Families cut down the waste

File Photo: Mr Sani Yuseri's family of five do not go for buffet meals at all.

Taxi driver Sani Yuseri says his family of five do not go for buffets at all.

Apart from the fact that his wife and three children are small eaters and buffets are costly, he cannot abide food wastage after having worked in the food and beverage industry for 26 years.

"People feel they have paid, so they pile up their plates with food, much of which they leave half eaten," says Mr Sani, 50. "It's such a waste."

He worked in four hotels including Hyatt Regency Singapore before quitting in 2007 to become a taxi driver to spend more time with his family.

At home in their four-room HDB flat in Jurong West, his wife, housewife Anita Kemat, 46, cooks just enough. If there are leftovers, they tend to be just gravies or curries. To this, she might add a fried egg to make a new dish the next day.

Their eldest child, administrative clerk Nur Syafiqah, 21, and her two younger siblings know not to order too much when they eat out.

"Out of 10 times that we eat out, we have leftovers only about twice," says Miss Syafiqah. "We usually pack the meats, which keep better than the vegetables."

More people here, it seems, do the opposite of her family. Food dumping here is at a record high.

The Straits Times reported last Monday that 703,200 tonnes of food waste were generated last year - a 26 per cent spike from 558,900 tonnes in 2007. The National Environment Agency says that a rise in tourist arrivals and increasing affluence had contributed to the problem.

When Mr Ler Jiawei was growing up, tight finances in the family meant wastage of food was not tolerated.

The 28-year-old relationship manager in a bank says: "We were taught from five or six years old to finish every single bit of food on the plate, or we got spanked." His 53-year-old father, a foreman, and 51-year-old mother, a hawker, made exceptions only when he and his two younger siblings were ill.

Now he disapproves when his friends "leave a meal unfinished if the food is not up to expectation".

Quoting Pope Francis, who attacked a "culture of waste" in an address in St Peter's Square last month, he says: "I'm a Buddhist but I quote the Pope to them, 'Wasting food is like stealing from the poor.'"

For Ms Jean Tan, 36, a unit director with a life insurance company, whether or not a family is well-to-do is irrelevant. While she thinks it is unwise to force a child to "gorge just to finish what's on the plate, it's also not good to order lots or cook lots at one go".

Her elder child, eight-year-old Nicole, has learnt to order only what she thinks she can finish. She says: "Mummy asks me to look at the next table to see if I can finish that portion. If I can finish, she'll order a full meal for me. If not, we share because I don't want to waste food."

In their home, a private apartment in Shelford Road, the refrigerator is never stuffed - she buys groceries as and when she needs them.

"In fact, sometimes my husband and I have to drive out to a convenience store at a petrol station to get a carton of milk when we realise we have none for our coffee," she says with a laugh.

While parents interviewed may be conscientious about not wasting food, they admit they have thrown away food before and learn not to do so through trial and error.

Teenager K. Schmitt counts herself lucky to have a mop-up crew when she was growing up.

"Dad and my pet rabbit ate up the greens which I didn't like when I was a child," says the 18-year-old of the time she was between six and eight years old.

Her 48-year-old managing director father is a Singapore permanent resident from Germany and her mother, 46, a Singaporean housewife.

Ms Schmitt, who lives with her parents and a younger sister in a townhouse in Upper East Coast Road, agrees that food should not be wasted but "you can't force yourself to eat" either.

That is why many parents of young children do not order meals for themselves when dining out - they know their kids will not be able to finish what is on their plates.

Ms Tan quips: "Most of the time, if I am sharing food with my daughter, I eat whatever she has ordered. As most parents are known to do, I clear leftovers."

Mother-of-two Loh Li Nah, 37, tells the same story: "My husband and I usually ask for extra bowls and allocate manageable portions to our kids, so that the leftovers we have to finish aren't too disgusting."

When eating at home, there is another option to parents wolfing down their children's leftovers: Keep them for another day.

When she cooks and serves a meal to her family, MrsParul Srivastava, 37, ensures that the dishes do not "touch each other". This is so that it would be more hygienic when leftovers need to be kept.

For instance, she serves curry in a bowl to her two sons and a daughter, rather than pour it on the rice. This means unfinished curry can be refrigerated, even if unfinished rice has to be discarded.

Mrs Srivastava, who runs bread-making classes via Fireplace Gourmet Breads, also teaches her children to pick their greens according to how much they can eat. Each type of leftover vegetable dish is plastic-wrapped separately.

Health and hygiene concerns are undoubtedly important. Yet in extreme times, even these go out the window. Housewife Katherine Ng, 56, recalls hearing her mother talk about the hard times during the Japanese Occupation.

"She used to say food was scarce during the war. I heard her say they would eat bark of trees and how they would starve," says Mrs Ng, whose mother has died. Her 63-year-old husband is in the food business.

Not surprisingly, she disapproves of cavalier attitudes towards food wastage.

She says: "If you give me something to eat, I have to finish it, because my mother taught me that every grain counts. But the younger generation says, 'Cannot finish, never mind. Can throw away.'"

Her two children - daughter Nichol, 35, and son Nicholas, 34, who are managing directors of FoodXervices, a food distribution business - have learnt well from her.

Last year, they founded Food Bank Singapore, which redistributes food donations to the needy.

Mrs Ng says of her children's initiative: "Whatever they do, I give them my blessings. For this, I give them my double blessings."