Christmas is traditionally a feast holiday, but having a more sustainable Christmas doesn't mean we have to eat less - it's more about being conscious of what we eat. Food waste in our homes is a huge problem throughout the year, and over the Christmas holidays we waste more than ever. Here are some easy-to-follow tips that will help you to waste less and have a more sustainable, happy holiday.
Reducing food waste starts with what we buy. So get prepared and know what you need. Begin with a plan: how many people are you cooking for? What are you cooking? Write a list and stick to it. Impulsive buying in supermarkets leads to storing food you do not need that usually ends up in the bin.
So, the list is done, you have your reusable bags and are entering the supermarket... First, always look for Irish produce. Traditionally for Christmas we use fantastic root vegetables like carrots and parsnips; also (love them or hate them) Brussels sprouts make an appearance, not to forget great roasties. All of these are in season now in Ireland and to be more sustainable, and support our great growers, we need to buy them. This also includes your stuffing ingredients: onions, celery, herbs are all in season right now and all Irish. It is also worth noting that 10 years ago there were more than 600 horticulturists in Ireland growing fantastic vegetables and fruits. Today, there are fewer than 150 - supporting them also means that we are supporting Irish produce over imported food. It applies to the star of the show, too: whether you are sticking to tradition and going for a turkey and ham, or swapping them out for beef, duck or goose, ensure that it is Irish and free-range.
Items to avoid
Know your 'best before' and your 'use by' dates. 'Best before' on food does not mean that it cannot be used after the indicated date; it is simply a guide to let you know that the food is in its best condition before the date on the pack. The 'use by' date means that it cannot be used after the date. So, using this guide, ensure that the dates on the packs work for you and that you will use them within the dates. A lot of food is ultimately wasted because it expires.
Also, be mindful of your packaging. Buying loose vegetables ensures that you cut down on plastic and that you only buy what you need. More waste can often be caused by buying vegetables that are already packed in plastic and contain more than you want, meaning that you have to find other ways to use them. Also it's worth noting that buying sauces and condiments in glass jars is better than buying those housed in plastic containers. On average, only 4pc of plastic that you send to recycling actually gets recycled. So avoid where possible.
Storing food correctly can also prevent food waste. We tend to arrive home with big bags of shopping and pack it into the fridge. However, remember that much of what we buy does not need to be stored in the fridge and can last longer being stored at room temperature. Your entire haul of great Irish potatoes, root vegetables, onions, garlic and even tomatoes are best stored out of the fridge. If you are buying exotic fruits like melons, pineapples and bananas, you need to ensure that they are Fairtrade but also stored at room temperature. You also need to ensure that your fruit is stored away from your vegetables. When ripening, fruits like bananas and melons can spoil vegetables.
When it comes to your fridge, simple practices apply. Keep all raw meats at the bottom of the fridge so they cannot contaminate other foods. Remember the golden rule: last in, last out. Make sure that you rotate what is in your fridge. Put all the newer items to the back and the 'use first' food to the front. Check your expiry dates regularly.
Keep in mind that if you overpack your fridge, the cold air cannot circulate properly and items can spoil, leading to further waste.
Preparing your food
Getting ready for your feast can cause more waste that is avoidable. Firstly, look at your vegetables. In a lot of cases, carrots do not need to be peeled - a simple wash under cold water before chopping means that you don't waste the skins, which contain great nutrients. The same can apply to parsnips; however, if they are larger and you want to remove the skins, then do so in long strips - these are great deep-fried, seasoned with salt and make for a tasty alternative to potato crisps. Removing the outside leaves of your sprouts is also not necessary but if they are slightly older, you can still use them as part of your leftover meals (see tip 5).
When it comes to preparing the meat and turkey, again, there is no need to trim anything before cooking. If you are bad at carving (it does take practice) and you are getting your butcher to bone and roll your turkey, then also ask for the bones. This way you are avoiding waste and can create more dishes.
There are plenty of food items we buy that are capable of regrowing simply, with little effort. Celery is a great example of a vegetable where we throw away the root. You can slice 1mm off the root, place it in a cup with a little water and put it on the window in your kitchen. After two weeks, you will notice that it has sprouted new leaves in the centre. Then simply transfer it to a planting pot with soil and potting compost. It will then regrow into another full celery. Lettuce can work in the same way. If you remove the leaves from the head of lettuce, keep the heart (centre) of the lettuce intact, and follow the same procedure. It will not only keep longer but also grow more leaves. This is a great way of making your food last longer and it also saves you money.
Using up leftovers
A great tradition in every home over the holidays - ham sandwiches to beat the band and turkey curries, soups and salads. But can we make it go further? In the preparation of the food (see tip 4), I mentioned vegetable skins and Brussels sprout leaves. There are some very simple, tasty things you can do with vegetable skins. They are fantastic seasoned and deep-fried, a great alternative to potato crisps and nice to snack on when watching the endless Christmas movies. The outer Brussels sprout leaves make a wonderful earthy pesto. Simply place the leaves into boiling water for 30 seconds, then refresh them under cold water. Squeeze dry and add equal quantities of the sprout leaves with basil to a blender - or if you got a pestle and mortar from Santa, even better. Add toasted nuts and Parmesan, and blend, slowly adding Irish rapeseed oil and salt and pepper until it becomes a paste. This pesto is fantastic on salads or even folded into pasta.
When it comes to your turkey, if you have exhausted every recipe you know to use up the meat and are down to the bare bones, another easy tip to add more flavour is to re-roast. Place the carcass into a roasting tray with roughly chopped onions, carrots and celery. Roast until golden brown. Transfer to a pot and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil, then simmer for an hour. This will make a richly flavoured stock that you can use for soups or gravy.
Brew up some drinks
Preparing great drinks at home using excess fruit and vegetables is not difficult and once you start, you will never go back. If a juicer was on your Santa list, then take advantage of it. Fresh vegetable juices in shops can be expensive so investing in a juicer will pay for itself in no time. A great way to use up carrots, spinach, apples and celery is to juice them. Add in a small piece of ginger and you have a fantastic, fresh-tasting drink, with no additives. If you want to bring it to the next level, try fermenting. Kombucha is all the rage now, great for good gut health (which we all need after our overindulgence throughout Christmas).
Again, it is expensive to buy but easy to make. It is simply fermented tea. To start out, you will need a SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast). If you're lucky, you might be gifted one by a friend already making kombucha or you can purchase one online for about €5.
Stick to this simple recipe: 1 litre boiling water, 4 tea bags (black or green) and 100g sugar. Brew your tea and depending on the size of your jar, you can scale it up. Stir until the sugar is dissolved and leave to cool. Remove the tea bags and pour the liquid into your jar; add your SCOBY. It is important to leave the lid off the jar and cover it with kitchen paper or a coffee filter. Place in a dark cupboard for seven days. (Remove the SCOBY and keep it in a lidded jar with a little of the kombucha until you want to use it again. Never put the SCOBY in the fridge.) Then you can flavour with overripe fruits or berries that you were going to throw away. Add the fruit to the kombucha, cover with the lid and place back in the cupboard for another seven days. Now you have a fantastic, fizzy and good-for-you drink. Simply bottle and refrigerate.
Reconnect with your freezer A freezer isn't just storage for food that is bought frozen. It is in fact another great way to preserve food that you have not used and do not want to waste. Looking through your fridge, you will know what you are going to use over the next few days and see what might expire or overripen in that time.
By planning ahead and using food-storage boxes or just reusable freezer bags, you can prevent further food waste. It is worth ensuring that your food is correctly sealed to prevent ice or freezer burns. A simple tip is to write the date you froze the food on the container or bag so that you know how long it has been there. Then do not forget about it. When you are writing, your next shopping list and planning your meals, remember to use these items first, saving you more money on your next shopping bill and reducing your waste. Keep in mind when defrosting meat or fish that you do it over 48 hours in your fridge rather than leaving it out in your kitchen.
Recycle your Coffee
So you've been really enjoying the Christmas - at parties, drinking wine with friends, out meeting in pubs and soaking up the atmosphere. Let's be honest: your coffee consumption is going to increase over the holidays. If you really enjoy your coffee and have invested in your own grinder, or simply buy ground coffee and filter yourself, you are going to have used coffee grounds. To avoid wasting them, they are great to use in your garden or plant boxes. Simply spread on top of your soil, coffee grounds are a fantastic way to add nutrients and keep away pests. You will see a better result from your flowers, herbs or food and, no, it will not make them taste of coffee.
If you want to take it to the next level, you can use the grounds in a brine. This is essentially salted water with added sugar and spices; you'll find simple recipes online. Then add in your coffee grounds. It is a fantastic way to create a pastrami-style beef with a rich, almost nutty flavour from the coffee. Leave the beef (topside is great) in your brine for at least 48 hours. Then cook it as you would corned beef. Great sliced thinly on sourdough bread with horseradish and leaves. Happy days!
Even after you have used many ways to waste less food, it is inevitable that, after fermenting berries and fruits or using your turkey bones for soups and stocks, there will be food that's had multiple uses that will end up being composted. It's not something to beat yourself up over - it's about ensuring you do it correctly. Whether you are doing it in your back garden or using a brown bin, never put raw meat or fish into the compost. Ensure it is cooked. You can add any organic matter, including tea bags, kitchen paper and egg shells.
If you are composting at home and using across your garden, it is also important to have the right mix. It cannot be all food waste and needs to include garden waste such as leaves, clippings and grass. For really rich compost, use two parts green waste to one part brown waste.
One tip I have for being more sustainable at home is not to try too much at once: it may become overwhelming and seem like a lot of work. Pick one item and do that until you are comfortable to move on to another. Happy Christmas!