The bin generation

When it comes to wasting the weekly shop, millennials are the worst offenders. Here’s how to transform the trash into flavourful feasts

Does anyone have a good word to say about millennials? I’m beginning to feel quite sorry for them, the generation aged 18 to 34. Quite sorry for us, as, at 29, I’m part of this vexing cohort. We are the snowflake generation. The Insta-Twits. The social me-me-medias. And now we’re the waster generation, throwing away more food than any other age group.

A study by Sainsbury’s has found a generation gap in attitudes to food waste: 38% of those over 65 say they never waste food, compared with just 17% of those under 35. Millennials were also more likely to shop on a whim, rather than with a list: 20% of those under 35 said they wasted the most food after a big supermarket shop, compared with 8% of 55- to 64-year-olds, and 7% of those over 65. Just 5% of those in the over-55 categories threw out leftovers three or more times a week; among millennials it was 17%. That’s an estimated £460 a year of food we might have eaten.

We simply don’t shop or cook as our grandmothers did. “The idea that one chicken could serve a small family for two or three meals — roasted, with pasta or risotto, or in a broth or soup or sandwich — is foreign to a lot of young people,” says restaurateur Sally Clarke, whose cookbook Sally Clarke: 30 Ingredients builds sumptuous meals around simple, seasonal foods. Instead, we pick, we choose, we go in for fads. We do Ottolenghi Mondays, Persiana Tuesdays and Deliciously Ella Wednesdays. We buy za’atar, wasabi and amaranth. We use a pinch, a splash, a dash, then move on to the next recipe.

And we photograph our food. We want it as pretty and pouting as a selfie, which means no use-everything-up frittatas, hotpots or salmagundis, only exquisitely prinked salads and “nourish bowls”. We are slavish followers of recipes with new, hashtaggable ingredients. Once you’ve made one pudding from Raw Cake, the clean-eating bake book by former model Daisy Kristiansen and Leah Garwood-Gowers, what are you to do with the left-over pearl powder and ashwagandha?

Just 5% of over-55s throw out leftovers — among millennials it is almost four times as many

Miguel Barclay, author of One Pound Meals: Delicious Food for Less, says millennials don’t have the knack of using up what’s already there or substituting one ingredient for another. “It’s unlikely you’ll use a whole block of feta in one dish,” he says. “Then, after buying something like a butternut squash to use up the feta, you’ll be left with half a butternut squash, and so the whole process starts again.”

When my friend Sarah, 30, moved in with her boyfriend Alex, 29, she staged a kitchen intervention, cleaning out split bags of stale couscous, moghrabieh, bulgur and freekeh (any of which can substitute the others) and dust-heaps of cinnamon. “There were things crawling in the buckwheat,” she says.

Those at the younger end of the group, living away from home for the first time, are the worst wasters. Student Sarah Jardine, 19, says: “My flatmate bought a box of cereal and didn’t like it, so put it in the bin. Bear in mind it was purchased that day and she had only eaten a few mouthfuls.” She says girls are more wasteful than boys, who tend to eat whatever is in the fridge, regardless of “mankiness”. “Most girls would think twice about eating something on its best-before date. I feel guilty even saying that, because of course the food would be fine.”

Saskia Gregson-Williams, author of Naturally Sassy, a healthy-eating cookbook, says: “I don’t often see teens and twentysomethings planning their meals. It isn’t the nature of the lifestyle — there’s a greater pressure to go out and socialise, and these plans aren’t always made far in advance.”

For older millennials, the problem isn’t parties, it’s work. If Alex — he of the crawling buckwheat — is in Tesco Metro at the end of the day and isn’t sure what’s in the fridge, he’d rather buy doubles than get home and find he’s missing something. “That’s why there are four jars of turmeric in the spice rack,” he says. Another friend, Charlotte, 28, gets a weekly Ocado delivery, but still finds herself too tired to cook, ordering Deliveroos from her train, then racing the courier to the doorstep. At the end of the week, untouched food in the fridge gets chucked.

Chef Ed Smith, author of On the Side: A Sourcebook of Inspiring Side Dishes, says it’s partly a lack of cooking education: knowing how to be resourceful and make the most of things. “We need to be willing to spend time turning what might seem a hopeless case into a meal. It’s those exotic condiments at the back of the fridge or cupboard that turn leftovers and less-desirable bits into a good meal. Miso, soy, gochujang, sesame oil, tahini — they’ll all help make a flavourful fridge forage.”

And if it looks a mess? If no amount of Instagram filtering will save it? Well, think of it as one for the senses rather than the scrolling masses.


Saskia Gregson-Williams, food blogger
“When making a list of meals for the week, leave a night at the end for leftovers. Get the base for a good curry sauce — coconut milk, tomato paste, spices — and chuck in all leftover veggies and grains.”

Sally Clarke, chef
“Make the outside leaves of salads and the trimmings of fish or meat into stews, or roast them with herbs and olive oil. Serve with rice or pasta to suit all diets.”

Miguel Barclay, chef
“Leftover meat and veg can go in a chicken chow mein with dried noodles, chilli, garlic and soy sauce. Make sure you use sesame oil, though — it will raise your Chinese cooking to the next level. Use up any last veg in a soup — just boil, add a stock cube, then blend.”