How to reduce food waste while saving money and the planet

Learn how to reduce food waste, save money on groceries, and help the environment

Editor's Note: This is a guest post from TicTocLife.com, a blog by a mid-thirties duo who write about financial independence and their goal to retire early.

As two 20-somethings watching our food bills rise, we thought little of the food waste produced. It was just one of the growing sources of money sapping lifestyle inflation we had. We were adding convenience foods, eating out, and generally doing what two middle-class Americans do once they're out of school and starting careers: spend! As our budget ballooned, so too did our carbon footprint and waste.

But what if we could rethink our relationship with food in a way that would cut waste and save money?

Food and individual empowerment

Many ideas we think about on Planet Forward are nuanced, distant concepts. We don't personally have much direct control over them. But, there is something we all individually do that has a real effect on the environment, society, and even our own wealth. We eat, and sometimes not with great efficiency.

It's been close to a decade since we started looking — bleary-eyed with student loan debt — at our finances and the consumerism that blew holes in our budget. We've been fortunate to turn the tide, and then some, through lots of small purchasing decisions along the way. 

While writing about financial independence as one of a duo of 35-year-old early retirees, I've spent copious amounts of time researching how to reduce our grocery expenses. Reducing food waste became a central theme of our expert guide to saving money on groceries.

Ultimately, we cut our monthly grocery expenses from $575.80 to $339.85 in 2019 — a more than 40% savings.

In the process, we found the fortunate side effect of a reduced carbon footprint and a dramatic drop in food waste. Put in place our strategies and do the same today. Cutting food waste can lead to favorable outcomes for society and the environment.

It can even save you money — and you have full control over it.

Reducing food waste can save you money

US Households waste approximately 1/3 of their food, learn how to reduce it

U.S. food waste affects everyone. (Chris Wellant/TicTocLife)

When food is wasted, so too are the resources used to produce that food.

An average U.S. household spends about $5,850 per year on food, according to the AAEA.

Reducing waste is an opportunity for households to directly improve the environment and strengthen their own financial position. While landfills are overflowing with wasted nutrition, food banks run out of resources to provide for those in need. In the time of a global pandemic, those most vulnerable tend to be those most in need of resources like food banks.

Food waste in the United States

The average U.S. household wastes 31.9% of the food it purchases. Consumer‐level food waste was valued at $240 billion in a single year, according to the AAEA. The average U.S. household loses $1,866 on wasted food per year, according to a recent Penn State study. This food waste is all-encompassing within a household: groceries, restaurants, and fast food. 

The money you might be wasting in the food you throw away

Penn State's study is based on U.S. households, which the Census defines as 2.5 people. That means there's $746.40 per person, per year or $62.20 per month in wasted food for just one person! Cutting your personal food waste in half could put enough money into your budget for your Netflix subscription and cell phone bill combined. Not to mention all the knock-on effects to the environment.

So what can you do?

It's easy to say we can reduce our food waste to help the environment and ourselves. But what actual steps can we take to make this change? Here are five ways to reduce food waste and save money.

1. Rethink what a meal is

If you’re like me, you grew up with a dinner plate that was nicely divided between three sections. It was a little pie chart of meat, a “starch,” and hopefully a vegetable. Eggs were for breakfast. Cereal was a complete meal. Sandwiches with cold cuts were for lunch.

It doesn’t have to be that way. It can be any way you want, you’re an adult!

You don’t have to eat meals the way that we’ve decided they should be in the last 1% of the timeframe of human existence (and 1% is very generous). Your goal is to satiate yourself and provide adequate nutrition, at a reasonable cost.

2. Rethink your diet from zero

That doesn’t mean you need to switch to a diet of rice and beans. But, it does mean you should rethink your diet: Start from the ground up rather than trying to remove things from your current diet. Consciously add dishes that meet nutritional requirements along with foods you enjoy! Devise how they can fit into your meal plan.

If you couldn’t care less how you eat it, identify the healthiest ingredients at the lowest cost, stick them in a blender, and go to town. Kale and peanut butter in a smoothie? I mean, have you tried it? 

No one said you have to use a fork!

3. Don't let time be the master of your meals

You can eat dinner things for breakfast. Leftover beans from last night's dinner? Mix them in with your eggs! Just because you don't normally eat green beans with your breakfast doesn't mean you can't. 

If you've run out of your typical breakfast foods, don’t force yourself to run out and restock the eggs just because they’re the normal accompaniment. Challenge yourself to incorporate the beans with breakfast instead. You’ll help prevent your leftover food from going to waste and make your tongue a little more flexible.

Having flexibility in your diet and your idea of what a meal is will permit you to be more efficient by maximizing your food use and reducing waste. Flexibility saves you money, and not only with food.

4. Don't buy bulk when you don't eat bulk

I don't know about you, but our household is just two people. We’re decidedly averaged sized, too. I don’t know why we so often wind up with “family-sized” multi-packs of oatmeal that might be intended to feed horses. Actually, I think I know why.

For years, we’ve read those repetitive “10 grocery tips to save money!” type of articles. They typically include:

  • Buy in bulk
  • Pay the lowest per unit/ounce price

Here’s the thing. That’s great starting advice when you're just trying to get an idea of how to save money on groceries. But, if you're not in a household of four people, bulk buying could be more expensive. We’ve followed that simple starting advice and wound up with more than our fair share of big-bottle condiments sitting in the bottom fridge shelf slowly changing colors. 

I thought ketchup was supposed to be a brighter red?

Here’s the advice when you're concerned about your food budget and waste: buy what you need!

Put that optimizing part of your brain to work on figuring out how much of the product you actually use over time. Purchase the size that’ll be consumed before it begins to crawl out of the fridge on its own.

Reduce waste, save money.

5. Grocery price-shop online; avoid driving

Most grocery stores have their in-store pricing available online either through their website or app. If the brand itself doesn’t, you might have luck getting an idea of the prices by using contracted shopper services like Instacart (though their prices tend to be marked up a bit). This also lets you compare pricing with online grocers like Amazon or Boxed from the comfort of your home.

If you want to get the absolute lowest price for your grocery list and are willing to make multiple trips to do it, do your price comparisons online. 

Generally, it's probably not worth it to go to multiple locations (especially when a car is involved) to save a few extra dollars. If you can live in an urban environment that'll let you walk to pickup your food, that makes it easier to locally price-shop.

Save money and improve the environment by reducing food waste

Altering your perceptions of what a meal can be, when to have it, and not giving into marketing hype will let you rethink what food means to you. Using the tactics outlined in this article, along with a few extras focused on reducing costs, let us save over 40% on our monthly grocery budget while eating a healthful diet.

A pleasant side effect has been a much lighter trash bag with barely any food waste in sight. It's taken us some time, but our grocery spending reduction has lead to more efficient use of resources and a small improvement to the environment we had full control over.

You have the ability to make the same changes as we did, today. You can add to your wealth while taking less from the world around you.


 

What do you intend to do to help solve food waste in America? Reach out to TicTocLife on Twitter with your ideas!

 

How do you move the Planet Forward? Tweet us @planet_forward or contribute to the conversation with your own story.