We talk about flushing money down the toilet, but Americans really are throwing money on curb every time they take out the garbage.
According to a report last August by the National Resources Defense Council, the average American tosses about 25 percent of food and beverages purchased. For a family of four, the money wasted could total from $1,365 to $2,275. Food spending as a percentage of the overall budget has decreased dramatically over the last few decades, but it’s still the third-largest expense for a household.
What are the best ways to cut back on food waste while saving money?
Food planning. It’s a busy world for the average family. There are school events and personal commitments to make. Making a plan in advance to cook everything you’ve bought might seem like an unnecessary restriction, but it can be freeing and often leads to less food usage.
All you need to do is write out your meals for the next week. It’s not always a fun process, but it’s hard to use up what you buy between shopping trips without some kind of organization—and a calendar is an easy way to stay on track.
Recipe selection. Choosing good recipes goes hand in hand with meal planning. If you know how much leftovers come from various meals you cook, you can better plan on how to use them.
One of my family’s staples is roasted chicken. Leftovers are usually used to make stew or soup. Monday’s sloppy joes usually become Tuesday’s goulash. Planning is about using up what you bought and reconstituting what is leftover. Finding good recipes that can stretch yesterday’s leftovers is a great way to make sure the family eats up with little complaint.
Grocery list. With your plan in hand, it’s important to think about the shopping aspect of controlling your grocery purchases. The rules of shopping aren’t the same for buying clothing and buying food. For example, buying in bulk to get the lowest-per-unit price is not always the best route. Food spoils—and it’s important to keep this in mind for your planning. Buying in bulk might give you the best unit price, but you may be spending more money overall, if you are throwing a good portion of that bulk purchase in the trash every week.
Storage. Not only is organization useful in making purchases, but it is also useful in how you store your food purchases. Money is easily wasted when we procrastinate putting bulk meat in the freezer, or items are lost in massive unorganized pantries. Work storage into your purchasing plans and put every item in its place the day you buy it. It’s also a good idea to take a look at the pantry before writing up your list. This helps minimize situations where you are buying food you already have stocked.
Food waste can impact more than just your food budget. Farming requires a great deal of water, energy and resources in order to bring food to your local grocery store. That means that waste can create demand for more resources—resources that might be cheaper to you if used less in food production. Gas would be one such resource that comes to mind.
The bottom line: A little bit of effort in minimizing waste could have big implications in reducing your budget.
JP is a writer for the money blog 20's Finances. He is an MBA and the financial officer for a nonprofit organization.