16 Simple Ways to Stop Wasting Food and Slice Your Grocery Budget

Brown grocery bags break as food covers a set of stairs in the pouring rain.
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Have you ever gone to the grocery store, armed with coupons and sale flyers, and maxed out your savings potential with each bag of rice, head of broccoli and soda six-pack you drop in your cart?

It feels so satisfying, saving all that money.

But then you get home, shove the rice bags in the pantry on top of the rice bags you already had and put the fresh veggies in the fridge, only to remember them when the unmistakable stench of rotting broccoli greets you a week later.

Yeah, us too.

Food waste is no small problem. In the U.S, an estimated 30% to 40% of food is thrown away.

Here’s how to reduce food waste to make the most of your grocery spending and save money.

How Bad Is the Food Waste Problem?

Food waste happens in such little bits here and there that people don’t even realize they’re doing it, according to Dana Gunders, a former senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council and author of “Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook: A Guide to Eating Well and Saving Money By Wasting Less Food.”

“Consumers waste more food, collectively, than restaurants or grocery stores,” Gunders said. “And the average household of four spends about $1,800 on food they never eat.”

Add it all up, and a whopping one-third of all food grown for human consumption is lost or wasted.

“Growing food and getting it to our tables is a huge investment in resources,” Gunders said. “When you throw out one hamburger, it’s like taking a 90-minute shower in terms of the water it took to produce that hamburger.”

Now imagine how much money and food we could all save if we bought only the food we’d actually eat.

Here’s how to stop throwing away food, and with it, a whole lot of money.

16 Tips for Reducing Food Waste

There’s a lot we can’t control, but there’s a great deal we can control about our kitchens, plates and trash cans. Consider some of these tips for how to reduce food waste at home.

1. Make a Grocery List and Stick to It

Overbuying leads to food waste. Planning your meals for the week, making a list and sticking to it can prevent impulse buys and limit the vegetable carcasses not even good intentions could revive.

Gunders suggests thinking double duty. If you need fresh cilantro for a meal, plan a second meal that will use it too. Then you won’t end up with half the sprigs in your package wilted and headed for the trash.

Doing your grocery shopping online can help you stick to a list and avoid impulse purchases that go to waste. A free site called Rakuten will even pay you to skip going to the store and shop online instead. They work with just about every online store you probably shop at, and they can make sure you get some cash back every time you buy — up to 15% cash back.

A woman and son shop in the frozen food isle at the grocery store. It is recommended to try purchasing frozen foods instead of fresh if you want to eliminate food waste.
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2. Buy Frozen Instead of Fresh

The bright, beautiful colors of fresh fruits and veggies tempt me every week. Then I remember how quickly fresh produce can spoil.

Now, I’ve turned to stocking my freezer with produce. I call this the Too Many Avocados Left Behind Act. I don’t freeze avocados, but I do buy most fruits and veggies frozen now. I can thaw them in a flash and count on having an assortment of ingredients on a whim.

Consumers waste more food, collectively, than restaurants or grocery stores.

3. Plan for Surprises

It’s so easy to get tempted by the events of the week, such as an unscheduled lunch or a surprise happy hour. Planned meals get abandoned as you nosh on a spontaneous (and unbudgeted) meal out.

But if you plan your meals and buy fresh ingredients at the beginning of the week, you could end up tossing unused ingredients that go unused.

By including at least one frozen dinner in your schedule, you can accept a last-minute invitation and save that entree for next week.

An app called Upside can help you save money every time you dine out or buy groceries. They keep it simple: Spend money at a participating grocery store or restaurant and earn cashback.

4. Rethink Expiration Dates

Sell-by, use-by and expiration dates all mean different things. Most often, the dates serve as a freshness, quality or display indicator, not a marker for when the food will actually go bad.

Many people throw out perfectly good food because of date stamps. Use common sense, and recognize that just because a sell-by date has passed does not mean food needs to be immediately trashed.

5. Use Your Freezer

You can extend the life of your meats, bread and vegetables by freezing them.

Gunders said almost anything can be frozen: Milk, shredded cheese, sliced bread and even raw eggs (out of the shell) can go in the freezer.

It’ll all be there when you’re ready, so it will save money and food waste. Don’t you feel better?

Pro Tip

Looking for meals that freeze well? Check out our round-up of
12 healthy meals that you can make ahead and freeze!

6. Store Items Where You Can See Them

Some produce slips into the crisper abyss. Out of sight, out of mind. Keep items where you can see them. You’re more likely to use items that you can physically see.

Additionally, learn how to store each type of produce. Some ripen faster and can speed up others nearby. Consider investing in special airtight containers that keep produce firm and fresh longer.

Pro Tip

Washing only the pieces of fruit or vegetables you plan on using right away will keep the whole bag from going bad before you get a chance to enjoy their deliciousness.

7. Clean Your Fridge and Organize Your Pantry

Expired items hide, and mold lurks on the edges you can’t quite see. Having a tidy fridge helps you see exactly what you have and inspires you to use it.

Same goes for the pantry: Keeping it tidy allows you to see what you have at a glance and prevents items from getting lost behind the castles of steel cans.

8. Try Composting

Skip the landfill, and start composting. Everything from your coffee grounds to celery ends can find their way into your bin. In turn, you can eventually use it toward your next home gardening adventure.

A person screws on the lid to a mason jar. Inside the jar are pickled vegetables.
Aileen Perilla / The Penny Hoarder

9. Learn to Preserve or Can Foods

Pickle? Preserve? Can? They’re all options gaining popularity. But these practices have been around for centuries and have helped folks survive harsh winters and economic downturns.

With a little upfront investment of time and money, you can acquire the tools necessary to preserve your excess food. This can prolong their shelf life and reduce food waste and costs.

10. Donate Extra Food

If something makes its way into your kitchen that you know your family won’t eat, donate it. Many local pantries and food banks welcome donations, but consider friends or families in your community who might appreciate a little extra food. There are restrictions and rules at some charities about what can be donated, so check before making any contributions.

11. Eat What You Have

Plan recipes around what’s been sitting around for a while or what needs to get used before it expires (aka pantry challenge). Explore the darkest recesses of your pantry before adding more supplies to the mix.

12. Mix It Up

Leftovers you’re tired of eating can be repurposed into new recipes. Some fruits and vegetables that are a little too ripe (like avocados, peaches and pears) can be baked or mashed into a baked dish. Ripe bananas make great banana bread, and soft strawberries can be added to smoothies.

Other food scraps can be used in a myriad of ways. There’s a practical use for almost any piece of food you might throw away! I’ve put coffee grounds in my soil, and a friend of mine makes corn silk tea. Save the bones and carcass of a chicken to make chicken stock or use the stems of soft herbs for a delicious pesto. Leftover potato skins can be turned into delicious chips in a matter of minutes! Or try a little home improvement by tossing citrus peels into the garbage disposal– the rough peel not only loosens build up, but also leaves behind a fresh scent!

13. Host a Potluck

I’m a picky eater, yet I love to cook. Sometimes I acquire ingredients for recipes that I don’t end up using again, or I try something and end up not liking it. So, I’ve hosted potlucks to use said ingredients. You’ll help everyone else also clean out their cabinets. Win-win.

14. Get an App

There are a few apps on the market that try to put a dent in the global food waste problem. Here are a few to consider:

  • The USDA FoodKeeper app teaches best practices of food and beverage storage to maximize quality and freshness.
  • Too Good to Go makes surplus restaurant food available for pickup before it gets thrown out.
  • Waste No Food helps food-based establishments, like farms and restaurants, donate excess food to charities and shelters.

15. Channel Bob Ross

Ever wish you could make art with your food outside of Instagram posts? Let the bright colors of your leftovers become the colors of your clothes or the paint on your canvas.

Yup, peels and ends from scraps of beets, spinach and lemons can be made into permanent fabric dye that could double as watercolor paint.

16. Life’s a Garden… Dig It!

Even the brownest thumbs can turn green. Try regrowing your food scraps, and see what happens. Put seeds in the backyard, or try sprouting them over a cup of water.

The Lesson: Waste Not, Want Not

It’s simple math: Buying less food means more money in your pocket.

It’s not going to happen overnight.

But with a few small adjustments and active intentions of how to better store, buy and cook food, you can start a ripple effect that will save time, money and food in the long run.

Stephanie Bolling is a former staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. Freelancer Michele Becker contributed to this post.