Mean and Green

I had a Mothership Moment in Marks & Spencer. There was a dude putting yellow stickers on a trolley of goods. Lettuces, salads, over-packaged potato products. My heart skipped a beat… could this be… a CHUCK-OUT BIN?

The Chuck Out Bin is what Mum called the bit where supermarkets put all the aging yogurts and the nearly-stale bread. I’ve often written about my childhood mortification as she pawed through the goods: "To her an expiration date is not a recommendation but a challenge".

I once vowed never to follow in her footsteps, but this was M&S! I’d never seen M&S do a bargain bin before. They’ve been infamous for simply tossing their near-expired food, making them extremely popular with bin-raking freegans. Also, now I’m older and madly saving for a house deposit and/or a visit to Australia. Therefore I could justify stalking the aisles and lurking behind the posh crisps; waiting for the dude to finish sticking his stickers.

In the end I took the direct Mothership approach and marched on over.

"Hellooooo! Are these on special?"

(They tend to say "On Offer" in the UK but the whole bargain hunt experience transported me to Oz.)

"Yes!" he rolled his eyes, "Happy digging!"

I got a wee tub of three bean salad for £1. You have to be careful with these things as cheap can be dear, "because it tempts us to buy what we need not." But I told myself I really needed something for lunch the next day, and you couldn’t buy the ingredients for a pound! Well you probably could. And you’d get a few servings too, then you could recycle the bean tin instead of clogging the earth with another plastic container. But that wee surge of adrenaline and triumph made it feel like a bargain, especially with the shiny yellow sticker.

On Sunday I was thinking about the relationship between food and thrift and the planet. This week’s Food Programme on Radio 4 was about commercial food waste. Around 24 million tonnes of food is dumped into landfill every year by restaurants, food manufacturers, supermarkets and airline caterers. Crikey! Apparently the methane generated by all this food has a great impact on the environment.

And just before that I’d been listening to 86-year-old actress Liz Smith on Desert Island Discs, cheerfully talking about her 1930s childhood with bugger all money and her frocks clobbered together from random scraps of fabric.

I thought of these shows later on when doing the weekly online grocery shop. Normally I have a vague menu in my head then go madly clicking through the virtual aisles, throwing in anything and everything. Then I freak out at the subtotal and remove half the items from the basket until it looks respectable. But with money and waste on the brain, I decided to do a proper stocktake of the kitchen cupboards.

Turns out I already had plenty of tins of beans that would have made a great salad. D’oh! And then there were a dozen half-empty packets of various grains and seeds and pulses. Oodles of experimental sauces and spices. Abandoned bags of frozen veggies. I came up with a week’s meals there and then; all I needed was bread and milk and some more fresh stuff. Ka-ching!

Among the scoffings this week:

  • Vegetable lasagna – using the leftover lasagna sheets that have annoyed me for months, a stray ball of mozzarella and three tins of brown lentils which I can almost convince myself taste like beef. O, the plight of the vegetarian’s wife.
  • Lentil Dahl – as featured in the Farting Out The Window incident in the DG book! Starring dregs of yellow and red lentils and a bag of frozen spinach I’ve tried to ignore since October.
  • Smiley Bill’s Muesli Bars – a.k.a. granola bars (US) or cereal bars (UK). A healthy-ish Bill Granger recipe with oats, dates, sunflower seeds, pecans, honey and a dod of sunflower oil. Finally got rid of all them seedy scraps and they taste BLOODY BEAUTIFUL!

I think green and frugal kind of go hand in hand. Less about sticking a bloody wind turbine on your roof and more about being thoughtful with your consumption. Of course, if you truly wanted to minimise your impact on the environment, you’d need to sit very still and very naked and not touch anything… and just wait to die. This is the only way I can see that one could avoid leaving carbon footprints and exploiting children in clothing factories and scoffing ill-treated chickens/ depleted fishes/ bananas from distant lands. Although you’d still be hogging oxygen and stuff.

But here in reality, methinks you can only do your best to not be an obnoxious resource vulture. That way you get to save money and be smug all at the same time.

34 thoughts on “Mean and Green

  1. Haha, it seems you’ve solved the mystery as to how one can live a more ‘green’ existence. I will be baring my flesh to the world and touching nothing. =)

    Thanks for the reminder… I’ll be taking stock of the pantry this eve…The Cub and I tend to grocery shop WAY WAY more than 2 people actually need to.

  2. Some of my favourite words in the English language are “reduced for quick sale”.

    I’m sure breathing oxygen is okay, after all plants need the carbon dioxide we breath out (yahs, I remember something from science class).

  3. Gaaah!!! No!! not the specials!! The other half is a real sucker for these – he’ll go down the road for a loaf of bread and he’ll come back with 3 because they were a 3 for $whateva special… not so special when they go mouldy on the bench because he didn’t think to stick the extra 2 in the freezer!! Gaaah!!

  4. It was reported here recently that the average Australian household chucks out about 30% of the food it buys.

    I’ve taken to digging in the bin behind the supermarket to get lettuce leaves for our chooks, who seem to regard them as slightly better than crystal meth. More than once I’ve been tempted to take home, cook and eat the tomatoes, mushrooms, peaches etc which have been discarded.

  5. I nearly wet myself laughing reading the fart out the window incident in your book. Thanks for reminding me about it – another healthy chuckle was had 🙂

    Gotta love the throw out bin – your mother and mine must have come from the same stock especially in regards to the expiration date!! Very scary indeed !!

  6. I love the process of doing a weekly menu plan and then checking to see what you’ve got and what you need to buy – saves a lot of veges going off.

    A lady I work with says that being green is as simple as doing things like making sure you put the lid back on feltpens (so they don’t dry out, you don’t have to throw them out and buy new ones). It is too easy in our luxurious societies to throw things out because it’s much easier and more fun to buy new ones!

  7. freegans? totally have the right idea.

    I just need to train my toddler to do all the freeganing whilst I pretend to not notice 🙂

    miss M&S.
    lived in oxford for a year.


  8. I bet everyone does the same as I do: look in the fridge and cupboards and proclaim, “We’ve got nothing in!”, then bring the shopping home and struggle to fit it on the shelves groaning under the weight of forgotten food!!!

    I have a bag of carrots lurking in my fridge and a stockpile of half-used bags of lentils – I feel a soup day coming on!

    Oooh! don’t forget the ‘love food hate waste’ website ( – it made me feel extremely virtuous to find lots of yummy things to make with left-overs.

  9. I listened to both of those programmes as well and I am resolved to do something about the amount of food I waste. It’s hard when you live on your own not to overbuy. Mind you I make brilliant compost albeit very expensive compost with all those organic vegetables going straight into the bin.

  10. If you’ve got room for windowboxes, I recommend growing salad leaves and rocket from seeds. It’s easy, means you get to eat gorgeous salads all summer, and is so, so cheap!

  11. nice one ganching 😛

    oh laura! i am DYING to have windowboxes but due to the position of our flat we get sweet f all sunlight… part of my savings drive is so we can move somewhere with sun and windowboxes. i bet the salad tastes so good, and your own ROCKET!!? i love rocket!

    unable2trace – thanks for that link! it’s a goodun!

    kathryn – i really miss those REDUCED FOR QUICK SALE stickers. hehe.

  12. Entertaining and inspiring at the same time, for the bargain price of one post! It always cracks me up with DH says we have nothing to eat at home and the fridge and cupboards are stocked with food. It’s just not HIS kind of food. Ugh.

  13. My theory on waste (for what its worth):
    I think that when the family dynamic changed from Husband/wage earner and Wife/homemaker to both parents working… that’s when the waste started piling up. Because it was the housewife’s JOB to run the home efficiently, even to the point of having a backyard garden! But what woman has time for that these days… and with rush comes waste, and even more trash, with quickie food in their plastic cartons.

    Just a theory…

  14. Tsk, I’m so hungry I could eat my own arm. So I come online for a little distraction therapy and find myself reading about food!

    Off to eat that arm then. Or some lentils. Either is good.

  15. hey shauna! So, it’s not just me? Developing a conscience? Lately I’ve been feeling very guilty over the waste M & I have been making…. both food and other waste. I’m trying to even (dare I say it?) compost! There’s a good show on TV now called Living with Ed (Bagely) who was a 60’s or 70’s TV star. He does a lot of eco-friendly things with his home. But, the same can go with food waste too. Sometimes it’s just buying a different product that can make the difference in spoilage dates. For example, soy milk lasts way longer in the fridge than cow’s milk which means I toss out less curd at the end of the week (hehe)….

    House-ownership is definitely worth going into the special bins for (and we use, “On special” in canada too)…. we don’t regret buying a home even though it meant M couldn’t have his eye-surgery to chuck his glasses… Hope it comes to you sooner than later! I’ve heard the scottish system can suck arse when you buy. Good luck!

  16. Great post! I am the queen of whipping up something out of “nothing” as my husband would say. I tend to forage around to see what’s in the house and then throw something together with what’s available. It’s fun and a challenge! I occasionally follow recipes and buy specific stuff but usually I just use what’s on hand. I’m also a big fan of online grocery shopping. It’s a lifesaver when you don’t have a car…

  17. I completely agree about green=frugal. We are champions of re-using and recycling, and it is not a complete coincidence that my dear other half has… economical tendencies. (He doesn’t like people calling him mean, and it’s not entirely fair, but sometimes it is.)

    You don’t actually need much sunlight to grow salad leaves – though you do need more for things that fruit. I proved this last summer, alas, when the salad leaves were pretty much the only crop that did anything in our tiny patch.

  18. I just added a small % to your house deposit by (finally) buying your book.
    Cracking good read. And I love the little Dietgirl in the corner of each page – couldn’t resist doing the fast flick thing over and over!
    We’re trying to chew our way through all the forgotten stuff in the cupboards in preperation for moving states. It’s very enlightening.

  19. The MANAGER is my best friend – because he has these bright red sitckers and prices things way down and calls them “Manager’s Special”.

    I call these anti-procrasitination, special motivators!

    Because whatever I buy – I go right home and cook.

    If it is meat – I cook it and store it in the freezer. I have George Foremaned several dozen burgers all in one day with this method. How I love a well stocked freezer!!!

    If it is produce – then we all eat wonderful produce for several meals in a row.

  20. Oh the call of the “specials”! I comb the grocery flyers each week to find good deals, and then buy so much, we could probably eat for a month without leaving the house! The foolishness!

  21. You’re so funny! Maybe we should all go live out in space and stuff up someone else’s atmosphere!

  22. Pille recently posted a great spicy lentil soup recipe that looks delicious & could be used for making lasagne. I like using the green lasagne noodles.

  23. They do this at my grocery store, but most of the time with meat and milk — two things I’m afraid to mess with when it comes to “sell by” dates! Yikes.

  24. You’re so right, if you’re living a greener life, it is probably a more frugal one too. It’s easier to stay on a budget if we feel we’re doing something wonderful for the earth and future generations. It’s not so much fun to deny ourselves the little pleasures of being alive.

  25. Lentil dahl is the best! Whenever we seem to have nothing to eat, out come the red lentils, an onion, any veges lingering in the fridge and some spices and it makes such a yummy meal. Really cheap and of course v healthy too.

  26. Those bargain bins are deceptive – I think I’ve finally managed to persuade myself that they’re just not worth it. I never manage to eat the stuff in time and then end up throwing it away.

    Smiley Bills recipes are just great, especially the ones from his Every day book (that one seems to lean a bit more towards healthy than some of his other books).

    I definitely second the Love food Hate Waste web site that unable2trace mentioned. Stir fries are great for getting rid of all the odds and ends of veggies from the bottom of the fridge and pasta bakes are good for using up those ends of packets of pasta that are all different shapes.

  27. Rocket is a weed, it’s the easiest thing in the world to grow. Buy a packet of seed & stick it in just about anywhere and let a few of the plants go to seed and hey presto you will have rocket coming out of your ears.

    Beware, though, the home grown stuff is much much stronger than the stuff you get commercially (probably because you’re eating it straight after picking). I used to soak mine in water for 20 mins or so before eating or it would take the roof of my mouth off.

  28. Hi Shauna,

    Would you mind posting your lentil lasagne and dhal recipes (or emailing them)? They both sound very tasty. I’ve been a vegetarian for years, but the only thing I usually cook with lentils is veggie shepherd’s pie! I would love to add things like this to my repetoire.

    Thanks, great post!

  29. Hello legends… thanks for all these comments 🙂

    Shazzam! I don’t really have recipes as they are kind of ‘whatever is in the cupboard’ sort of things! but basically –

    Lentil Lasagna is one of those kitchen sink things that changes every time i make it. first i make the red sauce – basically bologanise with a couple of tins of brown lentils instead of mince! i use onions, garlic, mushrooms, a jar of passata, some dried italian herbs, some chilli flakes, some tomato puree… red wine if there’s some hanging around. sometimes if there’s dying veggies i’ll chop em up really fine and throw them in – anything from zucchini to parsnips, carrots, peppers – once it’s all cooked down you’d never know what’s in there 🙂

    once that’s all simmered then i assemble the lasagna – for the white sauce, instead of making bechamel sauce with flour/butter/cheese i just use anything white and cheesy! this idea comes from an old WW recipe that used cottage cheese and fromage frais instead of traditional bechamel and is a perfect for lazybones me as there’s no cooking. i just mix together whatever we have – cottage cheese, fromage frais, creme fraiche, even leftover creme cheese, ricotta cheese – i stir it all together and season with pepper and nutmeg, add a little milk if it’s too thick. or sometimes i just tear up some mozzarella balls or crumble goats cheese between the layers of tom sauce and lasagna sheets.

    then just layer it up like a normal lasagna, finishing with a grating of parmesan. totally inauthentic but a great way of using all the scrag ends of cheeses and things in the fridge .

    the dhal is another one that changes all the time but this recipe is a good base –
    i ended up with a combo of yellow split peas and black-eyed beans, it was really tasty 🙂


  30. Chuck out bins at M+S? I wonder if that’s spread as far north as Aberdeen?

    Oh, Lord..I would have had a yellow sticker induced blackout, I fear.

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