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Throwaway food shoppers – are you one of them?

Despite food prices rising and household budgets being squeezed, new stats suggest that the average Brit still throws away 10% of the food they buy. Why all the waste?

Are we really that frivolous when it comes to food? Apparently so, if a Sainsbury’s survey of 2,000 adults is anything to go by. The supermarket found that almost 10% of food bought during the weekly shop is chucked away rather than cooked, frozen or otherwise consumed.

Of course, not everyone is as wasteful or wealthy enough to bin this amount of food regularly – and austere times may have improved habits (a different Wrap study from 2009 said 14% of food bought was ‘avoidably’ wasted).

Our own research suggests nearly half of people in the UK are trying to waste less food – but it seems we’re not quite there yet. Here are a few possible explanations as to why we’re wasting so much food.

Disorganised – and hungry

Not shopping with a list (or at least a vague meal plan) is one reason for waste. Or perhaps, says Sainsbury’s, it’s our poor calendar-keeping that too often leads to food sitting unopened in the fridge while we’re eating out, or working late.

Shopping on an empty stomach, meanwhile, can be equally lethal. In my household, popping to get something for dinner can easily degenerate into a random buying spree of tasty-looking nibbles that you buy just because you’re peckish.

Bamboozled by food labels

As we’ve previously discussed here on Which? Convo, understanding how long we’ve got to safely use what we buy is complicated by the array of food label date stamps out there. Sainsbury’s reckons 25% of us are cautious cooks, chucking food out on, or even before, the date listed on the product.

Rules to scrap unhelpful ‘display until’ dates and new guidance for food companies on when to use ‘best buy’ and ‘use by’ will hopefully help clear this up in future. Our food expert Sue Davies explains:

‘The long and short of it is that highly perishable foods (like fish and dairy) must have a use by date, whereas store cupboard goods (like tins and crisps) can get away with a best before date. In other words, use by is for safety and best before is for quality.’

Are the shops to blame?

Unsurprisingly, Sainsbury’s didn’t mention this one – but some of you think the pre-packaged, ‘bogof’ culture championed by supermarkets perpetuates the waste problem.

Wavechange thinks ‘a lot of waste is simply due to buying more than needed. A lot of this must be down to supermarket offers such as “buy one, get one free”. In my view these should not be permitted for perishable foods.’

David F, meanwhile, believes the ‘overall quality of fresh food is declining, forcing people into wasting food. No one wants to use vegetables that are on the turn and shouldn’t have to shop every other day to avoid wastage. I don’t remember things being like this when I was younger.’

Reducing food wastage

Since my area switched to a weekly food caddy and fortnightly wheelie bin collection, using up what I’ve got has definitely become a more conscious pursuit (if for no other reason than to avoid any potential ‘unpleasantness’).

Living in a two-person household, I often cook up batches for freezing (to use up ingredients packaged up for larger families), or chuck nearly-spent veg into a soup or casserole, to put otherwise irretrievable perishables to use.

Do you have any food-saving tips? And what (or who) do you think is to blame for needless food waste?


I throw away little except a few potatoes that have started to grow (rather than sprout) and broccoli that has started to go yellow. I keep an eye on ‘use by’ dates and look for long dates when shopping if I am not going to use items promptly. Occasionally I am caught out by ‘two for the price of one’ offers but I do try to exchange surpluses with a friend to avoid waste.

I see huge amounts of food being left when people eat out. It would be good to be asked how much we want if it is served in front of us. I would like more pubs to offer children’s portions for adults.

I think the pre wrapped on fresh food is mostly too blame.

For instance I like little gem lettuces but you cannot just buy one as they are packaged in 2’s why?

Actually surplus foods on a 2 for 1 or 3 for 2 or whatever special/ offer including meats, poultry, fish
and shellfish ecetera need NOT be wasted: just freeze unused portion for future use having divided
into individual portions as and when necessary for convenience and ready access.

Can also cook and store them in individual portions in containers for easy retrieval and future consumption as required, like beef stews for example.

Both green/leafy and root veg can be given a new lease of life by soaking in water, freshness thereof can also be prolonged by wrapping in cling film or foil when storing in fridge…. you can also pickle non-leafy ones which is quite a simple task really, especially in summer when there is abundant and cheaper supply.

There is very little or no food wastage in this my household and BTW I do not buy processed or ready meals for quite obvious reasons.

The domestic freezer I would rate as among the top fifteen inventions of the century and makes
meal planning for one that very much easier not to mention the other numerous benefits derived
enabling overall a more leisurely lifestyle in my case.

Youngcodger says:
9 November 2011

I’ve noticed that most BOGOF offers are on food that is very near its sell by date, so you end up throwing one away because it goes off so quick… or the offers are on junk food.

Just give me cheaper prices per food item….are you listening Sainsburys?

A worker says:
10 November 2011

Why have the free one if you cannot use it?

Sophie Gilbert says:
10 November 2011

I was brought up with a grand-father around who’d been a prisonner of war in Chechoslovakia in WWII. I was told often enough that if I’d been a prisonner myself I would have eaten everything on my plate down to the last grain of rice. I do, and I don’t give myself too big a plate. It’s a rare day when I chuck food out, and I don’t buy too much in the first place.

These days we throw away food, we throw away gadgets, not all of us recycle. Too many of us having it too easy is part of the reason why, I’m sure.

I notice that the garbage cans of many houses are over flowing w/ garbage. Our can is usually not even half full. We try not to waste. There is too much garbage out there now, so if you plan right and not over buy…stores R right around the corner, you could waste a lot less.

I think another problem today is that we bulkbuy everything preferably once a week at the most so invariably some food will be overstocked and by the time we are ready to use it, it has gone off. My mother did seem to go far more often and we had no waste at all. But with today busy life styles most people cannot or will not do this so waste seems inevitable.

Sorry to revive an old topic, but I’ve just written the following feedback on tescocomments.com (when you shop at Tesco, the till receipt invites you to leave feedback about your experience.) I thought I’d make it an ‘open letter’:

“I wanted to buy a cucumber but was appalled by your pricing policy: 90p each or £1 for two. Charging £1 for two would imply that you have a surplus of cucumbers in the store and need to sell them quickly. Why, then, don’t you reduce the price of a single cucumber? This was 80p last year, so you have increased its price far above inflation, yet you are trying to sell two for almost the price of one. This policy is counterproductive. I would have bought a whole cucumber, but since you are charging £1 for two I concluded that cucumbers are probably in abundance and I should be able to find a single cucumber for much less at another store, maybe Aldi or similar. So I didn’t buy a single cucumber; instead, I bought half to get by for the time being until I go to another store in a few days. So you are trying to sell more cucumbers but because of this daft policy you are actually selling fewer. I also believe that this is an irresponsible policy because, if it did entice people to buy more cucumbers than they needed, it would lead to wastage of food, which in turn means wastage of water and energy. You should only do bogof/multibuy deals on non-perishable products.”

I would be surprised if Tesco or other supermarkets would pay any attention until it is illegal to encourage waste of fresh produce in this way.

Until this happens, about the best you can do is to exchange surplus food with family and friends.

I freeze, dehydrate, pickle, juice where I can for very/long-term storage
when things are cheap, plentiful or in season (lots of web tips if don’t know how)
… if have canning facilities, wd do that too.

Beware of adverse enzyme reaction when freezing in cases
of certain fruit and veg, give a quick blanch if unsure or look it

Important always to maintain recommended freezer temperatures.

[With absolute zero Fahrenheit if attainable, believe scope is endless.]

Very little or NO diminution in quality even after 15-18 months
and don’t believe so-called recommended storage time
of a far shorter period.

Curing is another method if you don’t mind ingestion of
nitrites and nitrates that go with such a process.

BTW have quite a lot of unused cardomon pods, cinnamon sticks, cumin inter alia
stored in tightly-sealed containers for well over 6 years and they’re every bit
as fragrant as the day they were bought.

Better still, grow own fruit and veg like a guy I know turning
his entire 0.75-acre back garden into such productive use including
growing of herbs. May have kept chickens too.

“I freeze, dehydrate, pickle, juice where I can for very/long-term storage
when things are cheap, plentiful or in season (lots of web tips if don’t know how)
… if have canning facilities, wd do that too.”

Ah, you’ve missed the opportunity to say “I juice where I can and can where I can’t”…

“Better still, grow own fruit and veg like a guy I know turning
his entire 0.75-acre back garden into such productive use including
growing of herbs.”

I have a fig tree growing in the lounge of my tiny flat… but that’s another story.

Wonder if pickled cue can be quite as palatable as pickled
gherkin that I was served with at MacDonald.