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Today’s post comes from Jacqueline Smith and offers a surprisingly easy thing we can all do to reduce wasted food (and save big money) – David
The average American family of four throws away $1,365 to $2,275 worth of food per year, according to the National Resources Defense Council. Here’s how we learned to completely eliminate wasted food for an entire year.
Elliot and I come from similar backgrounds: we both grew up on Iowa farms and attended the same college from 2001 to 2005. I’m guessing if we’d known each other during that time, we would’ve had pretty common experiences and expectations about food. But by the time we met and married in 2009, our post-college years changed what food meant to each of us.
After graduation, Elliot headed to San Francisco. Because of his good job in IT and his practical Midwestern upbringing, he lived comfortably but responsibly — saving money but not thinking twice about enjoying everything San Francisco had to offer. When it came to groceries, he focused on buying things that came out of a box, can, or the freezer section so there wasn’t pressure to eat it within a certain timeframe. He avoided leafy green foods because he was afraid he’d waste them. He estimates 20 percent of the perishable food he bought during those days ended up in the trash, simply because he ate out spontaneously, was often too tired to cook after work, and could afford to throw food away.
Meanwhile, I went to the Marshall Islands to teach. Halfway between Australia and Hawaii, these islands used to be self-sustaining with fish, breadfruit, pandanus, and taro, but because of a complex political history and overpopulation, the bulk of the food on the Marshall Islands today arrives from other countries in tin cans, plastic bottles, boxes, and freezer-frosted bags.
For two years, I ate that way and didn’t realize I was malnourished until I got home. When I had my first bite of pineapple during a layover in Hawaii, I vowed I’d never take fresh produce for granted again.
When I met Elliot two years later, he was on board for a food lifestyle overhaul…and I was excited to have a partner in crime.
We knew we didn’t want to waste food, but we also we didn’t want to spend all of our time talking about what to eat and when to eat it. So I started writing weekly checklists that ranked our food from most perishable to least and posted them on the fridge.
Any time we were wondering what to eat, we’d each look at the checklist. When we made it a priority to eat the most perishable foods first, by the end of the week, all the food was gone and none of it had ended up in the trash.
Sweet relief! We’d found a painless way to avoid wasting food.
Although the point of the checklist was to avoid wasting food – and wasting money — there were other perks that we didn’t see coming:
- Our food bills decreased from about $125/week to $100/week because the checklist reminded us to eat the older perishable food before we bought anything new.
- Elliot lost 20 pounds by eating more produce and less packaged food.
- Meal planning became easier and more straightforward.
And one surprise for us tech addicts:
4. We tried meal planning/grocery apps, and they worked…but not as well as a piece of paper on the fridge. Just because something is flashier doesn’t mean it works better.
What you can do
If you think a simple checklist on your fridge might help you, you can check out ours here. But checklist or not, here are three easy ways to stop wasting food, save money, and get healthier in the process:
1. Cut out the middleman. When possible, shop at farmers’ markets. I know many of you don’t have access to farmers markets year-round nor have the time or conditions to run your own gardens. There’s no quick solution to that issue. But if you do live in an area with robust farmers’ markets, why not buy directly from the source? I used to shop at a big box store right across from a farmers market because I didn’t know any better, and frankly, the farmers’ market intimidated me. It took someone else showing me the ropes to get over that, but once I saw the savings and how much longer our food stayed fresh, I didn’t look back.
2. Store your produce effectively. Every fruit and vegetable has a way it likes to be stored. You don’t have to memorize those ways, you just need a quick reference guide on hand when you’re unpacking groceries. Here’s one I created for you for free.
3. Ask your family questions. Find out what keeps them from eating the produce you buy. Here are a couple common barriers:
- Not liking the taste of raw vegetables. My dad is a classic example: he won’t eat a salad, but he’ll eat a stir-fry. So stir-fry it is.
- Hating the washing, chopping, and peeling. Teach your family how to prep produce faster or do it for them. Elliot does all the kitchen cleaning in exchange for never having to chop, peel, or cook anything. What would be your fair trade?
Once you know the biggest pain points in the house, you can adapt quickly. But until you ask, you’re just guessing and you might be wrong. A lot of people are open to eating more produce, they’re just intimidated by it for one reason or another.
The bottom line
The average American family of four wastes $1,365 to $2,275 worth of food per year. Yours doesn’t have to suffer the same fate. Find a system that works for your household and run with it. For us it’s a checklist, and the money we save helps fund an overseas vacation every year. Last year it made getting to Japan for 10 days a lot easier. What can it do for you?
Jacqueline Smith, MPH creates simple tools that make healthy living easy. You can find her checklist and a free produce storage reference guide for Money Under 30 readers at http://freeguide.dontwasteproduce.com