I literally threw money in the trash.
Last year I wasted $79.55 on food. I’m not proud of it.
How do I know it was nearly $80? Well, in an effort to reduce food waste, I decided to track the food I threw out for a whole year. I learned a lot through this process, and want to share 10 ways to reduce food waste and save money.
But first, a little backstory.
I’ve noticed over the last several years that my family’s grocery budget had gotten out of control. Yes, my kids were growing and eating more, but we were just spending so much on food every month. I was frustrated and determined to reign in our food budget.
As a personal finance and travel blogger, I knew I could control it.
So I created a zero food waste challenge
I challenged myself to waste as little food as possible for a whole year. I’d read articles about how bad food waste is for the environment, so it was an extra bonus that I was going to contribute less to the food waste problem.
The zero food waste challenge:
- Write down the value of every piece of food thrown out
- Buy only what I need to feed my family
- Use ingredients wisely to reduce – or eliminate food waste
Let me tell ya, it was tough. It was eye-opening.
I kept a little notebook in a drawer by my trash can. Every time I went to throw food away, I wrote down the value of that food. I estimated what I paid for it, and that number went in a notebook.
As I started tracking my food waste, I became much more aware of what was sitting in my fridge or in my pantry going bad.
I cringed every time I had to write something down. Every month I shared my food waste log on Instagram stories to keep myself accountable.
Working through my zero food waste challenge, and changing a few of my shopping habits, I was able to reduce my grocery budget significantly!
I saved over $1200 last year on groceries through a zero food waste challenge.
That’s right, I cut my grocery bill by over $100 per month by reducing my food waste. Just think – what could you do with $1200?
(If travel more is your answer, time to start saving and make your travel bucket list!)
Through this process I discovered so much about food habits that lead to food waste. Here’s how you can reduce your waste, too.
10 easy ways to reduce food waste and save money
1. Plan what you eat
The most important thing you can do to reduce your food waste is to plan what you’ll eat and what you need to buy. The easiest way to put a meal plan together is to ‘shop’ your pantry and fridge first.
Got a bunch of veggies? Consider a stir fry. Heavy on tomato sauce? Make some pasta. Bananas going bad? Put together a fruit salad or my favorite, healthy banana pancakes.
Make your list of meals for the week, make a grocery list of ingredients and hit a grocery store.
Pro tips to make this as easy as possible:
- Put what you’re having each day to eat in your Google calendar. Share the calendar with your significant other so there’s never a question of “what’s for dinner?”
- If you have an Amazon Echo, ask Alexa to put each ingredient on your shopping list. It’s an easy way to go paperless at the grocery store.
2. Stop buying too much
This goes back to planning what you eat. But also, when you’re at the store, resist the urge to impulse buy. If you didn’t plan to buy those extra bananas, another bag of chips or the potatoes that are on sale, then just don’t buy them.
I’m a sucker for fresh fruits and veggies, so I had to really watch my spending when it came to good sales. In order to maximize savings, sometimes I’d make a last-minute decision to have one veggie instead of another with a meal.
But don’t buy extra food just because it’s on sale! And while I love bulk food shopping for the discount, only buy in bulk when you know you can eat it all.
3. Eat what you have, not what sounds good
I get it. At the end of a long day, sometimes the last thing you want to do is cook dinner. It’s so true! But instead of letting food rot in your fridge while you grab take-out, plan for a quick meal or 2 during the week when you plan meals.
And if you do decide to grab take-out, great. Just make sure to modify the rest of your week to compensate so you don’t waste food.
4. Only cook what you can eat
There were phases during my zero food waste challenge that I’d get overly excited about making food at home, and my husband and I cooked most nights. Yes, that can be a huge budget-saver. But it was bad in the sense that there were too many leftovers for us to handle.
So cook only what you can eat. It may take a few weeks or even months to figure out what works best with how many meals you cook per week vs. take-out vs. grabbing a quick meal on the go.
5. Eat leftovers (or make just what you need)
Now, you might be in the “I hate leftovers” boat. If you are, refer to #4 above. If leftovers don’t bother you, well then you’ve just figured out how to save yourself a ton of time and money.
Leftovers can be a certain kind of magic – freeing up your time and energy to focus on other things because dinner is just done!
6. Get creative with your leftover ingredients
As you’re cooking and planning and cooking some more, make sure to keep in mind the random ingredients that you end up with. For instance, if you make a recipe with an ingredient you don’t regularly buy, you’ll likely have to figure out a way to use it up so it doesn’t go to waste.
I found myself struggling with this with things like fresh herbs, partial cans of tomato paste or extra cream cheese. So right when you think you’ll have a tough ingredient leftover, find a new recipe – or another way – to use it up.
7. Store foods properly
Storing your food properly either before you cook or after it’s leftovers can make a huge difference in how long your food stays good. And obviously, if food goes bad before you can make it, you’ve wasted time, money and contributed to food waste.
Here are a few things that I’ve found will help food last:
- Put a paper towel in with your lettuce. Whether fresh or bagged lettuce, the water will soak up the extra moisture and extend the life of your greens.
- Make sure your containers are air-tight. I had a few that weren’t sealing properly and it makes a difference. Here are my favorite air-tight containers on Amazon.
- Get your bananas off the counter. When bananas are allowed to breathe, they don’t ripen (spoil) as fast. I bought a banana hammock and it’s not only hilarious to say, but also one of the best kitchen items I own.
Head on over to Amazon to grab food storage that will help you save money in the long run.
Here’s a full list of the proper way to store foods.
8. Freeze the extras
For years I’ve known the freezer to be a friend for saving money. It’s an easy way to reduce food waste, for sure!
So if you need 1/2 an onion for a recipe, chop up the whole thing. What’s left freeze and save for later. There’s a trick to this freezing veggies:
- Lay out your veggies flat on a plate and stick them in the freezer for 30 minutes – 1 hour. Single layer is key! If they’re in clumps it’s harder break apart later for use.
- Pull them out of the freezer and transfer them to a container. I usually just use an empty mason jar, or upcycled glass jar from salsa, pasta sauce, or whatever!
- Put a date on it. You can use masking tape, a paper scrap with regular tape, or get fancy with a label.
- Then keep it in your freezer until next time you need just part of a vegetable for cooking. Stores for 3-4 months.
You can do this with extra bell pepper, 1/2 a head of cauliflower, asparagus, spinach, and so many more.
You can also freeze some leftovers to reduce food waste. Soups, sauces and shredded meat are excellent to freeze. I like to use the 2-cup size Pyrex bowls to freeze individual meals – so handy!
When you’re ready to eat frozen leftovers, simply transfer them to the fridge 1-2 days before use. This can be one of your quick meals, as mentioned in #1 above. 😉
9. Eat foods beyond their prime
Now, I’m not saying eat expired food that will make you sick. But what I am saying is in the U.S., there’s really not a great way to know when food is actually going bad if you’re just looking at the date that’s printed on it.
The date printed on packaged food is an indicator of freshness, not if it’s actually unsafe to eat. Millions of pounds of food are thrown out every year based on expiration date, and much of it is avoidable food waste.
I often use foods that are a week or more past the date on the package. It really just depends on what it is. Here’s a list of ways to know if your food has gone bad…besides the obvious!
10. Track what you throw out
This can be a game-changer to reduce food waste. By tracking the food you throw out, you become insanely aware of what you’re buying and consuming. Keep a notepad close to the trash can – or a note on your phone with the running total for the week, year or month.
Be honest with yourself when something is bad and you throw it out. You’re likely doing this to save money and the planet, so no need to twist the truth!
Avoidable food waste: what I threw away last year
All in, I threw out $79.55 in food last year. I’m confident that’s been the least amount I’ve ever thrown out in my entire adult life, because I was so much more aware of it. But I don’t consider it to be a good number.
I’ve learned to simplify ingredients where I can, and to plan to use the excess as it’s purchased. I’m guarding meat with my life and treating it like gold. Meat is expensive to buy and extremely disappointing when it’s thrown out.
I’d love to get down to a completely zero food waste home in the future!
Zero food waste challenge – goals for this year
Considering I’ve learned so much about how to plan, prep and shop better, I’ve set some new goals for this year.
- Reduce food waste by 50%. I’m going to shoot for a goal of less than $40 in food waste all year. (The year has started a little rough, due to overbuying around the holidays, so we’ll see if I can turn it back around!)
- Start a compost bin to work towards a truly zero food waste lifestyle.
- Financially speaking, I’m going to reduce my grocery budget another $25-$30 per month.
Easy ways to reduce food waste – final thoughts
Many lessons were learned during my zero food waste challenge last year. I hope I’ve inspired you to reduce your food waste, save money and the planet.
I’d love to hear which of the tips above was most helpful as you’re on your journey to reduce food waste. Comment below!
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