Love Food Hate Waste Savour your surplus

Savour your surplus

We’re purposefully using the words “surplus food” rather than leftovers in this article, and for good reason; some people don’t like to eat leftovers. The word ‘leftovers’ can conjure images of food that’s already been served to someone who, for whatever reason has decided against eating it. Not everyone finds this idea appetizing.

On the other hand, surplus food is slightly more ambiguous. It veers more towards images of food that’s just extra, if unexpected. It’s easier to think of surplus food as a windfall, a cheeky bonus. Surplus food can be an opportunity to create a delicious meal (or part of a meal), if you have the skills and confidence to do something with it.

There are three options for dealing with surplus food:

  • Eat it in another meal
  • Save it for another time
  • Give it to someone else so they can eat / save it

There are three sets of skills involved in achieving this, and this article aims to make sure you’re equipped to practice all of them.

Cooking with surplus food

Surplus food is just like any other type of food, and in practical terms cooking with it isn’t really any different from other foods in terms of how it’s done; it’s just another ingredient. We’re not advocating that you take all your surplus food and simply throw it together in bizarre combinations and eat it regardless of the outcome – although some people find that works for them.

Realistically there can be challenges to bringing together lots of different foods and flavours together to make a tempting meal. There can be a challenge in using up small quantities of foods, and as surplus food is often unexpected, you might not have much time to plan how best to deal with these issues.

A good solution to all the above is to have a decent stock of store cupboard essentials to draw upon. These should be long lasting foods that either help you to bulk out your surplus, or which add flavour; enabling you to make a range of decent meals from whatever you have to hand quickly and without much stress. Tailor the contents of your store cupboard to suit your cooking style and your favourite flavours, but here’s an example list of store cupboard ingredients which might be useful:

Balsamic vinegar

Herbs Mustard Dried rice Stock cubes
Chutney Honey Dried noodles Salt Sunflower oil
Crushed chilies Jalapenos Olive oil Sardines Tabasco
Curry paste Ketchup Paprika Stir fry sauce Butter beans
Dry pasta Worcestershire sauce Peppercorn Sesame oil Coconut milk
Flour Marmite Raisins Soy sauce

Tinned tomatoes

Even with a well-stocked cupboard, sometimes you might find yourself lacking in inspiration when it comes to deciding what you are going to make with your surplus. The internet is a brilliant source of inspiration. The websites below are worth bookmarking as they enable you to search for recipes based on the random ingredients you have to hand:

Once you’ve found a recipe, bear in mind that it is just inspiration. Do experiment with different quantities of ingredients, substitute ingredients, different methods of cooking and so on. Cooking with surplus offers a relatively risk-free way to experiment with different techniques and flavours and to build your knowledge and confidence. The more you experiment, the better you’ll get at it, and that can only be a good thing, especially if you’ve fallen into the habit of eating the same foods / meals on rotation.

It’s thought that up to 60% of people in the UK have a limited repertoire of seven meals that they cook and eat on rotation, and one in every four households eats the same meals on the same day of the week repeatedly. The cause of this is thought to be a lack of confidence when it comes to cooking new foods, and the perception that trying new foods will be too costly or a waste of time. Getting into the habit of trying new recipes using surplus food offers a relatively low risk, low-cost way to escape your routine, broaden your diet and to practice some new kitchen skills.

If you regularly have surplus food, it’s a good idea to plan in one or more meals a week where you’ll aim to make a meal from surplus food. This can be an especially useful thing to do if you often have to throw away food to make space in your fridge / cupboards for food that you’ve just bought.  If you can, plan to have your ‘surplus’ meal the day before you go shopping.

Save it for another time – storing surplus

An overpacked cupboard makes it hard to keep track of your foods

An overpacked cupboard makes it hard to keep track of your foods

Uncooked surplus can be stored in the same way you would any other fresh / uncooked foods of the same type; although if you’ve unpackaged it you might need to wrap the food to keep it at its best till you can use it up. Because of this, it’s a good idea to store surplus that needs using up first / before packaged foods in a dedicated area of your fridge or cupboards. That way it’s obvious to everyone in your household that food in this area needs using first. If you’ve removed the packaging it might also help to label the food with a use by date (particularly for things like raw meat).

If you are unsure on how best to store any particular item of food these resources might help:

If you’ve mis-portioned and ended up with more cooked food than you can eat in one sitting these simple guidelines will get you on the right track:

  • cool the food as quickly as possible, ideally within 2 hours
  • divide the food into individual portions and refrigerate or freeze
  • use refrigerated leftovers within 2 days
  • when reheating food, make sure it is heated until it reaches a temperature of 70oC for 2 minutes, so that it is steaming hot throughout
  • always defrost frozen foods completely, either in the fridge or in the microwave
  • when defrosted, food should be reheated only once, because the more times you cool and reheat food, the higher the risk of food poisoning
  • cooked food that has been frozen and removed from the freezer should be reheated and eaten within 24 hours of fully defrosting
  • foods stored in the freezer, such as ice cream and frozen desserts, should not be returned to the freezer once they have thawed / melted
  • for safety and to reduce waste, only take out of the freezer what you intend to use within the next 24 hours
Plastic food containers filling a kitchen draw

Many people have a draw or cupboard full of plastic food containers, which are great for storing surplus foods. Don’t replace plastic containers until you have to.

If you are keeping your surplus in the fridge or freezer, you might also be wondering if / how to reduce your use of plastics in the kitchen. Wax wraps, reusable silicone covers and suchlike certainly have a place in the kitchen and can help to reduce your plastic consumption. However, don’t be too hasty to ditch plastics if you’ve already got them and they are working well for you, or if you’re in the habit of reusing plastic takeaway containers, margarine tubs etc. and giving them an bit of extra life before recycling them. Sending just a single kilogram of food waste to landfill produces the same carbon emissions as landfilling a staggering 25,000 half litre plastic bottles, so in terms of the impact on the environment, it’s more impactful to focus on food waste prevention.

If your reusable plastic containers are helping you to keep food waste out of landfill, stick with them until they wear out and you need to replace them. At that point consider replacing them with plastic-free alternatives.

Keep in mind that that clean plastic bags and film can be recycled via your kerbside recycling collection in most parts of Leicestershire, as well as in many supermarkets. Discarding unused cling-wrap or plastic bags because you’ve switched to wax wraps is simply adding to the waste problem. Use up what you have before you make the switch.


Sharing Surplus

If you really can’t make use of your surplus food, if for example your freezer is full, or you’re going on holiday, it’s better to offer the food to someone else who might want it rather than immediately heading for the bin.

Sharing with friends and neighbours is a good way to start, but if you find this isn’t working for you, there are alternatives:

Try using Olio – it’s a website and app that connects you to other people and food businesses who want to start sharing food. Just list your food and if someone wants it, you’ll be put in touch to arrange a collection. If you find that there aren’t many people sharing food in your area, don’t just delete the app. A bit of patience will help others to see that there are people willing to share in the local area and encourage them to get started.

Make friends with your nearest community fridge – these are hubs for food swapping, meaning you don’t have to coordinate a collection yourself.

Olio advertisement saying "when did sharing food become weirder than wasting it?"

Visit for more info

Make use of surplus from elsewhere

Accessing surplus food from elsewhere can be a great way to reduce your food shopping bill even further. As well as using community fridges and apps to pass on surplus, you can also use them to access heavily discounted food. Doing so can help you to reduce your food shopping bill, and you’ll be helping other people to prevent food going to waste. However, it’s only worth accessing cheap surplus foods if you’re able to make use of them, if you’ve already exhausted your own surplus and made the most of the foods you already have. The list below shows a few places where you can access surplus food at discounted prices:

Olio – Olio is a great place to find surplus food as well as to offer it to others

Too Good To Go – Links you with shops and other businesses who are offering discounts on surplus food in an effort to prevent it from going to waste

Karma – Links you with shops and businesses

Community fridge network

FoodCloud – Great for community groups and charities looking for food donations