How to Reduce Food Waste and Save Big

Most American families throw away $1,600 every year, and it's literally rotting in the garbage can in the form of food waste. If you're watching your grocery budget (and who isn't?), reducing food waste is an easy way to save some dough, and help the environment to boot.

Sheri Giblin

Running an efficient kitchen to reduce food waste may not be at the top of every busy parent's to-do list. But it should be. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), one third of food grown and bought in the United States is wasted and thrown away. In 2012, that waste added up to 35 million tons of food (at a cost of $1.3 billion), a distressing amount considering that one in 6 Americans will struggle to find their next meal.

Reducing food waste not only helps people and the environment, it can save you money too. With a few tips and ideas for shopping, improving kitchen storage and cooking, a little effort can go a long way.

Shopping Tips

Reducing food waste starts at the grocery store. If you don't buy it, you won't throw it away.

  • Plan a weekly menu; make a shopping list and stick to it.
  • Peruse your pantry and fridge before shopping, and cook and eat what you already have before buying more.
  • Think before buying in bulk. That one-pound bag of spinach saves you money only if you can finish it before it spoils.

Food Storage Savvy

Prolong your food's life with these easy ideas.

  • Veggies need breathing space, so don't crowd them into your crisper.
  • Keep produce front and center in the fridge so it doesn't get "lost" before going bad.
  • Most vegetables do well stored in open plastic bags punched with holes. Wrap herbs, lettuce, and cucumbers in paper towels first.
  • If you have shelf space in the fridge, trim your parsley (or any bunched herb) into a "bouquet." Put it in a glass of water, and cover with a plastic bag.
  • Food keeps better in the freezer if wrapped tightly before going in a freezer bag. Label and date everything.
  • Keep a list on the fridge door of what is almost past its prime and use these foods first.

Know Your Expiration Dates

Dates on food packages are based on a voluntary system of labeling. They have nothing to do with food safety or federal regulations. In fact, only infant formula is federally regulated. If the food looks and smells good, it's probably good to eat.

Learn the lingo. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

  • A "Sell-By" date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. Buy these products before the date expires.
  • A "Best if Used By (or Before)" date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • A "Use-By" date is the last date recommended by the manufacturer for the product to be at peak quality.
  • "Closed or coded dates" are packing numbers used by the manufacturer.

Use It Up

  • Come up with an end-of-the-week meal that'll use a lot of refrigerator odds and ends? say, bacon, zucchini, and eggs for a frittata or leftover chuck steak, carrots, and potatoes for a pot of soup. Think globally: Dishes like bubble and squeak, and fried rice were created to use up leftover food.
  • Designate one day a week or a weekend a month as a pantry/freezer clean-out time.
  • Many foods can be frozen. Pack up leftover casseroles, sauces, or shredded meats and freeze for another time.

Sharing Is Caring

If you do find yourself with excess food, toss it in the trash only as the last resort.

  • Many neighbors will appreciate some well-packaged meals or desserts.
  • Nutritious, safe, and untouched food can be donated to food banks.
  • Compost food scraps rather than throwing them away.

How to Get the Most From Your Food


  • Use the edible parts of vegetables you normally wouldn't eat. For example, beet tops and Swiss chard stems can be saut?ed. The stems from cilantro, parsley, and mushrooms, along with celery leaves and onion peels, make a great stock for risotto or soup.
  • Almost-wilted veggies are just fine in stock too.
  • Freeze fruit (cut in chunks for easy pureeing) -- especially abundant produce in season -- that's almost past its prime to use in smoothies.
  • Hang sturdy herbs like rosemary upside down to dry so they last longer. Use the stems as skewers to flavor grilled kebabs.
  • Repurpose leftover roasted vegetables and turn them into a potpie or calzone filling.

Meat and Seafood

  • Save poultry, beef, and ham bones and scraps, as well as shrimp shells and fish heads and bones, to make your choice of stock. A roast chicken carcass can go straight into a pot with any vegetables and herbs you have on hand.
  • Reserve excess chicken skin or fat and freeze until you have enough to render into schmaltz. Collect bacon grease and rendered pork fat from roasts and use to roast potatoes and root vegetables.
  • Leftover meat from roasts or the grill tastes delicious in a savory pie. Shred and stuff into quesadillas and top take-to-work lunch salads.


  • Save Parmesan and Pecorino rinds in the freezer for stock, or to float in a pot of soup.
  • Combine mixed scraps of cheese to make macaroni and cheese. Or grate or crumble them over salad or into an omelet.


  • Whirl stale bread into breadcrumbs and freeze. To use them, toast first and then top casseroles, coat pork chops, or mix with ground meat for meatballs or meatloaf.
  • Stale bread is super for French toast, bread pudding or croutons. Use in panzanella (bread salad) or as a bed for roast chicken.
  • Wrap leftover bread in layers of plastic wrap and/or foil, and freeze. To use, bring back to room temperature, unwrap, sprinkle with water and reheat in a 350° oven for about 10 minutes.

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