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12 Tips to Stop Wasting Money on Food

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Many of us might as well be grinding up dollar bills in our garbage disposals or tossing change in the trash, considering all the money we waste by not eating all the food we buy. Food waste translates into an estimated $1,350 to $2,275 in annual losses for a family of four, says the National Resources Defense Council.

Wasting food isn’t just about wasting money; it’s bad for the environment as a significant amount of food ends up in landfills.

I am as guilty as the next person on this front. I recently opened a container of food from the back of my fridge, and nearly dropped the dish when a forest of green mold practically jumped out at me. (Letting food rot is not just wasteful, it’s gross.)

But I care about my pocketbook and the planet, so I am determined to change my ways. So I’ve queried bloggers for their best tips, and came up with 12 strategies.

1. Save your receipts. Karen Cordaway uses what she calls her “Receipt Reference Technique” to save money and waste less food. She posts her grocery receipts on the fridge then puts a check mark next to items when they are consumed. Not only does it serve as a reminder of what’s available, the receipts serve as a grocery list for the next trip.  “People don’t realize how much food they throw away,” she says.

2. Don’t obsess over expiration dates. “Best before dates are not ultimatums!’ say the producers of the documentary Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story. “They only indicate peak freshness, so food is perfectly safe to eat even after they pass.” Doug Nordman at The-Military-Guide.com says he used to go to sea on Navy submarines for 90-day patrols with no resupply. “Over 20 years later, I still routinely eat food that many people would consider past its expiration date,” he says. “It certainly minimizes food waste in our house, and it doesn’t make me sick.”

3. Plan ahead. When you know what’s for dinner you’re less likely to make impulsive food purchases and wind up with something that gets relegated to the back of the fridge. Kelly Whalen takes meal-planning to a whole new level by creating meal plans for an entire year. She says it saves her family $6,000 a year. You can get her free one-year meal planner on her website, The Centsible Life.

4. Prep ahead. When you’re hungry, a disorganized fridge full of stuff makes it tempting to order pizza or takeout. But if you instead see the already-prepared (say cooked chicken and chopped vegetables) ingredients for a dish you can assemble quickly, you’re more likely to use what you have. One of the ways Michelle Schroeder-Gardner, blogger at MakingSenseofCents.com, cut her food budget roughly in half was by prepping ingredients in batches, four or five at a time. She says it makes it much easier to avoid eating out.

5. Cook ahead. Lauren Greutman suggests giving a monthlong freezer cooking plan a try. “Assembling 20 freezer meals in one day is a great way to keep waste at a minimum,” she says. “Cooking like this gives you healthy meals and you can save on the ingredients because you’re buying them in bulk.” For example, on her website iamthatlady.com, she offers a 21-meal cooking plan for $150 (the meal plan itself costs $2.97 — you spend $150 on food, and each meal serves 4-6) with ingredients purchased at food discounter Aldi’s.

6. Challenge yourself. A periodic freezer/pantry challenge will force you to get creative and use items in your home that may otherwise go to waste. Lena Gott, who blogs at WhatMommyDoes.com, says her family saves $40 a month this way. If you aren’t sure what to make, type the ingredients you have plus the word “recipe” into your search engine and see what comes up.

7. Turn your fridge upside down suggests Rachelle Strauss of MyZeroWaste.com. (Her family got their total waste down to one bin a year.) “If you find yourself pulling slimy bags of salad or mushy cucumbers from the back of the salad drawers, why not store delicate salads on the top shelf and keep the drawer for things that don’t go off quickly, like jars of mayonnaise or curry sauces?” she asks. And while you’re at it, straighten up your fridge. Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (And What We Can Do About It) and blogger at WastedFood.com, says he’s most likely to waste food when his fridge is cluttered. “Keeping it relatively sparse helps, as does storing food in clear containers.”

8. Stretch your veggies. Try Fenugreen FreshPaper to extend the life of produce. Just throw a sheet in your produce drawer. It smells great, and I swear it really works. If you garden or shop at farmer’s markets, try heat shocking, a method that involves a quick heat bath that supposedly can extend the life of all kinds of fresh produce, from lettuce to grapes. (Apparently it works great for farm-fresh produce but not for fruits or veggies you buy in the grocery store.) Others swear by ExtraLife Produce Preserver disks or Debby Meyer Green Bags.

9. Forget leftovers. “Banish the word ‘leftovers’ from your vocabulary and replace it with the word ‘ingredients’,” suggests Strauss. “Half a tin of tuna and a tablespoon of sweetcorn don’t need to be thrown away — cook up some pasta add your tuna and sweetcorn with some mayonnaise and you’ve got a free lunch,” she says.

10. Make your own frozen dinners. If you do have leftovers after a meal, instead of freezing them by ingredients (meat in one container, veggies in another), put them all one plate and freeze the whole thing. “You’ve created a single-serve TV dinner,” says Gary Foreman, founder of the Dollar Stretcher.

11. Stop shopping (so often). Michelle Jackson, founder of the Shop My Closet project limits her grocery shopping to once a week to save money. “I found that going to grocery store was similar to going to Target,” she says. “I always found something delicious to buy when I went to the grocery store.”

12. Be boring. Try eating the same thing every day: oatmeal for breakfast and chicken salad for lunch, suggests Gott. “A simpler meal plan that allows you buy in bulk could keep you from jumping from one type of food to the next, and make sure you don’t let something go to waste,” she says. Erin Lowry combines meal planning with this approach. She’ll cook in bulk on the weekend and then eat the same thing several times during the week. “Lucky I’m no foodie!” she writes on her blog, BrokeMillennial.com.

Personally I hope my efforts to throw away less food translate into extra money I can use to pay off debt and boost my savings. When you can tighten your budget to put more money towards getting debt-free and improving your credit, your work pays dividends over the course of a lifetime.

How about you? What will you do with the money you save when you stop wasting food? And how will you accomplish that? Share your ideas in the comments below.

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