How to reduce your Christmas food waste

How to reduce your Christmas food waste

by Victoria Glass 19 December 2017

Victoria Glass suggests some realistic ways of eliminating the amount of food that ends up in the bin every Christmas, from ideas for leftovers to making sure you don’t panic-buy too much.

Victoria is a London-based food writer and recipe developer. She was the Roald Dahl Museum’s first ever Gastronomic Writer in Residence and has written six books, including her latest, Too Good To Waste.

Victoria is a London-based food writer and recipe developer. She was the Roald Dahl Museum’s first ever Gastronomic Writer in Residence and has written six books, including her latest, Too Good To Waste.

According to Unilever figures, over four million Christmas dinners are thrown away every year – that’s equivalent to 263,000 turkeys, 7.5 million mince pies, 740,000 portions of Christmas pudding and 11.3 million roast potatoes. In terms of money, that equates to £64 million wasted on uneaten Christmas food every year. So what can we do to reduce our festive food waste, without turning into the grinch?

Christmas is a time for delicious excess. Champagne corks pop on the hour and belts are loosened while Rennies are crunched; all in an effort to squeeze in just one more roast potato, or that remaining third of a Terry’s Chocolate Orange you ate in lieu of breakfast (well, it is Christmas…). With over-eating practically a seasonal sport, no one wants to be the scrooge who underfills their trolley. But with one in five of us admitting to buying traditional Christmas foods that we don’t even like, maybe it’s time to go cold turkey on the Christmas stockpiling. Food is central to the Christmas festivities, but eating food you hate is hardly a cause for celebration. No wonder so much of it ends up in the bin.

17.2 million Brussels sprouts are chucked every Christmas, which is no great surprise, considering up to half of us confess to loathing them. According to (Europe’s leading specialist food waste recycling service provider), the carbon dioxide equivalent emissions of the 172 tonnes of wasted sprouts could power a home for three years. If you don’t like them, you will not be haunted by the Ghost of Christmas Past if you decide to serve a different vegetable instead, but if the fear of not conforming has you in too tight a hold, it may be your cooking method that’s making your sprouts so disagreeable. Try giving sprouts the starring role in a more exciting side and you may find yourself a convert.

Brussels sprouts (like all brassicas) are rich in hydrogen sulfide gas. When heated, the gases escape, which is why over-boiled sprouts smell noxious. Reheating a mushy sprout will only make matters worse, so it’s important to respect your produce to begin with. Lightly steamed leftover sprouts can be cut in half and slicked in oil and aromatics (I like ground cumin) and roasted in a hot oven, stir-fried, or turned into delicious creamy soups. As long you add sprouts to the soup base at the last minute before blitzing, they’ll serve you well, but cooking them for too long can make them smell rather farty.

Shockingly, one in three of us admit to throwing away our turkeys before it even reaches the table. This is largely down to a lack of cooking confidence and a fear of causing food poisoning from an undercooked bird. The latest advice from the British Turkey Information Service is that for turkeys weighing over four kilos, you need to calculate twenty minutes per kilogram, plus ninety minutes. If the bird is under four kilograms, calculate twenty minutes per kilogram, plus seventy minutes. To test if it's done, make sure the juices run clear when you pierce the thigh where it meets the body; if not, put it back in the oven for another twenty minutes, before testing again. It is a good idea to invest in a meat probe to ease your mind – once the turkey reaches 70°C you can take it out of the oven to rest.

There’s more to leftovers than turkey sandwiches. The carcass or bones of any meat can be turned into stock, which can become the basis of countless meals, from soups and sauces to stews and risottos. Turkey curries or turkey and ham pie are almost as traditional as Christmas dinner itself, but fragrant broths, like pho, are less heavy; with the bones making the base of the soup and the picked meat added to pad it out. There are countless ways to gussy up your scraps – from my household favourite of braised red cabbage and Stilton pithivier to Christmas pudding ice cream. Leftover potatoes, carrots and parsnips can be reheated in a moderate oven, then dressed with horseradish vinaigrette, which makes the perfect pairing with the last of the pigs in blankets. But it’s not just the obvious contenders that warrant a mention.

The rendered fat from your Christmas roast can be saved for future spuds or confit. Simply clarify fat by cooling melted fat to room temperature before chilling it in the fridge until solid. The fat will rise to the top and any meat protein and impurities will sink to the bottom and set like jelly. Peel the fat off and save the meat jelly for enriching sauces, soups and stews. Render the fat again and strain it through muslin into a sterilised jar, before leaving it to set again. Animal fat can be kept for cooking in a cool larder or fridge for weeks (some even say years). There is no tidy use-by date for animal fats, but the smell and taste will let you know when its day has come.

Reducing Christmas food waste starts in rethinking the way we shop for it. A bunker mentality seems to take over in the run up to Christmas. People panic-buy in droves, as if they’re about to be evacuated to an underground hideout, in preparation for a commerical apocalypse. Considering that shops only really close for a day or two, it’s worth adjusting your perspective. You might have bought a bird big enough to feed an entire infantry battalion for a week, but who’s going to want to eat it after day three? Buying a smaller bird, or just a crown, in the first place, will ensure you aren’t left with an entire fridge-shelf groaning under the weight of unwanted cold cuts. And what’s more, it isn’t a sin against Christmas to forego the turkey or goose entirely, if a rib of beef or glazed gammon is more appealing to your family; there’s something special to be found in making our own traditions.

Buying just enough won’t cut it at this time of year – leftovers are all part of the joy of Christmas. But beware of extreme over-catering; this only leads to festive food fatigue before you’ve even got halfway through. Freezing leftovers can be a great way of reducing waste, but if the food’s leftover because you don’t actually like it in the first place, are you ever going to get round to defrosting?

Don’t let tradition dictate your tastebuds. There’s no reason to suffer a Christmas pudding if dried fruit would be your first entry into Room 101 at all other times of the year. To me, there are few pleasures as great as a proper Christmas pud and leftovers make fantastic bread and butter pudding, or crumbled into chocolate ganache to make petits fours. But if you don’t like it, make or buy something else instead. Why not borrow another country’s festive traditions that you find more enticing?

Rather than treating your table like the gateway to the bin, only buy food you and your family actually want to eat. After all, Christmas food is to be enjoyed, not endured. Reducing food waste won’t take the merry out of Christmas. In fact, doubters will be ho ho ho-ing on the other sides of their faces, once they see how much money you’ve saved come January. So, Merry Christmas! ‘Tis the season to shop wisely, eat excessively, and tart up your leftovers into food fit for the Three Kings.

To discover more exciting ways to reduce your food waste, Victoria’s latest book Too Good To Waste is full of ideas for waste-conscious cooks.