How to Reduce Food Waste at Home and Save Money
Food wastage could be making you lose your dollars.
It is currently estimated that about one third of the food produced globally goes to waste. This equates to about 1.3 billion tons of food trashed by all of us. Although the majority of this wastage is due to corporate practices, we individually also play a big part in adding to the food waste pile.
So what are we doing wrong? How are we wasting food and 'throwing' our money away?
Below are some tips on how to reduce food waste at home and save money.
1. Cosmetic Filtering
We have become too pampered by advertisers and retailers. They often make food look so nice and ‘perfect’ that they have skewed our standards and expectations to an overly unrealistic level.
We want apples that are perfectly red, tomatoes that are round and vegetables that don't wilt. If something looks less than perfect, we don't buy it or worst, throw them away.
The truth is that food does not have to look perfect. It is perfectly natural for fruits and vegetables to have some blemishes (in fact you should be more cautious of fruits and vegetables that look too good because that may mean that a lot of pesticide was used during the growing process). The appearance of vegetables and fruits does not affect their nutritional value. For example, a slight discoloration in apples (being yellow instead of red) is due to an enzyme reaction and not due to food spoilage.
Fruits and vegetables are generally safe to consume once the blemished parts have been cut off.
However, do be cautious about blemishes on meat or fish. The blemishes in meat or fish may actually be bacteria, which create toxic substances. Do not eat blemished meat or fish.
2. Understanding Expiry Dates
Our lack of understanding of what the expiry dates mean could be causing us to throw away food that is still edible and in good condition. So being clear on what the expiry dates mean can help us to plan how we consume the food that we buy as well as save some money!
Below are some of the typical dates we often see on packaging and what they really mean:
What it means
Best before date
This date refers to the due date whereby consumers get to enjoy the product at its best quality/ flavor/form. The product is usually still safe to eat beyond the best before date.
Sell by date
This date is meant for the supermarket/shop keepers. The date refers to when the product needs to be removed off the shelves. It does not mean the product is spoilt. As a consumer, we just need to make sure that we buy the product before the sell by date is over. Common items with sell by dates include eggs and milk. For eggs, they are good up to 4 weeks pass the sell by date. For milk, it is safe to consume for up to one week.
Some beers display a best before date and others will display a born on date. The born on date refers to the beer's manufacturing/ processed date. Beer usually spoils about 3 months after it’s born on date, depending on the storage temperature.
Used by date
Beyond this date, some food items may be unsafe to eat. This is because there may be a build up of bacteria or the nutrients may not be stable. However, it is not to be automatically assumed that all food immediately turns bad when the clock strikes 12 at the used by date. Food could still be safe a few days beyond this date depending on how it was stored.
If you order catering for a party, it is usually all right to order 10% to 15% less than the number of guests attending. If you are having a potluck party, remember to ask your friends the type and quantity of food they are bringing to reduce food waste.
Do note that food expiry date labels are just general guidance. Prior to using any of the products, you should exercise caution and rely on your senses to check if food products are still safe to eat. If you detect mold or smell something weird, don't take the risk.
There are pretty useful websites like Eatbydate and Stilltasty which give you great guidance on the shelf lives of different food products. So check them out before you decide on whether to throw any food products away.
3. Over Supplying
Some of us are prone to getting more than we really need. It is not rocket science to deduce that if we stock up more than we need, we will likely end up wasting much of what we bought due to food spoilage. Oversupply is the direct result of our bad habits - we don't plan our shopping trips well, we let ourselves loose by letting our stomach do the thinking, we are unable to let go of a good deal.
To shop smart and save ourselves some money, it is good to understand some typical psychology tricks that supermarkets use to get us to buy more.
- Items at the supermarket get moved around to different locations at different times. The purpose is to get customers to spend more time looking for their familiar items, while increasing the chance for them to buy other things.
- Items that are considered more essential (e.g. toilet paper, milk) are placed at the back of the store so customers have to walk through more aisles (therefore exposed to more items to buy) to get to them.
- Grocery carts are getting bigger and bigger - and with good reasons (for the supermarkets of course!). Research has shown that when the size of the cart doubled, customers tend to buy 40 percent more.
- Bright colored fruits that greet customers when they walk into the store, the delicious smell from the bakery or roasted section, soft soothing music playing at the background- all these are subtle techniques used by supermarkets to enhance the shopper's experience so they can shop more.
- It's difficult to pass on a good deal and people tend to buy more when they spot one. However, beware that some deals may not really be as good as it seems. Some supermarkets intentionally hike up prices prior to a promotion so things aren’t really cheaper than before.
4. Consumer Habits
Our personal habits can also contribute to food waste. Some changes in habits that can reduce food waste at home and save money include:
- Consciously choosing to eat food items that are purchased earlier.
We often let our mood dictate/influence what we want to eat. It is not entirely a bad thing, but do note that it may sometimes cause us to ignore older food products (until they turn bad). Do take stock of what you have in the fridge and whenever possible, eat food items that were purchased first.
- Plan meals using our leftovers
We may sometimes be reluctant to eat leftovers because we do not want to eat the same thing again on consecutive days. However, eating leftovers does not only involve reheating the same food. We can always revamp our leftovers by using the leftover ingredients to cook entirely different dishes. A simple example is using leftover rice to cook a delicious plate of fried rice!
- Check our food stock before shopping
Have you ever bought something from the store e.g. eggs, only to realize that you actually still have a whole tray in the fridge? Before we go grocery shopping, it is good for us to do a quick check of what we have at home - there may be food items that we have forgotten about.
- Be realistic
Usually, buying in bigger quantity can save us more money (e.g. bigger vs smaller jar of mayo is cheaper per gram). However, we need to be realistic about how much we can actually use. If you are staying alone or have a small family, it may be difficult to finish something in a big quantity. In the long run, you may actually waste more money. Buying in smaller quantities has its perks - it requires less storage space, you can have more variety at home, and you can definitely help to reduce food waste.
- Bag it
If we are dining out and can't finish something, we should have the habit to bag it. Don't be embarrassed to take leftovers home - we are saving ourselves money while doing our part to reduce food waste.
Do you think food wastage is costing you?
5. Storage Habits
Our storage habits play a huge part in determining the lifespan of our food. Some general tips:
- Don't keep food in damp places.
- Don't overload the fridge as it reduces its capacity to run well. There should be good air circulation to keep food fresh.
- Use the same storage place for the same type of food. When storing food in the fridge, put meat and fish produce at the bottom compartments to prevent the juices from contaminating other food.
- Try to store produce whole. Only cut them when you need them (e.g. don't cut up an avocado and store).
- Freeze or refrigerate perishable foods (cooked or raw) within 2 hours of purchase/cooking or 1 hour if the temperature is above 90 °F (15°C).
- The freezer temperature should be set at 0°F (-18°C) and below and refrigerator should be set between 32°F (0°C) and 40°F (4°C).
- Eat leftovers within 3-4 days. You can box up leftovers in small portions and freeze them so they can be kept longer.
Reference: USDA guide
- Keep fruits that emit ethylene gas away from produce that are sensitive to ethylene (causing premature ripening and spoilage). You can also buy ethylene absorbing discs for your fridge to help prolong produce shelf life.
Examples of common produce that emit ethylene gas: Apples, unripe banana, avocado, peaches and tomatoes.
Examples of common produce that are sensitive to ethylene gas: Broccoli, leafy vegetables, carrots, cauliflower, cabbage, cucumbers and peppers.
- Not all produce is suitable for the fridge. Common examples include:
Cold temperature in the fridge will cause it to sprout. So keep it in a mesh bag (provided by the store or an unused stocking) and store it in a dry and dark place.
Bread goes stale faster in the fridge due to processes called retrogradation and recrystallization. It is better to freeze bread (if you can't finish in the next couple of days) or leave it out.
Putting potatoes in the fridge will turn the starch to sugar which makes your potato sweeter and harder. Store it in a paper bag, in a cool dark place.
Onions are best kept in a cool, dark and dry area in a mesh bag. Refrigerate it will stop its ability to keep fresh and also soften its texture.
Putting bananas in the fridge will turn them mushy and black. To keep them longer, wrap the stem with a plastic wrap (e.g. cling foil/wrap).
If you have any leftover herbs, mix them with olive oil or butter and freeze them in the ice cube tray. Use them to season your next meal or simply spread them on bread!
- Make use of containers to keep food fresh by compartmentalizing the food. This is important especially to prevent cross contamination of cooked and uncooked food and also to help separate produce that emit ethylene gas from those that are sensitive to it.You can use plastic containers (which are cheaper and lighter), but I personally like glass or Corelle airtight lid containers (to reduce my exposure to any toxins in plastic).
- In addition, you should store cooked food in shallow containers. Using shallow containers help to cool food faster. Storing cooked food in a large, deep container will keep the food warmer longer and may encourage bacteria to grow.
- I also use a fruit and vegetable cushion in the fridge. It's a cheap and easy way to prolong the life of the produce by preventing bruising. You can easily cut the cushion to fit the size you need and place it on the fridge tray where you usually store your produce. I bought the cushion made by Dualplex. It's cheaper than the more well known brand Lakeland (which sells a range of food preserving products like vegetable bags and containers), but to me, it works just as well. The great thing is that this cushion is also washable - a quick wash and its all ready to be reused again. Just make sure that the foam cushion is nice and dry before putting it back in the fridge.
A fruit and vegetable cushion which helps to extend the shelf life of your produce by preventing bruising and mold.
For more extensive guidance on how to properly store different types of food, you can check out the Real Simple guide on food storage.
Lastly, if you do see expired food in your house, don't be too quick to throw it away. Some expired items can be used for other purposes. For example, expired flour can be mixed with a little water and use to clean oily dishes. This not only saves you a little money, but using flour to clean dishes also helps to protect your skin.
Use your citrus peels to make an all-purpose home cleaner.
1. Put the citrus peels in a glass jar (about half a jarful).
2. Fill the jar with vinegar, close the lid tightly, & place it in a dark place for 2 weeks.
3. Strain the mixture & then throw away the peels.
4. Pour the mixture into a spray bottle & your cleaner is ready!