Stop Wasting Food — and Your Money — With These Genius Tips

Wasting food is all too common — and easy — for tons of households. But it needs to stop. When you let food go to waste, you’re not only contributing to the global warming epidemic, but you’re throwing money down the drain.

According to the National Resources Defense Council, “Forty percent of the food in the United States is never eaten.” If this sounds shocking to you, it’s because it is. However, we can all do something about it. If you’re ready to become part of the solution, here’s how to get started.

1. Start composting

Composting the Kitchen Waste

Composting is easier than you think. | iStock.com/Pixavril

With its potential odor and additional work required, composting might sound unappealing, but it’s really not all that difficult. Darby Hoover, the National Resources Defense Council’s senior resource specialist in the Food and Agriculture program, makes a pretty strong case for why just about everyone should try composting.

According to Hoover, “Compost adds nutrients and organic matter back to soil, which benefits agriculture, reduces our reliance on synthetic fertilizers, diverts methane-producing organic materials from landfills, and improves soil’s water retention capacity so you don’t need to water as much.” So, if you’re ready to join the environmental movement and fight global warming, you’re ready for a new adventure, too. Follow these six key components of composting — set up your space, master the mix, be selective with your scraps, let the rot set in, use your pay dirt wisely, and spread the word — and you’ll be good to go.

Next: Portion control is key.

2. Start out with small portions

Plate with crumbs and used fork

Avoid loading up your plate. | iStock.com/Serezniy

When your eyes are bigger than your stomach, you can wind up wasting a lot of food. Instead of piling on every side on the table, start out with small scoops of only what you’re certain you’ll want to eat. That way, you won’t have to throw anything in the trash at the end of the meal.

Next: List-making is planning in perfection. 

3. Plan out your meals before you grocery shop

grocery shopping, budget

Having a list before hitting the store sets you up for success. | iStock.com

Map out your plan for the grocery store with intention. For instance, planning meals in advance will save you from buying ingredients you won’t actually need. If you like to follow recipes, make a list of the exact items you’ll need for each specific meal. Not only will it save you from tossing extra food out in the end, but it will ensure you stay on budget at the store.

Next: Use what you already have. 

4. Base your meal menu around items you already have at home

Open refrigerator full of fruits and vegetables

Use what you already have, and go from there. | AndrewRafalsky/Getty Images

Rather than coming up with a list of entirely new meals to make for the week, take a look inside your fridge, freezer, and pantry to see what’s already there. If you have half an onion sitting in the veggie drawer, make a conscious effort to incorporate it into a meal before it goes bad. Just search for any onion-based recipe, which should be easy enough to find, and add it to the week’s list.

Next: Don’t buy more than what you can eat.

5. Don’t buy produce in bulk

vegetable in retro refrigerator bin

Only buy what you can definitely eat before it goes bad. | iStock.com/KenTannenbaum

Buying in bulk will sometimes pay off. Toothpaste, olive oil, and paper towels in bulk do just fine, and buying multiples all at once will save you some money, too. But here’s where you can run into issues: Large amounts of produce won’t do you any good. You won’t be able to eat that huge bunch of bananas you bought by the end of the week. So, don’t let price cuts for food fool you when you won’t actually end up eating it. It’s just not worth it.

Next: Just because it doesn’t look pretty doesn’t mean it’s not worth buying. 

6. Buy reject produce

Fruit and Vegetables, carrots, peas

Not all produce makes it to the grocery store. | iStock.com

One way to reduce food waste on a more global scale is by purchasing the stuff that’s not fit for the store. Basically, it’s kind of an eyesore. However, that certainly shouldn’t stop you from making the most of it. In fact, Hungry Harvest, a company with this very idea, was even featured on an episode of Shark Tank.

According to NPR, “[The company’s] model relies on rescuing apples, pears, potatoes and other crops that might otherwise have ended up as food waste and selling them to its subscribers in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Virginia at a 20- to 30-percent discount. For every bag of produce it delivers, the company also donates a meal to the hungry.” Hopefully, more people will catch on to the many cost-saving, waste-reducing benefits of subscribing to a service like this.

Next: Snacks are part of the process, too.

7. Plan out midday snacks in advance

plate of snack mix

Buy enough snacks to eat but only for that week. | iStock.com

Rather than going to the grocery store and window shopping down every aisle, be deliberate about what kinds of snacks you’d like to have on hand. If you enjoy taking a cup of yogurt and some nuts to work every day, buy only the amount you now you’ll eat that week before your next grocery run. Additionally, if you’ll be taking a day off that week, be sure you buy exactly the right amount of snacks you’ll need. It might sound overly cautious, but planning each snack out down to the day will end up saving you money in the long run.

Next: This next one is a major reason why people waste food. 

8. Be mindful of expiration dates

organic milk

Just about everything has an expiration date. | Tim Boyle/Getty Images

Now, this is a big one. If you ask enough people, you’d probably hear that expired food is a major culprit of food waste. And who can blame them? Most people are guilty of letting food sit past its expiration date, but it can be tough to avoid.

One way to give yourself the best chance at using food before it goes bad is by looking for the expiration date that’s furthest away. If you’re shopping for milk, the store will typically stock the front row with jugs that are about to expire. But those that have been packaged most recently, and therefore have the latest expiration date, typically sit in the back. So, don’t be afraid to pick through the shelf next time you’re grocery shopping.

Next: It’s all in the details. 

9. Organize your fridge and pantry based on expiration dates

pantry ingredients

Organizing based on expiration dates will save you from wasting food and money. | iStock.com

Following the same vein as our previous point, one way you can limit your foods’ chances of going bad is by following the grocery store’s method. By arranging your fridge and pantry based on dates, you’ll be forced to use things that are about to spoil. Each time you open the door, they’ll be staring you right in the face.

Next: Do you know the right way to store each piece of produce? 

10. Store produce properly

Refrigerator full of healthy food

Some produce requires special storage. | iStock.com/Olesiabilkei

When it comes to produce, storing it properly will help guarantee that you’re maximizing freshness. Although sticking fruits and veggies in your refrigerator’s produce drawer seems obvious, there are some fruits and veggies that might require a little extra thought.

For instance, beets aren’t as straightforward as you’d think. “If purchased with the tops intact, cut the greens off about an inch above the beet, then refrigerate the beets and greens separately in plastic bags,” Whole Foods Market says. “The greens will keep up to one week and the beets will keep for two to three weeks.” For more information on storing produce, check out Whole Food Market’s blog.

Next: Use freezer space to your advantage. 

11. Stock your freezer with food that’s about to go bad

The hand of a young man is opening a freezer door

Freezing food is a great alternative to throwing it in the trash. | iStock.com/Lolostock

The freezer is the perfect place for anything that’s about to expire. If you haven’t had the chance to use food yet, toss it in the freezer before it goes bad. Just make sure you remember to come back to it when you’re ready to incorporate it into a meal later on.

Next: Be sure to look at your social calendar, as well.

12. Factor in meals you’re planning on eating out

Months and dates shown on a calendar

Account for dining out. | iStock.com/BrianAJackson

Even if you’re a diligent cost-saving, at-home cook, you probably eat out from time to time. And though spur-of-the-moment dinners with friends are sometimes unavoidable, there are bound to be obligatory dates already on your social calendar. When you can, make sure you account for those types of events in advance.

Perhaps you’ll be having dinner at a family member’s house next week. Make sure you avoid getting any extra food or snacks for that night. Or maybe you’ll be attending a bridal shower this weekend. You won’t need breakfast or lunch at home that day, so skip a day’s worth of those kinds of items.

Next: There’s an app for everything.

13. Take advantage of money and food saving apps

Young man using cellphone in a grocery store

There are plenty of apps designed to help you save money at the grocery store. | iStock.com/Koji_Ishii

It’s probably no surprise there’s an app for just about everything. And the money-saving, grocery shopping market is no different.

Leloca is just one example. It’s an app that “helps minimize restaurant waste by offering diners a great deal,” Triple Pundit explains. The site also mentions a handful of other useful apps, such as ones that help you share recipes and organize grocery lists.

Next: Drink all that free coffee at work. 

14. Take advantage of free work perks

Woman Sitting On Sofa And Eating Lunch

Why waste your money when your office is serving up snacks? | iStock.com/Monkeybusinessimages

This money-saving tip is fairly obvious, but it can often take a back seat when you’ve got so much else on your mind. You’re committed to planning out each lunch meal and snack you need to bring to work, but don’t forget to take advantage of office freebies when they’re available. Even on days you’ve brought your own food, don’t let free snacks, coffee, and the like go uneaten. You can always take the food you brought to work back home for the day and eat it later.

Next: There are ways to save money when eating out, too. 

15. Ask about a half order when eating out

couple at restaurant

It never hurts to ask. | iStock.com

Although they don’t like to advertise it — for obvious reasons — some restaurants do offer half order options — half the size and usually half the price. While the American culture continues to struggle with portion control, restaurant entrees have become enormous. In most cases, that heap of food in front of you is too much to handle. So, next time you’re out, be sure to ask if the establishment offers half portions. You’ll be saving money without worrying about wasting food.

Next: Never leave these behind.

16. Always take leftovers home

Take-out, leftovers, food

Never leave leftovers behind. | iStock.com

If you do end up with food left on your plate, never, ever leave it behind. There’s no point in letting it go to waste when you can take full advantage of it later. Perhaps you’ll get hungry later on in the evening, or you’ll be craving those leftovers come lunch tomorrow. It’s just a no-brainer.

Next: Become a boss at crafting leftover-based meals. 

17. Get creative with leftovers

Leftover containers of food in a refrigerator

There’s no limit to what you can do with leftovers. | iStock.com/Joebelanger

In keeping with the leftovers theme, we’ll just say this: Waste not, want not. The great thing about leftovers is you can repurpose them into a completely new dish, whether they came from a restaurant or your own kitchen. Your original meal doesn’t define how good it will be the second time around. It all depends on how creative you get with adding new ingredients into the mix.

Next: Sometimes, you just can’t avoid eating all the food you have at home. 

18. Donate food you’ll never eat

food at soup kitchen

There’s no point in hanging on to food you don’t want. | John Moore/Getty Images

If we’re being totally honest here, there are going to be times when it’s just not possible to avoid wasting food. But that’s no reason to throw it in the trash. No matter how dedicated you are to this process, there will always be some items you’ll never get to. And when this happens, your best option is to donate it to a local shelter or soup kitchen.

Read more: 19 Foods That Are a Complete Waste of Money at Costco