For a lot of us, Christmas is as much about the delicious food as the presents. But it’s also the season that sees our bins bulging with leftovers; from burnt sausages to those sprouts that half the family shunned. And this isn’t a seasonal problem: over a period of 12 months, one-quarter of food we buy ends up in the rubbish. For example, 86 million birds are thrown away uneaten in the UK each year. And, at Christmas, that means a lot of turkey – chicken, goose, whatever your family goes for – which could have been made into something else, gets binned.
The environmental impact is also huge: consider that the energy, water and land that goes into growing, preparing, packaging and transporting the food from farm to, well, your bin. Rotting food in landfill gives off methane, a greenhouse gas 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Plus, with more people than ever expected to turn to food banks to help stave off hunger this Christmas, this waste seems particularly hard to stomach.
If your leftover food gets to the right places (i.e. not to those huge landfill sites you see on the news), it can help combat global warming – both by reducing methane production and by being used as a renewable energy source – as well as being used for good: giving any edible bits to those who need it most, or composting the waste so that it’s used to feed the earth.
What’s stopping many of us from recycling correctly? Partly because it’s not exactly straightforward; while one council will provide three different recycling bins, including a caddy for food waste, others will go for an all-in-one approach. For household recycling, the onus is on us to do it. The government is taking steps to tackle the problem: it announced its new waste strategy this week, with plans for all councils to provide separate collections for food waste across the country. At the moment, that figure is at 35%.
The plan is commendable, but still has to go through a consultation period. Subtext: it could be a while before things change. But the good news is, with a bit of thought and planning, there is plenty you can do to reduce your family’s impact on the environment this Christmas – while requiring zero sacrifice on fun or yummy food.
Start with storage
While it's tempting to crash out in front of the Bake Off Christmas special post-dinner, it's the best time to sort and store leftovers while they’re still fresh. Have a think about what you might cook up in the coming days (yes, it might require a list or two, but the results will be very satisfying, trust me) and divide your meat and veggies up so that they are either ready to cook or prepared to freeze later. Make sure any leftover meat is off the bone – it’s an enjoyably messy chore, ideal for little fingers to get to the bits that the designated carver missed. These small, tender pieces are ideal for a curry or stew. Food website The Kitchn has good tips on how to separate and store your turkey leftovers if you need more guidance.
Get creative with leftovers
For me, the Boxing Day-and-beyond feasts are the real culinary highlight of the festive season; from a simple turkey sarnie oozing with cranberry sauce to the likes of Turkey Tetrazzini and for pud, a panettone bread-and-butter pudding. For inspiration, Delicious and BBC Good have some great recipes and you can find some on The Pool, such as Jamie Oliver's turkey stew or sprout and Stilton risotto.
Freeze it up
If you’re one of the many who tire of turkey almost as soon as the plates are cleared, you might want to stagger your leftovers over the coming months. Turkey off the bone freezes well. Gravy and leftover wine can be poured into ice trays for freezing and cooking with later. Nut roast, potatoes, beans, cranberry sauce and stuffing all fare well in the freezer, too. But most other boiled veg generally are better if cooked up before freezing. There are more tips here if you are unsure.
Share and share again
Heading away for New Year and leaving behind too many un-freezable leftovers? Check out Olio food-sharing app to see if there are any takers in your neighbourhood for that extra bag of carrots that were a last-minute panic buy, or your barely touched Christmas pud.
Feed the earth
If all else fails, be sure to put any unavoidable food waste in the compost. Check whether your council will provide a food-waste caddy – you may have to request one. Generally, council collections take all sorts of food, from onion skins to burnt sausages and stale bread, while if you have your compost bin at home as a permanent fixture, keep it to raw fruit and veg waste only, as cooked and processed foods or animal products will attract rats, which, I think you’ll agree, are not very festive.
Hermione Taylor is founder of behaviour-change platform The DoNation. For more tips on reducing food waste, see here.