One of the best ways to save money each month is to stop wasting food. How can we avoid wasting food? In this post, I share 8 ideas for making the most out of the food you buy.
There was a period of my life when I was a little bit coupon-obsessed. In my quest to save money on groceries, I discovered a website that matched grocery store sales with coupons to get the best savings, and I was instantly hooked. I would go to the grocery store armed with my envelope of coupons and list of the items I planned to buy, and beam with pride as the checkout clerk informed me I’d saved 60% on my grocery bill that day.
It was a definite high to feel like I was saving so much, but eventually I grew weary of all of the time and energy that went into to getting those savings. When I stopped couponing, I was sure that my food budget would spiral out of control. But an interesting thing happened. I actually started saving MORE money. The savings weren’t reflected in my grocery store receipts anymore, but my food budget actually dropped over time. How? I stopped wasting food!
When I stopped couponing, I focused on reducing food waste even more, and it helped me save more money than coupons ever did. Over the years, I’ve gotten better and better at making good decisions about what I buy, what I cook, and how I store our food, and our budget has continued to reap the benefits. I’m not going to say I never waste food anymore — of course I do! But I certainly waste a lot less than I used to, and I want to share the tips that have helped me the most when it comes to wasting food.
My 8 best tips to stop wasting food:
1. Put a mental price tag on the food you throw away.
When I get rid of a piece of clothing, a piece of furniture, or any other material good, I’m always cognizant of how much it cost and whether it was worth the investment. But I never used to think the same way about food.
I started to mentally tally up the cost of the food I was throwing away, and I noticed that it really adds up. An avocado tossed out because it’s over-ripe: $1. Half a bag of pretzels that turned stale: $2. A pound of chicken I forgot to cook before it went bad: $6. Half a bag of wilted salad mix…a container of herbs I used for one recipe…the box of new crackers that looked good but tasted horrible…you get the point.
Whenever you’re throwing away food, take note of the dollar value of what you’re wasting. Perhaps even write it down and tally it up at the end of each week. You’ll soon realize that the dollars you’re saving IN the store aren’t really such a great savings if you’re not actually using what you buy. Putting a price tag on what you throw away will really motivate you to waste less.
2. Pay attention to expiration dates.
Whenever I am buying a perishable item, such as meat, deli items, dairy products, beverages, sauces, hummus/dips, refrigerated dough, etc., I try not to just grab the first one on the shelf — instead I check to make sure there’s a solid window of time before it’s going to expire. I also look to see if there are items available with a longer expiration date. (Hint: check the ones in the back of the shelf.)
I don’t do this if I know I’m going to be consuming the food that day, but for items that might take us a while to eat (yogurt, cheese, lunch meat, etc), I make sure I’m giving us enough time to eat it before it expires. I’ve also sometimes discovered that certain products were already expired when I got home from the store, even though they were still on the shelves. It always pays to check!
3. Freeze EVERYTHING (almost).
A freezer is your best friend when it comes to reducing food waste. If something is getting close to its expiration date and it’s freezable (especially meats, fruits and certain vegetables), put them into a freezer bag and toss them into the freezer.
You can freeze berries and other fruits to use in smoothies or baked goods, and you can chop and freeze vegetables to use in soups or stews. You can even chop up leftover herbs and freeze them in ice cube trays. And many meals can be frozen after they’ve been cooked, especially leftover soups, chilis, stews, casseroles, or slow-cooked meats.
4. Don’t thaw meat or seafood until you’re ready to cook it.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten some chicken or other meat out of the freezer on a Sunday night with the best intentions to use it in a recipe that week; then life gets busy, the recipe doesn’t get made, and I’m stuck tossing out thawed out meat that can’t be re-frozen.
Now, I only thaw meat & seafood on the day I’m going to cook it. My favorite way to do this is by immersing it in a bowl of water. If the meat or fish is vacuum-packed you can put it in the water right in its package, if it’s not vacuum-packed, I just seal it inside a ziplock bag and then put it into the water. Usually it’s completely thawed in an hour or less.
5. Don’t experiment.
This is one of the biggest problems I have — I definitely get sucked in to trying shiny new products or new flavors/variations of products I already like. (Is it me, or is there a new flavor of Triscuit crackers available every week?) There have been SO many times I’ve thrown out entire bags or boxes of snacks, granola bars, cereal, etc. because nobody in my family liked it. That’s a MAJOR waste.
It doesn’t mean you should never try new things, but if your goal is to save money and reduce waste, stick to the products that you know you like. Chances are you’ll get to try out new items eventually via store samples or through a friend, and you can test it out before you buy it.
6. Don’t over-fill the fridge.
The times I’m most likely to end up with wasted food are the times when the fridge is packed full. I’ll forget about those yogurts shoved back in the corner, the leftover soup buried under the egg carton, and the half-used container of pesto.
Sometimes it’s inevitable that the fridge will get jam-packed, especially if you’re going to be entertaining or hosting guests. But whenever possible, try to keep your fridge clean and clutter-free so that you can easily see what’s in there and avoid having things get lost in the shuffle.
7. Take inventory.
Take inventory of your fridge on a regular basis and make a list of any leftovers or ingredients that are close to going bad. Freeze whatever can be frozen and make a plan to use up whatever needs to be eaten quickly. If you like to cook, you can play your own version of “Chopped” to see how creative you can get with the foods you have available.
8. Only open one bag/container at a time.
When we moved to humid Houston, I noticed that our dry foods got stale a lot more quickly than they used to in our drier climate. When there are four boxes of cereal open at a time, three varieties of chips, and two boxes of crackers, it’s inevitable that things are going to get stale before we have a chance to finish them. Now I’ve created a system where we designate one shelf for the open bags and a separate shelf for the unopened bags. I’ve told my husband and kids that they can’t open a new bag of anything until they’ve checked to make sure that there’s not one already open. They don’t do this 100% of the time, but it’s definitely cut down on the number of dry goods we’ve had to throw away.
Saving a few dollars here and there via grocery store coupons might feel good at the check-out counter, but the money you’ll save by actually using the food you buy will far outweigh what you can save through sales and coupons alone.