How to Reduce Food Waste and Save Money in the Kitchen

Eric Ginsburg

Whether you're driven by financial or ecological reasons, it's worth the effort to reduce food waste.

You've probably heard the stat — nearly 1/3 of all food produced is never eaten. More than half of that is wasted by the food industry itself, not us at home, but let's be real; you're probably throwing away a decent amount, too. Here are several ideas to help you reduce food waste.

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Reducing food waste is a great way to celebrate Earth Day, reduce your carbon footprint, save money, and live better. The USDA estimates that the average family could save $370 per person per year by reducing food waste — meaning about $1,500/year for a family of four. 

That's no joke.

Here are 11 great ideas to get you started!

1. Use Your Freezer Better

There are so many ways that using your freezer more effectively and regularly can help you cut down on food waste (and save money!).

I don't know about you, but there are some old containers shoved at the back of my freezer that probably expired long ago. I cringe to think about how long a pair of steaks has been there — I don't know for sure because they aren't labeled. 

Something that's been hugely beneficial to me is chef Ashley Christensen's book, It's Always Freezer Season: How to Freeze Like a Chef with 100 Make-Ahead RecipesIt's helped me get more familiar with how long things last in the freezer.

And it makes my life easier by helping me intentionally cook in bigger batches with the intention of freezing portions from the jump — instead of staring at leftovers in the fridge and dreaming of ordering delivery instead. By having a collection of recipes for dishes that will hold up in the fridge for a couple months, Christensen and co-author Kaitlyn Goalen give me the confidence to stick something in the freezer... and actually pull it back out.

It also helps to get familiar with which frozen veggies are essentially just as nutritious as they are fresh. Produce and fruit are the primary things that turn in my fridge, so buying more ingredients frozen — without compromising on taste — is essential.

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2. Create Smoothie and Stock Bags

Speaking of, one excellent way to preserve fruit and vegetables before they go bad is to freeze them. But an idea from Food Waste Feast makes this even easier — create a smoothie bag for fruit and a soup stock bag for veggies to consolidate leftovers and easily use them up in the future.

Honestly, brilliant. I haven't implemented this yet and have still been buying frozen fruit explicitly for the purpose of smoothies and mixing into my daughter's yogurt. Smoothies, like stocks, don't require exact portions or measurements and typically benefit from a wide array of ingredients without forcing you to worry about a recipe or blend, so establishing these bags in your freezer is a perfect catch-all.

Raspberry Peach Cottage Cheese Smoothie Photo

3. Utilize Food Waste Feast

The idea above is just one of countless tips you can find on the Food Waste Feast site. The creators are also the authors of Perfectly Good Food: A Totally Achievable Zero Waste Approach to Home CookingBut they also give away a ton of ideas directly on the website!

For example, they suggest an "Eat Me First" box in the fridge, learning to pickle, and tips for stocking your pantry.

My favorite part is the ability to search by ingredient for recipe ideas for something you're trying to use up in your fridge, and also the list of "hero recipes" that let you use "a bunch of random stuff" like the All-The-Veggies Bolognese or the All-The-Herbs Ranch Dressing.

I could honestly get lost in all the great ideas contained there — it's the most wonderful kind of rabbit hole!

4. Get Familiar with Fridge Shelf Life

Having a sense of how long something will stay good in the refrigerator will empower you to plan. I can't tell you how many times I've opened the fridge doors to realize that something has probably been sitting there for more than a week and needs to go.

Maybe you even put leftovers away knowing full well you're just going to toss them later.

We've assembled a running list of frequently asked questions about how long food lasts in the fridge to help you out here!

Save it for easy reference in the future. But also just have the rough guide in the back of your head, and if you're not going to eat something in that window — freeze it! Most our FAQ content linked in the guide tells you how.

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5. Buy Less Stuff (At Once)

Seriously. How often do you get excited about all the fresh produce at the farmers market or get carried away in the snack food aisle and make a few too many impulse purchases, only to have them go bad before you can enjoy them?

This is true for shelf-stable things that come in larger containers or bags — if you have four different snack or chip bags open at once, there's a greater chance more will expire before you finish them. 

We have way too many opened hot sauce bottles in my house. The reality is that there are a couple we use frequently, but the majority of them get used every once in a while. The Texas Pete has changed color, and there are at least three I can't remember the name of without going to look.

If, instead, we stuck to our regular, heavy-rotation items and just one special treat kind of alternative at a time, we'd end up wasting a lot less.

This may mean more smaller trips to the store, and depending where you live, that might have an impact on your carbon footprint. But buying things closer to when you plan to eat them can make a big difference in cutting back on waste!

There's another benefit to buying less stuff all at once, too — you can more easily see what you actually have. This will keep your fridge and your pantry more organized. And to that point...

6. Organize Your Fridge and Pantry

When you can't easily find things, you're more likely to. buy a duplicate by mistake. Ever been at the grocery store, see an item and think, "Oh yeah, we're out of that," only to get home and realize that it was hidden behind several other things in the fridge door or pantry?

I certainly have. And with me and my wife both cooking and shopping, the opportunity for a miss is even higher. 

This happened most frequently right after my daughter was born and we had family here helping us out. Several times I realized a family member had looked for something, not been able to find it, and went to buy it assuming we didn't have any.

And that's how we ended up with at least four different duplicate spices that we don't use all that heavily. (Luckily the shelf life there is long, but less so with salad dressing and a few refrigerated things that appeared.)

Different people have their own preferences — I'm not the one to dump stuff into a plastic container labeled "Sugar" in farmhouse-style writing — but there are a range of ways to make sure what you have is visible and accessible to everyone in your household who needs to find it.

The "Eat Me First" box idea above is one way to go about it! Another is to schedule a regular cadence to audit your freezer to make sure you're reclaiming things before they expire (because yes, everything does eventually go bad).

Pantry Essentials Photo

7. Understand Expiration Dates

We often use "best by" dates, "expiration" dates, and "sell by" dates interchangeably. But they're not the same!

Food is usually good for 10 days past the "sell by" date if you've properly stored it. Learn more about these terms and don't instinctively toss food just because it's beyond the date listed.

Consider downloading the USDA's FoodKeeper App to know how long something is good for and when it's safe to consume.

8. Learn How to Keep Produce Fresh For Longer

Another great step you can take is to keep your food good for longer. That can include sticking greens in some water, bagging certain items, and actually avoiding the refrigerator in some cases!

Here's a helpful guide that is brimming with knowledge about how to keep produce fresh.

Think of it as like, 20 TikTok hacks in one. And more reliable than a Facebook meme.

9. Get Creative with Recipes

There's actually a lot you can do with food scraps. 

The soup stock idea above is one of the most straightforward. But you can also try creative recipes, like making bell pepper syrup for a cocktail.

Again, the Food Waste Feast site has several ideas on this front as well. Roasting a sheet pan of veggies seems to be a common theme.

But also — you can just experiment! If the food was going to get thrown out otherwise, it's pretty low risk to try something new and out there in the kitchen.

Here are some worth trying: 

Easy Ham and Bean Soup Recipe Photo

10. Consider Composting

Composting feels daunting for a lot of people, and maybe a little gross.

If your community doesn't have a composting program — mine doesn't, and neither do most — this may only be within reach if you have some outdoor space to put towards the cause. 

But the good news is, composting is easier than you think. Part of the trick is making sure you're using the right things — and leaving other items out. Here's a handy guide that will help you get started composting.

Want a more hands-off approach? You could also buy one of the most popular home composting machines that will do much of the work for you.

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11. Share with Neighbors (and Friends)

Look at how much food you've made. Can you tell instantly that it's too much? That's totally fine if you're really going to eat all the batch of cookies you just prepared, but let's be realistic, too.

If you know from the jump that you're going to have too much, make a plan for someone to share it with. 

My problem is that I wait to long to make the decision, and realize too late that yeah, there's too much here. By then, it's not such a nice gesture to show up on the neighbor's doorstep with leftovers. 

Better still if you know in advance you're going to have more than you need and can give someone a heads up that there's some extra cornbread or lasagna on its way.

Another way to share — set up an exchange with friends. I didn't invent this idea, but it bears repeating. Imagine meal prepping alongside a group of people who are doing the same thing.

What if you made enough cheesy hashbrown potato casserole for four families? It's pretty easy to double or triple a recipe without too much extra labor. And then when you share, your family isn't left to eat the same thing every night all week (because it's a reciprocal relationship) but you get to enjoy a variety of foods without prepping it all yourself.

Reducing that monotony and duplication of leftovers will dramatically increase the likelihood that less food is wasted!

Related: Check out our top tips for saving money on groceries, which will also help you go green.

Eric Ginsburg is the Editor of Food Fanatic. He's served as an editor at three newspapers and written for a wide range of publications, including Bon Appétit, Serious Eats, Wine Enthusiast, Southern Living, and Eater Carolinas. He lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. Follow him on Instagram.

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Eric Ginsburg

About Eric

Eric Ginsburg is the Editor of Food Fanatic. He's served as an editor at three newspapers and written for a wide range of publications, including Bon Appétit, Serious Eats, Wine Enthusiast, Southern Living, and Eater Carolinas. He lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. Follow him on Instagram @eric_ginsburg.