How to Save Thousands of Dollars Every Year on Food

How to Save Thousands of Dollars Every Year on Food
OREN AKS/Thrillist

You are probably wasting about $2,000 of food every year. Every. Year. Yes, you.

Relax, I'm not spying on you through your laptop's webcam. That's just how much food the average American household is depositing directly into their trash cans. It's money that you are literally throwing away. These are funds you could be spending on eating out at restaurants with more than two dollar signs on Yelp, 8,000 packs of Bazooka, or a glut of novelty face-wear.  

There are some very doable ways to personally cut down on the 294 million tons of solid food waste sitting in America's landfills, and turn the contents of your fridge into cold hard cash. You'll also be helping our planet stay nice and shiny and green. 

As a semi-functional adult person, I decided to try some of these methods out myself, with help from author Dana Gunders, an expert on America's food waste epidemic. And all this advice actually worked. Splendidly. You should see all the novelty face-wear I can now afford. I barely recognize myself.

To start saving, you need to know what you are wasting

"The first thing you should do if you want to cut down on wasting food is to actually try to see what you are wasting," said Gunders, author of the Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook. The information is near-exhaustive, but it's built for even novice chefs/shoppers to use effectively. 

Keeping a food diary for a few weeks is the best way to have all of your food-wasting habits laid out in black and white (unless you are using a delightful Gelly Roll pen, that is). I kept one myself, and was shocked that nearly half of the food I picked up ended up in my trash can over the course of a month. I was literally throwing half of my food budget in the garbage. 

"One of the biggest challenges is that no one actually thinks they're wasting that much food," Gunders said. "In a nationwide study by Johns Hopkins, 75% of Americans reported they waste less than the average American."

If you know math, you'll know something is amiss here. So the first step to change, is recognizing the problem areas in your own life. 

Supermarket shelves
Lisa S./Shutterstock

Then, start at the source

"Shopping is where you commit to food, it's where you commit your money and your resources," said Gunders. "The more organized you are, and the more restraint you show, can be two key factors to remember at the market.

"People are so cautious about saving even a penny when they are in the supermarket, but when they get home, they have no problem throwing away food -- which is money -- in the garbage," she added.

Being particular about what (and especially how much) food is easier said than done. But keeping a journal of how much you eat and what you end up throwing away is the simplest way to get an organized list started. And as far as following restraint, underestimate what you'll actually want to eat -- and never go to the supermarket hungry. Rookie mistake. 

Don't be afraid of the freezer

Take pasta sauce, for example. Unless you are feeding a family with quite a gnocchi problem, you generally only need about a quarter to a third of the red sauce in the jar -- the rest might end up sitting on a shelf, waiting for its inevitable trip to the bottom of a Glad bag. Stick that sucker in the freezer, and wait for the next time ravioli calls to you.

And this extends to full meals, as well.

I generally don't like to eat the same thing two days in a row, but I am constantly finding myself with leftovers. I bought some cheap-ass Tupperware, started freezing my excess meals, and found them just fine to eat days later. 

And buying pre-frozen foods, obviously, will increase their shelf life. According to Gunders' book, frozen food can be, and often is, just as nutritious as fresh food. Even cuisine that might appear a little dubious in your freezer should actually hold out.

Harvard professor and chef Barton Seaver tells Gunders in the Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook that, "The technology of freezing fish has evolved to the point where it's comparable, if not better than, fresh fish."

Expiration dates
Cole Saladino/Thrillist

And forget about most expiration dates

So much of our food ends up in the trash thanks to our culture's over-vigilance on adhering to what is, frankly, a pretty fucked-up expiration-labeling system that I've written about at length before.

Almost all of our expiration dates don't mean dick in terms of safety. They are simply quantifiers of freshness, originally instituted for marketing purposes. Don't throw anything away just because of the expiration date. Basically, follow your senses here. These dates are not sacrosanct. They are general, and sometimes arbitrary, guidelines. 

Get creative with recipes

"Having a designated day of the week -- like Fridge Friday -- to empty out what you have, and making a concerted effort to use what you have can go a long way," Gunders said. 

Easier said than done, right? Well, it's not as hard as it seems. Gunders' book outlines several recipes that make use of stale -- or even spoiled -- food waste. I turned a gallon of sour milk into sour milk pancakes, per one of her recipes. 

I'm not a professional chef (I mean, obviously) -- but even I was able to finagle two meals out of leftovers from subscription box services, an (older) carton of eggs, and some assorted condiments. And I learned something along the way! 

Pile of gross garbage
Huguette Roe/Shutterstock

Here's the bottom line: you are helping the planet and saving money too

Even if you don't give a shit about saving the planet (if so, I hope you enjoy being horrible), you can't deny the positive impacts saving food will have on your wallet.

During my weeks implementing food-saving methods, I literally slashed my food budget (roughly $200 -- back off, dudes, I live in NYC) in half. If I kept this up, I would be saving over a grand a year. And it really wasn't that hard. 

This isn't rocket surgery, or brain science: it's simply being responsible with your food choices, using a freezer you almost certainly have, and putting in a little extra effort (like, literally 20 extra minutes) to cook a meal out of fridge scraps. 

Basically, just stop being a literal garbage person. 

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Wil Fulton is a staff writer for Thrillist. He actually blames Gwyneth Paltrow for most of the world's problems. Follow him @wilfulton.