Zero Waste Week Day 3 – Food Waste & Family Meals


I think anyone with children will appreciate how hard it is to avoid food waste when they’re around. Even if you cook their favourite meal, there will inevitably be a few mouthfuls leftover. If you dare to cook something experimental or exotic, you’re guaranteed to have food left on plates. Here are my top tips for avoiding food waste when it comes to family meals.

Portion Control

We’ve probably all seen news reports on how we’re all eating too much in the Western world. Portion sizes have doubled in twenty years. My grandparents lived through the war years and knew what it was to be hungry. The thought of wasting food was anathema to them, it just wasn’t done. ‘Waste not, want not’ was my grandad’s mantra, said as he scraped out dishes and finished what was on our plates. Thankfully, those days are gone. They have, however, left behind a culture of over-eating, as the desire to clear a plate lingers and the portion sizes have increased. Children are born with an ‘off’ switch to stop eating when they are full, yet this instinct is ‘trained’ out of them during childhood. The combination of overfull plates and the expectation to clear a plate forces them to ignore their satiety signals. We now recognise the fact that we should be eating less, but how are we going to do this without creating food waste? The answer is better portion control.

Keeping in mind recommended portion sizes and also your child’s appetite when you cook and serve up family meals can really reduce food waste. A handy way to calculate portion sizes for the person you are feeding is to look at their hand. A portion of vegetables or fruit should be the amount you can hold in your hand. A portion of carbohydrates should be the size of your fist. A portion of meat should be the size of the palm of your hand. More info here. (Please forgive me for the Daily Mail link! I couldn’t find the original article on using hands for portion control.)

When I dish up food for my children, I put out quite small amounts. If a food is new or something they don’t usually like, the amount is even smaller. This helps them feel less defeated by the amount in front of them and reduces the disposal of messed about leftovers. For example, if we’re having curry or casserole for tea, they will only get two or three pieces of meat and a dash of sauce alongside the other parts of the meal. They can always come back for more if they like it.

Variation and Separation

My children tend to be suspicious of family meals where the constituents are mixed together, such as stir fry. They like to enjoy their favourite parts of a meal without the other bits getting in the way. Consequently, I make sure family meals have lots of variation and serve the various parts separately. If I cook curry, I serve it with rice, salad and naan bread. And all those constituent parts of the meal are separate on the plate. They will try, and probably eat, everything, but they’re more likely to do so if it is separate.

One of their favourite family meals is what we call ‘allsorts tea’. This usually happens at the end of the month, the night before I go shopping or after a long day. Dishes available on the table might include: hard boiled eggs, boiled or jacket potatoes, cucumber and carrot sticks, tomatoes and raw peppers, sliced apple or pear, slices of cheese and ham, a bowl of tuna mayonnaise, a few salad leaves, a bit of leftover pasta reheated, corn on the cob, olives, bread and butter. Providing they all have some vegetables or fruit, protein and carbs, I don’t mind.

‘You don’t have to eat it’

I read this article last year and found it very interesting. I can think of a few horrendous meal times when I’ve been concerned about our slim, slightly fussy middle child refusing to eat a single mouthful. One the whole though we enjoy relaxed meal times in our house. Until someone looks at someone else the ‘wrong’ way or someone breathes on someone else’s food, that is! I don’t follow the recommendations to the letter, but the article rang true with me.

  • We do make sure we sit round the table most nights.
  • We do only cook one main meal, but ensure there is variation.
  • We do encourage them to try everything on their plates, but they don’t have to eat it.
  • We do have pudding a little more frequently than I’m currently happy with, but it’s usually something quite small.
  • I have occasionally used pudding as incentive to encourage the children to try new foods or eat a few more mouthfuls. This has only happened when I knew they were relying on pudding as a way of filling up their tummies.

Reducing tension during family meals increases the likelihood that they will eat their food. What’s more it also decreases the chances of them messing about with their food, which leads nicely on to…

Try it – don’t mess with it

I have no problem with the children sculpting mashed potato as long as they are going to eat it. I do have an issue with the children messing about with food if they have no intention of eating it, because it makes it inedible for us to have as leftovers! If they try something on their plates and then decide they don’t like it, we ask them politely to leave it alone. At the end of the meal, any food is kept with any other leftovers, which we eat the next day.

Start a wormery

One of our future projects is to build a wormery for the food waste that can’t go in the compost bin. I know some people put cooked food waste in their compost, but I have concerns that this would attract rats. I understand there are certain things that worms can’t dispose of. However, having looked at what they can eat, I know they’ll eat the leftovers from most of our family meals.

Do you have any great tips for reducing family food waste at meal times? I’d love to hear them!



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