Waste less, save more!

Reviewed by our expert panel
Waste less, save more!

We all feel bad throwing food away; it’s a waste of money and it’s bad for the environment. Here’s our seven-step guide to saving money and feeling better by becoming waste-free.

  • Each month, New Zealanders dispose of enough rubbish to fill a rugby field to 30 stories high. The portion of this which could be composted (ie. food waste) is around 14 stories high.
  • One-third of all the fruit and vegetables we buy are thrown away.
  • In a recent survey of HFG readers, 62% of people said they regularly throw food away – fortnightly or more often.
  • Most of our survey respondents spend somewhere between $100 and $250 on groceries each week. So you could be throwing out anywhere from $9 to $27 worth of food each week – that’s up to $1400 a year!

Many of us (21% of HFG readers) end up throwing cooked food away because we’ve made too much. Here are some ways to avoid that.

Know how much you need

A petite 152cm tall (‘five-foot-nothing’) woman doesn’t need the same amount on her plate as a strapping 190cm (6’3”) bloke. But the proportions of each meal are the same for all. Remember the ‘ideal plate’: start by putting non-starchy vegetables on half of your plate; follow with the starchy vege or carbohydrate on a quarter of the plate; the final quarter is the meat or other protein food.

Even though we all need different amounts of food, with a bit of practice you’ll be able to get the amount of food right for your family if you follow these rough guidelines.

Meat A serve is the size and thickness of your hand Aim to buy 125-150g raw meat per person; as some meat is sold with bone which adds weight you won’t be eating, allow a little more
Legumes Imagine each person’s serve being held in their cupped hand 1/2 cup per person
Rice Imagine 1 cupped hand of rice (about 1 cup for an adult) 1 cup of raw white rice expands to 3 cups cooked (brown rice expands less)
Pasta Imagine 1 cupped hand of pasta (about 1 cup for an adult) Dried pasta doubles in volume when cooked; about 1/2 cup expands to just over 1 cup
Potatoes Imagine the potato fitting into each person’s cupped hand 1 medium potato for most adults
Non-starchy veges Imagine filling 2 hands cupped together Your eye is your best guide; buy lots!

2. Use up everything you buy

Salad leaves

  • Serve salad and dressing separately. That way, everybody can add as much or as little seasoning as they like, and you can serve the salad the following day without it wilting.
  • Use in stir-fries. Stir-fry your leftover salad alone or with meat (fry the meat first, then add the salad), add any Chinese or Thai sauce and enjoy.
  • Add to quiche, soup or casseroles. They’ll break down and you won’t know they’re there, but you’ll still get the goodness.
  • Try growing your own. Salad leaves are dead easy to grow almost all year round, so you’ll always have them on hand and only use what you need.


  • Apples, pears and other soft fruit can be stewed – just chop and put in a pot with a little water and simmer until they soften. Taste and then add just as much sugar as you need.
  • Bananas that are too black to eat can be peeled and frozen, then added to smoothies just as they are, or thawed and used in cakes and loaves.
  • Make fruit tarts with fruit that’s looking sad. Use filo pastry as a base and slice fruit on top. Sprinkle with sugar and bake in a medium oven until the fruit is soft.
  • Make fruit compote to add to breakfast cereal: slice fruit, peel if necessary, and heat gently with a tiny amount of water and a tablespoon of sugar, just until the juice starts to run. Store in the fridge.


  • Breadcrumbs. Make fresh breadcrumbs by whizzing in a blender; make dry breadcrumbs by toasting the bread first, then whizzing. For extra interest, add a garlic clove and a bit of parsley to the blender. Use as a coating for fish or baked dishes, or freeze.
  • Bread and butter pudding. Ditch the butter though, and add canned or stewed fruit instead – try our Fruity bread and butter pudding recipe.
  • Toast bread and make croutons for soup. Sprinkle with a little parmesan cheese to add flavour.
  • Make crostini with leftover French bread or ciabatta. Slice thinly, spray lightly with olive oil and toast on an oven tray. Store in an airtight container and use instead of crackers.
  • Sandwich crusts. If they’re dry and uncontaminated by fillings, dry them out in a warm oven, store in an airtight container and serve with dips. Particularly flavoursome crusts (from fruit bread or sourdough) can be served on their own as an afternoon snack.
  • If you have crusts with bits of cheese, jam or butter, don’t panic. You can still use them to make pikelets. Soak all the crusts in milk, liquidise in the food processor and add an egg. The consistency should resemble pikelet batter. You can also add grated cheese if you’re planning to serve the pikelets as a savoury snack. Fry as you would normal pikelets.

Raw vegetables

  • Make soup. Add stock, canned tomatoes and beans to almost any veges for a quick and easy minestrone.
  • Leftover celery, capsicums, even kumara and pumpkin are great thinly sliced and added to stir-fries.
  • Veges that are a little past their prime can still be roasted in a hot oven until they’re soft and sweet. Combine everything that’s left over in one pan, spray with oil and roast. Serve with meat or fish.
  • Potatoes that have shoots coming out can still be eaten; try roasting them or slicing to make a potato gratin.
  • Old potatoes are also fine for mash; make a big lot and freeze it for a quick side dish.


  • Cheese can be successfully frozen. Just wrap in plastic wrap or foil.
  • If you’ve got a rind of parmesan or other hard cheese, pop it into a bottle of olive oil to create a tasty, flavoured oil for dressing and finishing.
  • Cheese that’s gone hard can still be grated, and once grated, can be frozen or refrigerated.


  • Make smoothies: add milk, fruit and a spoonful of oats.
    Use instead of ice cream or sour cream.
  • Freeze and either eat frozen, like ice cream, or add to smoothies, chillies, soups and cereal.


  • Cut up any leftovers and dry them out in a warm oven to make chips.
  • Wraps can be frozen; try to keep them flat in the freezer so they don’t split when thawed.

Fruit and vegetables

  • Green leafy vegetables and herbs love humidity so they’ll last better if you wash them and put them in a plastic bag.
  • Celery, broccoli, beans, silver beet, spinach, corn, cauliflower, cabbage, radishes, leeks, carrots and turnips: these are best stored in a plastic bag in the fridge.
  • Garlic, onions, pumpkin, potatoes, kumara and ginger: these vegetables don’t want to be refrigerated but prefer a cool, dark, dry place.
  • Tomatoes should never be stored in the fridge as they lose their flavour and texture. Leave them at room temperature, not in direct sunlight.
  • Mushrooms like to stay dry and chilled, so store in a paper bag in the fridge. If they come home in a plastic bag, transfer them to paper.
  • Courgettes, spring onions, cucumber, beetroot and capsicum: keep best in the fridge and don’t need to be wrapped.
  • Break the hard ends off asparagus, stand upright in 2-3cm of water, and keep in the fridge.
  • Most fruit can be ripened at room temperature and then refrigerated to lengthen keeping times, but never put bananas in the fridge.
  • If you’re buying fruit that spoils quickly after ripening, buy it at different levels of ripeness.


  • Although best eaten fresh, fish will keep for up to four days. Put a layer of ice in the bottom of a container. Wrap the fish in plastic wrap and place it on the ice and then cover with more ice. Keep in the coolest part of the fridge (usually near the vegetable crisper drawer) and replace the ice as it melts.
  • For every hour fish is unrefrigerated, deduct one day of shelf-life.
  • Fish freezes well, too; defrost in the fridge when you want to eat.


  • Cheeses don’t like to dry out, and they are very good at picking up other strong smells, so put them, wrapped, into an airtight container in the fridge as soon as they’re opened.
  • Hard cheeses should keep for months in an airtight container, so it can be worth buying a larger block when it’s on special.
  • Grated cheese won’t last as long as a block because of the amount of surface area exposed to air.
  • Softer cheeses generally last 1-3 weeks in the fridge. If they come in a liquid or brine, store them in a container with that liquid.

Meat and poultry

  • Leave fresh meat or poultry in their individual wrappers and store in the lower part of the fridge (to ensure juices can’t drip on other food).
  • Use mince, sausages, offal and poultry within 1-2 days and cuts of meat like steak, chops or roasts within 3-4 days. For longer storage, freeze meat or poultry in an airtight plastic wrap.
  • Aim to get cooked meat or poultry into the fridge within an hour and use within 3 days. Make sure cooked and raw foods are always separated in the fridge.


  • Store fresh bread in a paper bag at room temperature; it may ‘sweat’ in a plastic bag, making the crust go soft and encouraging mould to grow. Often the fridge is not advised as it dries bread out, but Vogel’s advise that because its bread is moister than most, it keeps better in the fridge.
  • Whether in the pantry or the fridge, bread will still deteriorate quickly. Often it’s easier to put bread straight in the freezer and take out slices as you want them. This way there’s no waste, as long as you wrap it well and don’t keep it too long; it will keep up to a month.

How long can I keep that?

Store these foods in airtight containers and keep in a cool, dark place. Always remember the golden rule: ‘if in doubt, throw it out’

  • Standard flour – 8-12 months
  • Wholemeal flour – 6-8 months
  • White rice – 2 years
  • Brown rice – 6 months
  • Dried pasta – 2 years
  • Dried pulses (dried peas and beans) – 12 months
  • Canned pulses – 2 years or more
  • Herbs and spices – up to 12 months
  • Oils – very dependent on storage conditions (air, light and heat). 3-4 months once opened.
  • Nuts and seeds – 3-4 months
  • Dried fruit – 6-12 months
  • Canned tomatoes, fruit and juices – 12-18 months
  • Other low-acid canned foods like vegetable soups (except tomato), vegetables, legumes and spaghetti – 2 years or more
  • Breakfast cereals – check the pack for a ‘best before’ date
  • Sugars – almost indefinitely
  • Vinegars – almost indefinitely

How old is too old?

Mouldy cheese, bread, tomato paste – scrape or throw?
Throw out tomato paste, bread and soft cheeses. If your hard cheese has mould and you can cut a 1cm piece around the mould, you can eat it. Moulds produce toxins that can damage your liver, kidneys and immune system. Don’t risk it.

Day-old rice – eat or throw?
It depends. Cooked rice often contains a bacteria whose spores survive cooking. If you leave cooked rice to cool slowly, these can grow and produce a toxin. Even reheating won’t help. So, don’t leave rice to cool slowly; put it into an airtight container, and refrigerate ASAP if you want leftovers.

Leftover pizza – brekkie or throw?
If it was refrigerated within two hours of being cooked you can eat it within 2-3 days. If it was left out overnight, throw it out.

Old dried herbs – cook or throw?
They may lose some flavour but they won’t hurt you.

Old biscuits – munch or throw?
Munch. The taste and texture might not be up to scratch but dried biscuits past their best by date shouldn’t cause harm.

Unless it will last longer than two years, all packaged food has some form of date marking on it. The trick is understanding them before you buy, rather than when you’re throwing food away because it’s past its date.

  • ‘Use by’ means use it by that date or throw it away. This is a food safety issue, so don’t push the boundaries.
  • ‘Best before’ means you can use it after that date but it may not be as good. The food will deteriorate and at some point you really won’t want to eat it. Some foods deteriorate quite quickly and will be ‘unappetising’ a week past the date, whereas others last much longer. Do the ‘sniff test’ and use common sense. If in doubt, throw it out.
  • If a product has a ‘use by’ or ‘best before’ date on it, think about whether the date is far enough out to meet your needs. If the date goes out two weeks and you’re going to use the product in three days, that’s fine. But if it could be in the fridge for two weeks or more, have a rummage and see if you can find a product with a later date.

Having the right basic ingredients in the pantry means you’ve always got something to add to the fresh food you’ve bought to make a meal, and you’ve got lots of options to add to those leftovers to use them up. Here are a few basics to always keep in the pantry:

  • Pasta: long and short types for meal bases, and something small like orzo or macaroni to add to soups and stews.
  • Couscous: makes an almost instant meal. Measure equal amounts of couscous and hot stock or water, mix, cover and stand for 5 minutes. Fluff it up with a fork.
  • Rice: brown, long-grain white rice like jasmine or basmati for side dishes and arborio for making risotto.
  • Potatoes: waxy ones for boiling and floury ones for mashing and baking.
  • Tortillas: freeze them individually so you can take them out and use as a pizza base or for wraps.
  • Canned and dried pulses: add a can of beans or 1/2 cup of red lentils to soups or casseroles. This extends the meal and adds goodness.
  • Canned tomatoes: with a can of tomatoes in the pantry you will always have a meal on hand. Keep a mix of flavoured and plain ones.
  • Canned fish: for instant protein in salads, pasta or fish cakes. Keep a mix of salmon, tuna and sardines.
  • Stock powder or liquid: for soups, casseroles and risotto.
  • Onions: instantly add flavour to almost anything.
  • Garlic: with onion, makes the base of many, many meals.
  • Oil: olive, spray, canola or rice bran.
  • Eggs: keep these in the fridge. Eggs are brilliant for omelettes, frittatas, scrambles and binding cakes and fritters.

Roast and cooked meat

Try this with almost any meat – lamb, pork, beef, chicken, turkey, ham:

  • Cut into small cubes, reheat just before serving and add it to  vegetable soup. Great for lunch or dinner.
  • Cut into small strips, freeze, and use next time you make a pie.
  • Cut into small strips and serve with wraps or tortillas the next day.
  • Cut into medium-sized strips and make ‘surprise parcels’ from filo pastry or savoury short pastry.

Cooked vegetables

This works well with pumpkin, kumara, green beans, asparagus, peas and corn:

  • Freeze and use next time you want to make lasagne: add a layer of the defrosted and drained vegetables in between the pasta.
  • Refrigerate and use the next day to make quiche.
  • Refrigerate and re-heat the next day and make into roast vegetable mash (it’s delicious!).
  • Slice, add an egg or two and make a frittata.

Cooked potatoes

  • Mash and make potato dumplings or gnocchi. Add a whole egg and just enough flour (a teaspoon or a tablespoon, depending on how many potatoes you have left) to hold it all together and to have the consistency of fluffy dough. Season with pepper and garlic. With a spoon, form potato dough balls and cook in a pot of boiling water. Serve instead of potatoes or rice. (Tip: You can whisk the egg white until fluffy but not stiff. This will give the dumplings a lighter texture.)
  • Refrigerate and mash, then fry with other leftover veges (carrot, celery, kumara etc) to make good old fashioned bubble and squeak. Add ham, bacon or other meat, and a poached egg.
  • Slice and layer in an oven-proof dish with a little cheese and milk to make a gratin.


  • If the fish is already cooked, best serve it to your cat. Theoretically, you can keep it in the fridge for a day, but for food safety reasons we don’t recommend it.
  • If the fish is smoked, you can refrigerate it for a few days and use it in pies or surprise parcels.
  • With canned fish, take it out of the can and store in the fridge for a few days. Add to a salad for a take-to-work lunch.

Top 10 ways to use leftovers

  1. Risotto: add leftover cooked veges, meat, fish to a basic risotto recipe. Add cheese and fresh herbs.
  2. Pies: put leftover casserole, cooked meat and vegetables or mince mixture in a dish, add a layer of pastry or mashed potato and bake.
  3. Parcels: wrap leftovers in filo or pizza dough for crunchy, tasty parcels. Serve with salad.
  4. Omelettes and frittatas: add an egg or two to leftover veges and meat in a pan, add cheese.
  5. Patties, fritters, potato cakes: bind leftover mashed veges with an egg, add herbs, canned fish or corn and fry.
  6. Pasta: leftovers added to freshly-cooked pasta can make a delicious meal. Add any fresh veges and a can of tomatoes.
  7. Soup: Do what your Nana used to do. Put stock in a pot, add leftover cooked chicken or meat, small pasta and whatever else takes your fancy.
  8. Bean-based stews: add a can of beans and one of tomatoes to leftover sausages or cooked meat and make a tasty stew.
  9. Couscous: add leftover veges and meat to cooked couscous for an almost instant meal. Add nuts, chunks of cheese and fresh herbs for extra interest.
  10. Baked potatoes: these are delicious when filled with leftover bolognese sauce or stew and sprinkled with cheese and a dollop of sour cream.

Start with: Leftover cooked meat
Make: Surprise parcels

  • Cut any ready-made frozen pastry (puff pastry, filo, savoury short) into large triangles or squares
  • Place some leftover meat in the middle of every piece of pastry
  • Add a small piece of feta or cheddar
  • Optional: a piece of sun-dried tomato, a few capers, a pitted olive
  • Drizzle with a sauce of your choice: sweet chilli, garlic yoghurt, mild mustard, etc
  • Fold up the parcel, place on a baking sheet and bake until the crust is golden brown

Start with: Leftover cooked meat, mince, lentils or beans
Make: Mexican wraps

On the table arrange the following items, then invite everyone to make their own wraps.

  • A plate of wraps
  • A bowl of warmed up leftover meat
  • A bowl of low-salt canned beans
  • A container of natural yoghurt
  • A plate of washed lettuce leaves
  • A bowl of chopped tomatoes (fresh if in season, canned • otherwise)
  • A bowl of cooked peas and/or corn (frozen mixes are good)
  • A shaker with pepper or Mexican seasoning
  • A bowl of diced jalapenos
  • Optional: a small bowl of grated low-fat cheese

Start with: Leftover cooked meat, cooked veges, uncooked veges that look a bit sad, leftover tomato paste or pasta sauce
Make: Tortilla pizzas

  • Chop veges and meat into bite-sized pieces
  • Grate some cheese
  • Lay out some tortillas, pieces of flatbread or wraps
  • Spread tortillas with tomato paste, pasta sauce or even barbecue sauce (go with what you have)
  • Arrange meat, veges and cheese on top
  • Grill for 10 minutes until cheese is melted and tortillas are crispy
  • Optional: add olives, chillies, anchovies, capers
  • Variation: Put another tortilla on top of the pizza to make quesadillas – when crispy, slice into quarters

When things are really not able to be eaten any more, don’t despair, and don’t reach for the rubbish bin. There’s a composting system to suit any household.

Worm farms

A worm farm is a really good option for people with small or even no gardens. Vermicompost can be used even on pot plants, and a worm farm can live happily on a deck or balcony. Worms like to eat most food scraps, except meat and highly acidic fruit and veges, like citrus and onions. Worm farms are really popular with kids, too. Find worm farms at garden centres.


If you have a regular backyard, you can have a compost bin. Pick up an inexpensive bin from a garden centre, or make your own. Use this for garden waste, vacuum cleaner dust and food scraps – everything but meat and fish. Some councils run free composting courses, so check in your area.


Bokashi composting is a great companion to other forms of compost, because it can be used to compost cooked food leftovers and meat as well as regular fruit and vege scraps. It’s an anaerobic system, using a bucket that can be kept inside. Bokashi composting involves a fermentation process rather than decomposition, and makes great quality compost that can be used on the garden.

Waste facts

  • The most common foods thrown away by HFG readers are salad, other vegetables, cooked leftovers, and bread.
  • 37% of readers say they throw food away because it has gone off.
  • 19% of readers throw away leftovers because they cooked too much.
  • Less than one-third of Kiwi households freeze fruit or vegetables to use later.
  • 50% of HFG readers compost their fruit and vege scraps. But 28% say they throw them into the rubbish bin, and 17% put them in the waste disposal.


  • Plan your meals for the week and only buy what you know you are going to use.
  • Keep a list of what’s in your freezer and use it when planning the week’s shopping so you don’t double up.
  • Don’t pack the pantry too full as you’ll forget what you’ve got. Keep as much as possible within sight.
  • Taking leftovers to work as lunch could save you $50 a week!
  • If you’re filling one wheelie bin of rubbish a week. you could be throwing away enough material to make 1 1/2 trailer loads of compost a year.


First published: Jul 2008

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