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What would you do with an extra $50 to $250 a month? Pay off credit card debt? Build an emergency savings fund? Take a much-needed vacation? There’s a good chance you are throwing away that much money month after month, and if you stop, you’ll be able to put it to better use.

You just need to stop wasting so much food.

Laura McElfresh from Aurora Colorado, has learned firsthand how the savings can add up. With seven children ages 3-21, the $800 to $900 the family used to spend each month on food didn’t seem unreasonable, but it was putting a strain on the family budget. McElfresh says she planned meals, used coupons and thought she was doing pretty well. She remembers reading that Americans throw away about 25% of their food, and thought “no way.”

But in 2012, after the holidays, she had an epiphany. “I remember the week after New Year’s going through the fridge and throwing away a kitchen-sized trash bag of food” she says. She realized that throwing away a quarter of her food that meant she was wasting $255 a month, or $2,700 a year. “My grandmother who survived the Depression with her family of six small children would have rolled over in her grave if she knew what I’d done,” she said.

She resolved to change.

First, she got creative. “Grandma rarely had a recipe,” she says. “She used what was fresh from the garden, what was already in the house, and her meals were sort of a smorgasbord of bits and pieces from what was in the fridge. The ham she cooked, half a jar of home canned peaches, bread from the morning, leftover green beans, whatever she had on hand.  And no matter how many people there were at her table there was always enough.”

McElfresh says she realized that if she started serving more side dishes like her grandmother did, the main dish would go further, and there would be another bonus: It would encourage everyone to eat more veggies and sides.

A Recipe for Savings

McElresh has a “go to” meal she calls “Stuff in a Pan” that she says is a great way to use up whatever is on hand.

Start with meat — ham, chicken, sausage etc. (For her large family, she uses two pounds of meat.) Add potatoes or veggies such as zuchinni or spaghetti squash. Then throw in seasonings and condiments you find in your fridge such as onion, garlic, leftover corn or green beans, cheese, olives, “that carrot that needs to be used up in the back of the fridge” etc. One version she calls “Stuff Italiano” can be made with spaghetti sauce, or a Mexican version can be made with taco meat and salsa.

Turn ‘Trash’ Into Meals

McElresh now makes it a habit to freeze and label leftovers, even when the amounts are small. “It seems silly when you start doing it, but I’m always amazed at how many great meals come out of what would be trash,” she says. For example, if there is a leftover pork chop or bit of pork roast, she will freeze it. Over time, she’ll have enough to warm up with barbecue sauce for sandwiches. “I take it as a personal challenge to see what I can make out of ‘trash’ at our house!” she says.

She also recommends a periodic “freezer challenge.”  For one week, the goal is to use what is in the freezer. She might buy essentials like milk, eggs, butter or snacks, but as much as possible she tries to use what she already has on hand. She says she searched the Internet — “What can I make with frozen broccoli?” – until she came up with tried-and-true recipes, many of which she shares on her blog.

Clean Out Your Fridge

Experts often recommend rotating food in the fridge and pantry so that older food is front and center, where it is most likely to be used, and McElfresh agrees it is essential. “I learned quickly that I absolutely had to clean out the fridge every three to five days in order for this to work,” she says. “I rotate food to the front of the fridge that needs to be used most quickly and tuck the stuff that lasts longer back to the back.  Cut up produce that is looking sad and put it out at snack time.” She says tackling this chore more frequently means less time and waste than if she waited longer. “And I have less guilt knowing that my money is feeding us, not the landfill,” she says. 

Bring Less Home 

Learning not to buy things she didn’t need was her most important lesson, she says. When she started paying attention to things she was throwing away she found recurring themes: fresh fruit, leftover meals, side dishes and “always the celery and carrots (that) would get slimy in the back of the vegetable drawer … and big bags of precut lettuce.”

So, for example, she stopped buying fresh celery unless she knew she needed it for a specific recipe. The rest was immediately chopped, frozen and ready for a cooked dish. She says she buys heads of romaine lettuce now instead of the bags of cut-up salad mix. “It lasts forever in the fridge,” she says. Although prepping it is a little more work she says doesn’t wind up wasting it or making another trip to the store because she needs some lettuce for tacos.

McElfresh efforts paid off big time. She was able to feed her large family on $400 to $500 a month, a savings of $400 or more a month, which adds up to roughly $4,800 a year. She says, “In the end, I learned I really didn’t need to spend so much if I just use what I already have and buy less.”

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Image courtesy of Laura McElfresh

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