What do you do when the food in your fridge looks fresh, but its sell-by date has passed? If you're like nine out of 10 Americans, chances are that you'll throw it away, regardless of how fresh it may seem. In fact, according to a study by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard Law School, Americans throw out $165 billion worth of food each year.
The thing is, most of your "expired" food may be just fine. Far from being a measure of food safety, sell-by dates are a tool for retailers, designed to give them a vague idea of when food is going to be at the peak of its flavor. But food that has passed its expiration date may still be perfectly edible. Even so, millions of pounds of it are thrown out every year, making uneaten food the main contributor to America's landfills.
Doug Rauch, the former president of Trader Joe's, thinks he might have a solution to the expired food problem. Next year, he plans to open a store that will prepare fresh meals from that expired food. Located in Dorchester, Mass., the prototype of his new concept, named The Daily Table, will sell its food at a steep discount.
%VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%The concept sounds a lot like Whole Foods', whose prepared food bar makes it a popular destination for foodies looking for quick, cheap meals. The difference is that, unlike Whole Foods, The Daily Table isn't aimed at high-income shoppers. Rather, Rauch hopes to compete with high-convenience, low-cost fast food establishments like McDonald's.
Rauch is hardly the first person to come up with an innovative plan for bringing fresh, healthy meals to America's "food deserts": Among others, the USDA and Michelle Obama have been trying to tackle the problem of neighborhoods where good food is hard to find. And, for that matter, Rauch's solution is not all that different from that of food banks, which often act as clearinghouses for expired or nearly-expired food.
What makes the Daily Table's model different, however, is that it also addresses another problem: time. Rather than selling discounted ingredients to low-income families who may not have time to prepare them, his new store would sell fully-prepared meals, giving struggling breadwinners a way to cut costs -- while spending more time with their family members.
It remains to be seen if Rauch's plan will work, but for families struggling in food deserts, it could put yet another solution to the menu.
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Sure, it's tempting to buy those neatly trimmed broccoli florets, but in doing so you're throwing money down the drain.
"Those packaged fruits and veggies that are already diced, chopped or sliced are marked up 40% over their whole-food counterparts," consumer money saving expert Andrea Woroch says.
The same goes for meat and poultry. Buying ground beef already formed into hamburger patties, or chicken cubes on skewers, can cost as much as 60 percent more than buying the raw ingredients and doing the prep yourself. "Once again, you are paying for the convenience," Woroch says.
She offers a better idea: If you're too busy to start slicing and dicing after a long day of work, carve out some time over the weekend to prepare ingredients for use during the week.
An item's label on the supermarket shelf should list its price per ounce or unit price. Use that apples-to-apples comparison between brands to figure out which gives you the best value for your buck, advises Jeanette Pavini, household savings expert from Coupons.com.
Comparing unit prices will also help you to determine if those bulk buys are really a good deal after all. You might be surprised by what you discover.
Not all organic produce is created equal.
For example, don't waste money on organic fruits and vegetables with tough or inedible peels such as pineapples, papayas, mangos and avocados. "Most of the pesticides can be removed or washed away," Woroch says, citing WebMd research.
If you do opt for organic, make sure you're getting the real thing. Look for the organic seal certified by the USDA, which confirms the food is grown, harvested, and processed according to federal standards.
Labels that boast "natural," "hormone-free" or "antibiotic-free" don't necessarily assure that food meets organic standards.
And when it comes to seafood, the U.S. has no organic fish regulations, so "don't waste your money on false food claims," Woroch says.
Follow retailers and store brands on social media sites for grocery savings.
For example, if you "like" a retailer like Wal-Mart (WMT) or a brand like Ronzoni on Facebook, you can get advance notice of deals and the scoop on upcoming sale events.
Don't take a sale sign at face value, Pavini tells DailyFinance. "If a sale says five for $10, don't feel obligated to buy all five. Check the store policy: Usually you will get the same discount even if you just buy a single quantity."
If you've missed out on a store sale, don't be shy to ask your supermarket to apply the deal to a later shopping trip. "If the item you want is out of stock, have the store give you a rain check so when the items is back in stock they will honor the sale price," Pavini says.
While many fresh fruits and vegetables are available year-round, they're usually less expensive when you buy them in season. So plan your meals according to what produce is freshest. You'll pay less -- and your food will taste better, too.