October 21, 2012
Looking to save money on grocery bills and stretch your budget? Stop putting dollar bills down your garbage disposal.
That's exactly what we do when we toss out food and we toss out a lot. Americans throw away about 40 percent of the food they buy, according to a recent report by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
In a time of drought and skyrocketing food prices, that's the equivalent of $165 billion in uneaten food annually — at a cost of about $2,275 for the average American family of four.
Vegetables, fruits and cooked leftovers make up much of what we throw away.
"As a country, we're essentially tossing every other piece of food that crosses our path – that's money and precious resources down the drain," said Dana Gunders, NRDC project scientist with the food and agriculture program. "With the price of food continuing to grow, and drought jeopardizing farmers nationwide, now is the time to embrace all the tremendous untapped opportunities to get more out of our food system. We can do better."
The report gave me a stomach ache. I'm a super saver, and I'd no sooner waste hundreds of dollars worth of food than I would pay full price for, well, almost anything.
Or would I? I went on a fact-finding exploration through my fridge to find out — and ended up with egg on my face.
I uncovered withered sweet potatoes and spongy, sprouted onions. Leathery meatloaf and slimy salad. A takeout container of beige goo that looked like something from a horror movie and other unidentifiable, formerly edible, objects.
Estimated value of what I tossed in the trash? About $25. Repeat that every week for a year and you're looking at serious damage to your bottom line.
Rather than crying over spoiled milk, I decided to consult with an expert to see what I could do to cut my losses.
"Pre-planning is key," says Judy Prager, a registered dietitian and president-elect of the Connecticut Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "Keep track of what you have on hand. Be aware of expirations and use-by dates, don't over-buy, especially with fresh produce, and use up your leftovers."
In other words, "FIFO" or "first in, first out." Store your most recently purchased items in the back and use the oldest first. Shop more frequently for perishables and buy only what you can use in the next few days. Date and identify your leftovers and takeout containers.
Think twice about how you store things. I think of plastic food containers as free Tupperware. I rinse them out and reuse them. It's a green effort, but it often leads to disaster. Put a cup of spaghetti sauce in a cottage cheese container, say, and it's easy to forget what food is where.
Instead, remember the adage "out of sight, out of mind." You'll have a better shot at using leftovers if you store them in a see-through container or label them clearly, and try not to let them get pushed to the back of shelf.
To avoid duplicate purchases, check what you have on hand before you head to the store. Never buy too much of anything, unless you're certain you can use it before it goes bad — or your family gets tired of it. And monitor your purchases at warehouse clubs.
"Watch out for overbuying at big box stores," cautions Prager. "A giant container of something may look like a great buy, but if you end up throwing some of it out, you haven't saved anything."
If your family balks at eating yesterday's dinner today, or you don't have leftovers enough for a full meal, re-purpose your odds and ends.
"Put things into another format or give them a new look," says Prager. "Those small amounts of vegetables and meats can go into salads, soups, pasta dishes or stir-frys."
Freeze things for future meals. To avoid freezer burn, remove foods from original wrapping and place in airtight zipper bags. Consider investing in a vacuum food sealer. Foods will stay fresh longer and you won't end up with snow-covered items. Make things easy to identify by labeling the front-facing side of see-through containers or front of bags. Date everything and remember FIFO.
"Don't just open your freezer and drop something in," says Prager. "Older items will get pushed back and you may not find them for years."
Right. Like the pea soup, dated 10/13/10, that I uncovered from my freezer last weekend. Thawed, it smelled really funky, so out it went, another $5 down the drain.
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