How to Stop Wasting Food

by Katy on August 12, 2012 · 23 comments

This article is from a guest post that ran on Wasted Food awhile back. However, the information is timeless. Enjoy!

With food prices so high, there’s simply no excuse for food waste in the home. Regular readers of The Non-Consumer Advocate already know that the food waste issue is near and dear to my heart. Two years ago, I issued a Waste No Food Challenge and have been working ever since to get my family down to a zero food waste existence. I have learned much in my quest to eradicate food waste, and here’s what’s working for my family so far:

Be realistic: It’s all fine and admirable to fill your grocery cart with tofu and bok choy, but if that’s not how your family actually eats, then it’s just a recipe for wastage.

Serve smaller portions: This is especially important with children, but can be a issue with adults as well. It’s perfectly okay to have seconds, so make those servings appropriate to each individual.

Stop cooking such huge amounts: Face facts, you’re not an army cook. When cooking meals, estimate the amount of leftovers that’ll be produced and use your head. Leftover chicken soup is good once or twice, but after that it’s not always so tempting.

Buy smaller amounts: Many foods are less per pound if you buy a larger amount. However, unless you have a family of eight, this can be a certain road to food waste. It’s okay to buy the actual amount of food you need. I make pizza from scratch and buy the toppings from the pizza joint up the street. Not only is it cheaper, but I’m able to buy exactly the amount needed.

Only freeze the food you’ll want to eat again: Many people stash uneaten food in the freezer, only to be forgotten until that revolting smell of freezer burn has taken over. Which brings me to:

Eat the food in your freezer: When your freezer gets overly full of food, it becomes difficult to know the contents until it’s too late. Go on a spelunking tour of your freezer and start eating what you can. (The thriftiest meal comes from food you’ve already bought and prepared.)

Think about leftovers: When making a meal, think ahead to what the leftovers will be and how they’ll get eaten up. This may as simple as putting meal size portions into containers for work lunches, or even simply incorporating ingredients into another meal. For example, I roasted a chicken two nights ago. I used the extra chicken in some enchiladas last night, and then ate those leftovers for lunch today. If there’s more than you can eat, freeze the leftovers or share with friends and neighbors. (This is a delicious tradition to start, as you potentially end up on the receiving end of the deal!)

Plan Your Meals: For many people, this means scheduling the week’s menu ahead of time. I don’t do this personally, as I loosely follow the pantry principle, (I keep a stocked pantry that can be tranformed into multiple meals.) I usually plan my family’s meals a day ahead, which fits my personality better.

Store your food properly: If your flour gets buggy or your tortillas get crusty, then you have a problem. Stash dry goods in the freezer for 24 hours when first purchased to avoid moths and such, and use tight fitting lids for foods in the refrigerator. I’m a rabid fan of Pyrex dishes with snap-on lids. The glass means I can actually see the contents, and the lid keeps the food fresh. For me, monkey see food, monkey eat food. (Seriously, “out of sight out of mind” is my middle name.)

Institute a leftovers night: Often, there’s not enough of certain leftovers to create an entire meal, but they can be certainly be warmed up and set out buffet style.

Teach yourself to create new meals from leftovers: I’ve written about tucking bits and pieces into a pasta salad, but soups and burritos also lend themselves to leftover magic.

What are your methods to avoid food waste? Please share your ideas in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Linda in Indiana August 12, 2012 at 10:10 am

I,too,do better with the Pantry Principle than planning a week’s menu. However, some days I am simply brain dead. So, I try to keep a master list of dishes that we will eat and refer to that when I can’t think or am in a rut. I also keep a list on the side of the freezer via a magnet with a list of fruits, veggies, etc that are inside. When I use up the last,it gets crossed off. I try to think of leftovers as planned-overs….planning to use them, even if it means transforming them into something entirely tasting different. I also try to think of the money I would be wasting if the food were not eaten. Being tight,oops—frugal…seems to motivate me as well as not wanting to create waste:)


Laura's Last Ditch--Adventures in Thrift Land August 12, 2012 at 10:40 am

This is a digression, perhaps, but I discovered once, with some crusty tortillas, you can just throw them in the microwave and they’ll turn crunchy. Perfect for tostadas or to break up for chips. They’re so good, I’ve done it on purpose.

There’s always some way to use up food that’s not spoiled. If you force yourself to, creativity will prevail.


Katy August 12, 2012 at 10:55 am

That’s a great idea, thanks!



Renee CA August 12, 2012 at 3:09 pm

How long in the micro? Corn, right?


Julie August 12, 2012 at 10:51 am

We bought a FoodSaver vacuum sealer a couple of years ago. Best investment ever. We purchase meat at Costco every other month, divide the larger packages into meal-sized portions for the two of us, and package for the freezer using the FoodSaver. The quality and the price of meat at Costco is much better than our local grocery store. Of course, this only works if you can be a disciplined Costco shopper and can resist all of the other temptations that you will not /cannot eat promptly.

Like Linda we have a master list of dinners using pantry staples so when we’re too tired to cook, we have something ready without resorting to take out. Helps having two cooks in the family, too!


Susan August 12, 2012 at 11:08 am

I seldom have any food wastage at all. Food is the biggest expense in my life next to my house! I plan menus, buy exactly what I need and we seldom have leftovers…if there are any, I can guarantee they will be gone by next lunch time. Good advice, Katy. My sister in law could learn a thing or two from you about frugality. My brother and his wife earn more 7 times what I earn a year and are still always “broke”…go figure.


Katy August 12, 2012 at 11:17 am

Holy crap!



EcoCatLady August 12, 2012 at 11:55 am

Funny you should mention that… I just wrote a post on how not to waste fresh produce:

My tactics basically boil down to:

-Don’t buy too much
-Don’t save it for a special treat (with produce, gluttony is good)
-Use things in whole units or chop it up immediately (ie: NEVER stash half a cucumber back in the fridge, it’s a recipe for disaster)
-Convert it from “ingredient” to “food” as quickly as possible
-Make soup or compote when it’s starting to go soft
-If all else fails, freeze it!


betsyohs August 12, 2012 at 1:49 pm

I just read An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler. Did you recommend it here? I can’t remember. At any rate, it’s a pretty quick read and has a lot of ideas for using up leftovers and making vegetables easier to eat (so less likely to go bad). One of my favorites is to do a bunch of cooking right when you get home from the market – roast up all the veggies that can be roasted, cook the leafy greens, half start all those meals you’re thinking about for later in the week, then store them in the fridge. I’ve found that when I am cooking something that takes a long time to cook, I can get through most of a second meal’s worth of cooking while the first one finishes.


Shannon August 12, 2012 at 2:56 pm

A mistake I make (and am working to improve!) is that I sometimes buy a lot of foods that represent what I aspire to, like super healthy foods, gourmet things, or that latest thing Dr. Oz had on his show that I never heard of I my life. Non of this is inherently bad, but then I try to overhaul the family eating all at once it inevitably fails, and we waste. I am always better off picking things we will realistically eat, and maybe fold one new item or meal into the weekly shopping.


Practical Parsimony August 12, 2012 at 2:58 pm

I deliberately cook much more than I can eat–planned leftovers. I don’t mind eating leftovers forever. Sometimes, I do freeze meat I cannot eat within five days. On Wednesday, I cooked three chicken breasts. I shared the meal with a friend and gave him the rest of the breast not served to him. I have eaten two chicken breasts since Wednesday in sandwiches. Today, Sunday, all is gone. I have made soup and immediately divided it into Tupperware bowls. I could either take it to work when I worked. Or, I can just pull out a bowl for eating.

There is a plan when I buy excess produce. I only buy excess when it is on sale. I dehydrate! Celery is one thing that needs to be dehydrated around here. I like it for seasoning, but not to eat. Since I can waste it easily, I used to freeze it. Now, I dehydrate. I have green grapes bought for $.99/lb that will be frozen.

Searching the refrigerator for something to eat, I found four Cheddar cheese blocks on a low shelf, opened, partly eaten, and safely stored. I thought I was out of cheese! In my defense I have to point out that bending to see those shelves is extremely difficult. I do ignore the pain and search for food often, but obviously not often enough to find cheese–one of my favorite snacks.

I have a well-stocked pantry and loose food plans, also. Scheduling/planning meals does not work for my head. However, a friend comes once a week to help me and eats lunch and dinner here. For that event I do have more concrete plans, at least for the meat portion of the meal. He eats anything, so my most simple meal is lauded. Plus, he gets meals packed for his dinner the next day.

It is still wasteful, but anything going off goes to my hens.


Chris August 12, 2012 at 3:03 pm

Like Susan, we almost never toss food. Planning is essential We often “kangaroo” dinners. Make a pot of pulled pork Monday, (skip over Tuesday), and use the rest Wednesday over rice. Meat loaf from Tuesday gets heated in pasta sauce and tossed over spaghetti on Thursday. By not eating the same food two days in a row, old is new again! Any other leftovers are lunch!


monique damus August 12, 2012 at 5:06 pm

I don’t meal plan as much as I would like, but when I put something in the freezer, I make sure to put it on the calendar somewhere in the next couple of weeks. I know what nights are our busiest, so I will put “lentil soup in freezer” on a night that I am tutoring (my husband cooks for the kids). That way it gets eaten and I know that for that night, the meal is done!


Katy August 12, 2012 at 5:36 pm

I don’t meal plan at all, yet there always seems to be something to cook for dinner.



Marcy August 12, 2012 at 7:58 pm

Clean and organize your fridge!

I have been guilty of purchasing new yoghurts and finding old, expired ones at the back of the fridge, or throwing out some celery that was lurking and went rotten. A clean, organised fridge will let you see what you actually have and use it up.

Be flexible about “use by dates”. Here in Australia we have two types of dates stamped on food and I assume it’s the same elsewhere;”Use by” and “best before”.

The first is for the date by which the manufacture advise you must consume the product before it spoils (like milk), but I find even that date has some leeway – use the smell/taste test.

The second is the date until which the manufacturer will guarantee the product will be the same standard as when it was purchased. This doesn’t mean it’s not fit to eat, it just might not be as fresh/sweet/whatever as when you first purchased it past that date. Typically used on items with longer shelf life. These ones have even more leeway – like weeks or months!


Lili@creativesavv August 13, 2012 at 6:41 am

We waste very little food in our house. That may be due to the fact that I freeze all leftovers, only buy the highly perishable fresh produce that I know we’ll consume in a week, and instead buy more frozen veggies and the longer lasting fresh ones, and I’m very creative in our use of any odd bits that need using up.

I do cook mega batches, for the purpose of freezing meals for future busy days. It saves time, money, and as I freeze in meal size portions, there’s no waste.

We don’t serve meals “family-style”. I plate up everybody’s meals for them, and divide it all up according to appetites of each person. There are no spoonfuls of this, bits of that leftover after dinner here. If I haven’t made quite enough, then I get out some slices of bread. If someone has been snacking, they let me know ahead of time and I serve them less that night. It all seems to work out for us.


Constance August 13, 2012 at 8:29 am

This is what I do…works great.


Paula in the UP August 13, 2012 at 9:20 am

My biggest offender is buying items I “think” we’ll eat and vegetables/ produce.

There are some foods that DH won’t eat or will only eat. For example he will only eat iceberg lettuce, I like all the leafy types, but to buy a different kind for each of us we can never eat both before it goes bad. This happens with bread sometimes. He will only eat white, I like the healthier whole grain varieties. Well I sometimes forget that we will need to freeze at least half a loaf of each type or it will go moldy before we can each finish it. So I often sacrifice the healthier version and just eat what DH likes as to avoid throwing things out.


Betty Winslow September 15, 2015 at 3:45 am

Can you buy lettuce that you like in prechopped bags? My husband prefers iceberg, so I buy a head for him and a bag of roamine or spring greens for me. You can also sometimes buy other greens at a store salad bar. As for the bread, can you repackage yours in 2 slice bags and put it back in the bag and in the freezer?


another mom August 13, 2012 at 11:30 am

I give any unused leftovers to the critters. What the great pyrenees won’t eat the chickens will. They eat anything. So I just don’t feel it is waste at all. Even veggie peels and fruit scraps can go to the rabbits or the chickens. And when you feed the critters scraps you save money on chicken feed, so it is a good use for leftovers that we don’t eat.


Sara August 15, 2012 at 12:29 am

Here’s a great food waste prevention technique: When I get in to rhythm where I’m cooking every night I like to stick to one style of food for a few days in a row. It makes the grocery shopping so much easier when you buy all things that are compatible at one time. Say its Mexican, I could start out with black beans and Spanish rice with salad the first night, the next day you can make some more side dishes like fajita style grilled veggies and a pico de gallo salsa to complement the leftovers and the next day you make it all into deluxe enchiladas with the works. Each day builds on the last until at the end you don’t have leftovers, you have a feast!!! Then, on to the next culinary destination!!


jax August 31, 2012 at 3:14 pm

when i was living at home, once a week we’d have a ‘smorgsbord/buffet’
night. just put all the leftovers from the fridge and pantry on the side table and everyone choses what they like.


Betty Winslow September 15, 2015 at 3:49 am

My favorite way to use up dribs and drabs of leftovers is soup. I keep a few plastic freezer containers in the freezer and dump in appropriate leftovers: veggies and gravy and bits of meat in one, beans, tomato sauce, tomatoes, cut up burgers in another. When they fill up, I use the contents to make chili or soup, adding more tomato sauce, broth, onions, and seasoning. We call it Serendipity Soup. Always good, never the same twice!


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