Cheap Tupperware alternatives: Frugal food storage containers

To hear the storage industry tell it, every kitchen needs plastic containers in a dozen sizes. You need specialized storage, too: triangles for wedges of pie, say, or deviled-egg sarcophagi with little divots to cradle each demi-oeuf. Oh, and lots of foil, waxed paper, and plastic wrap and bags to hold sandwiches and snacks or cover bowls of leftovers.

My boxes of foil and plastic wrap last me up to a couple of years each. And while I'll cop to owning a few Tupperware and Rubbermaid pieces, it's all hand-me-down stuff — and note that I said a few. I don't need much, and I don't use much commercial wrapping, because there are plenty of other ways to store food.

Note: Before I share these frugal hacks, I need to address the issue of plastic. Some people are very nervous about chemicals leaching into their foods. If this is you, then ignore all mention of plastics below and focus on the other ideas.

Use What You've Got

Don't automatically assume you need special food-storage containers. Why not just put leftovers in a bowl with a saucer or bread-and-butter plate on top? If it fits snugly, it's no different than aluminum foil or a plastic lid. (What? You thought that “burping” a Tupperware container got all the air out?)

Glass food-storage dishes are all the rage now, but glass jars work just as well. The next time you finish up some jam, pickles or spaghetti sauce, save the jar. (Quart canning jars are good for food storage, too, if you can get them cheaply. More on that below.)

The upside: They're free. The downside: They don't hold as much as those big Tupperware bowls — and they don't stack like them, either, so they take up quite a bit of room in the cupboard. I keep only a couple of them around and recycle the rest.

When cream cheese goes on sale, I stock up on the soft variety. Not only is it easier to spread, it comes in a sturdy and reusable container. I use these for small amounts of leftovers, or fill them with individual servings of pudding. (I'm also using one for odd nails, screws and other bits of miscellaneous hardware.)

J.D. and Kris's container drawer

Empty margarine tubs work much the same way. They tend to be larger, but that's fine — you can put small leftovers in a large container, but you can't put large leftovers in a small container.

Bonus: If you're sending food home with dinner guests, you don't worry about getting the Gold'n Soft container back. Nobody's walking out the door with my Tupperware, though, because it belonged to my mother.

I buy Wyler's sugar-free lemonade, which comes in little packets inside a plastic container. These containers have proved useful for stacking Christmas cookies as gifts. When I'm making jam and have a small amount left over, I'll put it in a Wyler's container and give it to my sister or a neighbor.

It's in the Bag

I broke my toe last spring. When I looked for a plastic bag to use as an ice pack, I was amused by the variety of choices. I had bags that once held hot dog rolls, bread, and frozen soybeans, corn and mixed vegetables. I had the inner liners from boxes of cereal and crackers. I even had a number of Ritz cracker sleeves.

Here are a few ways I've used these items:

  • Plastic bags. I use these to store leftover meatloaf, chicken or pork chops and to keep home-baked goods fresh (I don't have a cookie jar). Sometimes I slip a bowl of leftovers inside one of these bags.
  • Ritz cracker wrappers. Cut up, they're good for wrapping and freezing the hamburger patties I make when ground beef goes on sale. I secure them with rubber bands — since I still subscribe to a newspaper, I have tons of those things. A cracker wrapper is rubber-banded over the glass measuring cup of bacon fat sitting in my fridge. And I'm writing this from a house-sitting job; I used a Ritz cracker wrapper around the toothbrush in my toiletries bag.
  • Frozen vegetable bags. I use them to freeze chili — or spaghetti-sauce-sized portions of cooked ground beef or chicken. Or I cut off the ends and cut the bag in half lengthwise; each half is the right size for wrapping those hamburger patties. (Originally I offered these to my sister, who owns a Golden Retriever. She declined because she prefers a bag she can tie shut and also because big dog = big poop. Bigger than 16 ounces? Yikes! Another reason I don't have a dog.)
  • Cracker/cereal liners. These are good for storing chicken or chops bought in bulk and then re-wrapped into smaller portions. If you cut the liners open, you wind up with what's essentially a big piece of waxed paper. It can be cut into smaller pieces to wrap hamburger, whether cooked or in patties. Each summer I cut one of the large cracker liners to fit the cookie sheet on which I freeze gleaned blackberries. I freeze them until they're solid before putting them in bags, to keep them from becoming one big lump.

And then there are the washed and re-used Ziploc bags. You just knew I'd bring that up, didn't you? An MSN Money reader suggested buying only the freezer bags, which seem to be made of sterner stuff and will last longer. I can attest: Some of my zipper-type bags are on their fourth tour of duty for frozen blackberries.

However, if a bag has held raw meat then I tend to throw it out. Campylobacter and other nasties are nothing to fool with; to me, it's worth occasionally tossing a bag vs. risking food poisoning.

Possible Frugal Hacks

Why pay retail? Here are some other ways to save on food storage:

  • You can often find Tupperware and other storage containers in the “free” box at yard sales. Empty jars, too.
  • I bought aluminum foil at an estate sale. Or, rather, I tried to buy it: The woman running the sale just gave it to me. If I'd paid, it would have been a quarter and it was one of those big boxes, too.
  • Once I found waxed paper in the half-price bin at the dollar store. If you are very lucky there will be a clearance bin at your dollar store, too.
  • Keep an eye on the Freecycle network — I've seen Rubbermaid, Tupperware and canning jars offered. Don't see any? Put up a “wanted” ad.

You can paint these tactics as extremely green/frugal, or you can use them as an easy opportunity to make fun of extremely green/frugal types. Personally, I prefer to look at it as giving “throwaway” plastic at least one more use — and, yes, I'm saving money because I don't have to pull a length of foil or plastic wrap off the roll. Have you checked the price of commercial wraps lately?

J.D.'s note: Donna's right. It's easy to make fun of frugal tactics like this. But remember how last May I spent ten days on a boat with my real millionaire next door? Well, he does all of these things and more. And the photo illustrating this article? That's our own kitchen drawer — Kris has a vast library of re-used plastic bags and containers.
More about...Food, Frugality

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