Food Maximization: Utilize Scrap
Recently I did an interview with Dana Dratch (Google her work. She's an excellent writer on personal finance and a wonderful human being, too!) We were talking about ways to reduce your grocery budget. One of the strategies that I mentioned was eliminating food waste.
Wasting food is particularly hard on a food budget. Think about it. You've already spent the money. And you get zero benefit from it when it hits the trash. Can't get much worse than that if you're a Dollar Stretcher.
How much do we waste? Good question. And, not an easy one to answer. I'm aware of two studies on the subject. In 2004, The University of Arizona in Tucson found that an incredible 40 to 50% of all food produced in this country goes to waste. But, the study included food that was produced and not sold to the consumer. It included farmers speculating on crops and other sources of waste.
The second study is from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture in 1997, one of the most thorough studies done to date. Their data suggests that 27% of all food is wasted.
And the waste isn't limited to the U.S. A British study quoted in the NY Times indicated England wastes 1/3 of its food. Sweden joins in with 1/4 of its food going to waste. It appears to be a problem in all prosperous and complex societies.
Fortunately for us (the Dollar Stretching consumers), much of the problem can be eliminated. It's not terribly hard to do and doesn't cost a bunch of money. Just adopt a few simple tools to your lifestyle and you could reduce your grocery budget by 25%.
Begin at the grocery store. Recognize that food has a shelf life. Sure there are some canned goods that will probably survive a nuclear attack. But, most of the items we buy will go bad if not eaten. Some in weeks or months. Others in a matter of days. Do you have a plan to eat whatever you buy before it goes bad? Many of us don't like to do a weekly meal plan. OK. But be smart enough to not buy more tomatoes than you can use before they get overripe.
Once you get your groceries home, do a quick inventory of the things that will go bad quickly (like raw fruits and veggies). Make sure that you store them properly. Check the settings on your vegetable keeper in the fridge. Consider using the "green bags" for storing fruits and veggies. Read up on how best to store produce. For instance, we have an article on The Dollar Stretcher site on just that subject.
Manage your pantry or wherever you store your groceries at home. Know what you have. It's easy to push items that you don't often use into the back of the shelf and forget about them. But that's not frugal! Keep a list of the unusual items in your pantry. Look for recipes that would consume them. There are many sites on the web that will let you search their recipe database for a specific ingredient(s). One of my favorites is Recipezaar.com. You're bound to find a recipe that will be a family adventure. And, if you can't find a recipe for your family, instead of letting the item go bad on your shelf, give it to a friend or neighbor. Let them use it. Hopefully they'll return the favor some day.
Rotate your pantry. If you want to be able to grab the can at the front, you'll need to put new purchases in the back. Some Dollar Stretchers go so far as to mark on the package when they bought an item so they can be sure to take the oldest one first.
Don't forget to rotate your freezer, too. Most fresh meats will last for months in your freezer. Other items have their own limit for time in the freezer. Know what's in cold storage and look for recipes that will use the older items. A written inventory on the freezer door is a good idea.
Use your leftovers creatively. I'm not sure when "leftover" became a dirty word. For the most part, they're just as nutritious, just as filling and tasty as the first time out. If your family hates leftovers, you're going to need to become an expert in portion control or you'll waste a lot of food.
Fortunately the freezer and the microwave can transform leftovers into a real asset. Not only will you reduce your grocery bill, but you'll spend less time in the kitchen or the drive-thru line at the fast food joint.
At the end of the meal, store your leftovers so that they'll be convenient to use. Many families are using leftovers to create their own frozen entrees. They'll take a paper plate and add a portion of each of the items served that night. No need to buy expensive frozen entrees from the store. Now you have great meals waiting for you in your own freezer. Smart families stick an inventory of meals under a fridge magnet on the freezer door. Each item lists what's in the meal and when it was prepared. Makes it easy to "shop" for just the meal you want.
Other families find that leftovers make great lunches. They'll package leftovers to make it easy to put them in school or work lunchboxes. Many lunchrooms have microwaves, so it's easy to reheat that special lunch you've brought from home.
Limit the use of restaurants, and when you do eat out, make use of "doggie bags." Most restaurant portions are too big, so unless you want to see your waistline grow, it's foolish to eat everything on your plate (regardless of what your Momma may have told you). But just because you don't want that food to go to your waist, doesn't mean that it has to go to waste! Plan on taking it home. There's nothing high class about wasting food. And, nothing to be ashamed of if you ask for a "to go" box. Just don't forget that it's in your refrigerator and needs to be eaten soon.
So there you have it. Most families can reduce their food bill by 10% or more without doing anything drastic and without depriving themselves. All that's necessary is creating a few new habits. And, that's something that I know you can do.
Gary Foreman is a former financial planner and purchasing manager who currently edits The Dollar Stretcher.com website and newsletters. He's been featured in MSN Money, Yahoo Finance, Fox Business, The Nightly Business Report and he's a regular contributor to US News Money and CreditCards.com. You can follow Gary on Twitter or visit Gary Foreman on Google+.
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