I have worked with individuals whose culinary interests range from those who love cooking to those who would rather watch paint dry. One commonality is their frustration with food waste.
Thankfully, a few doable strategies reduce food waste, lowering grocery bills. (I have added links to a few products as examples, but I do not receive a commission.)
-Label, Label, Label
My previous article listed condiments as refrigerators’ most easily forgotten food. They might sit for months or years before catching our eye. When they finally do, we waste precious time determining their age. I added silver and black Sharpies to my kitchen arsenal a few years ago. Immediately after opening a jar, I mark its “open” date. Since then, I have noticed less food waste.
Additionally, before putting leftovers into my freezer, I use masking tape to label contents and dates. This fifteen-second task prevents freezer-burned mystery meals. Additionally, it creates easy meal variation, which is nice. Case in point: I recently noticed three frozen mason jars of chicken stock. That is one too many for my freezer, so within a few seconds, the oldest jar was defrosting in my refrigerator. As a result, I had fun working with dried, not jarred, anchos for the first time and then tasting pozole.
Shopping lists save money by evading unnecessary duplicates. Labeling reduces the time needed to inventory pantry stock before creating those lists. Having to guess if a container is full of mashed potatoes or leftover cream cheese frosting might result in an overabundance of potatoes that turn mushy before being utilized.
I enjoy the simplicity of masking tape, but reusable labels might save even more time.
-Use airtight bins in the pantry
Decanting dried goods into bins takes time. It is possible to successfully eschew them entirely. Nevertheless, these containers have various benefits.
Clear bins make better use of vertical shelf space than amorphous bags of opened flour and beans, making it easier to identify multiple items simultaneously. We are likelier to check our pantries before heading to the store if ingredients are easier to spot.
My incredible mother taught me how to bake. I remember delicious chocolate chip cookies, coconut cake, and banana bread, among other treats. She showed me how to level ingredients with a knife, why that was important, and how to check incoming bags of flour for tiny but not-so-delicious weevils. They hitch rides in flour bags and chew through cardboard to reach other nearby food. You can avoid costly cross-contamination by decanting into bins. I have been happy with my OXO Pop containers, but there are plenty of choices on the market.
-Employ clean towels or produce bins in the refrigerator
Even in clear-front crisper drawers, it is easy to forget about produce. Wrapping it in damp towels extends longevity, but produce bins work even better. A few years ago, I moved many vegetables to the front portion of my fridge so I would eat them more frequently.
Clear BPA-free bins with moisture trays, date dial reminders, and airflow buttons have not only put healthy foods directly in my line of sight but also extended the life of my produce. My salad greens now last long much longer. Tomatoes do, too. They should live outside refrigerators, but my kitchen generates heat quickly, so tomatoes ripen too quickly. I was shocked that a bunch of cherry tomatoes lasted three times longer than usual when I dumped them into one of my bins.
-Pay attention to crisper dials
Many modern refrigerators have humidity controls for each produce drawer. You can use them to your advantage.
-Stock your pantry like the grocery store
Ever notice grocery store clerks rotating the oldest products to the front of shelves? It is worth the few extra seconds employing this tactic when unloading groceries. Even when canned, foods can lose nutritional value over time.
Moveable kitchen shelves come in handy. There is no need for cabinet envy if you have fixed shelves; you can purchase shelf risers to double the vertical space. It will also be much easier to see what inventory is on hand.
-Use the grocery store as your pantry
Even better than stocking your pantry like a grocery store is to use the grocery store as your pantry. Let those companies pay the monthly square footage for food storage so you do not have to. Of course, having the basics and backups for emergencies or chaotic days is helpful, but overall, the less you have in cupboards, the less time you will spend looking for ingredients. Often, kitchen space is more valuable than having multiple backups, especially if you live in an expensive part of the country.
One might argue that emergencies like the pandemic demonstrated the importance of having large food caches at home. Although emergency supplies are essential, I would make an educated guess that many American pantries still house unwanted food from the early days of the pandemic. Even during the pandemic, it took a year and a half to muscle through two cans of veggies I would not usually purchase but had bought during the uncertainty and chaos of early lockdowns.
-Avoid housing pantry items in multiple places
I have sung the praises of taking inventory before shopping. This task becomes too cumbersome if we must look in two different places before heading out. If we house ingredients in multiple locations, we risk finding duplicates and even triplicates long after the USDA’s recommended one to five-year mark has passed.
-Do not shop when hungry or tired
I thoroughly enjoy trying limited edition or less commonly seen snack foods at local grocery stores. The bag of lychee-flavored potato chips was fun. So were the banana bread Pop-Tarts, although I would rather have the real deal. My recent purchase of rose-flavored biscuits was a bust, but I blame that one on faulty advertising.
I recently ran across Lays Spicy Crab flavor and Beef Wellington-flavor potato chips. It was one of my more amusing culinary adventures because a man in the checkout line asked incredulously, “Are those Beef Wellington flavored chips? I know what I’m getting next time!” What followed was a short but enjoyable conversation about this complicated dish. I have never tried it, but he had successfully cooked it and sang its praises.
All this to say, I have to be careful with these little flavor adventures because the bill and the calories can add up quickly. So, I try to avoid certain grocery store aisles when I’m tired or hungry. This commonly known wisdom is a great rule to go by.
Which of these tactics do you already employ? Which will help you to save time and money each week? What other tactics have you used to avoid food waste and reduce your monthly grocery bill?
Author: Judith Dold
Musings from yours truly about all things organizing.