Top 12 tips to reduce food waste for time-poor people

By Judy Cooper

Image Credit: Taz via Flickr | Creative Commons 2.0


I’ll fess up now. I spent the weekend in a paroxym of guilt having had a clear out of my pantry cupboard and discovering food from over two years ago sticking to the shelf and refusing to budge from its tin.

I know I’m not alone. One-third of the food produced globally is wasted according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). That means one-third of the carbon emissions from the agricultural sector have been produced for no benefit at all. On top of that, food sent to landfill sites creates methane, a far more noxious greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Between 40-50% of the food wasted in European countries is in the home. (If you’d like to know more about the issues check out our guide to the issues)

The FAO estimates each person needs to halve their waste to meet global sustainability goals and I’ve set myself a target to do just that in our house by the end of this year.

But while I’m lucky in that I have a garden big enough for the installation of a composter and some vegetable boxes, I’m hampered by the fact I’m a rubbish cook and I’m always in a hurry which means I don’t have time to meticulously plan, shop and research each meal and leftover recipe.

Still got to start somewhere. So, if you’re like me and on a similar journey here are my top tips gleaned so far in trying to shift those mindless food waste habits even when in a hurry:

1. Include food in your weekly schedule.

Most time-poor people are religious about planning their weekly diary to keep on top of appointments and commitments. So why not jot down what you and your family intend to eat in your diary as well? Write it in your weekly schedule and use it to help create your weekly shopping list. If the shopping list is in your phone calendar, then you’re more likely to have it to hand when you pass the shops rather than buying what you always buy because you can’t remember what’s in the fridge. We’ve all been there! Keep an eye out for REAL’s soon-to-be-available planner to help you achieve your goals.

2. Sunday night detective

Schedule at least one hour on a Sunday night to do a stocktake of what food is already in the cupboard, fridge and freezer. You’ll be surprised at what you find. When on earth did I buy tinned prunes? And more importantly, why????

3. Skip the grocery shop.

Experiment with not doing a grocery shop one week and living on what’s in your cupboard/fridge/freezer. Sure, you might have some strange combinations of meals (baked beans and cauliflower cheese anyone?) but it will focus your mind on what food you already have in your cupboard and force you to be creative in using it all up. This will help create better habits in using up leftovers and only buying what you need.

4. Invest in a soupmaker.

deal for those who either never learnt or don’t have time to cook, these ingenious devices are usually blenders as well. Almost all fruit and vegetables that are ripening quicker than you can eat it can usually be blended into soups or smoothies in less than 15 minutes. Leftover soup can be frozen into handy portion sizes. Perfect for those who have no clue how to make sauce, jam or chutneys!

5. Super-size your weekend cooking.

 I know, I know, weekends are often even busier than weekdays but if you do have a spare Sunday afternoon consider super-sizing a stew, curry or lasagne and freezing half of it so it becomes a meal for another day. Pickling your surplus veg is a healthy, nutritious treat, and reminds you of summer in the winter months and is easier than you think.

6. I’m freezing!

Frozen fruit and vegetables (particularly berries etc) often have a far higher nutrient content than buying fresh from a supermarket because they are frozen immediately after harvesting. Freezing them means you can use a handful at a time and not worry about the rest going off before you need them again. Divide a loaf of bread into daily portions that can be toasted straight from the freezer or thawed overnight for sandwiches.

7. Just a starter thanks.

In restaurants ask about portion sizes beforehand and consider eating a starter and dessert or just a main meal rather than all three. Let’s face it your wallet and your waistline will thank-you as well. My husband goes even further and refuses to order a meal confident that our children, between them, will always leave enough food on their plates for him to hoover up afterwards.

8. Doggy bag.

If you have massively over-ordered in a restaurant (I’m looking at you Friday night curry) then ask if leftovers can be taken home. Curry can easily be frozen and you’ve got another meal done for next week!

9. Don’t bin it.

If your council doesn’t collect your food waste look for alternatives to putting it in the bin. Consider a home composting system if you have the space or a small wormery if you don’t – just remember no onion skins as your new pets won’t like it! Use the lovely, nutrient rich soil produced to grow your own lettuce leaves and fresh herbs that can be picked as and when you need. If you don’t have time for either of these options, send a stroppy letter to your local councillor demanding to know when your council tax will be used for something useful such as food waste collection and asking how they’re going on their recycling and net-zero targets.

10. Use up the cow before the carrots.

Because the carbon emissions of producing meat and dairy are far higher than vegetable farming focus on making sure you use up meat and dairy leftovers first. This becomes much easier if you are only eating meat a couple of days a week or not at all!

11. Snack suppers.

An ingenious invention in our house, Sunday night suppers are ‘snack suppers’ made from any bits and bobs leftover in the fridge and freezer along with cut-up raw vegetables because I can’t be bothered to think of how to cook them. Weird and eclectic, the kids love the odd combinations. While the adults are probably less keen we do like the virtuousness and laziness of not having to cook AND not wasting food.

12. Live on the wild side.

Focus on ‘use-by’ dates and ignore ‘best before’ dates. If it’s only two or three days past the use-by-date then always do a sniff test. Labelling tends to be conservative and you can generally tell if a food is going off just trusting to common sense. Personally, I like to use the green, furry mould sight test and I’ve discovered yoghurt lasts for literally months after its use-by dates!