How to Reduce Food Waste and Save Money

8 minute read

Good riddance to that pack of chicken thighs you never got around to making for dinner, and the single-serve yogurts that seemed like a good idea at the time. Those browning bananas on the counter? Bon voyage; may they enjoy their trip to the landfill.

If that attitude toward food sounds cavalier, it’s also realistic: One-third of all food in America is wasted, according to a MITRE-Gallup report published in November—which means the average family of four spends at least $1,500 annually on food that ends up being thrown out. To visualize the amount of (often perfectly fine) food that’s wasted nationwide, picture stuffing it into 1 million semi-trucks, or letting crops that grow on farm land large enough to cover California and New York just rot.

Food waste has numerous implications, including on the economy (it cost the U.S. $310 billion in 2021), food insecurity (waste can lead to higher prices), and the environment (it places an enormous burden on natural resources), not to mention your personal budget. “The reasons people throw away food are, in my mind, ridiculous,” says Adam Lowy, executive director of Move For Hunger, a nonprofit that fights hunger and food waste. Reducing the amount of food you toss is “a real cost-savings.”

If you’re interested in cutting back on food waste at home—and saving money in the process—get started with these expert tips.

Make a shopping list.

Preparing for the grocery store is “a really important moment in the art of food management,” says Dana Gunders, executive director of ReFED, a nonprofit dedicated to ending food loss and waste in the U.S. “People who make lists and stick to them tend to save time and money—and they also waste less food.”

Read More: 15 Expert Tips on How to Save Money on Grocery Shopping

If you’re not a list person, you can still get into the habit of eyeballing your cart before you check out, Gunders says. Think through your schedule and whether you’ll have time to cook and eat everything you’ve selected. Already have a few restaurant meals on your calendar? Know you’ll be popping a couple frozen pizzas into the oven? Make sure your cart accounts for the nights when you won’t need fresh ingredients.

Get friendly with your freezer.

“You can freeze more than you think,” says Lisa Bryan, a recipe developer and author of Downshiftology: Healthy Meal Prep. She freezes most ingredients and leftovers—including produce, meat, and seafood—for up to three months, though some things (like soups and stews) can last longer.

Bryan recently bought too many sweet potatoes, for example, so she mashed them up and froze a few individual portions that she can quickly reheat as an easy side. When she cooks chicken breast, she slices or dices it and puts it into containers. She keeps one in the fridge to use throughout the week; the other two go into the freezer—right next to her frozen fresh herbs. “People buy a bunch of cilantro or parsley, and then it starts to wilt, and they just throw it away,” she says. Instead, chop that greenery up and put it in an ice-cube tray. “Put a little oil, butter, or ghee in, and you’ll have cubes of herb butter,” she says. “Then the next time you’re going to sauté something, instead of just using butter or oil, you’ve got herb butter or oil.”

Want to learn more about how we eat and drink now? Get guidance from experts:

Adopt a “use-it-up” mentality.

Turn one dinner a week into an opportunity to clear the cupboards. (Waste Less Wednesday, anyone?) Gather all the ingredients at risk of being wasted, and unleash your culinary creativity. Almost anything can be tossed into soups, stir-fries, tacos, or salads, says Brian Theis, a chef and author of the cookbook The Infinite Feast.

Potatoes, rice, and legumes make a nice, starchy base that thickens soups, for example; leftover beets can be used to make borscht. Radishes play a key role in green goddess dressing, while extra tomatoes can be granted a second life as pasta sauce. Theis recently used leftovers to make a standout gumbo: He tossed in onions, bell peppers, celery, okra, seasoning, and even some extra whitefish he had on hand. “I fed it to a bunch of lifelong New Orleanians, and they were like, ‘This is amazing—how did you think of this?’” he says.

You can also save your ingredients by drinking them. “I’ve had smoothies made out of the most bizarre, unexpected things,” Theis says. “Mangoes and kale and pineapple juice—all this kind of stuff goes amazingly well together.” For more inspiration, check out recipes from Move for Hunger’s Zero Waste Kitchen or the Waste Free Kitchen Handbook.

Use the scraps.

Galen Zamarra’s motto in the kitchen is “zero waste.” Part of the way the James Beard Award-winning chef accomplishes that is by putting seemingly useless parts of food to work. Take spinach stems: “Even the little joint where they come together can be steamed and eaten,” he says. Broccoli leaves and celery leaves, meanwhile, make healthy additions to salads, and the base and stem of mushrooms can be cut and sautéed, or tossed into soups, stews, and sauces.

Turn unused bits into pet food.

There are certain parts of fish and meat that we tend to trim off and not eat—but you know who’d enjoy them? Your cat or dog. Zamarra points to the dark, oily bloodline of fish as one example: “There’s nothing wrong with the bloodline,” he says. “It just doesn’t look nice, and we take it off.” Likewise, if you’re making steak, you might slice off the sinewy parts to make it look more consistent.

Zamarra likes to boil those ingredients in water, then toss them into a food processor or blender. “Sometimes I’ll add scraps of potatoes or carrots, and I generally mix it with kibble,” he says. With a little extra work, you‘ll have a few servings of pet food made out of ingredients you would have otherwise trashed.

Trust yourself—not just date labels.

Date labels on packaged foods can contribute to waste, Lowy points out. With the exception of infant formula, federal regulators don’t require food product dating from manufacturers—though many companies still provide these labels to help consumers and retailers determine when ingredients are of best quality. Because there’s no standardization, companies use a wide variety of phrases, like “sell-by,” “use-by,” and even “freeze-by.” These end up confusing consumers. As the MITRE-Gallup report noted, 31% of Americans dispose of food that’s passed its date label, even if it hasn’t actually gone bad. 

Read More: Confused By Expiration Dates? You’re Not Alone. Here’s What They Really Mean

Instead of putting all of your faith into the date printed on the package, “smell your food, look at your food, taste your food,” Lowy says. Check for discoloration, mold, or signs of spoilage, for example, and whether you smell anything unusual. You can also feel it to see if you detect bruising, sliminess, or staleness. “When your food is bad, it will tell you that. You don’t need a piece of paper to tell you.”

Make it a family affair.

Today’s young diners are tomorrow’s zero-wasters. One fun game is to inspect what your kids bring home in their lunch bags every day and, as a family, dream up ways to give it a second life, Gunders suggests. How might you repurpose those sad rejects, so they don’t end up in the trash? For instance, “If I send carrots that come back home, I chop them up and put them in the fridge,” she says.

It’s also helpful to set an example during family meals by serving yourself small portions, Gunders notes. That way, your kids will be less likely to put piles of food on their plate that they end up wasting.

Keep track of what you don’t use.

Call it a food waste journal: Log every piece of food you discarded and how (whether you threw it out or gave it to the neighbors), plus its price and why you didn’t eat it. “That will give you a sense of your patterns and the estimated value of what you’re wasting,” Theis says. “It’ll inform your list the next time you go to the grocery store,” and help you stretch your dollars even further.

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