13 Simple Ways to Stop Wasting Food - and Money

Best Tips: Saving on Food

By Karla Bowsher

Thirty-one percent of the food produced each year in the U.S. goes uneaten, according to the latest estimates from the USDA. That translates to $161.6 billion per year -- or about $522 per person, per year. So to help you stop wasting hundreds of dollars in uneaten food each year, we've rounded up the best tips for fighting food waste.

1. Periodically Check Fridge and Freezer Temperatures

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 Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources recommends that freezers be set to zero degrees, noting that food deteriorates more quickly when stored at higher temperatures.

2. Reorganize the Fridge, Freezer and Pantry

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 recently commented on 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

Have you ever thought to keep onions in pantyhose? Or mushrooms in paper bags? Storing certain 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

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

At least periodically, keep a log of all food items your household throws away. You'll become more mindful of how much food you lose to the trash can, which might help you lose less. You'll also be able to spot any patterns in the types of foods you trash. That way, you will know when to buy less of a certain food.

6. Plan Meals

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.

7. Understand Use-By and Sell-By Dates

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, for example. For a detailed breakdown of all food dates, check out the USDA's "Food Product Dating" fact sheet.​

Use-by dates generally indicate when a food's peak freshness ends rather than when its spoiling starts. They're 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.

8. Read Dates on Packages

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. So if you have multiple boxes of cereal, for example, place the newest ones in the back to remind you to use up the oldest ones first. If you have multiple loaves of bread, throw the newer one in the freezer.

9. Avoid Impulse Purchases

A few examples from "20 Surefire Ways to Slam the Breaks 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 already 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, but Share

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

The farther away from you 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 a food from a foreign country, for example, its "shelf life" could be significantly shorter than that of foods that were grown in your country, state or neighborhood.

This makes 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 titled "6 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 out-of-season produce, they're probably not local.

12. Spend Less Money on Food

If you can't help yourself 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

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 it. You'll spare a landfill, where food takes longer to break down anyway, and you'll get hearty topsoil in return. Perhaps use the soil to grow your own food. You'll save money -- and your sweat equity might make you less likely to let good food go bad.

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