How to cut food waste and save cash
The average UK household, with children, spends about £60 a month on food that is thrown away* – that's more than £700 a year. Much of it is beyond its use-by date and inedible, but how much of it can be safely eaten?
Food waste generates greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane and increases plastic waste too. If we stopped throwing away food in the UK, it would have the same impact on our carbon footprint as taking one in four cars off the road*.
Here’s your guide to when food must be thrown away, when it can be kept and what to do with leftovers.
Bread – 240 million slices wasted in the UK per year
Rice and pasta
Cooking too much pasta and rice is something many of us will do from time to time.
Rice carries an extra risk because of a bacteria called bacillus cereus. It produces a toxin that is not destroyed by heat, and while reheating rice kills the bacteria, it does not remove the toxin. If you’ve cooked too much rice, you can reduce the risk of food poisoning by cooling the leftovers immediately after cooking and putting them in the fridge as soon as they're cool. They can only be reheated once.
According to Trust Me I'm a Doctor, cooking pasta and then cooling it changes the structure of its starches, so you absorb fewer calories – even if you reheat it. So why throw it away? There are lots of easy dishes to make using up leftover pasta, either re-heated or cold. Stir it through hot sauces or eat it in a pasta salad.
Salad – 40% of bagged salad thrown away
Most people don’t buy bagged salad with a specific meal in mind, so it is often left forgotten, soggy and lifeless. If you fancy something different from salad or the leaves are a little limp, there are lots of dishes you can make. Grilled, cheesy lettuce is to die for, you can add chopped crisp lettuce to stir-fries (as you would Chinese leaf) just before serving, or try our any salad leaf pesto.
Tomatoes – 46,000 tonnes wasted per year in UK homes
Tomatoes can easily go mushy and mouldy. Don’t eat a mouldy tomato, but tomatoes that are a little worse for wear are great for making soups or sauces.
Milk – almost 6 million glasses poured away in the UK per year
If milk smells sour, don’t drink it. It is sometimes drinkable after its use-by date, but it can also go off before the date if it isn't stored properly.
If you're not getting through the milk in your fridge, there are lots of recipes to use it up.
Cheese – 3.1 million slices wasted in the UK per year
If the amount of cheese we throw away cheeses you off, you're not alone. It can't help that there's some confusion about when you should or shouldn't throw cheese away.
The USDA (the United States Department of Agriculture) says mould generally cannot penetrate deep into hard cheese, so the harder the cheese, the more likely it is that you can cut mould off and eat the rest.
Hard cheese, such as Cheddar, can still be eaten if you cut at least 1-inch around the mouldy spot. Be sure to keep the knife out of the mould so that it doesn't contaminate other parts of the cheese. If the edges of your hard cheese are very hard and cracked, cut them off. Did you know that you can freeze hard cheese, either as block or grated? Thaw it in the fridge until it has defrosted, though it may be more crumbly than before.
Soft cheese, or any cheese that can be spread or crumbled, such as feta, cottage cheese and cream cheese, should be discarded if it is mouldy, as this mould is likely to indicate bacteria such as listeria or salmonella. Soft cheese doesn’t freeze well because freezing changes the texture.
Using up any cheese is easy – put it in soups and sandwiches or on pasta and pizza.
Potatoes – 5.8 million wasted in the UK per year
Potatoes are the second most commonly thrown away food in the UK. If they've gone soft, mushy, wrinkly, cracked, green or mouldy, don't eat them. But if they've just started to sprout little shoots, no worries, just chop them off and use the potato. If you have leftover cooked potatoes, such as mashed, boiled or roasted, try these recipes to use them up.
As root veggies are so cheap, it's easy to buy a big bag of them without thinking about what you'll use them for. Almost 100 thousand tonnes of carrots are thrown away every year in the UK. If you're throwing root veggies away, take a look at these root veg recipes. Top tip for reviving carrots: put them in a glass of water in the fridge until they are less shrivelled; they’re not perfect but they’ll be usable again.
If you’ve got a fridge drawer full of veg, fear not. Broccoli, peppers and mushrooms are high on the list of wasted veg, but there are lots of ways to use up odds and ends of fridge veg. Don't use vegetables if they become slimy; slime is a sign of bacteria.
Fresh herbs and spices
Chopped herbs don’t last long and if you forget to use them they will become slimy, anaemic or dried up – and unusable. You can freeze herbs, chillies and ginger and then grate or crumble them into your cooking from frozen.
Using up leftover roasted meat is a doddle. Slice the meat into thin strips and throw it into stir-fries and other dishes instead of cooking meat from raw – just be sure to heat it right through. It is also delicious eaten cold with salad and sauces in wraps.
Store roasted meat, wrapped in kitchen foil or in sealed boxes, in the fridge for 3–4 days, but make sure you refrigerate it immediately and store it away from raw meat to avoid cross-contamination.
Bananas – 1.4 million binned in the UK per year
British families throw away £80 million worth of bananas every year. Surprisingly, more than 1 in 10 customers say they throw away bananas if there's any green on the skin. Store bananas at room temperature rather than in the fridge. If your bananas are a little soft and brown, peel and freeze them to use in smoothies, banana breads or ice-cream.
Apples – £1.3 million binned in the UK per year
Never eat a mouldy apple or apple juice that's past its use-by date. But if your apples aren't crisp enough, don’t throw them away, there are lots of recipes to use them in.
Citrus fruits – £56 binned in the UK per year
The acid in citrus fruit usually prevents the growth of harmful bacteria, but it won’t stop mould. Throw citrus fruit away if it has started to go mouldy. You can slice and freeze lemons, oranges and limes, then pop straight into drinks. Frozen grapes, blueberries and strawberries also make great ice-cubes.
Using up jars of food
The Food Standards Agency advises against eating food that is obviously rotten or contains mould. However, Dr Michael Mosley tucked into mouldy jam under the guidance of mould expert Patrick Hickey, in a 2014 BBC documentary. Hickey (as well as Theresa May) says jam with a thin layer of mould can be salvaged if you scoop off all the mould and a few centimetres beneath to throw out difficult-to-see spores.
There is usually enough salt and oil in spice pastes to preserve them for long periods – be guided by the use-by date. If you’re unsure, or want to keep the paste for longer than the jar states, freeze it in individual ice-cube trays and then pop a cube straight into the saucepan and cook as normal.
Food Standards Agency advice
The FSA advises people "not to eat food that is obviously rotten or containing mould due to potential risks from the mould. This advice is especially important for people in vulnerable groups, which includes children, the elderly, pregnant women and those who have a weakened immune system. It is possible that removing the mould and a significant amount of the surrounding product could remove any unseen toxins that are present, but there is no guarantee that doing so would remove them all."
*All stats from the Love Food Hate Waste campaign by the food waste charity WRAP