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household finances

The other day I watched a respectable-looking woman pick through a large green bin behind a fancy Toronto produce store. Her coat was expensive but somewhat worn; her dog was on a leash. First, she pulled out some juicy mangoes, a little bruised and spotted but still perfectly good for smoothies. Then some organic fingerling potatoes, the kind that chefs make a fetish of at high-end restaurants. By the looks of her shopping cart, she would be eating well that night. And for free.

If you're not too squeamish, dumpster diving has an inescapable logic and irresistible price point, especially when you consider the dramatic rise in commodity food prices. According to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization price index for May, meat prices are at a record high, and cereal prices have increased 71 per cent since April 2010. There is no plateau in sight; many experts are predicting the world's demand for food will soon outstrip our supply. (The UN estimates food production must double by 2050 to keep pace with demand.) So we're all looking for ways to mitigate those rising grocery bills.

Cutting down on the amount of food we waste is by far the easiest way to trim a grocery bill. Roughly one-third of the food produced for human consumption - about 1.3 billion tonnes per year - gets lost or wasted, according to a new FAO-commissioned study, Global Food Losses and Food Waste, which was presented this month in Dusseldorf.

Many professional cooks know this instinctively. High-end chefs are far less squeamish about dumpster diving than your average householder. Rescuing ingredients from the bin is a badge of honour. Ryan Donovan, the former head butcher for Toronto's The Healthy Butcher and now a charcutier and cook at Marben restaurant, once told me he measured success in the kitchen by how small his green bin was that week.

Michael Moffatt, the executive chef of two of Ottawa's top restaurants, Bekta and Play, pickled watermelon rinds and pineapple cores at recent cooking competitions to keep expenses down (and show off to the judges); I've watched other chefs pull seaweed and fish heads out of the dumpsters at Granville Island in Vancouver to make an inexpensive soup stock.

Most of us don't need to make a trip to an alleyway to find "free" food - we just need to look in our own green bins, and at the bags of unidentified green stuff lurking at the back of the fridge. We waste an astonishing 183 kilograms per capita each year, according to the George Morris Centre's 2010 study, Food Waste in Canada. The non-profit agricultural think tank based in Guelph, Ont., estimates the value of food wasted could be as high as $27-billion.

About half that amount is wasted by us, the consumers, after we bring our groceries home. Statistics Canada figures the minimum value of food wasted is about $2 per kilogram. That means an average family of four might be able to save $1,464 each year in grocery bills. (As the humbled owner of several bags of liquid vegetables at the back of my fridge, I'm not entirely surprised.)

There are many easy ways to make better use of your groceries. Lorenzo Loseto, the celebrated chef at George restaurant in Toronto, pays homage to vegetables and vegetable trimmings in his high-end dishes. Amazingly, many of the well-heeled diners aren't even able to identify the broccoli and cauliflower stems as such. At home, he makes broths out of bones and seafood shells.

I once got in trouble for throwing out parsley stems when I was working in a restaurant kitchen; cookbook author Naomi Duguid later introduced me to the pleasures of coriander stems and roots, which can be chopped up with garlic, fish sauce and black pepper for an easy rub for chicken.

Dana Ewart and Cameron Smith, the thrifty owners of Joy Road Catering in the Okanagan Valley, say one of their favourite overlooked vegetables is beet tops braised with garlic. I also like braising beet or Swiss chard stems for a white wine and lemon risotto. Not only do they taste delicious, but they give the rice a gorgeous pink hue. And one of the most memorable treats at Hiro Sushi in Toronto are the crunchy deep-fried anchovy skeletons handed out to appreciative regulars.

Ironically, we may be wasting our food in a misguided effort to save money. Since 1976, the average number of calories floating around Canada's food system has increased 9 per cent from 3,118 to 3,384 per capita, according to Statistics Canada. It's not that each of us is eating 9 per cent more food per day - we're wasting more. A culture of Buy One Get One Free encourages us to buy more than we can consume, as anyone who has ever bought a couple of four-pound boxes of strawberries from Costco will know.

Mr. Loseto, who grows vegetables and herbs for George restaurant, believes the greatest antidote to the all-you-can-eat mentality is to grow a small kitchen garden of your own. "If you grow your own food you respect your food more and you're less likely to waste it. You enjoy it more, too." Homegrown veggies are often cheaper, too.

"It's all about changing your mindset," suggests Mr. Loseto. We've been trained to overbuy. As Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food, once told me, our refrigerators have become family tombs - places to bury food rather than preserve it.

Special to The Globe and Mail