According to the Natural Resources Defense Council’s food and agriculture program the average American family of four throws away the equivalent of $2275 annually in food (1). That is $189.58 each month or $6.23 each day!
Keeping food out of the garbage can will help with your food budget. In this post, I’ll share 5 things we do to help cut down on food waste. In all honesty, we do still have more waste than we’d like and if we don’t pay attention to things it can get excessive! Hopefully not to the tune of $6.23 per day excessive though.
1. Menu Plan
At my house this is my number 1 way to help with food waste. My goal is to make a menu plan each Sunday. When I menu plan I take inventory of what is in our fridge and needs to be used up first. Lately, we’ve been having a hard time consuming the milk we get each week (from our cowshare) so ways to use up milk have been a focus on our menu. Soon, I suspect that we’ll go back to barely having enough milk each week since that seems to be the way it goes at my house. After the perishables are accounted for then I check the freezer and the pantry. With my method of menu planning we always ‘shop at home’ first. I’ll talk more about menu planning in a future post but in the meantime, here is a post from my archives on menu planning.
While I do find menu planning to be important, also important is remaining flexible. Sometimes I’ll need to alter my menu plan to use up something that I missed when planning or magically appeared. Reviewing the menu plan for the next day the evening before plus a quick look at your perishables usually helps with catching these kind of things. If you notice that a few of your apples are starting to get too soft alter your menu plan to use those up. This Clafouti is a great way to use up those apples.
All the menu planning in the world won’t get us to the best use of our food dollars if we don’t stay organized with the food we prepare. I can rarely predict the exact amount of food that my family will consume at each meal. Something needs to be done with the food left over. That is where organization comes in. What works for me is labeling items as they go in the fridge and putting items in specific locations. I am an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ type person (especially lately). If a food is not written on my menu plan but lurking in my fridge it had better be where I can see it or it will become a science experiment. In the past, I’ve tried keeping a list on the fridge of things that needed to be used up. While I love that concept the execution didn’t work very well for me. While writing this, I had a brain storm. I should just write my leftovers on my menu plan! I refer to my plan at least one time per day so it makes perfect sense to add things that need to be used up there in plain site. I think I’ll try that and see how it works.
Our main consumption of leftovers occurs as lunches. My husband and daughter often pack leftovers. Our little boy and I are usually home at lunch time so it is easy to reheat the dish for lunch. I think it is important to point out, that I do a lot of planned overs or Stretchy Meals. Leftovers are a completely different animal than planned overs. Take a look at this Stretchy Bean post to see how we use beans as planned overs. Leftovers are the actual ‘left over’ part of a meal. Those 2 bowls of chili that didn’t get eaten. That serving of casserole. Those are leftovers in our house.
Going along with organization is having a plan for things. If you find a great deal on Swiss chard at the farmers market and buy up a case of it, it is no longer a great deal if you only use 2 bunches and the rest of it rots. Before buying that case have a plan for using it or preserving it. I often find bananas for 25 cents per pound. These are the over ripe brown bananas (you probably see them in your store often). When these arrive home they are immediately peeled and put in the freezer. I do out a few of the lesser ripe ones for eating. Frozen bananas are perfect for muffins, banana bread or smoothies.
3. TV Dinners
Ah… the yummy aroma of a tin foil surrounded meal-like substance baking away in the oven. We do sometimes have TV dinners here. But not the kind you are thinking of and that I described. We don’t buy those boxed meals; instead we have our own version. This is a tip I learned from The Complete Tightwad Gazette several years ago.
When leftovers are not going to be used up right away they are packaged up for the freezer. When enough leftovers have accumulated (or when nothing else was planned for dinner) the containers are thawed out and dinner is our own homemade TV dinner-smorgasbord-extravaganza. Since we no longer have a microwave heating up the dishes does take a little time but is not at all difficult.
I like these glass dishes that are freezer safe and oven safe (you wouldn’t want to take them straight from the freezer to a hot oven, those results could be ‘shattering’). The glass containers are also super easy to label. I just write on glass with a sharpie as it easily washes off but stays on well in the freezer. Currently, I don’t have enough of these glass containers. I do (carefully) use quart jars in the freezer for things like soup or broth. This can be risky if you fill the container to full and it expands. I’ve not broken jars but I’ve read of others who have. Once again, I label the jar with a sharpie. Once thawed the soup heats beautifully on the stove top. While we are in the process of eliminating plastic, we still have some of those plastic storage containers. I’m comfortable with using them in the freezer but I’m not comfortable with putting hot foods in them. Sometimes, I will transfer my leftover from a glass container to plastic if it is going in the freezer. And then once the dish is thawed it is once again transferred to a container for either oven or stove-top cooking (depending on the item). Remember, not everything freezes well. I don’t freeze things with potatoes in them since they never thaw well for me (they turn to mush).
Somewhat related to the TV dinner idea is something else learned from The Complete Tightwad Gazette: The ‘soup pot’. I keep a container in the freezer for little bits of leftover meats and vegetables. You know, when you have 2 tablespoons of leftover sauteed spinach or 1/4 cup of glazed carrots or a small slice of roast. These items are all put in the soup pot. Once the pot is full, add some of your homemade broth and you’ll have your own version of Stone Soup minus the stone. When you first start with your soup pot, you may wish to keep your flavors similar. We don’t mind mixing in Sloppy Joe Beef with Sweet and Sour Chicken but you might. Of course, you could rinse your meat before putting it in the pot if you wished. Also, your soup pot wouldn’t necessarily have to become soup. You could use that wonderful combination of meat and veggies to make a casserole. Keep in mind, you won’t have a recipe for creating your soup or casserole out of your soup pot which is why #4 is so important.
4. Formula Cooking
I love recipes. I love reading cook books and looking at food blogs. That said, I rarely follow a recipe as it is written. I look to recipes as being a guide more than something written in stone. With that thought in mind, many of the dishes we enjoy do not come from a recipe but rather a formula. Once again, this is a concept I learned from The Complete Tightwad Gazette (I’m beginning to think I should have titled this post “Ode to The Complete Tightwad Gazette). Formula cooking works so well for us that I’ve shared some of my formulas in my eBook Design a Dish. One of our favorite formula items is muffins. We have muffins often since they are so incredibly versatile and a great way to use up small amounts of surplus items. I really believe that by learning some basic formulas you can drastically help reduce your food bill and cut down on waste. Click here for my muffin formula (see links at the bottom for sourdough and kefir leavened versions). Click here for my casserole formula. Click here for my meat salad formula. Click here for a skillet dish formula from Wardee of GNOWFGLINS. Click here to order my eBook, Design a Dish.
5. Make Something Out of Nothing
We’ve already somewhat discussed making something out of nothing with our Stone Soup from above. Let’s take it a little farther. How about making food out of things we would normally throw away? You may already do this to some degree if you save the ends of your onions for your broth (you do save the ends of your onions to throw in your broth pot, right?) but there are many more things that can be salvaged. In addition to our onion ends we also keep any bones to use in future broth pots. If we roast a chicken and the bones are not immediately turned into broth they are put in the freezer to use later. If instead of a whole roasted chicken we have something with chicken pieces those bones are also saved for broth. Same with steaks or chops containing bones. I put the bones in freezer bags and label them. I rarely run out of bones for broth using this method. I understand that this might be a little more than some people wish to do but it works for us and is, in essence, free food.
Another idea to make something out of nothing includes saving your potato peels and turning them into Potato Skins by tossing them in a combination of olive oil and/or coconut oil and seasonings. Add some shredded cheese and sour cream if you wish for a restaurant-style dish. Or you could use your potato peels for a potassium rich broth. I’ve never made it but I have a (real life) friend who is a Naturopath and I watched her make it on our local morning show once.
Thinking about how something could be used instead of tossed in the garbage can might be a substantial difference in your food bill. I often save lemon halves that I’ve already juiced in the freezer to put in the cavity of a roasting chicken as opposed to using a ‘new’ lemon. I also freeze the papers around butter to use to ‘grease’ my cookie sheets or baking dishes. These little things can really add up.
Need some additional inspiration on how to make something out of nothing? April Lewis Patel has a terrific eBook, Don’t Compost It, Cook It: How to Make the Most out of Nothing in the Kitchen, that offers some wonderful recipes and ideas focused on making the most of your produce. April is a single mom who really knows how to stretch a dollar!
Even with these diligent attempts at reducing food waste there are still going to be some things that can’t be salvaged. Instead of tossing those in the garbage consider composting, vermiposting or having a few chickens to help with your real food scraps. Our chickens benefit from our real food diet. What they can’t have (onions, coffee grounds) gets composted.
Keeping food out of the garbage can will help you reduce your food bill. My hope is these ideas have helped you to think about the ways you can reduce your food waste.
Updated to add: Lydia of Divine Health is also tightening her budget this month. Check out this great post from her; Eating Real Food on a Tight Budget. Lydia also follows a Paleo/GAPS style of eating and tries to incorporate that into her tight budget. Go Lydia!
What are your favorite tips to cut down on food waste? Share in the comments.
(1)Read the entire article here.