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5 Simple Strategies for Reducing Food Waste (And Saving Money!)

by Meagan Francis on January 30, 2014

This post originally appeared on TheKitchenHour.com about a year ago, which means some of you might have missed it over here! Since the cold weather has driven me in my kitchen even more than usual lately, I thought I’d dust it off and re-publish today. 

shopping, save money, grocery store

In my last post in this series, I wrote about how many popular grocery-store-saving strategies just don’t work for me. Couponing, bulk-shopping, freezer-meal-cooking…they’re all solid methods for some, but don’t fit my personality, circumstances, or organizing style.

In fact, those strategies can have quite unintended consequences for me! Many times I’ve found myself buying a product I never otherwise would, just to use a coupon. More than once I’ve cooked a huge batch of some casserole or other, only to toss half of it out when nobody seems interested in the leftovers.

So many grocery saving strategies seem to revolve around getting as much food as you can for as little money as possible. But cost-per-ounce is only part of the equation. I’ve come to realize that what we do with food at home is just as important as how much of it we’re able to get for $100.

After all, I could spend hours shopping sales and carefully cutting coupons, but if my meal plan is bloated and leads to throwing food away, I’ve wasted my time in addition to food and money.

Based on a lot of trial and error, I’ve come up with a formula for reducing food waste that works for us:

Shop More Often + Buy Less Food + Make Simple Meals + Plan Great Leftovers + Shop The Pantry = Save Money, Time, And Food.

simple-tips-for-reducing-food-waste (1)

1. Shop More Often

I’ve experimented with every-other-week shopping, but I find that my “stock up” mindset seems to take over in those circumstances and I wind up with way too much food. I can sometimes stretch the time between store trips to 9-10 days, and the challenge of having to use items from the freezer and pantry can be a good exercise in resourcefulness, but I also operate best on a routine and find that setting aside a certain day of the week for shopping usually works best.

2. Buy Less Food.

Since I’m easily overwhelmed and distracted, loading up my shelves with tons of food at once is a sure path to waste. A well-stocked pantry is one thing, but a crisper drawer loaded with wilting produce and shelves so crammed with condiments and cheeses that you can’t find your way to the leftover chicken just leads to food going bad.

There are a few foods I will stock up on sale (meat, because I can freeze it; bread, because it will always get used) but one of my most effective money-saving strategies has been to simply buy less food at each shopping trip.

3. Make Simple Meals Your Family Loves.

Rest assured that I’m not talking about a steady diet of chicken nuggets or mac and cheese, here (though I’m definitely not above having a couple blue boxes on hand at all times.)

But I’ve found that there are certain dishes – beef stew, spaghetti, black bean tacos, roast chicken, baked salmon – that always disappear at my house, and that focusing my efforts on making them as nutritious and tasty as possible just makes more sense than taking a gamble on more exotic recipes most of the time.

That’s not to say I never experiment or that all of my meals pander to kid-pickiness; just that it’s a lot more satisfying and cost-effective to set down a dish that everybody can’t wait to dig into, than one that mostly gets pushed around on the plate (and later winds up the trash.)

4. Plan Great Leftovers.

One of my biggest meal-planning mistakes used to be shopping for too many main dishes without creating a real plan for leftovers. So even if everyone loved the stew, the next day it would get bumped from memory by a roast chicken, and then we’d have two containers of leftovers to deal with.

Now I try to put gap days between big meals, and treat leftover ingredients as being worthy of attention rather than an afterthought I’m trying to pass off on repeat. I’ll often plan new sides and veggies to accompany the main dishes that didn’t get finished, or come up with whole new meals (soups, stews, etc) to utilize leftover ingredients.

For example, last night we had baked salmon with smashed potatoes and broccoli; tonight we’ll finish off the salmon over brown rice mixed up with what’s left of the broccoli. There’s something about the psychology of getting a “new” meal (albeit one made with ‘old’ ingredients) that just seems to make everyone happier about eating it.

5. “Shop” The Pantry and Freezer.

Buying less food at once can take a bit of adjustment – I definitely went through a phase where I felt like there was nothing in the house to eat.

But I realized that having fewer perishables in the fridge forced me to get more resourceful and use what I do have in the freezer or pantry – and trust me, it’s usually plenty. It can also work to shake the kids out of always reaching for the “easy” food (another sandwich, etc) and get them thinking creatively about how to turn basic ingredients into food!

These tips may not be mind-blowing, but I think sometimes the simplest strategies for saving money in the kitchen can also seem like the most intuitive. Our culture has definitely adopted a “more is always better” mentality, and it’s easy to let that muddy up the way you shop and plan meals. As far as I’m concerned? Less is more, and the simplest path is often the most direct route to getting dinner on the table.

Is food waste an issue in your house? Do you have waste-reducing strategies of your own? Please share in the comments!

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

nopinkhere January 22, 2013 at 2:17 pm

I need to work on number 4. Leftovers are just leftovers at my house, and definitely not cause for rejoicing.

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meagan January 31, 2013 at 5:36 pm

Yeah, it’s hard to get kids excited about leftovers unless you completely disguise them, but I’ve found it’s worth it because otherwise they just rot. And sometimes, when it’s a good cut of meat or something, it’s VERY VERY SAD to let it go to waste. :)

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Daiyel January 24, 2013 at 8:07 pm

Are we related or what? Easily overwhelmed & distracted. Love your game plan in the kitchen.I don’t do all that other stuff either,coupons,freezer meals. So nice to meet someone else who doesn’t either!

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meagan January 31, 2013 at 5:36 pm

nice to know I’m not alone, Daiyel! Thanks for the comment.

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Mothering From Scratch January 24, 2013 at 8:18 pm

{Kathy} Thank you for this! I am a big cook….meaning I like to cook big. With one child out of the nest and three left, I find myself still cooking too big. All of the ways you’ve mentioned of changing the way you shop and eat are really quite European. That was one of the biggest takeaways that I got as an American mom is that we just do everything too big.
If all we could take home from the grocery store was what we were willing to walk home carrying and shopped every other day for 10 minutes, we would notice quite a few things….I did this for 2 weeks on my own and when I returned it gave me a new appreciation for cooking and shopping for food.

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meagan January 31, 2013 at 5:35 pm

Oh, I like the sound of that – I’m so very European! :) Yes, we Americans like to do everything big – we fill our big cars with a ton of groceries to take home to our big refrigerators, LOL! I actually think it would be awesome to live close enough to a market that I could do my shopping every couple of days. Part of me thinks “who has the time?” but then I suppose when it’s an expected, routine, important part of your day, you MAKE the time. Great comment!

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Raynel January 27, 2013 at 9:25 am

I love these tips! Since I started listening to your podcast, I’ve been working to buy less and focus on using random things that have been stuffed away in my freezer and pantry for a while now. Many are things I can’t even remember buying. It’s giving me a better idea what ingredients I always need to have (for our go-to recipes), and what we don’t actually use. I also think for those of us who grew up in homes where the fridge was always packed, it’s a mental adjustment to get used to seeing a half-empty fridge. But I’m realizing that even with less food, if everything was bought with intention and I know what’s in there, there are actually MORE possible meals than I used to have.

Thanks for the blog and the podcast! You keep me company for lots of veggie chopping and dish-washing (though there are always way more dirty dishes than podcast.. how does that keep happening?)

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meagan January 31, 2013 at 5:34 pm

Raynel, I couldn’t believe how much difference it made when I could actually SEE into my fridge and knew what was there! I couldn’t hide from that lettuce rotting in the back anymore :) And I think you’re so right that sometimes it’s a mental block based on what we’re used to or what we grew up with. I’m so glad you’re enjoying the podcast!

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Melanie February 24, 2013 at 7:07 am

That’s so true! I no longer panic when I can see the back wall of the fridge. It makes my husband nervous though… even though he used to complain about stuff spoiling in the back of the fridge.

Thanks for this post Meagan, I love listening to the Kitchen Hour, you make me realize that I’m not alone. The great thing about shopping more often is that the food is fresher – especially fruits and veg.

I am still taking the comment that one of your guests made a few podcasts ago, that whatever you have to chuck out was the most expensive thing you bought…

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Kelly February 2, 2013 at 11:35 am

These ARE great tips! Right now I feel like we have so much food in the house, but yet there is nothing to eat. I’ve got to put some of these tips into action :)

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meagan February 12, 2013 at 8:44 pm

Yep, classic problem – tons of food, nothing to eat!

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Evelyn Moses February 3, 2013 at 6:43 pm

I always plan leftovers as well. I will use leftover spaghetti and make spaghetti pie. I use cooked ham and make a ham casserole or ham soup. Frittata’s are great too. We are very picky about our leftovers and somethings just will not be eaten as leftovers; shrimp or fish. I find if I meal plan I need less groceries too. I shop often for fresh produce, but have a good amount of frozen meat on hand.
Thanks for your tips.

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meagan February 12, 2013 at 8:43 pm

Would love to hear how you make your spaghetti pie!

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Melanie February 24, 2013 at 7:10 am

You can also use up extra spaghetti by chopping it up into soup, or using it in a stir fry with some fresh veggies and egg in the wok or frying pan – super quick and easy lunch…

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Lindsey January 31, 2014 at 1:36 pm

We have a spaghetti pie recipe we love:

You need enough cooked spaghetti to create 2 layers in whatever pan (13×6 etc) you’re using. Melt 2 Tb of butter, add an egg and some garlic. Mix that together and add to your spaghetti, then layer half the spaghetti on the bottom of your pan. Add a layer of sour cream, then a layer of spaghetti sauce, then a layer of shredded mozzarella cheese. Next layer is spaghetti, spaghetti sauce, then top it with mozzarella and Parmesan cheese. Bake at 350 for 20 or so minutes.

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Joy @ Joyfully Green February 4, 2013 at 1:43 pm

These tips are so simple yet so smart. We just redid our kitchen and got a smaller fridge, which has led to us buying less food (or else struggling mightily to fit it all in the fridge, which is NO FUN and requires a highly developed sense of spatial relations). This has just given me an idea for a post at my own blog, so thank you–I will credit you for the inspiration and will link back to this post once it’s written and published!

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Joy @ Joyfully Green February 6, 2013 at 1:30 pm

Hi Meagan,
As promised, here’s the link to the post that credits you and this article for inspiration.
http://www.joyfullygreen.com/2013/02/instantly-greener-buy-food-mindfully.html
Thanks again for the wise advice!

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Melanie February 24, 2013 at 7:14 am

Thanks for the link. I really liked the inspired post. How is the challenge (no buying packaged foods) going?

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Tragic Sandwich January 30, 2014 at 4:47 pm

We tend to do a lot of one-dish meals, which means that leftovers really are just leftovers–but that just requires us to pay attention to how much we’re making in the first place.

I’ve discovered that I get really stressed out by a full refrigerator and freezer. I don’t feel secure because I have so much food; I feel pressure to eat all of it! So I’m trying to find the right pace for batch cooking.

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Sarah @ Beauty School Dropout January 30, 2014 at 5:49 pm

I love being able to turn leftovers into a different meal — it makes me feel so clever! I’ve noticed our “freezer stock” has been building up a bit too much lately, so I’m going to try to plan a use-it-up week for our meal plan next week. I’m much more likely to forget about & waste food by forgetting it in the freezer until it’s freezer-burned beyond recognition than having too many fresh ingredients.

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Heather B January 31, 2014 at 9:17 am

Meagan, thank you for this post. I really relate to feeling overwhelmed by the amount of food in the refrigerator and pantry. I always feel like the focus of my grocery shopping trips (1x per week) is to “stock up” and get as much as I can for our money but somehow we never seem to be able to find anything to eat after just having spent a lot of money. There are some weeks that I will do a full weekly shopping, yet I can’t seem to manage to put together a meal for each night of the week. I love your suggestion about focusing on the meals that you know your family will enjoy. I am so guilty of reading cooking magazines and wanting to try all kinds of new recipes, but my husband and 2 kids always seem to enjoy the basic meals that they love best. Your post has inspired me to try and hit the store twice per week and focus on fresh ingredients for our favorite meals. I can’t wait to see if it helps with our grocery costs!

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Amber Kristine January 31, 2014 at 7:41 pm

I’ve always shopped every two weeks or monthly and end up throwing so much away! Even worse – we end up low on food at the end of the month since I wasted money on food that got tossed out. This is a great list of tips and we’ll definitely be utilizing them. Thanks!

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susie February 7, 2014 at 7:33 pm

I go to the store a lot and don’t coupon either… I don’t think I end up spending more though and I like going to the store!

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