Would you like to cut your grocery bill by 25 percent without ever having to clip a coupon?
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, roughly one-quarter of all food bought in this country goes to waste. That's about 1 pound of food per person, per day, that ends up in the trash.
According to USDA figures, the typical American family of four can save approximately $1,500 a year by being smarter about food storage and portion control.
Here are my top 10 tips for reducing food waste and saving big bucks in the process:
- Think before you shop. Plan your menus in advance, make a shopping list based on those menus and stick to that list. A joint study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin and the University of California showed that more than half of all purchases made during "quick trips" to the grocery store are unplanned, impulse purchases. Simply put, overbuying is the root of food waste.
- Organize your fridge and pantry. Knowing what you have on hand — particularly when items are perishable — is the key to avoiding waste. Organize your refrigerator, freezer and pantry so that older items are front and center. Having those items in plain view will remind you to use them up before it's too late.
- "Ladder" fresh produce. In general, when you shop less frequently, you tend to spend less. But that doesn't mean you need to forego fresh fruits and vegetables. Much like you ladder your investments in terms of the maturity dates, "ladder" fresh produce to use the things that spoil the fastest (e.g., leaf lettuce and bananas) first, and save those with a longer shelf life for later (e.g., head lettuce and apples).
- Batch and freeze. Freezing perishable items before they spoil is only common sense. But cooking meals in batches and freezing them in serving-size containers will prevent waste and save you even more. When it comes to minimizing what you spend on restaurant meals and fast food, the "fastest food" is waiting for you in your freezer.
- Eat more soup and smoothies. Making a pot of soup is a great way to use up small leftover portions of meat and vegetables. Fruit that's just ready to turn makes a delicious smoothie with some yogurt and milk in the blender.
- Use your freezer. Freezing generally offers the easiest way to keep food from spoiling. It's best to blanch most vegetables in boiling water before packing them in airtight containers and placing them in the freezer. While you can freeze many dairy items, doing so may affect taste and consistency. So reserve frozen dairy products for cooking.
- Get a food dehydrator. In addition to freezing and canning, try using an inexpensive (something that costs less than $100) food dehydrator to preserve food. By removing the water in foods, dehydrators preserve the nutrients and concentrate the flavors in a wide range of foods. The dried foods can last for months, and sometimes even years, in airtight containers. The food dehydrator works with most fruits, vegetables, meats, herbs, nuts, grains and even some dairy products.
- Know about food freshness and expiration labels. According to the USDA, "use-by" dates usually indicate "best quality" and are not safety dates. So, the site advises, "even if the date expires during home storage, a product should be safe, wholesome and of good quality if handled properly and kept at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below." Go to the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service website for more info about food storage and labeling.
- Follow the Layovers Pledge. At our house, we have "layovers," not "leftovers," because we've vowed to eat any remainders from each meal within 24 hours after the meal (unless we freeze the rest, of course). Dinner leftovers become lunch — or sometimes breakfast — the next day. We're fond of having "hors de-yester-jour" with a glass of wine in the evening as an enjoyable way of using up food that might otherwise go to waste.
- Be smart at restaurants. Last but not least, much of the food that gets thrown away in America is food left over from meals bought in restaurants. So keeping that in mind, try ordering smaller, less expensive appetizers instead of entrées, or split larger entrées. And remember, doggie bags are the new Gucci bags in this economy.
Jeff Yeager is the author of The Ultimate Cheapskate’s Road Map to True Riches. His Web site is www.UltimateCheapskate.com.