Waste Less Food, Save More Money

Coming home after more than three weeks in Europe, our refrigerator was practically bare. Kris and I love food, and our fridge is usually filled to the gills with tons of good stuff, so seeing the vast emptiness was almost shocking. But in a good way.

One of the drawbacks to keeping a full fridge is that we sometimes lose track of what we have on hand. It sucks to dig behind the smoked salmon to discover…more smoked salmon! Which has gone rancid! I'm especially bad at remembering what I still have left to eat. (This is despite our attempts to use a leftovers list.) As a result, I waste far more food than I should.

Lori Bongiorno writes the Conscious Consumer blog at Yahoo! Green. Recently, she featured a step-by-step guide to wasting less food. She writes:

Americans are notorious for wasting food. Each year, we toss out about 27 percent of edible food, and the average family of four throws out about $600 worth of groceries.

Bongiorno's tips range from the obvious to the not-so-obvious.

For example, she says it's important to undertand how expiration dates work. Some are important to observe, but others aren't. (Did you know you can often eat yogurt three months past the date on the package? I'm ashamed to admit that I know this from first-hand experience.) She also cautions against buying food just because it's on sale. As I wrote this morning, cheap things you never use are no bargain.

Bongiorno's complete article contains lots of other tips. For Kris and me, though, I think the key to wasting less food is changing the way we shop.

For the past couple of years, Kris and I have actually tried to make large, infrequent trips to the grocery store. There's plenty of research showing that this is one of the best ways to trim your food budget. But you know what? If doing this increases the odds that I'll waste food — and it does — then it's probably not saving us any money.

The morning after we returned from Paris, I made a quick trip to the store. Despite the empty fridge, all I bought was milk, bread, fruit, and cheese. “I want to try something,” I told Kris. “I want to shop like they do in Europe. I want to buy what we need when we need it instead of stock-piling food all the time.”

While this is sure to cut down the food we waste, I'm not sure it will save us any money. But I'm willing to experiment to find out!

More about...Food

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leslie
leslie
9 years ago

We were just out of town for a week and while we were gone our contractor was replacing our kitchen floor. So, we had to clean out our fridge of EVERYTHING because it was going to be unplugged for a few days. It seems so bare now but I can actually find everything and identify what is in there. I like this cleaned out fridge a lot better than it’s regular state. I too have recently been thinking about cutting waaaaay back on the stockpiling too and only buying what we need when we need it. It will be an… Read more »

Frogdancer
Frogdancer
9 years ago

Getting a worm farm, then chickens was the BEST thing I’ve ever done to make use of every scrap of our food.
The chickens even eat the egg shells! We have barely any garbage now.

Wilson
Wilson
9 years ago

We’ve been trying this for the most part since we returned from an extended trip to Europe 2 years ago. They key for us is to space out a trip to Sam’s Club (we have no Costco’s here) say 2x a year to stock up the pantry and to occ. load up the freezer with meats and veggies when on sale at the local gorcery so that there is always a go to for those days when you’re just tuckered and don’t feel like driving to or stopping at the store. When we do waste food it’s still completely our… Read more »

Aryn
Aryn
9 years ago

I had a boss who shopped every day. The only problem was that he wound up with a lot of duplicates because he forgot what he had and decided what to make when he got to the store. So, I would keep a running tally of what’s in the freezer/fridge that you can take to the store with you. I keep one on my fridge. It also helps me figure out when I should plan a meal to use something up!

Jacq @ Single Mom Rich Mom
Jacq @ Single Mom Rich Mom
9 years ago

I’ve had food stockpiling (more like hoarding) problems for quite a while. I’ve tried a few different things over the last year to bring down the excess. What’s seemed to work the best is to do as you have and shop more often. I set myself a maximum of one bag or more often, just what I need. I called it “shopping like a man” but “shopping like a European” sounds much better. 😛 http://singlemomrichmom.com/the-woman%e2%80%99s-guide-to-shopping-like-a-man/ My costs are definitely down but not by a lot since we weren’t big food wasters. But I do notice we’re eating less junk food… Read more »

Barbara Fensler
Barbara Fensler
6 years ago

I am a widow but with three generations living with me so we have varied likes and needs. I enjoy whole food. My granddaughter likes any food, great-grandson likes junk food, and my daughter likes very little. My grocery is less than a mile from me so on the way home from the park where I walk my dog I will stop and buy perishables. I buy a lot of my staples at Weston-Price which is a lot like a farmers market. Or sometimes I grind my teeth and go to Wal-mart but I would rather not.

Anne
Anne
9 years ago

I agree this is a great way to shop, but be careful about romanticising “Europe”: it’s not (and hopefully never will be) a single country and shopping habits can differ hugely in say, England, when compared with somewhere else like Germany, for example. The kind of shopping you describe is, sadly, on the decline in most of Europe, and big weekly shops at faceless Walmart-style hypermarkets are increasingly common.

retirebyforty
retirebyforty
9 years ago

Here is a tip – get a shallow refrigerator!
We got a shallow European style fridge when we remodeled the kitchen. It is about 24″ deep and everything is in reach.
I doubt your going to the market everyday scheme is going to work. Have fun though.

Romeo
Romeo
9 years ago

JD,

I went through this for a couple of weeks until I realized:

1) It takes both time and discipline to do such a thing. If you have the time to shop every day, great for you. But considering that every hour of my week is so precious, at this point in my life I don’t think I could reasonably sustain such a habit.

2) It ends up costing more in the end. If you purchase only 1 lb of, say, ground beef instead of a 3 lb pack, you are surely paying more on a per unit basis.

Romeo

Josh
Josh
9 years ago

i have found that the best way to shop is in small amounts. usually from week to week i will buy larger items that are on sale, chicken, pork, beef, items that freeze well. I then plan a weekly menu based on what is in the freezer and just buy the items needed from the supermarket. this saves me a lot of money and time. It’s also important to organize your fridge. this helps to find exactly what you’re looking for and knowing what is in there. a fridge for 2 shouldn’t be overflowing.

Michele
Michele
9 years ago

I used to be so guilty of this – throwing away food. A big part of it was that I too tried to get away with doing 1 or 2 large shops per month, but that’s simply not possible if you want to make eating fresh produce a priority, because HELLO? Things go bad. So I wound up tossing a lot of produce that I never got around to eating before it turned. It was also a product of taking a 100% lackadaisical approach to meal planning, and simply deciding each night what we felt like eating. An equally negative… Read more »

Andrew
Andrew
9 years ago

I make groceries once a week. I can’t afford to go to Sam’s and drop $100-$200 in one trip. I check the weekly ads before hand, check whats on sale, and make a list. I cook using that food. I’m a grad student, so saving money on food is huge for me. Whenever I think about eating out, I usually make sure there’s no perishables in the fridge first. Even if I want to eat out, sometimes I’ll eat a small meal before hand and only get an appetizer at a restaurant.

J.D. Roth
J.D. Roth
9 years ago

@Anne (#6) Me? Romanticize Europe? Never! 🙂 Okay, guilty as charged. I originally wrote “France and Italy”, but changed that because I’ve written it so many times over the past few days. I don’t want you all to scream in agony as I do it again. I forgot to mention in this post that my friend Sparky used to shop like this. He had very little on hand, and would just pick up what he needed on the way home from work. I thought it was strange at the time, but now I see how it could be a fine… Read more »

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
9 years ago

I balance stocking up with buying fresh. I stock up on the non-perishables I use a lot (millet, rice, lentils, etc), and tend to make more trips to pick up fresh vegetables, meat and fish.

I live within a short walk of a grocery store, so regular trips to pick up fresh stuff doesn’t cost in transportation — instead, it provides exercise and weight-bearing activity.

One thing to watch is impulse buys! More trips can translate to more unplanned purchases, especially if you go when you’re hungry. I control my budget by going with a list 🙂

Michelle
Michelle
9 years ago

I shop twice a month for staples and meats.

Canned stuff stays in the pantry and meat stays in the freezer. I check before going shopping to see how many of each canned item I have – if it’s more than 4, I don’t get more even if it is on sale.

Other than that, I usually just pop over to the local market for bread, veggies and fruit.

I like eating leftovers though, so having food lying around isn’t usually a problem!

lisasfoods
lisasfoods
9 years ago

I like the idea of buying minimal groceries on each trip, as many people who live in cities do. (I think of the New Yorkers I know with tiny little fridges.)

The trouble is that right now I live in a pretty rural area, a 20-30 minute drive from a grocery store. So while I try to limit my trips to once or twice a week, I’ve also learned to grow some food in our garden, and to preserve foods as much as possible too.

ebyt
ebyt
9 years ago

I usually make a couple big trips a month to buy heavy items (take the car), and then make 1-2 weekly trips (walking) to the local store to pick up perishables and whatever I fancy for dinner in the next couple days. I think by sticking to a list more often and planning meals out better I’d save more cash. It’s hard to go less than once a week if you want something like salad more than once a week as it all goes bad so quickly, though. And yes, shopping when you’re hungry is a guaranteed way to buy… Read more »

Karen in minnesota
Karen in minnesota
9 years ago

3 month old yogurt? That just needs to be thrown away, not eaten just to avoid “wasting” it! Seriously, if you didn’t eat it 3 months ago, you probably don’t “need” to eat it now. Americans have terrible food habits and this obsession with not wasting food is one of them. On the other hand, it’s great to not waste money on food! The way to do that is to not overbuy. I’ve been trying to focus on real food as a way to not overbuy. Real food (fresh veggies, fresh meats) is the same per pound whether you purchase… Read more »

bethh
bethh
9 years ago

This is where tracking spending is so handy! It’ll be interesting to see how this works for you. It’s yet another example of doing what works, not what others say you ought to do. I live alone and tend to do several small shops per week, rather than one biggie – yes, there’s some frivolous spending in there, but not a lot. I’ve just never gotten into meal planning, and with the great independent grocery store literally 3 minutes’ walk from my front door, I don’t have to. Plus, I’ve decided that popcorn for dinner is totally valid. 😉 I… Read more »

Mary
Mary
9 years ago

I agree with number 10 that making a meal plan and a list before you go is a great way to not waste food. If everything you are buying already has a use lined up for it you are less likely to forget it. And when you plan in advance you can tell that the leftover lasagna you make on Monday will be great for lunch on Tuesday and Wednesday so you don’t need to pick up lunch items. Another great idea is to have a night every week or two where you make something from what you have on… Read more »

Burnette
Burnette
9 years ago

I think you will save more money than you think. I usually just buy a week’s worth of groceries and I carry reuseable bags (2 bags/person in a household). You’ll be wasting less food (and wasting less money), helping the environment, and some stores give you discounts for using reuseable bags. Also, as long as you stick to items on sale at the store, then you should be golden!

Becca
Becca
9 years ago

Interested to learn how you get on!

Despite being European, we do stockpile. I’ve found that our biggest money-waster is eating any kind of convenience food when we’re feeling lazy, so I buy 5lb bags of potatoes, boil them and portion them up to keep in the freezer for when we just want to dial for pizza. Likewise with onions, bell peppers, prepared-from-dried beans – all those foods that take a bit of prep, are well-priced when bought in bulk and go off easily.

Roo
Roo
9 years ago

I’m a student living in London. There are lots of mini marts around me, but my nearest big supermarket is about 2 miles away with no easy bus route there. My solution is to go to the big supermarket to get heavy things that are hard to get in the mini ones (most of the mini ones don’t stock the value own brand stuff) and take a wheeled suitcase with me. It’s noisy and annoying to wheel home, but it beats lugging it all back and saves plastic bags! Perishables I mainly buy on the way home. The mini marts… Read more »

carrythebanner
carrythebanner
9 years ago

I’ve been doing this for a while, as there are a couple of convenient shops between work and home, and it’s worked out really well for me & the missus. We do keep some amount of dry goods and such on hand and occasionally take a large-ish trip to the store in the car, but 90% or more of our food is picked up on my bike/bus ride home and is consumed in the next 3—5 days. The more we’ve gotten away from packaged foods, the more this style benefits us, since the fresh food we have on hand is… Read more »

Weili
Weili
9 years ago

My husband and I are currently living in Europe right now. I walk 8 minutes to the grocery store every day to get what I need or what I think I will cook for the day. Definitely helps on cutting down on food waste. I don’t know if we can replicate this successfully back in the U.S. though, since the drive to the grocery store is 10 minutes one way… but maybe we can try to do grocery shopping 2-3X a week vs. 1x a week stocking up for the week kind of trip.

El Nerdo Loco
El Nerdo Loco
9 years ago

Stockpiling only works for non-perishables: cans, white rice, etc. You can’t do that with fresh meat, produce, eggs, etc. Even grains will go stale eventually– with the exception probably of white rice which lasts something like 5 years in storage (if it develops bugs, you’re in luck– free protein!). We shop weekly (except for veggies twice a week), and cook weekly, for pre-planned menus, which are quite simple. So on Friday I know I’ll need X portions of greens, Y portions of fruit, Z portions of meat, etc. I cook on our lazy days– generally Sundays, while watching movies or… Read more »

Linda in Chicago
Linda in Chicago
9 years ago

This is another example of how you have to figure out what works best for YOU. I think many of those studies about how often one should shop for groceries are based on a different demographic. I can see that going to the grocery store every week with kids in tow who will be pestering one to buy junk can add up to costing that family more money. You and Kris don’t fit that mold, though. Neither do I. I am single so I only have to wrestle with my own urges when in the grocery store. I don’t have… Read more »

El Nerdo Loco
El Nerdo Loco
9 years ago

@ Linda in Chicago: chili for breakfast is AWESOME! top it with a couple of fried eggs, and wow! It’s like huevos rancheros. I love spicy food for breakfast.

hentrain
hentrain
9 years ago

for me, the time cost of shopping daily prohibits this. There are 3 grocery stores within a 6 block radius of my home, including one on my walk home, but I work long hours and the extra shopping time is time I could spend chatting with my partner after work or scratching the dog’s tummy…I have lived in europe and in NYC and I always thought it was great to stop in and pick up fresh food on the way home, but I didn’t notice it cutting down on waste–and my grocery bill was much higher when I followed this… Read more »

chacha1
chacha1
9 years ago

“Just-in-time” shopping has several advantages for me. 1. the food is fresher 2. the cash flow is easier to manage (i.e. in my spending plan, it’s easier to budget $70/wk for food vs $280/mo. don’t ask me why, it’s a mind game) 3. the schlepping is easier (two bags vs a dozen), which leads directly to 4. I can get by with my re-useable bags. I find I am *less* likely to impulse buy when doing my just-in-time shopping than I was when I shopped twice a month. Partly because just in time means, usually, I’m on my way home… Read more »

sarah
sarah
9 years ago

This is something we are working on right this very moment. I hate grocery shopping with a PASSION, and I prefer to do it once a week. However, this isn’t really working. I bought kale and it went moldy in just three days. YIKES. I ate most of it, you’ll be happy to know. it is SO difficult to see everything in the refrigerator, and because of the absurd set-up in the kitchen, the drawers don’t open all the way, either. My husband got so fed up that he pulled everything out the other day and rearranged the shelves in… Read more »

Kait Palmer
Kait Palmer
9 years ago

The catch to doing lots of small trips is you may want to have one “splurge” each time, like we do. A bottle of wine for dinner, a carton of ice cream for dessert…that’s what adds up for us. What helps us is making out a meal plan and STICKING to it. We usually buy our meat in bulk when its on sale (since its hard to find a good deal on local/organic) and freeze it. Then we make short trips to buy the fresh items- like greens or mushrooms – that we don’t want shuffled to the back of… Read more »

Nicole
Nicole
9 years ago

We do a little of both. A full pantry with plenty of our regular foods that won’t spoil (canned tomatoes, spaghetti, flour, etc.) and weekly or every two weeks shopping trips after loose menu planning. Sometimes we just pick up milk and bananas, sometimes we get a bunch more stuff and replenish the pantry. When meat or something freezable is on a good sale, we’ll get some and stick it in the freezer.

Laura
Laura
9 years ago

I’m a big impulse shopper in the grocery store so I don’t think that would work for me. There are two big things that have cut down on our grocery bill. The first is meal planning but the second is shopping for groceries online. Two stores here have that option. I can go on their website, order exactly what I want and be able to review my order, make changes, see exactly what it’s going to cost before I buy it and then have my husband pick it up with out ever going into the store. We never buy unplanned… Read more »

Kristin
Kristin
9 years ago

This is actually a very common way to shop in parts of North American that are heavily urbanized. I live in Vancouver and don’t own a car, so I carry all of my groceries, just buying a bag or two on my way home from work for the night’s meal, and then I stock up on the utilitarian basics on the weekend (cereal, milk, catfood, yogurt, etc.). I purposely chose a neighbourhood that had a grocery store and produce store within walking distance. If you live somewhere where you are car-dependent, then it may be inefficient and impractical to shop… Read more »

Diane
Diane
9 years ago

We have a large family and it seems to work better to grocery shop when we need things rather than stockpile.
I have a printed out shopping list with all the things we usually get and when something nears running out it gets ticked on the list. Next time someone is going near the grocery store, just those things are bought.
If there is something on special that we use then we might buy more than what we need – but storage space is an issue.

tb
tb
9 years ago

i am unemployed-for 2 years now-so i don’t stop on the way home from work. i also live in a rural area so i try to bundle trips together as much as i can. i try to go no sooner than 10 days from the last trip. i also get food stamps so i have to really budget what i get and when i get it. i tend to look at the price per ounce/pound more than the marked price. i usually buy the largest container i can because it is priced better-sometimes even better than sale items. i also… Read more »

Techbud
Techbud
9 years ago

I hate wasting food. As chief sanitation officer in our household it pains me to have to throw money away when cleaning out the refrigerator. We try and freeze meat after we shop, and only leave 2-3 days out for the next couple of meals.

Kristia@FamilyBalanceSheet
9 years ago

I plan my meals weekly and even though we like to eat as fresh as possible, I usually have my two kids with me (5 & 2.5) so I like to limit my trips to the store.

Kim
Kim
9 years ago

Rule 1: When making out the weekly menu (a critical step), check the pantry and refrigerator contents first.

Rule 2: Obey Rule 1.

Julie @ The Family CEO
Julie @ The Family CEO
9 years ago

We had a similar experience to you recently, only it happened because of a refrigerator that went out. As a result, we had to toss a lot of food. Like you, I’m finding that I like a less full refrigerator and we’re doing a better job of eating what we have.

Kris
Kris
9 years ago

The information about expiration dates is correct. I work for a company that makes soy sauce and other traditional Asian food products. Historically these products were developed to be pretty spoil-proof, especially soy sauce, because of the salt content. We don’t add any preservatives to our products–the salt content and sterilizing the packaging is enough to make them last for years. However, our ‘best before’ dates are all from 1 to 2 years, depending on ingredients. These were decided after testing that showed when the quality would start to change–flavors weaken and a ‘skin’ would form on top of opened… Read more »

Karen
Karen
9 years ago

I used to stockpile food, but discovering too many canned goods way past their prime made me try a change. Now I have a few canned goods, but I buy small amounts of the perishable things, and cook right away. I make casseroles or other meals and freeze them in meal-sized portions. I freeze the meals in little dishes (already baked) with a sticky note on top with the date and what it is. Then when I get home, I can reach in the freezer and get a healthy meal I know I’ll like!

Elizabeth Harper @ giftsofthejourney
Elizabeth Harper @ giftsofthejourney
9 years ago

After I married an Englishman and moved to his home in England, I had to adjust to several things like hanging clothes outside to dry and a tiny refrigerator.

As result of these lifestyle changes, I never lose socks (with no dryer to eat them) and food never has a chance to be overlooked and go bad in our slightly larger than a college dorm room size frig.

Chris Hooper
Chris Hooper
9 years ago

Food is a tricky thing. Fresh food is cheaper and healthier but doesn’t last as long. Packaged food is dearer, unhealthy but lasts for ever.

I’ve found fresh to be the most economical. In Austalia we have Goods and Services Tax, 10% on goods that have “Value Added” to them. Fresh produce is exempt from this tax, so you’re instantly saving 10%!

Tara
Tara
9 years ago

My parents do this, since us kids moved out of the house. They keep two gallon jugs of milk in the fridge at a time and a gallon of orange juice, as well as other similar “staples” like that. My mom tends to make one big trip to the grocery store every once in awhile and then goes to the neighborhood grocery store to pick up meat for dinner and then usually buys more milk or staples as needed on those quick trips. I tend to just keep milk, orange juice, eggs, yogurt, and some fruit in the fridge, but… Read more »

Lily (capital L)
Lily (capital L)
9 years ago

I agree with Anne, you (as many US bloggers) romanticize Europe. A bit. 😉 I live in “Europe” and I get my groceries once a week – in the supermarket. And I have to be careful about letting food waste too. A bit of planning and clever cooking helps – and not shopping when hungry, but you know all this. The little shops you liked so much? They’re bloody expensive. Unless you don’t have to mind your spending, you don’t get all you need in shops. It’s sad (many shops are going out of business in the crisis) but only… Read more »

Liz K
Liz K
9 years ago

I’m trying to do better at wasting less food as well – but I’m shopping the “European way” by necessity, not choice! I live in Amsterdam and have a small under-the-counter refrigerator and a bike. Meaning every shopping trip is naturally limited by how much fits in the fridge and how much I can carry in my backback or on the handlebars of the bike. I usually shop every other day (mostly just for perishables like bread, veggies & dairy products), and the great advantage is that the limited storage space forces you to use up what you have before… Read more »

Erin
Erin
9 years ago

The expiration date tip is a good one. So many food items can be used well beyond their expiration date. I don’t go out of my way to buy expired food, but I don’t throw it out of my pantry, that’s for sure.

Kim
Kim
9 years ago

Another interesting thing to note… if your fridge is more bare, I’ve heard that it will cost more to keep it at the desired temperature.

A way to avoid this is to fill up your fridge or freezer with old milk jugs filled with water. They occupy the volume (less open air to chill in the first place) and once the door is closed, they are already cold/frozen and help cool off the air around them. (It’s similar to extra ice packs in a cooler)

Becky
Becky
9 years ago

I also live in Europe and I agree with Lily. The little stores “around the corner” sometimes are 1/2 again as expensive as the supermarkets. I’d say the biggest negative against doing what JD says is the TIME spent. Going into the store takes time. Period. Is that what you want to be doing? Of course, they count on your being hungry, seeing something else you really want. One problem here is that the little stores don’t seem to have “sales” so you are always paying full retail price (or even more–sometimes the price is higher than what is printed… Read more »

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