On the latest episode of the podcast Proof, The Pretty Big Problem of Ugly Food, I learned that 40% of the world’s food production is wasted, and on top of that, 43% of that food waste comes the consumer end―that is, we simply buy too much stuff, and it’s spoiling before we use it!

If your produce is wilting or rotting, or things are expiring without being used, there’s clearly a problem. If you’re on the path to financial independence, you know that housing, transport, and groceries are the highest expenses for most people, and so not allowing any grocery money to go to waste is of utmost importance!

The podcast gave a few tips to reduce food waste, and I wanted to share and expand on that list a little bit. Here are five tips to save more money on food by never letting anything go to waste.

1. Do a pantry cleanout challenge. 

For 30 days, decide that you’re going to eat ONLY what you already have in your pantry cupboards, fridge, and freezer. You might have to go to the store to get some essentials like coffee or eggs, but forcing yourself to “shop your own kitchen” will help you to use that pot roast that’s been sitting in the freezer since December (guilty), increase your food creativity skills, and save money on your grocery bill for that whole month. Making “Garbage Soup” or “Garbage Frittata” (dishes that use up all of the remaining protein and veggies in your fridge) and fish cakes using canned salmon or tuna are favorites of mine. I have adapted this Spicy Tuna Cakes recipe from Nom Nom Paleo many times over using salmon and dill.

2. Plan your meals and only buy what’s on your list.

When you plan your meals and know exactly what you’re going to eat for the next few days, you’re not going to impulse buy a bunch of healthy veggies that you tell yourself you’re going to prepare but then throw out two weeks later because they’re sitting in a puddle of gunk at the bottom of your vegetable drawer… The key is making a meal plan and shopping list and actually sticking to it! I used to do a shop every two weeks, but I now do once a week, because I found I was running out of fresh produce by the second week.

I use the Walmart Grocery app to do grocery pickup, because it forces me to plan my meals and shopping for the week before I place my pickup order. Since I have time on my side to add things to my (digital) cart on the app while I’m sitting in yoga pants in my living room, it also helps me keep my grocery shop under-budget: “Okay, with this current plan, I’m $30 over. These five items can wait until next week.” I still get organic and fancypants groceries, but I don’t get any more than I can reasonably prepare for that time period. And, probably most importantly, it keeps me from impulse-buying (“Oooooh, rice chips!!”) because I never actually go into the store — I just park in the designated pickup area and they bring my order right out to me. I will probably never go back to regular grocery shopping, if I can help it. (If you want to try out Walmart Grocery, you can get $10 off your first order here.)

3. Make a Triage Box for your fridge and organize so you can clearly see what you have.

I first got this idea of a Triage Box from a blogger named Yuka over at Inhabitat.com. In the medical field, the idea of triage is that you treat patients according to the varying degrees of urgency. A triage box effectively puts the food that is going to spoil the soonest front-and-center in your fridge, so you see it first and eat it before it goes bad, preventing waste. You can make your own triage box: get a clear plastic bin for the top shelf, label it with the words “Eat Me First,” and make sure you and your family pull from that bin when looking for snacks before you eat anything else in the fridge. If there is just one thing you decide to take action on from this list, make it this! It will save you so much money in the long run.

Similarly, use clear plastic bins to separate kinds of foods, use clear glass containers so you can see which foods are inside the containers, and label things with masking tape and the date, e.g. “roasted sweet potatoes, 7/14”. When you never see the kale at back of the fridge because it’s hiding behind other containers, it’s going to wilt and rot, and then you have to throw it away (or compost it if you have a compost). Money down the drain! Don’t let it happen.

4. Buy in season, and save for off-season.

We all know that a fresh tomato from the farmer’s market bought in June is worlds away from a grocery store tomato bought in February, both in flavor and nutrients. The idea is to buy food when it’s abundant, and then save it to eat throughout the winter months when fresh produce isn’t available. You can preserve food by fermenting (which actually increases its nutritional content), canning, dehydrating, or freezing it. Some ideas:

  • Do U-Pick berry picking in summer and freeze or can what you can’t eat fresh. (“You eat what you can, and what you can’t, you can!” #dadjoke)
  • Ask friends that have an abundance of vegetables or fruits from their own gardens if you could have some of it, then preserve it, bringing them some of the preserves back to them as a thank you.
  • Bargain with sellers at the tail end of the farmer’s market to get a great deal on the produce they don’t want to take back home with them.

Right this moment, I’ve got a metric ass-ton (yep, I’ve decided that’s a unit of measurement) of parsley in my dehydrator, harvested from my garden just this morning, that I am drying for use throughout the rest of the year. I throw some in autumn and winter soups and stews, and I will use some in my own homemade Italian sausage seasoning that I use to make magical pork sausage patties.

5. Grow your own herbs and produce.

There are few things better than fresh herbs and produce. The problem? Once harvested, fresh produce goes bad really fast. Moreover, store-bought produce and herbs are not nearly as flavorful and often come wrapped in unnecessary plastic packaging. The solution? Grow your own!

While having a full-scale vegetable garden can be fun and fulfilling and gives you “local-local-local” produce that is incredibly flavorful and rich in nutrients, I realize that gardening isn’t for everyone. But anyone can at least grow a few homegrown herbs in mason jars on the windowsill. Being able to snip from your windowsill herb garden whenever you need a little basil or thyme will reduce both the cost and waste of buying fresh herbs. Oh, and if you happen to buy green onions as the store, you can regrow them by playing the roots in a little bit of water in a mason jar!

If you do decide to start gardening, I highly recommend Square Foot Gardening, a highly-efficient and low-maintenance way to grow food in a small space. I was a total gardening newbie and was extremely intimidated by the idea of “gardening,” but the book helped give me a foolproof system to follow that I knew I would work as long as I followed the steps (and it did!). The initial cost wasn’t insignificant, but I am already getting more produce than I could have imagined, and it’s still early days. There’s no satisfaction like snipping a cucumber straight from the vine and taking big bites of crunchy, flavorful cucumber as you putz around the garden! Then, when you have abundance from your own garden, be sure to make sure nothing goes to waste by preserving everything you can’t eat!