7 Tactics to Avoid Food Waste

I was stunned by an article in the Washington Examiner that states that Americans waste 133 billion pounds of food each year. That adds up to about 400 pounds of food wasted per American man, woman, and child each year.

If our family met that American average, the five of us would waste a ton of food this year. No exaggeration, either – we’d waste 2,000 pounds of food.

That is a lot of food simply going to waste. Not only does that have a huge environmental and social impact, it has a serious financial impact. Food that you toss instead of eating directly results in money falling out of your wallet because almost all of the food you order or bring into your home has a cost.

If I assume that the average pound of food costs $2, then wasting a ton of food per year translates to a cost of $4,000 per year for my family.

Clearly, there’s great value in figuring out better methods to avoid wasting food. This is something that Sarah and I actually focus on – we try to avoid wasting food if at all possible. Here are seven tactics we use to minimize our food waste, which directly translates into savings on our food bill.

Use a grocery list and a meal plan. Before you go to the store, figure out a meal plan for the next week. I generally plot out breakfasts and dinners, leaving lunches for leftovers. Then, from that meal plan, assemble a grocery list that supplements what you already have on hand so that you’ll have enough to cover those recipes.

When you go to the store, stick to that grocery list. It tells you what you actually need to buy instead of having to guess. The fewer unnecessary things you buy at the store, the less waste you’ll have. Don’t bring things you don’t need into your home.

If we prepare too much, we eat leftovers. We don’t throw away the remainder of our meal. Instead, we put it in an appropriate container and store it in the refrigerator. Generally, we consume some of those leftovers for lunch the next day – and the following day, if needed.

Sometimes, leftovers might seem bland or uninteresting. If that’s the case, we jazz it up. I’ve been known to put all kinds of seasonings on leftovers. I particularly enjoy putting dried oregano on almost any Italian dish, garlic on many dishes, and hot sauce on virtually anything.

You can also use leftovers as an element in another dish. If you have some leftover steamed vegetables, for example, add them to the soup that you’re making.

If we can’t eat the leftovers within three days, we freeze the remainder in portion-sized containers. We have a large number of portion-sized freezer-ready containers. When that lasagna (or soup or anything else) hits the three day mark, one of us will take the remaining lasagna out of the fridge, break it into meal-sized pieces, put those pieces in the containers, label them with some masking tape (what it is, when we should use it by), and pop it in the freezer. Then, when one of us needs lunch, we can just go glance through the freezer and grab one of the containers that has a valid date on it.

I usually put a date three months in the future on these items. I find that if I eat it within three months, it’s usually pretty good, but if you get much beyond that, freezer “burn” can become an issue. Because of that, I generally tend to grab whichever item in the freezer has the closest date when I’m out there looking for a meal.

Meals like this are essentially “free.” Without this process, we would have thrown away the food, so retaining what’s left and making a later meal out of it works really well.

We save vegetable scraps (and would do the same with meat, too). Let’s say I’m chopping up an onion for a recipe. It calls for a small onion, but I only have a large one. Still, it’s easier to just chop the whole thing up, so I’ll take about a third of it and put it in a baggie for later. I do the same thing with things like celery ribs or chopped spinach – if I chop more than what the recipe calls for, I save the rest.

Sometimes, I’ll find a use for this in the next day or two. I’ll toss the onions into some scrambled eggs or I’ll put the chopped-up kale into some soup.

Most of the time, though, I don’t find another use. When that happens, I put that stuff in a large container in the freezer that’s full of vegetable scraps. (You can also have a “chicken scraps” and a “beef scraps” container, too.) Eventually, when that container fills up, I take all of the scraps and boil them for several hours, then I strain the chunks from the liquid and save that liquid. It’s stock, and it makes a great basis for soups and stews and casseroles. Any savory dish that calls for water will be made better by using an appropriate stock instead.

We encourage our family members to take small portions at meal time and then take more if they’ve cleaned their plate and are still hungry. Rather than filling up your bowl on chili night, just take a single ladle of the soup. When you’re done, assess whether you want more and, if you do, get just a single additional ladle of the soup.

If you do that, not only will you eat less at meal time, you’ll leave fewer scraps on your plate, which means that less of your food hits the trash.

We take “doggy bags” from every restaurant we visit and eat them very quickly. I’ve taken leftover salad, breadsticks, soup, and many, many leftover entrees from restaurants in doggie bags. I paid for that food, so why should it go to waste?

I’ve found that I need to eat those leftovers very quickly, though, and I’ve also found that they don’t freeze well, so I make a point of eating them for lunch the next day, without exception.

We know what a “sell by:” date actually means. A “sell by” date doesn’t mean that you should toss the item when that date occurs. It actually doesn’t mean much of anything at all. It’s just a date chosen by the manufacturer after which they no longer guarantee the “freshness” of the product. It is not an expiration date.

Instead, people simply need to use some common sense when it comes to determining if their food is good or bad. The best tip is to keep your refrigerator temperature below 40 F and throw out all leftovers after four days at most – we generally stick with three days. Beyond that, here are some very useful guidelines for assessing whether food is good to eat or not.

If you stick with these tips, you’ll find yourself throwing out less food than ever before, which means that less of your food budget is going to waste and more of that money is staying in your pocket.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.