It’s October, which means that we’re officially in the last quarter of the year. As part of one of my new year’s resolutions set all the way back in January, I’ve been putting extra focus on minimizing our food waste for the past couple months, both to save money and to be more conscious of our environmental footprint.
Of all of the challenges I’ve set myself in the kitchen so far in 2016, I’ve by far been the most successful at this one, and I hope that this becomes a permanent part of our lifestyle.
Throughout the summer, I kept a list of all the foods I threw away in order to keep myself accountable. Although I didn’t keep a list before that point, I am confident that using the tricks below helped me to cut our waste AT LEAST in half (if not much more), and we’re overall spending about $100 less a month on groceries, too!
Here are 5 ways we’ve cut our food waste drastically down:
1 – Be mindful of how much food you’re actually throwing away.
Before this year, I threw away tons and tons of food without stopping to think twice about it. After all, our budget wasn’t too tight and we had plenty of food left over after each purge, so I never thought too much about it. Then we went down to one income, and it became an absolute necessity to get as much as possible out of all of the groceries we were buying, so food waste wasn’t so much of an option anymore (or at least, it started to really hurt my soul a bit to realize that we were basically throwing dollar bills into the trash every time we chucked something we’d let go bad).
So if you’re looking for a way to save money and cut down how much food you’re wasting, just start to be conscious of it. You can start a list, like I did (I put mine on the fridge so it was easy to add to). Or you can just mentally note about how many dollars worth of food you just put in the trash (which is kind of nausea-inducing sometimes, to be honest).
2 – Figure out which foods are your biggest offenders when it comes to waste, and make a plan concerning them.
After I started keeping track of our food waste and just becoming more conscious of it overall, I noticed that some foods were frequently ending up in the trash, like brown bananas (the biggest offender), overripe fruit like nectarines and strawberries (the next biggest), lettuce (every single time it was bought), raw chicken (sometimes), and about once or twice a week, leftovers that we never ate before they went bad.
I knew that produce was a huge problem for me to use on time, so I started more consciously working a ton more of it into our meals. Then, because I knew that no matter how great my efforts, I would still end up with some produce that was on the verge, I came up with a plan for those frequent offenders:
- For the bananas, I found a beyond-easy (and delicious, and healthy) muffin recipe that takes less than 30 minutes to make (from start to totally finished and out of the oven). Because it’s so quick and requires only a blender and a muffin tin, I have left myself with no excuses when it comes to using up my brown bananas. (I have tried other banana recipes too when I had more time, but these muffins are the easiest, the tastiest, and they freeze really well). Oh, and a bonus–the muffins are gluten-free, too!
- For the other fruit, I found a few go-to simple cobbler or crisp recipes that I used several times, or I used the fruit in smoothies or on oatmeal if they weren’t too far gone yet.
- For the lettuce, I honestly just stopped buying it. While I actually quite like salad (as does my husband, Matt), I am terrible at preparing it regularly, so what usually happens is that I’ll use the lettuce for one or two meals when it’s really fresh, but then I’ll forget about it and it will be bad the next time I look at it. Because we eat a fair amount of other vegetables and fruits, I figured that cutting out lettuce and spinach wouldn’t be such a travesty.
- The raw chicken was the easiest to take care of. My new rule is that if I haven’t used up the chicken within about three or four days of buying it, I just pop it into the freezer to be brought out again at the end of the month, when our budget for food tends to be lower. Problem solved!
- As for the leftovers, the biggest key was to just not cook a new dinner every night. I used to be making meals about 6 nights out of 7, and it just proved too much for us to handle. Now I cook 4-5 nights a week and we eat the leftovers the other nights, and having those planned leftover nights has drastically cut down on the amount of leftover meals we’ve had to chuck in the garbage.
3 – Keep a few important staples on hand to ensure that you’ll always have enough material to make a meal from.
Several times over the past three months, I’ve had a bit of leftover rice or half of a bunch of herbs or just a few spoonfuls of vegetables that weren’t eaten the night before, and rather than just scrape them into the garbage, I’ve put them back into the fridge and counted on using them in the next night’s dinner (or for breakfast!).
Basically, as long as I had a few staples on hand (like eggs, chicken broth, tortillas, etc.), I knew that I could scare up a meal with almost anything. Leftover cooked vegetables go great in a simple omelette or added to soup of almost any kind; rice can be added to many casseroles or enchilada/taco recipes as well as to most soups; olive oil can be added to the bottoms of dressings to create a subtler dressing that can be mixed with greens or other vegetables or just added on top of a piece of chicken before it’s grilled; herbs (including the stems) can be used to make simple pesto and sauces or put as a final ingredient on top of almost any salad or pasta. In other words, it’s important to always keep some staples on hand so that you’ll have something to mix your remnants with.
4 – Go grocery shopping less often.
I used to go to the grocery store 2 or 3 times a week (or make Matt make an “emergency stop” on his way home from work) if I was short an ingredient for a recipe I really wanted to make.
Now, I try hard to keep my grocery trip to just once a week no matter what, and if I’m out of an ingredient, I either do without it in the recipe, see if I can make a substitution, or make something else. Honestly? 80% of the time, the recipe is fine without it or with a substitution.
Before I started my 100 Hours in the Kitchen project, I wouldn’t have been comfortable making those kinds of substitutions, but now, after having spent the whole year working on making up recipes or modifying existing recipes, I’ve finally come to see that cooking outside of the (recipe) box isn’t so hard after all.
5 – Don’t pack your fridge too full.
One important component of keeping our food waste down was just to purchase less of it, period. Before, our fridge would often be so full that I couldn’t even see what was in the back of it, much less try to get a grasp of what I needed to use up quickly before it went bad.
Now, I only buy around $50 worth of groceries a week (instead of the $75-100 I was doing before), so our fridge is a lot emptier, which makes everything much easier to see and to access. At least a couple of times a week (often when I’m trying to get a handle on what I’ll make for dinner), I’ll do a fridge and freezer sweep to see what needs to be used up soon. (I’ve also set an unofficial goal that for 90% of our meals now, I need to be using up something that’s about to spoil or that needs to be used up quickly for whatever reason.) Because it’s always on my mind, most food doesn’t stand much of a chance of spoiling because I’m constantly looking at it and thinking of how I’ll use it.
Do I still waste some food?
Occasionally, I’ll make a real dud of a dinner while I’ve tried to use up a bunch of stuff, and I just know that we won’t touch the leftovers, so I’ll be forced to cut my losses and just chuck it out. Also, Raven can be really hit or miss when it comes to her appetite or her willingness to try new things, so much of the wasted food comes from her (although if there’s enough of it and it hasn’t been totally mangled from her trying to play with it, I’ll often still save it and try again at a different meal).
BUT WE ARE SO MUCH BETTER THAN WE USED TO BE.
In fact–brag moment coming–this whole summer, we only wasted about $20 worth of food, when over that same amount of time before, it probably would have been more like $60-70, at least, especially with all the meat that often went to waste.
What have you been doing lately to cut down on your food waste or keep your grocery budget in check?
Cooking Economically: Cutting Down on Food Waste (consider this post “Part One” and the current post “Part Two”)
Cooking Economically: Making Your Own (Foolproof) Broth (great for using up almost any old vegetables)
4 Ways to Use Zucchini (could also substitute squash)