Don’t throw money in the bin

Smart Consumer: Wasted food? You might as well throw your money in the bin . . .

A bit of forward thinking can mean big savings on shopping bills, writes John Cradden

By John Cradden

Thursday August 25 2011

When money’s tight, there’s no excuse for letting lettuce go to seed, allowing apples to go brown, or permitting potatoes to grow sprouts. And bread finds its way into more bins than should really be the case.

But the chances are that all these things happen on a regular basis in your household.

According to figures from Stop Food Waste (SFW), a campaign run by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as part of its National Waste Prevention Programme, people in Ireland throw out 30% of the food they buy.

The EPA estimates that since households generate an average of 300kg of food waste, and costing between €2 and €4 per kilo, we are throwing out between €600 and €1,200 every year, according to Colm Gibson of the Clean Technology Centre, which manages the SFW campaign on behalf of the EPA.

As you would expect, most waste tends to be fresh items. It’s estimated that 50% of the salad leaves bought by Irish households are thrown out, while 30% of bakery items and 25% of fruit also ends up in the bin.

“If you’re throwing out food, you’re throwing out money,” says Peter McGuire of, a popular website about buying and cooking good food for less.

1I often buy things on special offer as the value can be hard to resist. Should I ignore them?

The advice isn’t so much that you should ignore them, but that you should pay more attention to planning your weekly shop. The first step is finding out how much you eat in a typical week, so that you don’t end up buying too much.

“Don’t throw something in your trolley just because it’s on special offer,” says McGuire. “Give consideration as to whether it will actually be eaten.”

However, if you do pay more attention to quantities, you can then factor in certain special offers as part of your efforts to save.

“Planning your meals means that you can buy in bulk, taking advantage of offers and seasonal produce,” says Úna Clarke, the Cork-based tutor of a course on healthy eating called Kitchen Economics.

saving: Up to €25-30 off through special offers on a typical weekly €100 shopping bill

2I like to keep an open mind about what I eat each week, so I don’t use a shopping list.

This is where more planning comes in. If you want to try something different, get your inspiration from cookbooks or cut-out recipes and compile a shopping list accordingly.

Otherwise, your supermarket may effectively be making your decisions for you through attractive advertising and tempting special offers, particularly if you’re hungry (top tip: don’t shop when you’re hungry).

This is not to say you absolutely shouldn’t go for something that takes your fancy, but think before you buy.

“A basic shopping list is a good idea but I don’t stick rigidly to it; you might miss out on a good bargain or treat,” says McGuire.

“But still, if you’ve planned to cook approximately four meals across seven days and you buy enough to cook seven meals, consider putting some of that food back on the shelves — no matter how lovely it seems, or what a bargain it is.”

3My freezer always seems full. Is this good?

Not necessarily. Many of us have a tendency to pile it up with special offers and forget about them..

Defrosting stuff can also be awkward, particularly meat. But one good tip from the website was to separate packs of meat and fish in to smaller pieces.

Doing this means you can take out the amount you need and avoid having to throw out portions.

A very full freezer is also awkward from a maintenance point of view, as you’ll need to defrost it every so often to stop ice building up and adding to energy use.

saving: 5% on your energy bill

4I’m a pretty good cook, so why do I need to change my cooking habits?

We’re not suggesting you lower your culinary ambitions, but you might consider doing more batch cooking and rethinking your attitudes to leftovers.

Batch cooking is one good way to save money: “Batch cooking allows you freeze portions for later use, so you save on fuel and can also have foods available rather than sending for a takeaway when you are stuck for time or just too tired to cook,” says Clarke.

Similarly, using up leftovers is becoming more common. “A lot of people simply can’t afford not to,” says McGuire. “Vegetables are most likely to get thrown out, but you can make a simple, easy soup from them.

“Mashed potatoes can make fishcakes or potato cakes. Fry up boiled potatoes, or use cooked veg in soup. Have leftover meat in a sandwich, and make stock from any bones.”

saving: The cost of two takeaways a week: €20-40

5It’s annoying how often I find what looks like okay food that’s past its use-by date.

There is a reason why use-by dates are on products, but you don’t need to stick rigidly to them, says McGuire.

“Use your judgment. If the milk smells and looks fine, it is. Likewise with packaged vegetables, bread, fruit, soups, condiments, and most tinned foods. Manufacturers cover themselves with early use-by and best-before dates.”

6If food truly has gone off, can I reuse it in any way?

If you pay your bin charges through a pay-by-weight system, and your bin charges average about €30 to €40 a month, you could save a lot by investing in a compost bin, because organic waste is heavy due to the high amount of water content in it.

Saving: Up to €10-15 a month

Case study

Úna Clarke, from Cork, is a trained tutor who gives courses on healthy eating that includes tips and suggestions about reducing food waste.

“I really want to place healthy eating in the context of budgeting and reducing food waste,” she says. “It doesn’t necessarily mean higher costs, as it can actually save you money, but it does need planning and some basic information.”

One of the first messages of the course is to buy local where possible, such as your nearest butcher. “Talk to them, ask questions, get to know them and let them get to know you,” says Úna.

“Questions like how long will this keep in the fridge, how best to store it, how to cook it, is there something else cheaper, better value, or in season? This goes for the fishmonger also and the greengrocer.”

As part of her course, which is titled Kitchen Economics, Úna takes her students to the English Market in Cork city to talk to a number of the traders there.

“The English Market is always an enjoyable experience, and their passion and enthusiasm for food is catching,” she says.

Úna’s students report that they are now not buying as much, using less tinned food and jars, and using up most of the fresh food they buy.

“Even if your spend on groceries does not change immediately, if you are not throwing out food, that means that you are getting more from what you buy.”

Irish Independent

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent

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