How to Stop Wasting Food & Save on Groceries

I consider myself a savvy shopper when it comes to groceries. I’ve mastered the sale cycles at my local stores, learned to like generics over name brands and always review the price-per-unit to determine the best value. I grab the whole head of lettuce instead of the more convenient, pre-cleaned and chopped options, and look for manager markdowns on meat and fish. While these tactics keep my household food budget in check, I still find myself tossing spoiled groceries in the trash from time to time. All those savings I proudly earned are instantly wiped out as I throw away uneaten leftovers, rotten fruit and mold-covered bread. I can’t but help feel like I’m throwing away my hard-earned money!

food wasteFood waste is all too common in our country. The USDA reported that 31% of food supply went uneaten in 2010 and has likely peaked as we’ve become more economically stable in recent years. As grocery prices rise and consumers look for ways to save at check out, I wonder how many people are looking at the real problem with their food shopping habits. Overestimating grocery needs and buying on impulse lead to food waste. Something to keep in mind as you shop: the most expensive ingredient in your refrigerator and pantry is the one that you don’t use or the one you throw away! They key to mastering your household grocery budget is to eliminate such food waste.

I’ve put together a list of steps to help you do just that including how to prepare a grocery list. Plus, how to avoid buying more than you and your family will consume.

Make meal planning a priority.
Planning out your weekly meals is essential for eliminating food waste and it takes a bit of effort. You need to spend time looking over recipes to determine which ingredients you need to purchase and how much you’ll need for each meal. Always consider cooking dishes that make great leftovers. Lasagna, anyone?! If you don’t have time to put together an effective meal plan, get help using an app that does the work for you. Check out Pepperplate, a mobile app and meal planning tool that organizes your recipe collection, plans meals based on those recipes and creates shopping lists. You can download it for free and once you have built a good collection of recipes, you can make daily and weekly menus quickly.

Speak with your family about what THEY want to eat.
You can’t convince someone to eat meat loaf when they don’t like meat loaf. Trust me, I’ve tried it. Work with your family to develop a meal plan and grocery list that matches their taste buds. I know this is tricky with kids who detest anything other than macaroni and cheese, so consider introducing new foods individually. Ultimately, the more food in the house that your family enjoys, the more they’re likely to eat it and the less likely it is to end up in the trash.

Buy the convenient sliced options if it’s the only one you’ll eat.
While the whole vegetable or fruit always offers a better value over the pre-cut, pre-sliced and pre-chopped options, sometimes the latter makes your life easier and won’t lead to waste. For instance, if you need to whip up a quick breakfast for the fam before rushing off to school, chances are you aren’t going to attempt to cut up that cantaloup or pineapple. Nope, you’re going to pull out the cereal while you’re high hopes for fresh fruit ends up in the trash eventually. While prepping and chopping such produce will fix the “quick meal” factor, go with the option that works for you. Spending an extra few dollars on food that you’ll actually eat, and help you eat healthier, is Okay in my book!

Review your calendar.
In all my attempts to meal plan, those that fall flat happen when I overlook a social engagement whether it’s a dinner meeting with my Junior League organization or lunch with a friend. I always feel guilty about those fresh ingredients I left in the fridge while I’m out spending more money on food. If you have an entire family to plan for, keep a calendar of everyone’s schedule and check it before you go shopping. If it seems like things are always popping up at the last minute, you may be better off shopping every few days or stocking up on frozen ingredients so you don’t waste the fresh ones! You can freeze most foods that you don’t eat before their expiration date too.

Keep an inventory list on your pantry door.
How many times have you or a family member come home with groceries that are already sitting in the refrigerator or pantry? While non-perishable items aren’t a big worry, doubling up on fresh goods often leads to spoiled food. Either way, spending extra money on groceries you don’t need is ultimately a waste and budget buster. Take weekly inventory of the groceries you already have at home and keep a list of those items on the refrigerator and pantry door for a quick reference when meal planning and writing out a shopping list.

Pick recipes with similar ingredients.
Cut grocery spending and reduce potential food waste by picking recipes that use similar ingredients. This is especially helpful when it comes to those expensive herbs like basil or rosemary that never seemed to get used up before they go bad. If possible, grown your own vegetables, fruits and herbs so you can pick what you need, when you need it. You don’t need a big yard either. Even apartment dwellers can grow their own food using planters and containers! Check out this guide on how to grow vegetables in containers if your skeptical.

Bring it back.
Several times I bought a perishable item that expired well before the recommended sell-by date. Some these spoiled foods were meat, chicken, cottage cheese and milk. I even bought graham crackers that tasted stale upon opening the box! While the process of returning groceries seems quite tedious especially for just a few bucks, remember it’s your money and you shouldn’t pay for something you can’t consume. Make sure to hold on to grocery receipts, but do know that most grocers will give you credit without a slip in the event you tossed it.

Look past the expiration date.
The date printed on food packaging isn’t an expiration date. It’s a recommended sell-by and consume date recommended for the best taste. The USDA doesn’t even regulate expiration dates. So if you find yourself automatically throwing away food just because the date has passed, stop. While it’s easy to tell with certain foods like cheese and meats when they’ve gone bad by a quick sniff, other are less predictable or obvious. I found this guide, “77 Surprising Expiration Date,” on Real Simple helpful in determining the shelf life for common groceries.

Andrea Woroch

Andrea Woroch is a nationally-recognized consumer and money-saving expert who regularly contributes to leading national and regional news stories. She has appeared on NBC's Today Show, Dr. OZ, Good Morning America, FOX & Friends, MSNBC, CNN, ABC News with Diane Sawyer, and been quoted in New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Money Magazine, Kiplinger Personal Finance, Better Homes & Garden and many others. Andrea also enjoys writing articles for various personal finance and lifestyle websites and blogs. Andrea is passionate about sharing ideas and tips to help you live on less without having to sacrifice. She says making a few small tweaks to daily and monthly spending is all you need to do to achieve your dreams within your means. Follow Andrea on Facebook and Twitter for daily savings tips and check back for new videos, magazine stories and blog posts all about saving money!

Save for the things that matter

Without giving up the things you love

Want your family’s financial future to feel safe and secure? Download my Easy Family Budget Worksheet and take control of your family’s finances in just 10 minutes!