The supermarket order is already in its way, the freezer is groaning at the seams, the fridge door needs a full-body shove to get it to close. Making sure there is plenty to eat at Christmas is a national obsession. But suddenly, the numbers round the Christmas table have fallen, and many of us are left with precious few mouths to feed.
So what is the solution? No one wants to waste good food. As Tessa Clarke of Olio, a food sharing app, pointed out on Radio 4 on Monday, on a normal Christmas we throw away the equivalent of 4.2 million Christmas dinners. But this year’s Christmas chaos may be just the kick start we need to waste less not more.
Programme your eating
It sounds nerdy, but do a fridge and cupboard audit. Check the use-by labels on fresh food, make a list, and stick it to the fridge. Sounds a bit obvious and obsessional, but trust me – having it in writing really helps.
It’s generally fresh ingredients that need to be used first. So plan to eat potatoes rather than pasta, and serve up those Brussels sprouts rather than the frozen beans. Tick them off as you go, and feel the glow of virtue.
Remember the difference between a use-by date (food may not be safe to eat after this has passed) and a best-before date, after which food may still be perfectly good to eat for some time.
Freeze your assets
If you are stuck with a huge turkey, take a tip from the charity lovefoodhatewaste.com (which has a whole raft of great advice on its website) and cut the bird in half. Poultry shears are the best tool for this, and will allow you to snip down one side of the breast bone and the back bone – but a sturdy pair of kitchen scissors will do the job almost as well. Freeze one half for up to two months to use for another feast, and cook the other as usual, adjusting the cooking times for a lower weight.
Freezing is the ideal solution for lots of surplus ingredients, provided you wrap everything scrupulously. Butter will last four months in the freezer, and hard cheese can be grated, stored in a bag for up to four months and used in cooking. Ingredients like cream are best incorporated into dishes like homemade ice cream which will keep for up to a month. Just beat 600ml double cream with a few drops of vanilla extract and a 397g tin of condensed milk until thick. Beat in a cup full of leftover crumbled Christmas pudding and a couple of spoonfuls of marmalade. Pour into a tub and freeze.
Cook food to give it a second lease of life
Veg like spinach, broccoli, carrots and chard that are beginning to look a bit sad, can be cooked until just done in boiling salted water. Cool them quickly in iced water and either freeze them (for up to a month) or chill them (for up to two days), then reheat in boiling water. Or heat up a portion restaurant-style: in a small pan, melt one tablespoon of butter in one tablespoon of water, add a pinch of salt and whisk to emulsify. Add one to two portions of vegetables and toss the pan until heated through.
Raw meat that’s close to its use-by date can be cooked into casseroles, and fish can be poached and made into fish cakes or fish pie. This will give them an extra two days life in the fridge or a month in the freezer.
Cooked meat from the Christmas roast lasts three to four days after Christmas, but bake it into a pie to give it an extra day or two. Cooked a goose? Make a pâté like the one below:
Twixtmas goose pate
Leftover goose can be stripped from the bones, shredded into strips and cooked to make a rillettes-style pâté .
For 200g goose meat, add 100g chopped streaky bacon (or fatty ends of ham) and pack into a small pan with a bay leaf and a star anise. Pour over enough goose fat, saved from the roast, to just cover.
Cover with a piece of greaseproof paper pressed on to the surface, and cook very gently for one and a half hours. Strain off about half the fat, remove the bay leaf from the meat, season with salt and pepper and pack into a jam jar. Pour over the remaining fat, and tap to remove any bubbles.
Cool and store intact in the fridge for up to a week ( a couple of days once you have broken through the top layer of fat). Eat with sourdough toast and pickles.
Freezer rammed full? You can preserve the old-fashioned way, by bottling into preserving jars and then boiling them in large pans of water. The results will last six months to a year. Beginners are best starting with fruit, which has enough natural acidity to make safe preserving fairly straightforward: there are instructions here . Bottling vegetables, soup and casseroles needs more care: Batch by Joel MacCharles and Dana Harrison (Appetite, US$30) has comprehensive directions.
Check on your neighbours
For every one of us left with no guests and a bulging fridge, there’s a guest unexpectedly stuck at home without Christmas dinner. The elderly and vulnerable may feel especially isolated, so why not arrange to cook extra and deliver it to neighbours? Not unsolicited, of course – however lovely your roast turkey is, it’s not the sort of surprise someone wants to find on their doorstep.
Making the connection is the first step. Caroline Abrahams, Charity Director at Age UK, points out that social media and online services “won’t help you reach an older person who is not online and that’s the majority beyond the age of 75.” Instead, she says, reach out in person. “If you know of an older person nearby who is unexpectedly on their own then they might well appreciate the offer of some additional food and it’s well worth offering by phone or through putting a note through their door.”
Piping hot meals can be dropped off at a pre arranged time, by ringing on the doorbell and stepping back.
Give it away
Charities like Crisis, The Salvation Army and St Mungo’s will be providing Christmas meals to vulnerable people over Christmas, but their pantries are already well stocked in readiness (although they welcome cash donations). The Salvation Army suggests contacting their local groups in case they need any extra food. Local faith groups, churches and mosques, may also have small scale initiatives which would welcome donations.
Food banks generally won’t be able to accept food that needs to be stored in the fridge but are happy to take in-date unopened packets and tins. They then redistribute to people in need, who usually have to have a referral from a doctor, social worker, adviser at Citizens Advice Bureau or police.
Hubbub Community Fridges
Chilled food in unopened packets, as well as fruit and veg, can be taken to the Hubbub network of Community Fridges – great if you have too much cream or yogurt, say. (Unless you are a food business with a hygiene rating, you won’t be able to donate home cooked food though.) Anyone who can use the food is welcome to help themselves to donations.
Opening hours over the holidays vary but you can check your nearest Community Fridge at hubbub.org.uk/the- community-fridge
An app which allows users to post a photo and brief description of unwanted food so that locals can pick up anything that’s useful to them. Available to anyone and easy to use (I’m a regular) it’s also one of the few routes for surplus home cooked food or food in opened packets. Food must not be past its use by date, and should be food that you would usually be happy to eat yourself. Download the Olio app (Google Play or App Store) or go to olioex.com
Foodcycle projects support hungry and lonely people by running community cafes where volunteers cook meals and sit down to eat alongside guests. During the pandemic where possible they have been cooking takeaway meals instead. They welcome cash donations, but local projects may welcome surplus food as well.
The following Foodcycle projects are open over the holidays:
Wednesday 23 December
Bath (Nexus Methodist Church, Nelson Place, BA1 5DA)
Saturday 26 December
Finsbury Park (Finsbury Park Community Hub, Corker Walk, London N7 7RY)
Peckham (All Saints Church Hall, Blenheim Grove, Peckham, London SE15 4QS)
Monday 28 December
Clacton (Pier Avenue Baptist Church, 117 Pier Ave, Clacton-on-Sea CO15 1NJ)
Peterborough (Park Road Baptist Church, Park Road, Peterborough PE1 2TF)
Wednesday 30 December
Cambridge (Barnwell Baptist Church, Howard Road, Cambridge CB5 8QS)
Thursday 31 December
Hackney (New Kingshold Community Centre, 49 Ainsworth Rd, London E9 7LP)
Friday 1 January
Norwich (Friends Meeting House, Upper Goat Lane, Norwich NR2 1EW)
Saturday 2 December
Kilburn (St Cuthbert’s Church, Fordwych Rd, West Hampstead, London NW2 3TN)
Peckham (All Saints Church Hall, Blenheim Grove, Peckham, London SE15 4QS)