How to Reduce Food Waste and Save Money on Groceries

by Dec 9, 2018

Have you ever stood by the supermarket check-out line and wondered how you managed to spend so much on your groceries? I have.

And have you ever thrown food away because it went bad or you saw that it passed its expiration date? I have.

Food at home is the largest expenditure of an average American household, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Yet, 40 percent of food in America is wasted, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

That wasted food is not just harmful to our environment, it also drains our bank account.

This blog post shares simple changes I made that have helped me reduce my food waste and save money on groceries, while eating anything and everything I want. 

Why Consumers and Households Should Take Action on Food Waste

On average, Americans trash approximately $218 billion worth of food each year, which equates to $1,800 annually for a household of four (1)!

That is a lot of money going straight to our landfills, which in turn, pollute our environment.

In Korea, where I am originally from, households are taxed for excessive food waste due to its volume-based food waste policy. Although the tax is very low, this policy incentivizes households to reduce their food waste. If you want to learn more about this, let me know in the comments. I wrote a paper on this in grad school as part of my final project. smile

The Korean government enacted the volume-based food waste management policy. Every household receives an RFID card and must scan it before discarding of their food waste in this high-tech food waste collection bin. This photo was taken in front of my apartment in Seoul in 2016.

Food waste is regulated in some states, but it is not yet mainstream across the U.S.

Therefore, each of us can take action together to help reduce food waste and prevent further environmental degradation.

And of course, the perks of helping reduce food waste is that you will eventually spend less money on groceries.

It’s clearly a win-win situation for everyone!

And if you have time, do check out this amazing website, Save the Food, which provides very practical information on how you can spend less on groceries, reduce your food waste, and help our planet.

In the meantime, let me share with you some tips on how I was able to reduce my food waste and save money my food bill.

12 ways to reduce food waste and save money on groceries

TIPS BEFORE FOOD SHOPPING

1. Know How Much You Spend on Groceries and Set a Budget

It was not until I got married that I started to look at my grocery bills, and making healthier and frugal choices on groceries.

Healthier and frugal may sound contradicting, but I’ve come to a realization that healthier food choices are often cheaper (I will explain this further in the coming sections).

And the first thing I did was to track our household expenses, separating groceries with dining out, using a money managing app.

Once I was aware of how high and low I could spend on groceries, I was able to come up with a budget of $550 a month and tried my best to spend within that budget.

Nowadays, my husband and I spend in average about $450-$550 on groceries (this number sometimes includes household products or beauty products as I often purchase them together at the supermarket) and we cook most 90% of our meals at home, and seldom go out to eat. When we dine out more often, our monthly grocery expense will range from  we $300-$390.

According to the US Department of Agriculture’s Food Cost Plan Reports, this is not a bad number (2). I am not sure if the study took into the fact that some people live in more expensive cities (as I am one of them), but our grocery expense seems to fall within the moderate threshold.

Given that we eat all the snacks (my husband loves rice crackers and hummus) and avocados we want within this budget, I think it’s a pretty good number.

Did I mention, I also purchase mostly organic and non-GMO produce (Yes, I pay the extra for the organic strawberries)?

2. Plan Ahead Before Your Grocery Shopping

Planning ahead before your trip to the supermarket is very important.

My weekly grocery shopping plan considers the following:

  • How often will my family be going out to eat this week? Do we have upcoming travel plans?

If you have a trip coming up or you have more meetings planned, you can plan to buy less food.

  • Make a list of what you need, as well as what you already have

I make this list becaues if I don’t, I may be tempted to buy something (especially if it’s on sale), when I already have it somewhere in the fridge or pantry. 

My grocery list usually contains my must-haves, which include some greens, oatmeal, avocado, bananas, rice, beans, frozen blueberries, and bread.

Besides that, I buy based on what is fresh, local, and in season (I explain later why I buy food this way)

3. shop at different markets for your groceries 

It’s good to shop around at different markets as you will soon notice that food prices vary across different markets. You will also notice that some products are available in one supermarket, but not available in another.

I shop at Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Zion (Korean Supermarket), and the Farmer’s Market. And for each market, there are items I always purchase and never purchase.

For example, I love all kinds of mushrooms, but I never buy them at Whole Foods because they are way too pricey. Instead, I would buy them at Zion, where I know it is much cheaper for the same quality.

For fresh, seasonal, and local vegetables and fruits, I go to the Farmer’s Market.

TIPS during food shopping

4. Buy Produce That Are Local and In Season

What is all the fuss about buying local and in season?

  • Local and seasonal fruits and vegetables can be cheaper
  • Local and seasonal fruits and vegetables are richer in nutrients
  • Buying local, we help reduce the carbon footprint of the food supply chain
  • Buying local produce, we help our community by supporting local farmer
  • Buying seasonal, we help the environment by preventing the use of pesticides used to farm off-season produce

Also if you buy in season, you may try out something you would’ve never have tried before. This is another reason I love purchasing at the Farmer’s Market as they provide more variety of produce with strange names and colors.

If I didn’t think local and seasonal, I would’ve never been introduced to the delicious plumcot this summer. Now it is one of my favorite fruit! (I was never a fan of plums before that as I thought they were a bit sour for my taste).

5. be aware of the buy bundle and save deals!

Bundled deals are very tempting (I have been there). But bundle deals at groceries are only good deals if you end up eating it all. 

Sometimes my eyes are bigger than my stomach, and there were times I had to throw my food away because they ended up rotting in my fridge. frown

Moreover, those buy bundle and save deals may not be what it actually claims. Here is an example from my personal experience.

Koreans use green onions to flavor many of its soup and stews. And only a small amount is used for each dish.

There was a time when I saw 4 green onions for $5 at my local supermarket. Since I can freeze the green onions and use them later, I thought this was a great deal and bought them. The next week, I saw the same deal, and again the following week. Confused, I looked at the pricing more carefully and it said “1 for $1.25” and “4 for $5”.

This meant there was absolutely no difference in price if I bought 1 or 4. But the supermarket made it seem like a good deal by highlighting the bundled price!

So make sure to assess the “good deal” more carefully before you make the purchase.

6. Avoid Pre-Packaged and Pre-Cut Vegetables and Fruits

If you are busy, working full-time, the pre-cut produce may seem like a great option.

But know that pre-packaged vegetables and fruits are often more expensive and less nutritious. 

For example a pre-packaged potato will cost you double compared to its raw counterpart, and a pre-cut kale will cost three times more than the whole kale (3).

Pre-cut vegetables can also be more damaging to the environment because they result in more food loss, and require more packaging materials. 

Food loss differs from food waste in that food loss occurs during the food production process before it reaches the consumer (4).

Pre-packaged produce not only creates unnecessary food loss during the production process, and costs more for the consumers compared to whole vegetable and fruits.

7. Buy More Plants and Fruits, and Less Meat

I have been vegan since June 2017.

But because I did eat meat in the past, I know how expensive they are, especially if you are seeking the free-range or grass-fed meat.

It’s been a while since I purchased meat, but I know I can buy much more beans that will serve more meals and provide me the same amount of protein I need.

Needless to say, a plant-rich diet is better for your health and better for the environment. It is ranked number 4 on the Drawdown Project’s list of solutions that can reverse climate change (5).

8. Some foods are Better Purchased Frozen

I often make oatmeal with blueberries. But I don’t make them often. Fresh blueberries can be quite pricey, so instead I opt for the frozen blueberries, which saves me money and gives me flexibility in when I can use them.

My husband loves corns and peas. He puts them in his ramen, in his fried rice, curry, pasta, wherever he can, he will put corns and peas. I purchase frozen corns instead of the fresh ones because it is very time consuming for me to boil the corn and remove all the kettles myself.

9. Bring Your Own Bag to the Grocery

You can save money on your groceries if you bring your own reusable bag. Here is how much you can save at some of the big supermarkets:

  • Whole Foods – 10 cents per bag
  • Target – 5 cents per bag

And if you live in California, the Ban on Single-Use Carryout Bags policy makes you pay at least 10 cents per bag! There was a time I made my husband walk all the way back to the car, while I shopped, because I didn’t want to pay the extra 10 cents. wink

I know there will be days when you forget (I am also guilty of it), so nowadays, I keep few reusable bags in the car, and always carry my LOQI reusable bag in my purse. I love the LOQI reusable bag because it carries up to 44 pounds and when folded it can fit into a small pouch, not to mention the bag itself is art!

tips for reducing food waste at home

10. Wash, Chop, Freeze what you can right after grocery shopping

  • Freeze foods that can be used or consumed in the future

Having lived alone, you quickly learn that you can freeze almost anything. I freeze everything from rice, vegetables to any dishes leftover. 

As a Korean, I own a rice cooker since rice is a staple in my diet. 

Because brown rice with legumes take a full day to cook (you have to soak the brown rice over night), I often cook a batch sand freeze the rice sealed in a glass container immediately after cooking. 

This frozen rice nuked in the microwave tastes exactly the same as rice fresh out of the pressure cooker. (TIP: I nuke it in the microwave, but make sure to have some sort of cover over the rice, or else the rice will become very dry and hard.)

And if you have a sweet tooth like me, freezing sweet baked goods is also a good idea because it will prevent you from eating them all in one day. Moerover, when you crave those sweets, you know can count on your frozen brownies.

I also freeze vegetables that I know I will use only few pieces in my cooking (jalapenos, green onions, basil). 

  • Wash and chop vegetables and fruits immediately after grocery shopping

I like to wash and chop my vegetables and fruits as soon as I return home from food shopping because it saves me prep time when I cook.

Also, if I chop them and keep them in a clear container, I can locate them easily in my full fridge.

I also found that washing your produce as soon as you buy them, especially for fruits, helped some of them last longer.

  • Store dry food in clear containers

Storing grains, cereal, and pasta other dry food in clear containers will help preserve the freshness.

It also makes it easier to find them, or know when you run out.

TIP: Empty tomato sauce jars make a wonderful grain container.

11. Don’t Make Expiration Date Your Guideline for Throwing Away Food

Sell by, use before, best by, expires on, we’ve seen them all.

I used to use expiration dates as a guide to when I should eat my food by.

But recent findings have indicated that expiration dates are often misleading and do not represent the quality of the food. They are solely printed based on the manufacturer’s discretion (6).

These date labels on food increase food waste and your food expenses, as you could possibly be throwing away food that is good just based on the labeled date.

Instead of using expiration date as your guideline, rely on your senses (smell, taste, sight) to check whether your food is good to eat or not.

And if you really want to be safe, use my tip of freezing your food when it’s fresh.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Save the Food Program, 40% of food is wasted in America. You can help reduce food waste by using your senses rather than expirations dates as guideline for the freshness of the food.

12. Withering or Unfamiliar Vegetables Can Be Saved

You wanted to eat more salad and bought more vegetables. But you ended up eating business as usual. We have all been there.

But don’t worry those withering vegetables can be saved!

Moreover, have you ever wondered what you can do with those carrot leaves of the whole carrot you bought for the first time because you wanted to try something new?

I usually make fried-rice, make Korean vegetable pancakes, put them in my ramen and soup.  

Check out this article to see the numerous health benefits of carrot leaves as well!

Here is a vegan Korean vegetable pancake I made using unconventional ingredients including carrot leaves and beet stems. Click on the image to see the recipe on the Minnieveggie Instagram.

If you have any other tips that you use to spend less on groceries and reduce food waste, please share with me in the comments!

Minnie Bio Photo

Sustainability strategy and climate policy consultant, Minnie, shares how we can together “keep it simply sustainable” and live in harmony with our natural environment. Learn more →