13 Easy Ways to Cut Food Waste and Save Money

Here’s a shocking statistic: Some 30 to 40 percent of the food supply in the United States goes to waste each year according to estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The government now has ambitious goals to drive down the waste and loss in coming decades — in part to address the needs of Americans who need the food, and in part to conserve on resources and prevent pollution from production of food that is not consumed.

That’s the big picture. But did you know that a huge amount of that waste happens at the household level? It can translate to hundreds of dollars waste per person each year.

So to help you bolster your budget and do your part in the effort, we’ve rounded up the best tips for fighting food waste.

1. Check fridge and freezer temperatures periodically

Hand adjusting thermostate in fridge.
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Cold temperatures cannot destroy the microorganisms that cause food to spoil, but sufficiently cold temperatures can significantly slow them down.

Refrigerators should be kept at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Freezers should be kept at zero degrees.

Some experts and appliance manufacturers go colder, though.

The University of Nebraska’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, for example, recommends that fridge temps be set between 34 and 40 degrees. Samsung says the ideal temperature for French-door fridges is 37 degrees.

The IANR recommends that freezers be set to zero degrees, noting that frozen food deteriorates more quickly when stored at higher temperatures.

2. Reorganize the fridge, freezer or pantry

Woman reaching in refrigerator.
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If you frequently forget about the items in the bottom of your fridge or the back of your pantry shelves, reorganize. Or, try an organizational aid like a lazy Susan.

For example, a reader noted the following in the blog The Kitchn:

I was always forgetting my perishables in the veg drawers, etc. So I put the stuff that needs to be cooked on the top shelf, and the jars, nuts, flours in the produce drawers. This helped a lot.

3. Make groceries last longer

Mushrooms spilling out of paper bag.
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Have you ever thought to keep onions in pantyhose? Or mushrooms in paper bags? Storing specific foods in certain ways can extend their life.

For more easy ways to prevent food from spoiling early, check out “21 Tricks to Make Groceries Last Longer.”

4. Find new uses for excess food

Vegetables in clear storage container.
absolutimages / Shutterstock.com

Leftover mashed potatoes can double as a ready-made base for potato pancakes, and extra grapes can be frozen and used later as creative ice cubes in mixed drinks, for example. Flat soda can help scrub blackened pots and pans.

For more fresh ideas, check out “12 Ways to Keep Good Food From Going Bad.”

5. Track your trash

Woman scraping food off plate into trash bin.
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At least periodically, keep a log of all food items your household throws away.

Doing so will make you more mindful of how much food you lose to the trash can. That knowledge might help you lose less.

You’ll also be able to spot any patterns in the types of foods you throw away. That way, you will know when to buy less of a certain food.

6. Plan your meals

Vegetables surrounding notebook, pencil.
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Take a little time once a week to plan out one week’s worth of breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks, or whatever meals your household eats. Then, build a grocery list based on your meal plans.

There are apps that can help. One example is Mealboard, which combines recipe management, meal planning, groceries and pantry management.

7. Understand use-by dates

Woman examining food label in grocery store.
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You don’t necessarily have to toss food when its use-by date passes, and you definitely don’t have to toss it when its sell-by date passes.

Use-by dates generally indicate when a food’s peak freshness ends, not when its spoiling starts. These dates are determined by the food manufacturer and, with the exception of infant formula, not regulated by the federal government, according to the USDA.

Sell-by dates tell stores how long to display the product for sale. They are not expiration dates.

For a detailed breakdown of all food dates, check out the USDA’s “Food Product Dating” fact sheet. (A new food labeling initiative is in the works, which should simplify the process in the future.)

8. Use expiration dates

Milk jugs in shopping cart.
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If you’re buying milk, for example, don’t automatically grab the jug that’s closest to you. That’s where stores often place the oldest jugs to ensure they’re purchased first. Check the dates on the jugs behind it, and buy the one with the latest date. It should last longer.

At home, keep groceries similarly ordered. For example, if you have multiple boxes of cereal, place the newest ones in the back to remind you to use the oldest ones first. If you have multiple loaves of bread, throw the newest one in the freezer.

9. Avoid impulse purchases

Man looking at groceries in store.
Jasminko Ibrakovic / Shutterstock.com

A few examples from “20 Surefire Ways to Slam the Brakes on Impulse Buys“:

  • Shop your kitchen first. Check the fridge, freezer and pantry to see if you already have anything on your grocery list. If you do, cross it off your list, especially if it’s perishable or you have several on hand.
  • Stick to your list.
  • Shop solo. Kids and significant others might add unnecessary items to your cart or rush you into grabbing an item that’s on your list, but not the best deal.
  • Don’t shop hungry, angry or tired.

10. Buy in bulk and share

Bins of fruits and nuts at grocery store.
Blue Lemon Photo / Shutterstock.com

Wholesale shopping can be a great way to save money, but it can lead to food waste in small households.

So if you want to buy in bulk to save money but don’t need bulk quantities, ask a friend or relative to split perishable purchases with you.

11. Shop local

Busy farmers market scene.
Songquan Deng / Shutterstock.com

The farther away that food is grown or made, the older it is by the time it reaches your grocery store. So by the time you take home food that was produced in another country, for example, its shelf life could be significantly shorter than that of foods grown in your country, state or neighborhood.

This makes local farmers markets ideal, but don’t assume produce was grown locally just because it’s sold at a farmers market. As Organic Life magazine put it in an article on “farmers market scams“:

There are two types of market models: real farmers markets and “farm markets” where buyers resell produce they bought at wholesale markets. The produce is usually not local and often comes from faraway states or other countries. …

To find the real thing, look for “producer-only” markets, meaning that the farmers at the market grew the food they’re selling on their own farms, explains Bill Duesing, president of the Northeast Organic Farming Association. Find out if your favorite market is producer-only by asking the director or market coordinator. And use your own judgment: If your local market is selling watermelons in May, they’re probably not local.

For more tips, check out “10 Ways to Get More Out of the Farmers Market.”

12. Spend less money on food

Woman reaching into wallet at checkout stand.
Robert Kneschke / Shutterstock.com

If you can’t keep from wasting food, spend less money on it. At least you’ll throw away less money when you throw away food. Start with “25 Ways to Spend Less on Food.”

13. Compost

Food scraps in compost bin.
granata68 / Shutterstock.com

If you’re still letting food go to waste, or you refuse to use certain parts of foods (like the skins of potatoes or apples), try composting the unused or leftover food. You’ll spare a landfill, where food takes longer to break down, and you’ll get hearty topsoil in return.

Perhaps you can use the soil from your compost to grow your own food. You’ll save money — and your sweat equity might make you less likely to let good food go bad.

Have any tips to add? Share them in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

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