Save money by throwing away less food
BY JENNIFER MOTL
Would you throw a dollar in the trash? How about $2,000? Probably not, yet that’s the worth of the food the average family of four throws out each year.
Some waste is inevitable, but there are some easy ways to eat the food and keep the cash.
As things stand, we Americans throw away about 20 pounds of food a month, according to a report by the National Resources Defense Council. That’s about 25 percent of the food we buy! Waste is up 50 percent since the 1970s, according to the report.
I may be a dietitian, but I’m as guilty as the next person of letting good food turn bad. So I’ve been researching ways to cut back on the waste—so I can use that two grand for something fun. Below are some strategies I’ve come up with.
CREATE SOME MENUS
Taking 15 minutes to plan dinner menus for the week and make a shopping list can prevent you from buying too much food, which goes to waste.
Try posting your menus on the fridge for easy access. And consider designating a day to use up leftovers, such as a Saturday-night smorgasbord.
If you don’t have any leftovers, you deserve to go out to eat!
Many leftovers can be transformed into other dishes. For example, leftover chicken or meat can be used in quesadillas. Just layer the meat between two tortillas with some cheddar and salsa, then microwave until the cheese melts.
Leftover veggies and meats also make instant additions to salads, omelets, frittatas, pasta salad, soups or macaroni and cheese. Try mincing leftover veggies and adding them to spaghetti sauce. Or keep frozen pizza dough on hand and use leftovers to top your own pizza. You also can fold leftovers into the dough to make calzones or empanadas.
Leftover tuna, salmon or other fish can be used in delicious fish cakes. Just flake the fish, add mayo and either leftover mashed potatoes or crushed whole-grain crackers and some dill. Form into balls, flatten into patties and bake 15 to 20 minutes until warm.
Odd-shaped hunks of leftover cheese can be melted into fondue, a fabulous and easy dip for leftover veggies and day-old bread.
And don’t pitch fruit that is overripe but not spoiled. Instead, throw it in a blender with milk or yogurt for a quick smoothie. Or chop and add it to your favorite whole-grain muffin mix or pancake mix. Blueberries, apples, peaches and pears taste especially good in muffins.
For a more decadent treat, melt a handful of dark chocolate chips in a microwave-safe teacup and stir in sliced bananas or other soft, ripe fruit.
EAT BEFORE YOU SHOP
If you shop hungry, you’re more vulnerable to overbuying. You may buy more foods, or foods in larger quantities than you need.
Industrial-size containers of tomato sauce may seem like a great value, especially when you’re hungry, but you can lose money if the food spoils before you use it. However, buying in bulk is smart for dry pantry staples such as dry beans, peas, brown rice, oatmeal and the like.
EXPIRATION DATES LIE
Many foods are safe to eat past the dates stamped on the packages.
“It is not a safety date,” according to the federal Food Safety and Inspection Service. “After the date passes, while not of best quality, the product should still be safe” if refrigerated.
Fresh, raw poultry and meats should be cooked within a couple days of the “sell-by” date; eggs should be cooked within five weeks. You can see a long list of foods and how long they’re safe at www.fsis.usda.gov/Fact_Sheets/Food_Product_Dating.
KEEP YOUR FOODS COOL
Another way to prevent waste is to buy a fridge thermometer. Foods last longest when kept between 34 and 40 degrees F, but your fridge’s temperature may fluctuate, especially as it ages.
Use the FIFO method (first in first out) to organize your fridge. When unloading groceries, put the new items in the back of the fridge, behind the old items.
GET RID OF CLUTTER
Declutter your fridge of scarily old condiments. All those bottles make it harder to see the fresh food.
Consider limiting yourself to the number of bottles that fit on one shelf of your refrigerator door.
REFRESH YOUR FRUIT
Many folks complain that fruit goes bad before they eat it. You can prevent this by keeping most of your fruit in the fridge.
Each morning, take two pieces of fruit per family member and put it in a pretty bowl on the kitchen table. Easy access helps people eat more fruit. Also, some fruits taste sweeter and more appetizing at room temperature.
KEEP LEFTOVERS SAFE
If you have food left after a meal, make sure it’s refrigerated within two hours of serving. This prevents bad bacteria from silently multiplying. Use shallow dishes to refrigerate foods—it helps them cool down faster.
My family eats a lot of leftovers for lunch the next day. After dinner, we divide any leftovers into single-serving glass dishes with transparent plastic lids, so it’s easy to see what’s inside. Switching from opaque plastic containers to transparent ones makes it much easier to grab-and-go on busy mornings.
Leftovers keep in the fridge for three or four days, according to federal guidelines. If you know you won’t be able to eat the leftovers quickly, try freezing single portions immediately in freezer-safe bags. Label the contents and the date with a permanent marker, and use within a few months. Reheat leftovers until steaming hot.
If you challenge yourself to plan meals and improvise with leftovers, you could save a couple thousand dollars on food.
Jennifer Motl is a registered dietitian. Formerly of Fredericksburg, she now lives in Wisconsin. She welcomes reader questions via her website, brighteating.com, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.