10 Steps to Reducing Food Waste

One of the biggest obstacles to success with money is waste—of any kind. One of the largest problem areas in many people’s budgets is buying food. Do the two intersect in your life like they do in ours?

Let’s assume you’ve trimmed going out to a minimum and for the purposes of this post, we’re dealing only with grocery shopping and spending, and more importantly—what happens after you come home.

The reality is that most people focus on the first component—getting the best deal possible on their food, which might even mean buying in bulk. But they rarely focus on the second component—making the most of what they take home, and making sure that it’s used to its full potential and doesn’t spoil.

What Used to Happen

Things in our household weren’t always peachy. We would go shopping with the best intentions, get the best deals possible and spend a fair amount of money. The fridge would be stocked with delicious morsels, ready to be cooked and eaten.

We would produce delicious dishes, maybe for a few nights. Leftovers would start to pile up. Things would start going bad. We would ignore them, and eat the freshest food instead. Things would get worse still—spoilage would start to spread.

The lettuce bag would start leaking. The onions would grow mold. The peaches would disintegrate into mush. We would eat fast food because “there was nothing good in the fridge.” Every few weeks, maybe more, we would hold a “dumping party”—cleaning out the fridge to make room for new food and feeling good that the place was fresh and clean.

Does this sound like your refrigerator?

10 Ways We Reduced Food Waste

While we’re still far from perfect, things have come a long way from the days when we were dumping out the fridge every two weeks. Here are 10 critical rules we follow to make it work:

  1. Make meal plans. At the very least, understanding how many times you’ll be cooking in a week helps to judge the volume of your grocery trip. On the more advanced end, knowing exactly what you’ll prepare helps you get only the ingredients you’ll need. We are on the lower end, and you’ll see some of the other things we do instead below.
  2. Rotate food in the fridge. We nearly always cook with the oldest food in the fridge! The fresh stuff looks delicious, but consistently using it means something’s rotting in the back.
  3. Use leftovers actively. Leftovers are no good if you keep cooking new things every night. Find a way to use them for lunch the next day, or try spacing out “leftover nights” every 3-4 days to wipe the fridge clean.
  4. Buy versatile ingredients. A chef’s best friend is an ingredient that could go in almost any dish—things like onions, peppers, tomatoes, etc. Less effective are things that are very recipe-specific or those you haven’t worked with much before.
  5. Buy long-lasting ingredients. Some things can last for months in the refrigerator (apples, for example, and sometimes onions). On the other hand, mushrooms could last as little as 3 days. We gravitate toward things that will give us flexibility in time.
  6. Buy smaller amounts more frequently. Rather than filling the fridge in one trip, we like to shop twice a week to keep things fresh, while adjusting how much we buy based on our meal plan and what’s in the fridge.
  7. Use the freezer regularly. For meats, breads, and vegetables, our freezer is our best friend. We do buy fresh whenever possible, but when a good deal comes along and we need to stock up—freezing is a better option than eating chicken all week.
  8. Don’t go out 3 nights in a row. While the days of going out to eat at restaurants regularly are gone, we still like to eat with family a lot. When the fridge goes unopened for two or three days, things could start to get hairy, so we make sure we plan ahead.
  9. Wrap in clear packaging. Sure, you know what’s in that foil wrapper today, but when you’re trying to quickly scan the fridge, will you remember then? We’ve found that things in foil get missed and go bad regularly.
  10. Share excess with friends and family. Rather than letting excess food go to waste, cook the food that will eventually go bad and share the results with family and friends. Ask them to do the same for you!

Do you have a different strategy for avoiding food waste? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Photo by stevendepolo

17 thoughts on “10 Steps to Reducing Food Waste

  1. Making a meal plan (we just plan dinners) did wonders for our food budget. And our wasted food.

    Gross picture by the way 🙂

  2. Good list of tips! Number one is so, so important!

    I actually started blogging because I was working on reducing my food waste….I took a picture of my wasted food each week and posted it on my blog to help motivate myself (public humiliation and all that).

    I opened it up to the public eventually, and now a whole crew of us participate in Food Waste Friday at my blog. 🙂

    1. I just checked out last week’s! What a neat idea, I’m subscribing right away so I can get motivated, too. 🙂

  3. Totally agreeing with “wrap in clear packaging”. As soon as I put something in opaque tupperware, it might as well be removed from the fridge.

  4. Pingback: Extreme Couponing 101 and Reducing Food Waste
  5. Why buy more when you have the fridge full of food? The psychology behind may be greed. Most Americans buy things they don’t need but they buy them because they ought to have them.

    Former President Bill Clinton once said: “If Americans saved food by not throwing them out for one day, it would feed 49 million people for the day.”

    So many blogs have been targeting the area of saving on food, using coupons and other ways of savings.

    Nobody mentions anything about not buying which you don’t need. The way I see it is it’s basically greed and Americans seem to be the greediest people on earth.

    You don’t have to fill up your fridge “to the brim.” When you know it’s gonna rot because you eat out three times a week, then you are probably the most stupid person in the nation.

    We all need to go to the basics of life which Americans are not familiar with. They were born in a nation with abundance and plenty. But nothing is limitless on earth. It has come back to haunt so many [read millions] folks resulting in bankruptcies.

    I was talking with someone and the guy said “Greed along with necessity is the mother of invention.” Americans must wake up and smell the groceries and other things in life.

    People are dying of hunger in Africa and Asia. Even in the United States, millions can eat one meal a day. They can’t afford more.

    Along with what you mentioned in your article, talk about not buying stuff when you don’t need them.

    I live in the Northeast. Whenever the weather guy says the next day will be 6 inches of snow. What the heck is a 6 inches of snow in New England. Nothing, just flurries. But the day before you see people pushing carts full of groceries as if there is going to be a nuclear attack and they would not be able to go out to buy their *stuff* (edited for language).

    Wake up America!

  6. I’m still terrible about this! Hopefully my wife and I can pull it together a little more with meal plans. We’re often so busy that we don’t get a chance to do that kind of stuff, but I definitely think it could help.

    1. We’ve opted for the “versatile” and “long-lasting” ingredients for that reason! While we have a rough idea of what we’ll cook during the week, we don’t stick to outlined meal plans.

  7. For meal planning and shopping lists try e-mealz.com. They basically create 3 page documents weekly with recipies on pages 1-2 and shopping list for the week on page 3. We’ve been using them for a month or so far so good. Wojo, if it’s inappropriate to post info on other sites here, let me know.

  8. This is a terrific list. My husband and I have been following those steps for some time now, and we’ve trimmed our food waste almost down to zero.

    One other thing that I do is put post-it notes on things that should be eaten first, so they don’t go bad. So when my husband is rummaging around in the fridge for a snack he knows what to go for first.

    1. Great idea! I had another good idea the other day to create a “danger” shelf–the oldest food in our fridge all goes on one shelf, right at eye level, so it’s used first. Same idea, different approach. 🙂

  9. Great tips, especially about using clear wrap. I guess the old saying “Out of sight, out of mind” isn´t just about people…

    We used to shop more frequently too, but then we started feeling that it was so inefficient. If every household started shopping twice a week instead of once, that would be twice the gas we consume now! Our solution at first was to combine a grocery shopping expedition with some local friends. Then we did one better, and started taking turns going to local farms and buying produce in bulk for all of our families. Thisway, we only get the portion of the veggies that we will use in a week, but we still get the bulk discounts.

    At first, it was a pain to make a bunch of phone calls to organize ourselves, but it´s become a lot easier once we started using the Internet to do the hard parts. We use a free online tool called SplitStuff ) to organize everything, and it´s been working great.

    Hope that motivates someone out there. Reducing waste and still eating fresh IS possible!


  10. It seems as though where I live, food stores are catering more towards the buying in bulk phenomena. While this can obviously be advantageous to most families, its not always practical for smaller households.
    I was raised in a family of bulk shoppers (and big eaters) and went to culinary school with the main goal of trying to figure out how I can use leftovers. I actually practice many of the ideas listed above, however, living in a small apartment with limited pantry and freezer space, I find it difficult (both economically and practically) to purchase smaller amounts of food that I can use efficiently, and have noticed that I have been wasting a surprising amount of ‘uncooked’ food items.
    For example, I have practically had to cut bread out of my diet completely. I do not have the room in my freezer to store it and it tends to get stale or moldy long before I even come close to finishing the only size loaves I can find at my local grocery store. The same goes for certain produce like lettuce and melons which are more suited for ‘family size’.
    There are a few items I have found in manageable quantities but it is clear that I am paying a lot more and taking up a lot more room for the packaging alone. Also When I do my shopping per a list, my meals may be as low as $2 per serving, but I end up with enough for 8 servings that I never get around to making, causing my one meal to cost me $16.
    So, if anyone has any suggestion as to how to better balance the meal cost and waste for a single person living in a small space, I’m sure there are many of us who would like to hear it.

    1. Phoenix, I am putting together a post about this topic which will hopefully answer some of your questions.

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