One of the biggest frustrations I have as a money-conscious person is when I waste something that could have been used if I had just planned better. It’s painful whether I’m tossing out something that’s rusty, something that’s water damaged, or something that’s spoiled.
This “tossing out ‘could have been used’ stuff” phenomenon happens most often when I’m dealing with food. I’ll find something in the fridge that was left over from too many days ago or I’ll discover a piece of fruit that’s gone bad and I’ll feel awful as I’m tossing it out.
Food Waste in America
I don’t like to toss food. It’s a waste of money. It’s not exactly helpful to the environment, either. In a 2012 study by the NRDC, they claim that America loses up to 40% of its food from farm to landfill. This means that we are “tossing out” $165 billion each year! We clearly can do better.
Eliminate Food Waste in 10 Steps
Over time, our family has developed a logical strategy for dealing with all of the food that comes into our house. It’s not very complicated. It just involves having a plan for everything we bring in so that it doesn’t go out of our house in a trash bag. Very, very few food items directly leave our home when this strategy is in full effect.
This entire strategy assumes that your family already uses something like a “normal” flow of food. You buy groceries on a regular basis. You follow some sort of meal plan. You sometimes bring home leftovers from restaurants. The only big assumption is that you have some sort of garden, as one of the tips specifically applies to one of the challenges of garden produce.
Here are the ten tactics we use to minimize our food waste and keep our dollars in our pocket.
1. Eat a “Leftover Lunch”
Many people balk at the idea of leftovers for some reason, but leftovers are an integral part of how we handle food in our house. It allows us to not worry too much about making the “perfectly sized” meal for our family and provides a pretty inexpensive lunch for future days.
Pack “leftover lunches” as soon as the main meal is finished. We’ll usually produce two or three containers at the end of a meal. One or two of them will contain a prepared meal that can easily be reheated the next day. A third container (or fourth, if needed) will contain whatever is left over for future use (which I’ll touch on below). All of this goes right in the refrigerator. I prefer to use “Buddy Box” containers for these meals, though you may have your own solution.
Use clear containers of a standard shape and size and keep them near the front of the fridge. Our “leftover lunches” are glaringly obvious when we open the refrigerator door. When it’s time to leave for work (in Sarah’s case) or it’s time to wander downstairs to find some lunch (in my case), we just open the refrigerator, look at the options, and take one of them. By default, I tend to eat the oldest “leftover lunch” available, which is usually two days old. It’s usually the one on the bottom of the stack.
Make small alterations to the “leftover lunch.” Usually, this is in the form of adding spices, cheese, hot sauce, or another simple ingredient to change the flavor. I have been known to add a lot of hot sauce to rice, for example.
2. Freeze Full Portions and Meals with an Appropriate Label
If we have a lot of leftovers – if we mis-calculate a recipe, have fewer than expected people at our dinner table, or perhaps even do it intentionally – we’ll sometimes create full meals and freeze them in standalone containers. These containers can be pulled from the freezer and quickly reheated, making for a great quick meal in a pinch.
Use the same containers as leftover meals. Again, I prefer the “Buddy Box” containers. They have multiple compartments that you can put the food into for easy reheating. Using a large number of the same container makes storage easy and it also makes it possible to buy them in bulk if you have a chance.
Label the meals when we stick them in the freezer. We keep a roll of masking tape and a marker in a convenient drawer and use them for basic labeling. On the masking tape, I’ll write a date six months from now, which is essentially the “use by” date for that meal. I’ll usually note what’s in there, too.
Do a freezer rotation every few months anyway, so we pull all of the older meals to the front. Every three months or so, either Sarah or I will clean out the deep freezer, figuring out what we should use soon. During that process, we’ll pull all of the older meals to the front and put the newer meals in the back so that we’re more likely to grab the older meals, using them up before they get too old.
3. Have a “Buffet Dinner” Every Fourth Night
Every fourth night – or sometimes at lunchtime during the summer or on weekends – we’ll have a “buffet dinner” where we pull all of our unused leftover containers from the refrigerator and allow everyone to make their own mixed plate of items. This is a very simple meal, with the sole goal of using up extra food before the “three days and out” rule for food safety.
Allow the children (or the picky eaters) to choose first with minimum requirements. This takes care of the “picky eater” problem, as they usually have a choice of the items from the last several meals, so they can choose exactly what they want. We usually put a requirement or two in place for their choices, ensuring that they don’t just choose nothing but cheesy mac or something like that.
If there’s not quite enough for everyone, add a simple fresh side. Usually, some steamed and seasoned vegetables or some seasoned rice will provide a great complement to whatever’s available at the buffet table.
If there are still leftovers, turn them into another “leftover lunch” and eaten the very next day. This is actually a pretty rare occurrence because Sarah and I tend to clean up whatever the kids haven’t chosen, but sometimes there are still items left unused. Those become a very high priority “leftover lunch.”
4. Transform Plain Leftovers into New Meals
If we have an abundance of a plain leftover, like a bunch of steamed broccoli or a pile of beans, we’ll use those basics as a key ingredient in a meal in the next day or two. They usually don’t become a part of the “buffet dinner.”
Use basic ingredients in a very different meal than before. Beans used in enchiladas might be turned into bean burgers or utilized in a soup. Vegetables once used as a straight side might reappear in a casserole.
Utilize structured recipes to make this process much easier. I rely heavily on this “flexible casserole recipe” from The Complete Tightwad Gazette. It’s a simple and flexible framework for combining ingredients into a surprisingly good casserole that seems to work no matter what you put in there. If we have a plain leftover, it often becomes an ingredient in this kind of casserole.
Use two or more “basic ingredient leftovers” to make a good soup. You can simply take two leftover ingredients, some broth, and possibly another ingredient or two (usually adding a protein to two vegetables or adding a vegetable to two proteins) and make a good soup out of almost anything. Just look up the ingredients online and add any seasonings that are appropriate for all of the ingredients.
5. Have “Smart” Rotating Potluck Dinners
How do these things work if you eat socially or have dinner parties? One approach to this problem is to simply host potluck dinners for your friends. Have everyone bring a side dish and top it off with your own main course. This can work really well with a leftover system.
Have potluck attendees bring leftover containers. That way, everyone can take home a meal or two and they don’t have to worry abut returning containers, either. Just pack them up at the end of the meal, stick them in the fridge, then hand them off when the guests depart.
Encourage everyone to make their side dish in ample quantity so everyone can have a leftover meal or two. When you suggest people bring leftover containers, also suggest that they make a large side dish. This enables them to buy ingredients in bulk, dropping the cost per serving and likely resulting in an extra meal or two for them to take home.
Plan a sensible main course that takes advantage of bulk buying. Use some of the ingredients from the large main course that you prepare in other dishes during the week besides the main course. This way, you’ll be able to take advantage of bulk buying without being flooded with leftovers. For example, if your grocery flyer has a great buy on an item, stock up on that item, use it as the basis for your meal for the potluck, and use the remnants in other meals during the week.
6. Put Usable Scraps in a Freezer Bag
Whenever we have plain scraps – cooked vegetables, grains, legumes, or meats without any sauce or significant seasoning on them – we add them to a container in the freezer. This container is a wonderful thing.
Use the freezer container to make stock. You can easily use it to make vegetable stock (if the only items in there are vegetables) or chicken or beef stock. I generally discourage people from mixing proteins in the stock, so if you have a bit of extra chicken and your bag already has beef in it, start a new bag. Making stock is an easy process in a slow cooker and provides you with an essential ingredient for future soups and other meals.
Use the freezer container to make soup. Similarly, you can just take all of the bits in the freezer container, put them in a slow cooker with some water and some seasonings, and let it cook for a few hours to make a wonderful simple soup that’s practically free. Pair it with a simple homemade bread recipe and you have a humble and delicious meal.
Use the contents of the container to make pot pies. Just take the contents of the bag, cook it slowly with a half cup of milk, a half cup of flour, and a cup and a half of water, season it thoroughly, and use it as the filling in a pie crust. Bake it for thirty or forty minutes until the crust is brown and you’ll have a delicious meal! You can also toss out the pie crusts and simply pour the vegetable mix into a baking dish, covering it with mashed potatoes, to make shepherd’s pie.
7. Prioritize Fresh Foods
Whenever we have fresh foods in the house, we make those foods a priority. We don’t eat a non-leftover meal without using fresh foods until they’re gone, period. Fresh ingredients make many, many wonderful meals.
Always have a meal plan. If you make a meal plan before each grocery store visit, you can plan ahead for the fresh fruits and vegetables that you’ll buy. You have the power to schedule meals that use those fresh items early in the week, relying on leftovers and less-fresh items later in the week.
Keep fresh fruits out in the center of the table. We love to buy fresh fruits, as they make for a healthy snack for our children. The problem is that if we set them off to the side, they’ll sometimes get forgotten, which ends poorly. Our solution? We use the fruit bowl as a centerpiece and encourage the kids to eat a piece of fruit at snack time. That way, the fruit goes quickly and our children keep a lot of fruits in their diet.
Keep different fresh vegetables segregated and chilled. When I get home, I thoroughly rinse fresh vegetables, then put them into separate bags or containers for storage in the refrigerator, as many vegetable pairings can accelerate spoilage.
8. Have a Plan for Overripe Fruits and Vegetables
Sometimes, no matter what you do, fruits and vegetables will become overripe, making them no longer appealing to eat without some serious work. A brown banana, for example, is still edible, but the texture makes it less than appealing for some people. This isn’t a reason to throw it out just yet, though.
Turn overripe fruits into baked goods. Most overripe fruits have an odd texture, but they’re usually very sweet and tasty. Take advantage of that by turning those fruits into baked goods. Overripe fruits almost always work well as a backbone ingredient for a sweet bread, for example. Brown bananas make the best banana bread in the world.
Use your blender to turn overripe fruits into great smoothies as well. If that doesn’t work for you, just toss the overripe fruits into the blender with some ice and maybe a bit of milk or yogurt and turn those items into a great little smoothie. I love to add a bit of honey to the mix as well, but overripe fruits are often plenty sweet.
Chop up overripe vegetables and add them to the “freezer bag.” Overripe vegetables work just fine in soups and stews and casseroles and pot pies, so chop them up and add them to your freezer container. They’ll work just fine for making stock or providing some extra flavor or nutrition in a shepherd’s pie.
9. Maintain a Compost Bin
A compost bin is a valuable thing to have if you have a vegetable garden or any type of decorative garden around your home. Compost will make all of those plants thrive – and all it requires is some time for your vegetable scraps to turn to brown or black mush in a compost bin. We’re constantly making compost for our gardens.
If a vegetable scrap isn’t edible or desirable, like a potato skin, toss it in the compost bin. There are some things we simply don’t like to put into the vegetable bag in the freezer, but they’re still scraps from fruits or vegetables. Those items go into the compost bin. Remember, you shouldn’t put meat or animal items in there, just plant waste.
Stop adding compost a month or two before using the compost, saving the compostables in the freezer or in another bucket. A month or two before you’re going to use the compost, you have to stop feeding it and allow it time to break down into rich fertilizer for your garden. During those periods, we’ll store compost in a separate “compost” freezer bag. Then, after we’ve used all the compost, we’ll toss the contents of our “compost bag” into the container to make a great start on our next batch.
If you don’t use a compost bin but a neighbor does, consider starting a “compost bucket” for them. Anyone who has a compost bin is thrilled to have new additions to that bin, particularly when it requires no effort on their part. If you have a neighbor who has a bin, ask if you can contribute your scraps to their bin. Not only does this put your unwanted vegetable and fruit scraps to good use, they’ll often thank you by giving you a bit of their produce.
10. Utilize Your Garden Abundance
We’re active vegetable gardeners with a plot that seems to grow larger every single year. On a good year – like 2011 was – our garden will produce far more vegetables than we can reasonably consume and we don’t want to throw them out, so we need a plan for a vegetable flood.
Can or freeze your garden excesses. This is the obvious solution. Canning is more labor-intensive, but then it doesn’t require a freezer for storage. We tend to use both techniques, often canning acidic vegetables (like tomatoes) because the process is quite easy and using freezing for other items.
Give your garden excesses to neighbors – or swap with them. Our neighbors are also avid gardeners, so we’ll often choose to grow different things and then swap them throughout the year. If you can find a “gardening buddy,” you can spread out your vegetable treasure trove, both in terms of quantity and type.
Partially process your garden excesses. If you’re facing a bumper crop of tomatoes, for example, turn those tomatoes into pasta sauce and can the sauce instead. Have lots of cucumbers? Make pickles – and you can pickle green beans, too. Don’t just think of storing exactly what grows – turn the vegetables into something that you’ll be glad to have in a few months.
Food Costs Money – Don’t Waste It
No matter where you get your food – farmer’s markets, supermarkets, vegetable gardens – you’ve invested time and money in getting it into your house. If it simply goes to waste and gets thrown out in the trash, you might as well be tossing money out the door, too.
Be smart with your food. Don’t waste it. Whenever you have a food item, look for new and creative ways to use it so that it doesn’t just go into your trash can.
Being smart with your food is so simple, too. Nothing on this list requires a tremendous amount of extra work (outside of canning, that is). Instead of throwing food out, put it into containers and put it in the fridge. When you’re going to work, glance in the fridge before you go. Want a lazy supper? Pull out what’s already in the fridge. Need a quick meal? Pull out a frozen meal from the freezer. It’s all so easy – and it saves money, too.
As soon as you get into the groove of these new routines, you’ll find far less food hitting the trash can and you’ll also find that there’s some time savings as well, as “buffet” dinners are incredibly simple and you’re able to spread out grocery store visits a little more.
Don’t waste food – doing so wastes both time and money.