Have you ever gone to the grocery store, armed with coupons and sale flyers, and maxed out your savings potential with each bag of rice, head of broccoli and soda six-pack you drop in your cart?
It feels so satisfying, saving all that money.
But then you get home, shove the rice bags in the pantry on top of the rice bags you already had and put the fresh veggies in the fridge, only to remember them when the unmistakable stench of rotting broccoli greets you a week later.
Yeah, us too.
Food waste is no small problem. In the U.S, an estimated 30% to 40% of food is thrown away.
Here’s how to reduce food waste to make the most of your grocery spending and save money.
How Bad Is the Food Waste Problem?
Food waste happens in such little bits here and there that people don’t even realize they’re doing it, according to Dana Gunders, a former senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council and author of “Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook: A Guide to Eating Well and Saving Money By Wasting Less Food.”
“Consumers waste more food, collectively, than restaurants or grocery stores,” Gunders said. “And the average household of four spends about $1,800 on food they never eat.”
Add it all up, and a whopping one-third of all food grown for human consumption is lost or wasted.
“Growing food and getting it to our tables is a huge investment in resources,” Gunders said. “When you throw out one hamburger, it’s like taking a 90-minute shower in terms of the water it took to produce that hamburger.”
Now imagine how much money and food we could all save if we bought only the food we’d actually eat.
Here’s how to stop throwing away food, and with it, a whole lot of money.
16 Tips for Reducing Food Waste
There’s a lot we can’t control, but there’s a great deal we can control about our kitchens, plates and trash cans. Consider some of these tips for how to reduce food waste at home.
1. Make a Grocery List and Stick to It
Overbuying leads to food waste. Planning your meals for the week, making a list and sticking to it can prevent impulse buys and limit the vegetable carcasses not even good intentions could revive.
Gunders suggests thinking double duty. If you need fresh cilantro for a meal, plan a second meal that will use it too. Then you won’t end up with half the sprigs in your package wilted and headed for the trash.
2. Buy Frozen Instead of Fresh
The bright, beautiful colors of fresh fruits and veggies tempt me every week. Then I remember how quickly fresh produce can spoil.
Now, I’ve turned to stocking my freezer with produce. I call this the Too Many Avocados Left Behind Act. I don’t freeze avocados, but I do buy most fruits and veggies frozen now. I can thaw them in a flash and count on having an assortment of ingredients on a whim.
Consumers waste more food, collectively, than restaurants or grocery stores.
3. Plan for Surprises
It’s so easy to get tempted by the events of the week, such as an unscheduled lunch or a surprise happy hour. Planned meals get abandoned as you nosh on a spontaneous (and unbudgeted) meal out.
But if you plan your meals and buy fresh ingredients at the beginning of the week, you could end up tossing unused ingredients that go unused.
By including at least one frozen dinner in your schedule, you can accept a last-minute invitation and save that entree for next week.
4. Rethink Expiration Dates
Sell-by, use-by and expiration dates all mean different things. Most often, the dates serve as a freshness, quality or display indicator, not a marker for when the food will actually go bad.
Many people throw out perfectly good food because of date stamps. Use common sense, and recognize that just because a sell-by date has passed does not mean food needs to be immediately trashed.
5. Make Your Freezer Great Again
You can extend the life of your meats, bread and vegetables by freezing them.
Gunders said almost anything can be frozen: Milk, shredded cheese, sliced bread and even raw eggs (out of the shell) can go in the freezer.
It’ll all be there when you’re ready, so it will save money and food waste. Don’t you feel better?
6. Store Items Where You Can See Them
Some produce slips into the crisper abyss. Out of sight, out of mind. Keep items where you can see them. You’re more likely to use items that you can physically see.
Additionally, learn how to store each type of produce. Some ripen faster and can speed up others nearby. Consider investing in special airtight containers that keep produce firm and fresh longer.
Washing only the pieces of fruit or vegetables you plan on using right away will keep the whole bag from going bad before you get a chance to enjoy their deliciousness.
7. Clean Your Fridge and Organize Your Pantry
Expired items hide, and mold lurks on the edges you can’t quite see. Having a tidy fridge helps you see exactly what you have and inspires you to use it.
Same goes for the pantry: Keeping it tidy allows you to see what you have at a glance and prevents items from getting lost behind the castles of steel cans.
8. Try Composting
Skip the landfill, and start composting. Everything from your coffee grounds to celery ends can find their way into your bin. In turn, you can eventually use it toward your next home gardening adventure.
9. Learn to Preserve or Can Foods
Aileen Perilla / The Penny Hoarder
With a little upfront investment of time and money, you can acquire the tools necessary to preserve your excess food. This can prolong their shelf life and reduce food waste and costs.
10. Donate Extra Food
If something makes its way into your kitchen that you know your family won’t eat, donate it. Many local pantries and food banks welcome donations, but consider friends or families in your community who might appreciate a little extra food. There are restrictions and rules at some charities about what can be donated, so check before making any contributions.
11. Eat What You Have
Plan recipes around what’s been sitting around for a while or what needs to get used before it expires (aka pantry challenge). Explore the darkest recesses of your pantry before adding more supplies to the mix.
12. Mix It Up
Leftovers you’re tired of eating can be repurposed into new recipes. Some fruits and vegetables that are a little too ripe (like avocados, peaches and pears) can be baked or mashed into a baked dish. Ripe bananas make great banana bread, and soft strawberries can be added to smoothies.
Other scraps can be made into stocks or added to a compost. I’ve put coffee grounds in my soil, and a friend of mine makes corn silk tea. There’s a practical use for almost any piece of food you might throw away.
I’m a picky eater, yet I love to cook. Sometimes I acquire ingredients for recipes that I don’t end up using again, or I try something and end up not liking it. So, I’ve hosted potlucks to use said ingredients. You’ll help everyone else also clean out their cabinets. Win-win.
There are a few apps on the market that try to put a dent in the global food waste problem. Here are a few to consider:
Ever wish you could make art with your food outside of Instagram posts? Let the bright colors of your leftovers become the colors of your clothes or the paint on your canvas.
Yup, peels and ends from scraps of beets, spinach and lemons can be made into permanent fabric dye that could double as watercolor paint.
Even the brownest thumbs can turn green. Try regrowing your food scraps, and see what happens. Put seeds in the backyard, or try sprouting them over a cup of water.
It’s simple math: Buying less food means more money in your pocket.
It’s not going to happen overnight.
But with a few small adjustments and active intentions of how to better store, buy and cook food, you can start a ripple effect that will save time, money and food in the long run.
Stephanie Bolling is a former staff writer at The Penny Hoarder.