Born into a family that boasts a pastry chef, a former cake decorator, and a bakery owner, I am perhaps one of the worst people to easily commit to a zero waste food challenge.

But I’m also the kind of person who gets excited to say yes to almost everything, that’s why I jumped in quite blindly into producing zero food waste for a week.

South Africans waste 10 million tonnes of food every year. The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research found that consumers and households contribute to 18% of all of South Africa’s food waste. So while the bulk of food wasted can be attributed to the processing and production of food before it reaches households (59% of all food waste), we as consumers can still do our bit to be better.

Prof. Suzan Oelofse, the researcher who led that South Africa study, says if consumers are more conscious about the potential of producing food waste, they could reduce it.

“The moment you start thinking about food waste in your own household, you think differently about how you handle food and how much you buy, to try to avoid unnecessary wastage,” she said. “Best of all, in the end you save yourself money,” she told the Mail & Guardian

My family will stuff you with food and pack you a goodie bag for the road, just in case you aren’t full enough. This life of abundant food production and eating (because let’s be honest, I do most of the eating) is something that I live my life by now as a grown adult. 

I’ve been cooking since I was 14 years old, and today 13 years later, I’ll cook for everyone and anyone who will allow me; it’s how my family taught me to show love and respect for others. I never realised this just might be doing the opposite to the planet.  

The resources that it takes to produce food are entirely wasted when we don’t consume that food. More than that, wasted food ends up in landfill and contributes to up to 8% of man-made greenhouse gas emissions. You don’t often consider the food waste you’re making when you’re cooking, and what impact that food waste is having on the environment and the world’s food systems. 

When Monday rolled around and I was meant to begin my zero food waste journey, I was far from ready, which serves me right for underestimating this challenge. I’d already failed first thing in the morning by making a cup of coffee without having a plan for what to do with the coffee grounds, which I didn’t realise were food waste until I Googled it later that day. 

After realising this unintentional mistake, I was more determined to get back on track and I read up on how to go zero waste. The week that followed was filled with lessons (and a few more failures) that really got me excited about being more conscious about reducing waste in the kitchen in the future. Here are a few things that I learned. 

1. Planning is key.

Every item of food in the kitchen needs to have a purpose, otherwise it’s likely that you’ll forget about it. Planning what you need in your kitchen, what meals you plan to make, and looking at what you already have can help to improve your food waste production. 

Before making a grocery run, I wrote out exactly what I needed and I planned my meals for the week. My next plan of action was to look at what I already had in the house and what needed using, and put together the week’s meals around what I had left. 

Thank goodness I did, because I’d added broccoli on my shopping list, despite having a bag of broccoli that had been sitting in the fridge for almost a week. It didn’t look the best, but I was determined to eat it.

According to Oelofse, we’re trained by retailers to seek out perfection and uniformity in the food we consume, down to the size, shape, and colour.

“I always say that people tend to forget that fresh fruit and vegetables don’t come out of a factory with a mould for only round tomatoes or straight cucumbers,” she told the Mail & Guardian. 

With this in mind, I figured it would be OK to at least try and do something with the broccoli. I cooked it as a side dish for two of my meals and it was perfectly fine. 

2. Just because something is on sale doesn’t mean you need it.

The fruit and vegetable store I went to is amazingly affordable — it’s my happy place because most of the time I cannot believe how much food you can get for such a small price. I quickly realized that just because it’s affordable, that doesn’t mean that you have to buy it. 

Enter the strawberry dilemma. They were on sale, two punnets for R19 ($1.27) — how can anyone resist? When are strawberries ever that cheap? Forgetting that I had a shopping list to follow, I found myself with four punnets of strawberries and no plan for what to do with them. 

This decision led to strawberries in my breakfast for four days in a row, French toast topped with strawberries, yoghurt and strawberries, oatmeal and strawberries … if they weren’t super delicious, I might have been sick of them. Lesson learned, stick to the shopping list. 

3. More things count as food waste than you imagine.

Coffee grounds, egg shells, mushroom stems, carrot tops, orange peels, onion peels, broccoli tips, strawberry tops, apple seeds — all of these things I didn’t realise were food waste. 

Not only are some of them alright for you to eat, some things like strawberry leaves — because again, I had to do something with all of the strawberry leaves that I’d accumulated — are actually delicious. I found this helpful article by Delish on all of the things you can do with strawberry leaves that blew my mind, from smoothies to salads, they have a lot more use than I thought they would. 

This made me wonder, who made these food rules? Who told us to cut the tops off of our fruit and vegetables? I found this article that made me rethink the rules and helped me see all the food scraps you actually can eat, including spring onion tops and stale bread.

My rule of thumb for everything now is to research whether you can eat it before you throw it away. 

4. There are more uses for food than eating it.

With the amount of coffee I drink, I had to find something practical to do with the coffee grounds. Google did not fail me — did you know you can use coffee grounds as a body scrub? This changed my life in the thick of a dry winter in Johannesburg. I used this recipe and it turned out to be a great exfoliant for dry skin. 

After looking into the different uses for food scraps, I found that you can use onion and avocado peels as dye, you can turn orange peels into candy, and egg shells are great for your pot plants. I didn’t try any of these methods with my scraps — I composted them instead, which is another good option — but with this newfound knowledge, I’m really eager to try candied orange peels. 

5. Sharing is caring.

This was the only thing I was prepared to do this week, because I’m used to cooking for more than just myself thanks to my family's habits. 

The punnet of mushrooms I bought turned out to be more than enough for me alone, so I called a friend to ask her if I could cook her dinner, and this ticked so many boxes. I made a pasta dish and instead of using half an onion, I used the whole onion, and I used all of the mushrooms, which otherwise would have sat in the fridge without future plans. The only waste I made in that meal were the onion peels, which I added to my compost bin. 

Global Citizen Life

Defend the Planet

5 Things I Learned From Trying to Make Zero Food Waste in South Africa

By Khanyi Mlaba