First, the bad news: If you’re like a typical American, you’re probably tossing more than 200 pounds of wasted food in the trash every year [PDF]. That’s not just bad for the planet (thanks to all of the wasted energy for growing, transporting, and selling food)—it’s bad for your grocery budget as well. The good news: Slashing your food waste and fattening your wallet is easier than you might think. Start here:
1. CREATE A USE-IT-UP SHELF.
The back of your fridge is full of forgotten leftovers, which you dump—with a sizable twinge of guilt—each week before packing your fridge full of new food. Ouch. The best way to make sure you keep those leftovers top-of-mind is to move them front and center, says Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of its Food (and What We Can Do About It). When you’re wrapping up food, stick it on the top shelf so it can serve as a visual reminder every time you open the fridge.
2. TURN THE FREEZER INTO YOUR BFF.
If you buy something and don’t get around to cooking it, toss it in the freezer rather than letting it languish and go bad in the fridge. You can freeze so much more than just meat and berries: milk, baked goods, hard cheeses, nuts, fresh herbs (chopped and frozen with water in ice cube trays), butter, and eggs (whisked and frozen in ice cube trays).
3. START A SUNDAY NIGHT SOUP HABIT.
Soups, stews, and stir-fry are all great ways to use up any odds and ends from the weekly groceries before they go to waste. And keep that in mind the next time you’re staring at a quarter-onion wondering, "Should I really bother freezing this?" “It can be stored in the freezer for use later in soups, stews and casseroles,” says Bloom.
4. GET CREATIVE IN THE KITCHEN.
When the pantry runs a little bare, most of us run to the store to flesh out the ingredient list for a new recipe. Instead, try entering what you already have on hand into the app Supercook. It instantly generates recipes from popular cooking sites.
5. MEAL PLAN IN DUETS.
Try to pick two or three recipes for the week with overlapping ingredient lists—like a quinoa bowl one night and quinoa veggie burgers the next, or pork loin followed by spicy banh mi sandwiches. You’re less likely to end the week with a bit of this and a half-used box of that.
6. COOK EVERY BIT OF EVERYTHING.
Just like high-end chefs pride themselves on cooking animals nose-to-tail and not wasting anything, before you toss anything in the trash, challenge yourself to ask, "Could I cook with this?" Carrot tops, for instance, make a tasty pesto; and you can cook vegetable peels and scraps into crunchy baked chips. By cooking even the castoffs, you’ll be able to cut out other purchases—like, say, jars of store-bought pesto.
7. TAKE STOCK OF YOUR PANTRY.
Canned goods might seem like they’re indestructible, but they do eventually go bad. Not to mention the bags of pasta, beans, and crackers lurking in the far recesses of your pantry. Once a month, move anything that should get eaten soon to the front and try to work those ingredients into the next week’s meal plan.
8. EXHALE ABOUT EXPIRATION DATES.
“Treat expiration dates as a guideline, not the gospel truth,” says Bloom. Confusion over food dates—including expiration dates, buy by dates and best by dates—has caused approximately 9 out of 10 people [PDF] to toss safe, edible food at some time, according to a survey by the Food Marketing Institute. Keep in mind that these dates aren’t regulated: They’re a suggestion from the manufacturer about when the food will taste its best, not an indication of safety. If something looks, smells and tastes fine, eat up! Even if you’re a few days past the date printed on the package.