How much food do you throw away on a weekly basis? Whether it’s the leftover takeout that sat in the fridge just a little too long, or the bunch of kale that wilted before there was time to turn it into kale chips, most of us have had to regretfully throw out an item or two.
The average family wastes $600 of food each year, says registered dietician Nicole Cormier. That number actually sounds conservative when you consider that Americans threw away 36.4 million tons of food waste in 2012, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. (Click to tweet this statistic.)
Wouldn’t you rather have that $600 in your pocket than in your trash can? Here are some smart strategies to help waste less food and save more money, straight from Cormier and other experts.
1. Take Inventory of Your Food
Cormier suggests making a list of what you have in your cabinets and refrigerator before you head to the grocery store or farmers market. It’s a simple task, but it will save you a bundle in wasted food so you don’t wind up with more food than you can eat before it goes bad.
I like to clean out my freezer and pantry completely every month or so, to make sure I’m using everything up before buying new or duplicate products. You might not want to go that far, but keeping an up-to-date list of what’s in the back of the cupboards or the bottom of the freezer will help you make the most of your food purchases.
2. Cook Intuitively
“The challenge is you don’t want food to go to waste,” said Cormier. “A skill to develop is to practice more intuitive cooking where you pull from what you have to create new and interesting dishes.” This tip spoke to me right away because it’s exactly how I cook! Before assuming we have nothing to eat, I always take a closer look at what I have on hand and I’m often surprised with the tasty meals I can create.
Greatist.com suggests designating one dinner each week as a “use-it-up” meal. Instead of cooking an entirely new meal, look around your cupboards and fridge for leftovers and food that might otherwise get overlooked. A few solid options: “casseroles, frittatas, soups and smoothies are all forgiving dishes, that embrace food that’s close to turning, like overripe bananas, limp asparagus or slightly wilted carrots,” chef Aaron French told Whole Living.
3. Buy Less
It sounds like a simple concept, but in the heat of the moment under those fluorescent grocery-store lights, it’s easy to go overboard. Instead, Cormier suggests just buying what you know you will use.
Depending on where you live, taking a more European approach to shopping and picking up fresh produce every few days will ensure you only buy and keep on hand what you need. Huffington Post writer Karen Cordaway calls this the Fresh Food Rule.
“Only buy as many fresh items as you and your household will eat for the next two or three days,” she advises. “Buying certain fruits in bulk can seem like a deal. If your whole family can’t eat two oranges a day to make the savings worthwhile, those vitamin C packed spheres will likely end up in the garbage can, too, throwing away food and money.”
4. Stock up on Roots
Root vegetables that is! Root vegetables — beets, carrots, turnips, sweet potatoes, yams, onions and garlic — last much longer than greens when stored properly, so it’s ok to buy extra or take advantage of bulk savings.
Roots “are best stored in a cool, dark, humid room. When storing them in the refrigerator, keep roots in a paper or plastic bag in the crisper. Storing them uncovered causes them to soften and go bad quickly,” recommends Julia Mueller on Oh My Veggies.
5. Proper Storage is Key
It’s not just root vegetables that require special care in storage. Put your greens directly in the refrigerator and they will be wilted by the end of the day. But as Cormier recommends, “store them in a bag, like a clear small trash bag, and they will last much longer.” Waxy boxes, the type you might get from a grocery store or farmer, are also great for keeping greens and vegetables from going soft in the refrigerator.
Food Republic has a great infographic that shows the proper ways to store items in the fridge for maximum efficiency.
If you do purchase too much food, don’t be afraid to freeze extra meat, bread and vegetables. If you’re lucky enough to have a vacuum sealer on hand, use it to seal your food for maximum freshness. For vegetables, simply blanch them before sealing them in the freezer bag. (If you don’t have a vacuum sealer, you can do the same with zip-closure bags and a straw.)
Your Turn: How do you keep from wasting food?
Ally Piper is a writer, designer and marketing director living on Cape Cod. She blogs about life, business and balance at allypiper.com.