Joyce Fegan: How to stop festive food waste and dish up Christmas crackers with leftovers

Joyce Fegan chats to Darina Allen, who is passionate about ending food waste. the chef urges people to be more mindful about their food and suggests alternatives to binning leftovers
Joyce Fegan: How to stop festive food waste and dish up Christmas crackers with leftovers

A report from the Environmental Protection Agency shows that every household in Ireland is throwing out €700 in food waste every year.

People that lived in our country once starved to death.

Today, we buy food, forget to use it and then spend more money paying private bin companies to take it away.

A report from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) shows that every household in Ireland is throwing out €700 in food waste every year, the equivalent of nearly two return flights to New York or the cost of taxing and insuring your car for the year.

The €700 that we throw out is also the equivalent of 250,000 tonnes of food waste. And at Christmas, this excess reaches an extreme.

But money aside  — why care about food waste? It’s not as bad as plastic sitting in landfill for 400 years, or is it?

Food waste is actually the third-largest contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions, with 3.3 billion tonnes of CO2 being emitted from it every single year.

But what if we compost it?

Less than half of Irish households actually have access to a brown bin and, even when they do, a recent study found that almost 50% of household organic waste is still being disposed of in the “wrong bins” (ie the recycling or black bin).

Said another way, we buy food in a supermarket and then pay more money to send it to landfill.

Bread is most wasted food

The EPA report found that bread is the most wasted food, followed closely by vegetables, fruit and salad.

The report also found that 90% of people said they are not good at keeping on top of what they have in their fridge.

And the main reason we throw food out at home is because it has passed its “use-by date” - 68% of people say this.

The main reason we throw food out at home is because it has passed its “use-by date”
The main reason we throw food out at home is because it has passed its “use-by date”

Almost 50% of us are not aware that you can freeze food right up until the use-by date.

The €700 in food waste and the greenhouse gas emissions aside, there is one other environmental cost associated with getting food into our trolleys.

The equivalent to 28% of the world’s agricultural area, or 200 Irelands, is used to produce food that is then lost or wasted. So a third of our collective agricultural food production work is going to waste.

But much like stopping smoking, food activists say that no amount of fear, guilt or shame will make people change their behaviour when it comes to food waste.

A positive approach works better.

Lockdown leftovers

Another EPA survey in September found that 29% of people said they had wasted less food during lockdown.

Lunch was more likely to be leftovers from the night before as opposed to a takeaway sandwich from a shop near your workplace.

And in four European countries, during lockdown, 70% of people said they were throwing away almost no food. In normal times, it’s usually 35% of people with no food waste.

Lockdown had the effect of making us more mindful and intentional with our food. In Ireland, we bought certain and a certain amount of foods with a specific recipe in mind.

Bord Bia found that eggs surged in popularity in Ireland during lockdown.

So far in 2020, 656 million eggs have been bought, an 11% increase on 2019.

And that figure was at 20% in the first lockdown when people passed their time baking banana bread and loaves of sourdough.

The question is whether we can take these positive changes, which were forced on us because of Covid-19, into Christmas.

Darina Allen is so passionate about reducing food waste that she would welcome a phonecall from anyone wanting to know about repurposing leftovers.
Darina Allen is so passionate about reducing food waste that she would welcome a phonecall from anyone wanting to know about repurposing leftovers.

To do so, we need to change our mind set, says Darina Allen, as well as find fun, creativity and connection in the process of reducing our waste and repurposing our leftovers.

“The satisfaction you get from repurposing food, the feel-good factor from using up everything is amazing. It's not something to be ashamed of; it’s something we should be proud of,” says Darina. “Never say: ‘That's just leftovers’.” 

Working with, and teaching and writing about food for many years, Darina is now so passionate about reducing food waste that she would welcome a phone call from anyone wanting to know about repurposing leftovers.

“If anyone wants to ring me about leftovers, and I mean that, they can ring me up and ask me about them.

“Food waste doesn’t make sense on any kind of level. If you're a farmer or a food producer or a gardener, it really brings it more into focus. You realise the effort that grows into growing, rearing or cooking something, it's such a pity to waste any little thing.

“I say to students to have an image of tearing up a pound note, these little bits can add up to a holiday in Ballybunion at the end of the year. These 10ps and pound notes add up. It makes no sense economically and it’s an insult to growers,” she said.

She describes the problem of food as a mind-set issue. Having grown up in a family of nine children, throwing out any tiny bit of food was “almost a sin, it was completely unacceptable”.

Her mother had a great skill of making “all sorts of delicious and creative foods” out of leftovers.

To this day, Darina will use every single piece of a chicken, right down to its giblets and feet.

She believes we throw food out “from sheer carelessness” and that, if we could just “flick a switch in our brain”, we could tackle this environmental and economic problem.

“We need a change in mind set. You need to have some sort of button you can press in your head or to flick a switch in your brain,” she says.

What would that switch be? She suggests “training” and “challenging” ourselves.

Challenging behaviours toward food

This Christmas, every time you go to throw out food, ask yourself: ‘Do I really need to throw this out?’ This Christmas, every time you go to throw out food, challenge yourself to make something with it instead.

This is where the creativity and fun can come in.

After two days of big meals, not everyone wants to sit down all over again with a knife and fork. Small bites and suppers can work well over Christmas.

Leftovers lend themselves well to this — using equal parts cheese, bread and flour, you can make lovely “cheesy bites”, says Darina.

Bread is our most wasted food but there are recipes in which you can use it even if it is gone stale.
Bread is our most wasted food but there are recipes in which you can use it even if it is gone stale.

As bread is our most wasted food, she has several other ideas.

You can soak so-called stale bread in olive oil and then place it in a greased tin and cover it with some nice tomato sauce and some cheese and bake it and you have a “deep pan pizza”.

Other suggestions are to crouton your bread for soups and salads or turn it into breadcrumbs for a gratin or goujons.

When it comes to leftover cooked vegetables, Darina suggests making a batter and then frying them, like a sort of vegetarian toad-in-the-hole.

For uncooked vegetables, soup is the big answer here and you can use every part of the vegetable, from the whole leek to the leaves on cauliflower.

More sociably, you could reach out to your neighbour or a friend and suggest having a leftover party, where everyone makes something and brings it along.

Other ideas, are fermenting, preserving or pickling foods over Christmas.

Putting a value on food

Darina believes that, if people even grew a herb on their kitchen window sill, they would value the work that goes into growing food.

“Overall, and this is not a politically correct thing to say, but most food is far, far too cheap. It’s easy come, easy go. We’ve too little respect for it. If we paid farm workers and farmers a proper wage, that would change things,” says Darina.

At Ballymaloe, Covid-19 brought about changes. Far more people shopped at their local farm shop and were especially interested in sourdough bread and fermented foods such as kimchi and kombucha. She says she noticed a lot more “mindfulness” around food that she has never seen before in Ireland.

Another change at Ballymaloe was the need to go online, with the school placing many of their courses online for the first time. People can take out month-long memberships and pick and choose different trainings.

Food waste and Christmas aside, Darina points out that what we eat is central to our health and being mindful about it will do more than cut down our bin charges.

“Think about each bite of food. I read a quote the other day: ‘Every time you eat or drink, you are either feeding disease or fighting it”.

Christmas food waste tips

  • 1. Plan: make a list and check it twice, check your list against what you already have in your cupboards. Check for room in your freezer. Check for containers to store leftovers in. Look up some interesting leftovers recipes you can look forward to turning a supper into.
  • 2. Plan portions: how many people are you cooking for? It is recommended that you need 450-600 grams of turkey (on the bone) per person, so if you’re only cooking for four people, big accordingly.
  • 3. Be aware of deals. The bags of carrots might be three for €2, but are you just buying them because of the offer or because you need that many carrots? Be aware of a deal where you’re going to buy excess food that you’ll just end up paying more money to get rid of it.
  • 4. Bulk buying isn’t necessary, most shops are only closed for two days.
  • 5. Think about the New Year and resolutions you can make - learn to pickle or preserve food, batch cook meals and soups or learn about composting.
  • 6. Grown your own salads or herbs. Plastic bags of salad leaves and herbs are some of the most wasted food in Ireland. Buy pots of herbs for your windowsill and grow your own supply.
  • 7. Batch cook but batch cook food you’ll look forward to eating, or meals you freshen up with spinach leaves or tomatoes such as a vegetarian curry.
    * For more information on all food waste and composting see: stopfoodwaste.ie

FoodCloud tips

FoodCloud is an Irish non-profit social enterprise whose vision is one of a world where no good food goes to waste.

To this end, they work with supermarkets nationwide and collect surplus food which is redistributed to various charities and community groups.

Here are some of their tips to help reduce food waste at Christmas:

  • 1. Store potatoes outside of their bag to help them last longer 
  • 2. Broccoli and cauliflower can be frozen for up to one year 
  • 3. Keep carrots loose in the fridge to help them last longer 
  • 4. Organise a leftover feast with friends over Christmas 
  • 5. Share your surplus - tell your neighbours that you have something spare that you don’t want going to waste 
  • 6. Food scraps, leftover vegetables and herb stalks, make great stock 
  • 7. In line with the EPA’s new campaign, freeze, freeze, freeze your food

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