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My Money Story: How A Surprisingly Simple Checklist Saved Us $1,365 A Year By Eliminating Wasted Food

Today I want to introduce a new type of post here on Money Under 30: “My Money Story”. These posts are the financial experiences and lessons of real Money Under 30 readers in their own words.

If you would like to contribute your story to a future post, please email us david@moneyunder30.com with your idea.

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.

Our story

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.

Unexpected benefits

Although the point of the checklist was to avoid wasting food – and wasting money — there were other perks that we didn’t see coming:

  1. 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.
  2. Elliot lost 20 pounds by eating more produce and less packaged food.
  3. 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

Comments

  1. Thank You! My husband and I have a difficult time in this area of our budget. We waste too much food and we also eat outside of the home too often.

    • One thing we’ve found is that a less-filled fridge helps. I grew up in a fridge that was so full you couldn’t see what was in the middle or back of it. That made waste almost inevitable. Eating out-wise, do you have groupon, living social etc. in your area? Makes eating out so much more affordable.

      • Yes, that is a good point about the fridge. We stopped putting things in the drawers, because we couldn’t see what was in them. It led to a lot of forgotten and smelly produce!

  2. I need to try out this checklist for the fridge. I love getting fresh fruit at the farmers market every week but then lose motivation when I have bought 5 pounds of peaches and don’t have a plan. Hopefully steps like these get me back on track!

  3. I’m so happy this post was sent to my inbox today! For the past few days I’ve been talking about how much money my boyfriend and I are wasting by throwing away food! Because of our transient lifestyle (we essentially live in 2 places) food shopping is challenging. For us, I’ve noticed that once a week we’ll get some staples (milk, fruit, bread, nuts, chicken) and go shopping for the rest when we feel like it. We still cook, but this works for us because of how much we travel. I work from home so after I wrap up for the day, I have no problem heading to the grocery store several times a week because it gets me out of the house! I won’t stand for throwing away anymore food!

    • I work from home too and going to the grocery store is nice getting out of the house! Sounds like you have a good plan for your 2-place situation.

  4. Thanks! I’ve had to really rely on lists for our food managment. I post a list on the fridge that is dry erase that lists all the perishable fruit/veggies that are in the fridge. When they are gone I cross them out.

    This helps my husband figure out what’s in the fridge. Apparently men are unable to move one food container to the side to discover what’s behind it. :)

  5. Daniel Groot says:

    I’m looking forward to giving this a try. We are ALWAYS throwing away food. It is a pet peeve of mine. But it disappears into the back of the fridge and gets thrown away two weeks later when I do a mass cleaning.

    I wonder how much the side perk of scanning a list rather than keeping the fridge door open for five minutes while you look through everything, saves you in power?

  6. Thank you so much for sharing this! Eating healthy and avoiding food waste is something I’ve struggled with. One thing I would add related to waste: if you don’t already, start composting! The few times when my partner and I have let something go bad, we add it to our compost, so it is still put to use nourishing our garden. It reduces your household garbage dramatically! We only out our trash bin out every 6-8 weeks. It’s great!

    • Trash bin only every 6-8 weeks is seriously awesome. Your tip to compost is a really good one. Where do you recommend people go to read up on how to start composting?

  7. My husband and I really struggled for a while with wasting food, especially produce. Now if it’s been a while since I purchased the food, I have a freezer meal day where I find recipes that use the ingredients that are going to be going to waste soon, and I make a bunch of meals that can be stored in the freezer for our lunches or nights that neither of us want to cook. I also freeze fruits that we haven’t eaten yet and make smoothies for myself and my girls every morning.

  8. Love this. I’m a big fan of buying local beef and freezing it and supporting my local CSA!

  9. This was a fantastic post, I really liked your ideas. I just moved into a new apartment and there is a farmer’s market just a block down the street every Saturday and I’ve been hesitant to check it out, but this will give me the push I need to do that. I also already got a hold of that storage list of yours, and that will be a handy tool as well. Long live eating fresh, whole foods.

    • Take some cash, a couple reusable bags and your curiosity! The first few times I went I watched people who looked like they knew what they were doing and asked vendors questions when I was unsure about something. 9 times out of 10 they were more than willing to explain/help as long as I needed. Hope you enjoy yours.

  10. My husband and I are just starting our debt snowball, so we’ve really been searching for ways to cut our spending. Groceries are a major hit for us; for a household of two, our monthly grocery budget was embarrassing. I’ve started a meal-planning system. I plan out our meals for the week, often trying to use up items that have been in the pantry for a while but are still good (like that bag of jasmine rice or can of white kidney beans). Then I write the grocery list based on what I need to purchase for those meals, add in food for lunches and breakfast (oatmeal, eggs, bacon, bread, cheese, etc.); milk, tea, and juice; any staples like flour, sugar, or peanut butter; and add in items for snacks–in our case, we eat a lot of baby carrots, apples, almonds, and string cheese. We’re still trying to cut down our list, but meal-planning has saved us a lot of money because we’re not buying broccoli and green beans and kale and then throwing things away. That kind of waste not only costs money, but also is far from the green, sustainable lifestyle I want to live. I’m going to check out your list and try integrating something like that so that I can be even more efficient.

    You raise a great point about farmers markets. I would also point out that a lot of produce freezes well, so you can still eat local in winter–blueberries and green beans both come to mind as foods that can be frozen easily. You can also buy big bags of herbs like basil and dehydrate them at home. Thanks, Jacqueline!

    • Great tips, Denise. I freeze a lot of meals and ripe fruit but not many vegetables. Any tips on freezing vegetables for those interested in getting started (e.g. a list of which vegetables freeze best and how to do it well)?

  11. I will try to use your advice and elimaite my food waste to save some money.

  12. Learning how to reuse/revamp leftovers and how to freeze foods that have a short lifespan can also save you tons of money. Freeze strawberries or raspberries before they rot, you can use them straight away in a smoothie or make pies and jams later on. Roast chicken leftover can become a chicken sandwich, wrap, salad and even soup, you won’t feel that you’re eating the same thing over and over again!

  13. I am going to have to try this one out as we still throw out food even though we only make 2 meals per week and eat off the left overs. We still throw out many of our fruits and veggies, and I hate doing that. Thanks for the tip!

    • The trick is finding what works for your household. Sounds like you’re “on it” in terms of finding what’ll work for you. I have no doubt you’ll get to the point where you’re not throwing food out real soon.

  14. My wife and I’s main tip would be to buy in bulk some of your staple items at places like Sam’s Club or Costco. Make sure you get items that have a long shelve life though so they don’t go bad. We like to buy oatmeal, rice, olive oil, granola bars, ketchup and even the 20lb bags of frozen chicken. Not everything is cheaper there so you have to watch out.

  15. The benchmark was run on a pertty old MacBook Pro 2.2Ghz core duo with 4 gigs of ram running Debian Lenny.I will look at the memory consumption in the upcoming cross-language benchmark.Concerning your other ‘requests’, a qualitative comparison of documentation is really hard, I have been focussing mainly on the framework acting as some sort of Comet / Websocket and in that situation I don’t think SSL support is an issue as i imagine that in a production setting these daemons would be sitting behind a proxy anyway.