Food waste: my sneaky money-waster

While making our June budget the other day, I got to thinking about the not-so-obvious ways that money tends to slip through our fingers sometimes without even bringing us anything to show for it. For example, maybe you’ve been going without trips to Starbucks to save cash, but forgetting to turn off the laundry-room light. Money’s going down the drain, but you might not notice right away, even while working hard on tightening some other area of the budget.

I recently identified a huge one for our family: food waste. I have been working on lowering my food budget since last fall, and was pretty proud of myself for shaving about $25 a week off my grocery bill while cutting way back on impulsive meals out, just by being more careful to shop sales and plan meals ahead of time. But when I did a major refrigerator purge a few weeks ago, I had to face the moldy facts: there is far too much food getting bought and not actually eaten in this house.

My Issues:

1) Denial. I grew up in a home where wasting food was anathema, and watching food get tossed in the trash brings out a deeply-rooted anxiety and repulsion in me. So I’d lie to myself. I let the kids put those half-full plates back in the fridge “for later,” and much much later, would find myself tossing the food after all. It no longer feels like waste now, because hello! It’s fuzzy. Isn’t it funny how we justify things to ourselves?

2) Too much food. I spend a lot of time in the produce and dairy section at the grocery store, trying to stock up on plenty of fresh, unprocessed foods. But too much food leads to fridge chaos, and having a big refrigerator doesn’t seem to help. If anything, lots of space seems to act as a vacuum, inviting me and everyone else to fill the fridge with leftovers (while shoving yesterday’s leftovers to the far recesses) and stack up packages of meat and bags of produce until I can’t even remember what’s in there, much less find it in a hurry. If it were just me using the refrigerator, I would have an easier time keeping it organized, but there are seven sets of hands reaching into it all day long, rearranging, putting things back in the wrong spot…

Yes, buying a lot of veggies seems like a “good mom” thing to do. In truth, though, the kids would be more likely to eat green stuff if there was less of it, attractively arranged in a place they can get to it easily, and without as much other stuff to get in front (or on top) of it. Case in point: I keep apples in a bowl on the table, and they go so fast I have to hide some and ration them out through the week.

3) Languishing leftovers. I’ve never been great about serving up leftovers, and have generally left it to chance, as in “There’s a chance somebody might eat this tomorrow…” But I have found that the chances anyone in my family will eat those leftovers without a little direction from me is roughly .0001%.

My Solutions:

  • Portion management. I often find that it’s hard to predict how much my kids will eat at a meal. Last month they loved that barbecue chicken, now they’re all barely picking at the exact same recipe. Putting too much on their plates can be overwhelming for little ones and makes it harder to reserve uneaten food for leftovers later, so I’m starting off with much smaller portions and then encouraging seconds or thirds.
  • Leftover planning. My meal plans haven’t included enough opportunities to use up leftovers, so I’m starting to set aside more dinners, lunches, and even breakfasts for leftover-elimination. Since nobody in my family is that crazy about eating last night’s dinner again it helps to come up with ways to use the leftover food creatively. For example, what could that little bit of chicken become…how about burritos? A pork chop? Pork-fried rice. A small bit of leftover spaghetti can be one person’s lunch.
  • Restrictions on snacking. I’m all about healthy snacks, but even an apple eaten too close to dinner can often account for portion confusion. This is especially becoming a problem with my teen and preteen, who seem to be starving all the time and will beg for what seems to me like a meal, just half an hour before the actual meal is to be served. I’m thinking a more immediate after-school snack and perhaps an earlier dinner time might help with that.
  • Smaller, more frequent shopping trips. I know, this goes against the common current wisdom to shop a few times a month and buy a lot of food at once. But what’s the point of buying a lot on sale if much of it ends up in the trash? I think you have to know yourself to know what will work for you, and my “out of sight, out of mind” tendencies make it a lot easier for me to manage two shorter shopping trips in a week than trying to keep the bounty of a twice-monthly shopping trip organized, especially considering there are seven people in my family helping to undo my careful work. The way I see it, buying less at once can lead to even better savings than stockpiling if I’m careful to use almost everything I buy.

I think one of the biggest secrets to happily managing your money (or your house, kids, etc) is “know yourself.” Common cash-saving advice doesn’t always work for every person or family. Maybe you’ve got a money-saving tactic that seems to run counter to common advice. Or perhaps you’ve just done the math and found out that the back porch light was – gulp – costing you a hundred bucks a year. Share it here: what is your household’s most surprising or sneaky money-waster? Any solutions for getting on top of it?

What a great discussion on “forgetting the Joneses” the other day! I am working on several follow-up posts, including a look at the nature of envy (and advice on squelching it) and getting on the same page as your spouse. In the meantime, if you’re just stumbling on this money series, check out part 1 – my five financial pitfalls – here,  part 2 – all about creating financial goals – here, and part 3 – “how much money is enough?” –  here.

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