How to Save Money On Food By Wasting Less

How to save money on food
Food waste contributes massively to carbon flux

The brutal truth of food waste is this.

Your home probably spends $1,000 a year on edible food that is never eaten. In the US the average is $900 a year, in the UK it’s £700 and in Australia it’s over $1,000!

We don’t waste food on purpose, but somehow between the demands of our busy lives and being bombarded with food on sale we’ve got in the habit of wasting a colossal amount of food.

On this page I’m going to share 5 simple habits that have helped our family save food and money.  This isn’t some program you need to follow step by step.  If you think one of the steps might work for you, start with that one!

Habit 1: Weigh Your Waste

Even households that think they don’t waste food tend to actually waste a lot of food. In the UK, there’s a great organization called rap that does work on food waste. A couple of years ago, they did a massive study checking out how we waste food. One finding from the study was that even households that thought they wasted no food were actually wasting two kilos of edible food per week. That finding points to one simple reality: until you weigh your food waste, you just don’t know how much you’re wasting.

I tried a couple of different systems for weighing my food waste while researching and testing this project. One of them involved writing a daily diary for everything that I was wasting. The second involved weighing every scrap of food waste I created throughout the week. For both of those systems, I was only able to keep it up for about a week. Between working and taking care of kids, blogging, and the rest of life, it was just too time-consuming. So I settled on something much simpler. In our house, we put every bit of edible food waste in one bin. Then, on Sunday night, we weigh our bin.

It’s a little 12 liter pop top bin and it has a little silly sign on top that says “eat me” just to remind me what type of foods going in there. We’ve got another sign in red on our normal bin to make sure that we don’t put edible food in our normal waste. The great thing about having all your food waste in one bin is that it’s a really visual trigger to take the initiative and reduce your food waste. When you go to where your food waste once a week, it’s really simple you just pull it out, chuck it on your scales and then you have a little rummage to see what it is you’ve been wasting the first three weeks.

We weighed our food waste in our home and found that it was 2.7 kilos. However, after making some changes, we managed to reduce it to 1.3 kilos. However, it has since gone back up to 1.6 kilos. Still, we try to keep it below one kilo most weeks. If you track your food waste for three weeks, it will definitely change the way you think about the food you waste.

The food you want to weigh is anything that was edible when you purchased it. Exclude things like cores, peel, skins and bone, and liquids if it’s too messy.  It doesn’t matter if you use pounds, kilograms, ounces . . .  just weigh it and keep a record! Remember that you can also use biodegradable trash bags made from non-petroleum sources as another way to avoid emitting carbon.

Habit 2: Plan Your Perishables

Buying food that you don’t need is a big source of food waste. But it’s much more important for some foods than others. Once you’ve started wearing your food waste, a good second habit to get into is planning your perishables. Fifty-five percent of food waste in the UK occurs because the food isn’t used in time. That means it’s either perceived to be out of date, it looks bad, it smells bad, or it’s gone moldy. When you look closely at food waste that occurs because it isn’t used in time, it’s dominated by five types of food, and they’re all perishables. In particular, we’re talking about bread, fruit, vegetables, meat, and dairy. The general advice for solving the problem of buying food that you don’t need is to check what you have, make a list, and then take that list with you shopping.

If you’re going to use that advice, it makes sense to focus your energy on the stuff that’s going to perish. So, if you’re buying meat or dairy or fruit, you want to have a good idea of how much you’ll use that week or if you’ll freeze it. One of the hard things with this advice is that the gap between knowing what you should do and doing it is a really big problem in our house. The thing that’s made the biggest difference for us is doing one big shop on the internet every two weeks. I think the reason this works for us is the fact that we can be trolling through the fridge and the cupboards while we do the shop, so that we make sure that we don’t buy the wrong things. Whatever system you’re using in your house, the thing that you really want to do is put your energy into planning your perishables, because they’re the things that we don’t use in time.

This one is a big money saver.  Whether you use a shopping list, meal plan, smart phone app or website to plan your shop , the key is to make it as simple as possible.  Because simple sticks. Love Food Hate Waste have some great menu planning tools and tips.

Habit 3: Perfect Your Portions

One of the main causes of food waste is cooking too much food and not using it in time. This is an easy problem to fix by portioning out the food you cook. Some of the most wasted foods are breakfast cereals, pasta, rice, potatoes, drinks, and ready meals. To avoid wasting these foods, cook only the amount you need. By being mindful of your portion size, you can make a big dent in your food waste and save money.

It’s important to get your portions right. There are two obvious ways to start tackling this problem: you can cook smaller portions or prepare smaller portions and see how you go, or you can make an effort to measure them. We started weighing our portions about six months ago, and since then our plate waste has dropped to nothing. One thing that’s really important is to have your measuring device – in our case, a simple scale – really close to where you’re cooking. This way, you can grab the ingredients, weigh them, and chuck them in the bowl without having to go far.

If it’s just so fast and easy to make smaller portions or measure your food before you cook, it’s really important because people can get used to the portions they need as a family. We know that we want tuna, grams of pasta, or 150 grams of rice when we cook. When you start weighing your food, you realize very quickly if you’re generating a lot of plate waste. So, preparing smaller portions or measuring your portions before you cook them is going to pay you some real benefits.

Although this solution is incredibly simple, you may be surprised by how effective it is.  Getting better control of portion sizes also extends to buying pre-prepared meals.  Buying overly large portions that you fail to finish can be a big source of unnecessary cost in the weekly food bill.

Habit 4: Shuffle Your Storage

When you stack a supermarket shelf, you put the new food at the back and bring the old food forward, that can work for you at home. The fourth habit in this project is about shuffling your storage and that’s about making better use of the food that you’ve got once you’ve got it in your home. This idea applies to your cupboards and your bread box and your fruit bowl, but it really at its best in your fridge because that’s one of the places where a lot of perishable foods gets left and then eventually thrown out without being eaten. This is our fridge. It used to be the right size when there was two of us, but now there’s four of us, it’s a little bit dinky.

Back in the day, our fridge used to look like this: milk and juice in the side, vegetables at the bottom, some meal stuff, yogurts and cheese, and then some sources off the top. Now, after a five-minute reshuffle, it looks like this: The same food is now arranged in a way that will help us use it more efficiently. The milk and juice have been moved to the bottom, where they can be easily accessed. The vegetables are now at the top, where they will be more visible and less likely to go bad. The meal stuff is in the middle, where it can be easily seen and grabbed. And the yogurts and cheese are at the top, where they will be most visible and easy to grab.

I’ve made sure that everything that needs to be eaten in the next two days is on the top shelf of my fridge. Opening the fridge door is the trigger to move something around your fridge, and I try to get anything that needs to be eaten on to the top shelf so it’s right in my face.

If you combine shuffling your storage with being a bit more savvy about your use by date and then being clever with how you store your food like stopping air getting to bread or wrapping up foods that need it, you can dramatically cut down on your food waste.

Even if you plan your perishables well, you’ll still have bits and pieces of food at risk of not being used on time.  Shuffling the food in your fridge, fruit bowl, bread tin and cupboards creates a useful reminder of what you need to use up.

Habit 5: Dedicate Your Day

The fifth and final habit in this project is my favorite – bike country mile. It’s not really about food waste, just about better food. I call it dedicating a day, and it’s about taking one day in the week where you have a bit of time to make a meal out of all the food that you have that looks like it’s going to go out of date or needs eating.

Right now, we have a lot of leftover vegetables because we grew them in the greenhouse and it’s the end of the season. We have a big courgette, five tomatoes, some beans, an aubergine, and five overgrown leeks. I’m not very creative with cooking, so I just search for recipes online. I found this website called Food52 a month ago and I use it all the time. I just go to their main page, click on “two recipes”, and then search for recipes. I’m going to go with eggplants because I don’t know what to do with eggplant aubergine.

I found a recipe for eggplant parmesan, but I decided to make something with polenta instead. I found a recipe for eggplant and tomato curry and it looked good, so I decided to make that. I literally just grabbed all the ingredients, put on some music, and started cooking. 29 minutes later, I had a fabulous meal! We had the beans, the eggplant curry, some rice, the world’s biggest fried zucchini with garlic, some pop at arms, mango chutney, and pickle. I made the bread into some garlic bread. The best thing about this meal is that I’ve never eaten this before and that’s only because I was trying to use up some leftovers.

So here we go. And it’s amazing. It’s basically just eggplants the old tomatoes had a bunch of spices and that’s it. And I’ve never even that before. If you are going to dedicate a day leading up your scraps and making creative meal, so I highly recommend you do it. You may get the weekend or on a weeknight when you’ve got some time because the one thing it is going to cost you is a bit of time and a bit of thought. So if you’re rushing on a weeknight, Monday night or something would work. Just don’t do it then. It’s to upcycling your food scraps.

Dedicating one day a week to use up food is brilliant fun!  Because food that is going to waste soon is often quite random this habit provides never-ending variety.  Check out Food52 if you need some inspiration.

Lindsay Wilson
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I founded Shrink That Footprint in November 2012, after a long period of research. For many years I have calculated, studied and worked with carbon footprints, and Shrink That Footprint is that interest come to life.

I have an Economics degree from UCL, have previously worked as an energy efficiency analyst at BNEF and continue to work as a strategy consultant at Maneas.  I have consulted to numerous clients in energy and finance, as well as the World Economic Forum.

When I’m not crunching carbon footprints you’ll often find me helping my two year old son tend to the tomatoes, salad and peppers growing in our upcycled greenhouse.

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