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Melissa Hemsley: 10 Swaps For Sustainable Cooking

Hello again. I started my food writing career by sharing recipes on Vogue.co.uk six years and now I’m back with this column to champion food sustainability.

I’ll offer recommendations and advice from experts and heroes in the food community so we can all learn together and share what we know. After all, knowledge is power and when we know more, we do better. I’ll be talking about food waste, social justice for farmers, Fairtrade, plastic and packaging, restaurant recommendations, the trials and tribulations of growing your own fruit and veg, and seasonal ingredients and recipe inspiration.

The state of the planet can feel frightening and we know that drastic change is needed. Sustainability isn’t a few people doing things “perfectly”. It’s small, achievable daily changes that lots of us commit to taking on long term. And this, in turn, enriches our lives and feels good. It feels good to play our part, to help to make a difference, to reconnect to the food we eat and to our farmers and local community.

Getting more sustainably minded is a journey. I’m constantly juggling to make changes that I can commit to. It’s not about having to overhaul overnight. It’s definitely not about going out and buying a whole new set of “sustainable things”. It’s reusing what we’ve already got, wasting less of what we buy and making it go further. It’s stopping to think before throwing away and seeing if it can live another life as something else. From rescuing wilted salad before it goes in the bin and turning it into a green frittata, roasting potato peels into crisps or saving carrot greens and beetroot leaves and transforming them into a pesto, we can save a bit of money as well as doing something for the environment.

So, to kick us off, here are 10 easy steps and swaps to get more sustainable in the kitchen.

1. Think “Root to fruit”

The stems, stalks and leaves of most veg are just as delicious as the “main event”. Try this golden cauliflower soup topped with fried cauliflower leaves and my herby carrot green topping. The next time you’re about to throw away some parmesan rind, pop it into a soup or Bolognese to give an amazing flavour boost.

2. Bake your fruit bowl

Whether it’s your office or home fruit bowl or at the bottom of your handbag, chances are that, despite best intentions, you regularly end up with some bruised apples and battered bananas. Check out my recipe for a fruit bowl bake. It’s super simple and makes for a great on-the-go breakfast or afternoon snack.

3. Food waste and composting

For those food scraps that you can’t eat, get in touch with your council for a food waste bin or, if you have the space, a compost bin is easy to use (look out for the ones made from recycled plastic). You’ll finish up with homemade nutrient rich compost for your garden! Win win.

4. Re-organise your fridge

Do you end up with multiple half-eaten hummus tubs or gone-off yoghurt? Quite often our fridges are full but we can’t see what needs eating before it goes off and our flatmates or partners buy more and we’ve doubled up. I’m a big fan of sniffing and tasting (even after the expiry date) but, before it gets to that stage, here’s what works for me that might also work for you. I keep a shelf in the fridge of so-called “urgent use-up” foods. If you can’t assign a whole shelf, bring the food that needs eating first to the front of the fridge so you see it every time you open up.

5. Store to prevent spoilage

To stop shop-bought herbs wilting away too fast, snip the ends and store them in a jar with a little water in the fridge. Change the water every few days like you would a bunch of flowers.

6. Grow your own

Better yet, grow your own herbs on your kitchen counter by a window. I always struggle a bit with coriander but basil, parsley, chives, rosemary and thyme flourish quickly. Fresh mint tea whenever you want. Gorgeous, vibrant pestos and salsa verdes in an instant. You’ve cut down on bringing more plastic wrapping home (and they make your kitchen smell amazing too).

7. Give your freezer a workout

How much do you utilise your freezer? Could it help you more? Consider what you waste the most and think about freezing those foods before they get a chance to “go bad”. We all know about ripe bananas (perfect for instant homemade ice cream and milkshakes), but what about that half bag of tired rocket or spinach? If you know it’s an extra busy week or that it’s likely you won’t get to your herbs or leaves in time, pop them into the freezer. Spinach can be blended straight from frozen into smoothies or shakes, and rocket and watercress can be stirred into soups, Bolognese, risottos etc. If you often find yourself with stale bread, try slicing some up and freezing it in advance. It’s the same with milk too. You’ll be glad when you land back from holiday or a work trip away and don’t have to go to the shops for breakfast and a cup of tea.

8. Reuse what you’ve got

We’re used to saying “NO, THANK YOU” to plastic bags, bottles, straws and single-use coffee cups. At home, we can save our mustard/jam/honey jars and use them to store food in the fridge, like leftover soups and sauces, and to carry our iced coffees or smoothies and packed lunches to work. We can also upcycle them into candle jars, flower vases or bathroom storage for make-up brushes. At the office, if they don’t provide you with cutlery, keep your own in your desk so you can avoid plastic cutlery when you go to the shops to pick up lunch.

9. Refillables

From oats, quinoa and rice to spices, washing up liquid and wine (biodynamic, British, vegan, raw… whatever you like), try refilling your cupboard staples and wine bottles at your local wine shop/bulk buy shop/zero waste shop. Take your own containers (reused bottles, jars and bags) and fill up with what you need. More on this next time…

10. Reconnecting to our food suppliers

When I can, I love to visit my local weekend market. I enjoy supporting my local farmers and community and I learn so much from them on how to cook fantastic British produce. I take my own bags and containers so our transaction is packaging free. When I’m too busy to go, I get a weekly veg box (I’ve been using Riverford for years). I eat meat and fish – in small, quality amounts with veg always at the heart of my plate – so I like to buy it direct from the farmers. I stock the freezer up with it every 3 months or so, so I can defrost it when I want without having to worry about good food going off and being wasted. If you’re in London, Farmdrop is a brilliant one-stop online shop that connects you to your local suppliers and you can click on the shopping tab to go plastic free. At the supermarket, I head to the “loose” aisle instead of the plastic-wrapped aisle. Shopping plastic-free isn’t always possible or practical of course, but every little helps.

(Also, out of the kitchen, if you’ve got a window box, balcony or garden, put out a saucer of water for the bees, birds and other wildlife this summer. Keep it topped up and in the same place and they’ll keep coming back to you!)

Look out for my next column on Saturday 11 May, with a guide to bulk buy and zero waste shops, as well as a round-up of my favourite kitchen ingredients from companies and brands that are making a difference to the world and the people behind the food we eat. I’d also love to hear about what you do at home and what works for you. If you’d like to follow me, I’m over here @Melissa.Hemsley.



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