workers’ rights concerns. Yet, too often we have found ourselves having to bin these ingredients, unsure when they were opened or whether they have gone off.
The garden adds further complications: as keen vegetable growers, produce in our kitchen often comes in peaks and troughs. Currently we have a glut of tomatoes, courgettes and beetroot. We always try to make the most of our harvests – and recipes like Olia Hercules’ slow-cooked courgette pasta sauce are lifesavers – but too often we have to put some of our hard-earned crops into the compost bin during particularly spectacular gluts.
Prioritising ingredients we already have in the kitchen and the garden has become our primary concern when planning our meals. Simply repeating meals (or batch-cooking) can be a good way to use-up opened ingredients, and cooking multiple meals from the same cookbook is also a great way to finish opened ingredients: Sabrina Ghayour’s and Kwoklyn Wan’s recipe books are particularly good in this way.
However, we are also trying to overcome our dependence on recipes, and so we have also had to start trusting ourselves to create our own meals to use-up our perishables.
And that is why I am standing in front of the fridge, in a state of mild panic. I am suddenly reminded of Edward Norton’s character in Fight Club, embarrassed that his fridge contains only condiments and no actual food.
But I find half a packet of dried noodles, a handful of spring onions, a courgette from the garden, and a few jars of pastes, and manage to throw together a stir-fry; and not a bad one either, if I do say so myself!
I’ve been working on the recipe since, making small adjustments and reducing the quantities to make it more suitable for a lunch, and have now developed a formula I’m happy with. I’m calling it a formula instead of a recipe because all the ingredients are interchangeable, depending on what you happen to have in your fridge, and there’s no ‘wrong’ way of preparing it. You can find my Quick ‘Zero-Waste’ Stir-Fry here.
I’m never going to abandon recipe books, and I am not going to promise I won’t buy more – I already have my eye on another (few) – but cooking will have to become a more considered. I still want to try new recipes, new ingredients, and new cuisines, and I’m still going to be a careful kitchen planner, but I know that this needs to be balanced against the need to avoid waste and shop sensibly (yet ethically).
Reducing food waste in our kitchen is going to be a steep learning curve, but next time I try to create my own meal from whatever I have in the fridge and the larder, I’m going to trust myself just a little bit more.