Are You Throwing Away or Wasting Food Needlessly?

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in Frugality

Looking to save money where ever possible, many people will spend hours or even days searching out the best deals on cell phone service, the lowest rates on credit cards or working on ways to make their homes more energy efficient. But perhaps because we’re blessed with an over abundance of food, many of the same people won’t think twice about throwing away what is often perfectly good food, giving back some of the savings they’ve achieved in other areas of their budgets.

No matter how many coupons you clip or how careful you might be to stay within a pre-set grocery budget, money goes right down the drain (or in the trash) with the food we don’t consume.

A friend of mine who grew up in Mexico but has lived in the United States for many years finds Americans treatment of food, well, appalling!. We’ll order meals at restaurants and only eat half, throw away left-overs, or toss unopened containers of “expired” products.

While we might think of this as just another part of life in the “good ole USA”, compared to the rest of the world we’re not terribly food efficient. When compared to people in poor or developing countries, we quite literally blow a substantial amount of money wasting food each and every year. That can come to thousands of dollars over a lifetime.

What are some of the reasons we might feel the need to waste or throw away food?

Overbuying to take advantage of volume discounts

Ironically, one of the primary reasons we might waste food is through our attempts to save money when buying it. It’s no secret that one of the most effective ways to save money on groceries is by buying in bulk.

We stock up on multiple items that are on sale, buy extra larges sizes, or shop in food warehouses like Costco and Sam’s Club that sell food in institutional sizes. But no matter how much we might save buying in bulk, if we buy more of anything than we can use, we’re wasting money. What we’re unable to use in a timely manner will often be discarded.

No matter how much money you might save buying in bulk, never buy more of anything than you’re likely to use in a reasonable amount of time.

Improper food storage

Food might spoil more quickly if refrigerator temperatures are set at less than optimal levels in order to save money on electricity. That’s a matter of exchanging one cost advantage for another and I’d be willing to bet that any money saved on power will be more than offset if you’re forced to dispose of a gallon or two of milk or a box of eggs and a head of lettuce.

Proper food storage is essential in order to stretch the grocery budget to maximum efficiency. This is particularly true if you do buy in bulk. There has to be an appropriate amount of freezer, refrigerator and dry goods storage space for the volume of food you typically buy, and food needs to be stored at temperatures likely to keep them fresh during the period of consumption.

An aversion to left overs

Unless you’re able to prepare food with complete precision in regard to quantity, you probably have left-overs. In many households, throwing these out is a way of life. But as convenient as that seems, it is virtually the same as throwing away money.

We do our best to keep meal quantities in line with our consumption habits, but even then we still get left-overs from time to time. Usually, we’ll use the left-overs either for tomorrow’s lunch or we’ll feed them to our dog, which saves on dog food. Very little ever ends up in the trash or down the garbage disposal.

Expiration date over kill

Are you one of those people who toss food when it reaches the expiration date indicated on the package? Believe it or not, this may be one of the most unnecessary wastes of food you can engage in.

In Food expiration dates: What do they really mean? (Yahoo! Green, August 16) Ann Pietrangelo reports that:

“Expiration dates on food products can protect consumer health, but those dates are really more about quality than safety, and if not properly understood, they can also encourage consumers to discard food that is perfectly safe to eat…On average, in the U.S. we waste about 14% of the food we buy each year. The average American family of four throws out around $600 worth of groceries every year.”

The article also points out the important difference between the “use by” date—indicating the last day that the item is at its best quality—and “sell by” date—indicating to stores that the product should be taken off the shelf because it will begin to decline in quality after that date.

This is just me, and I recognize that we all have different preferences and practices in this area, but when I see that a food item reaches it’s given expiration date, I’ll usually apply the sniff/taste test. You can usually tell when food is bad if it smells or tastes bad. If it smells OK, I’ll taste it, and if it tastes OK, I’ll make it a point to use it right away.

Obviously, if it smells bad I won’t bother to taste it, and in the trash it will go. And it goes without saying that even the sniff/taste test will only be employed on recently expired items. If the item is more than a few days past expiration, I will toss it. But because we’re careful to buy only what we need as well as to store it properly, the sniff/taste test only needs to be employed occasionally.

I’ve done this many times with different foods even including milk and eggs. I’ve come to view expiration dates as yellow alerts, meaning the stamped date becomes the “take a closer look” date. It stands to reason that there must be some leeway on store issued expiration dates—I’ve never heard of anyone getting sick from eating day old bread, or drinking milk that’s two or three days past expiration. Usually when there is some sort of illness tied to a food item it has more to do with the entire batch during production.

Do you find yourself throwing out food on a regular basis? Do you view food expiration dates as absolute throw away dates? What methods to you use to make sure you don’t waste food?

(photo credit: jbloom)

Kevin At Out of Your RutThis post is from FiscalGeek staff writer: Kevin Mercadante. I’m very excited to have him contributing to the site. You can find out more about him at his own blog OutOfYourRut.com.

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2010/09/24 at 8:26 am

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Penny Frugalista 2010/09/09 at 8:30 am

One of my biggest pet peeves is throwing out food unnecessarily. I will use everything we have to make dinner, but my husband is anti-leftovers. Which means I’m the one eating them for lunch at work the next day (or two). So I do my best to cook exactly enough for our dinner with minimal waste/leftovers. But my in-laws are even worse — they’ll toss anything that’s a day past expiration, or that’s been opened and can be reused. Example: They opened a container of ricotta cheese to add to our macaroni dinner last Monday. The following Tuesday, we came back to eat another meal. My husband went to grab the ricotta cheese to add to his macaroni (we’re Italian, we eat a lot of the stuff!), but his parents were saying, “Don’t use that, it’s bad!” Well, we looked at the expiration date — OCTOBER 12! — took a sniff of it and deemed it fine to use. I think they were appalled, but there was no way I was letting them throw it out.

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Kevin 2010/09/09 at 2:02 pm

PF – I have to confess, I’m not much of a left over guy myself! Which is why we try extra hard to zero out the evening meal by cooking no more then we think we’ll eat.

There are some ways to prepare left overs that can make them more enjoyable–for example, my wife will fry left over spaghetti in a little bit of butter and make it as a side dish a couple of nights later. (It actually tastes better then when first made!) I’m not a big fan of left over meat, but you can do a lot with it by smothering it in gravey. Maybe it takes more imagination than most people have to make leftovers “work”.

I’m with you on expiration dates. I think we tend to OD on media horror stories on food poisoning then over react. But as I wrote in the original post, most cases of food poisoning seem to be related to situations where an entire food batch was tainted, not from use of expired products. There is a balance in there somewhere.

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rb 2010/09/11 at 8:10 am

My food budget can easily get out of countrol with 3 growing boys who are eating me out of house and home. I have to be careful and really plan the meals to stay out of the poor house. I usually make more of what we can eat for dinner just so I can have leftovers for my lunch. Many times I divide up portions right after dinner and put them in the freezer, ready to go for work.
I have found many recipes that help me clean out the refrigerator and my family loves. Strata uses up french bread, veggies, the last of the cheese, and really anything else. Home made spaghetti sauce with and added veggies in the food processor ensures my kids do get veggies. My Fillipino friends showed me how to make pancit. This clears out many veggies and is inexpensive to make. (but is salty)

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Kevin 2010/09/11 at 8:23 am

rb – I know what you mean about growing kids. My two are teens now and our food bill is the fastest growing item in our budget! We’re trying to do lower cost substitution but we can’t even stay ahead that way.

There are come cookbooks out there that deal with preparing left overs, and maybe one should be a must have in ever kitchen. Maybe if we knew creative ways to prepare them, leftovers wouldn’t be seen as undesirable?

BTW, I’ve had pancit and it’s delicious. It does seem to have a little bit of everything and that makes it work.

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Nicole 2010/09/12 at 3:22 pm

My father is a depression baby. We do not waste food. If we don’t want to eat right away, there’s always the freezer. On top of strata, stir fries and omelets are good ways to get rid of odds and ends. And there’s always stew.

My husband’s family is the opposite… leftovers are anathema. They also eat out most of the time. Luckily my husband trained up pretty well.

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Kevin 2010/09/12 at 5:05 pm

Nicole – My parents (and grand parents) were the same way. In fact, they cooked for left overs–my wife and I don’t do that. We try to minimize them or find creative ways to use them.

I have to admit that at this stage of my life I’ve moved more toward my parents frugal ways than I ever thought I would. Somehow that minimalist approach just seems to make for a less stressful life.

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ALM 2010/10/07 at 4:58 pm

I am not a leftover type of person, but we are now making meals last longer in order to not eat out as often. In fact, we are now taking lunches and it is actually nice. Have you seen some of the individuals out there serving fast food? Take a good look at their fingernails, and trust me, you will no longer want the easy way out. Our budget is getting right on track, now, as well.

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KET 2011/04/04 at 8:31 pm

My family never tends to eat out a lot… My parents believe that fast food is just not healthy for you, and home-made meals are totally awesome any ways. Fast food is just sometimes too expensive and home-made could be the right thing everyday. At school, I don’t buy school lunches a lot, my parents like to know that I am eating food that is good for me and that it isn’t just junk. I know how important it is to watch the food labels on food containers even if I don’t know what it is exactly.
[-.-]

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Kevin 2011/04/05 at 6:25 am

KET – It’s good that you’re learning about nutrition early, it’ll serve you well in your life. Most of us don’t learn about it until much later, often when there’s a weight problem or other health issue. It’s much easier to prevent those by early action than to overcome them later when bad habits are already entrenched.

If your school lunches are anything like the ones at my kids schools, your parents are doing you a great service by making you bring from home (we do the same). Most of what we’re seeing on the school menu is borderline junk food, the kind you can get at any fast food restaurant. Pizza, french fries, tacos, rich desserts, sugared drinks–and they have them available everyday. It’s like they don’t want to tick off the kids by getting rid of that crap.

The schools do a good job talking about better nutrition, but what happens in the cafeteria is something entirely different. At least it is in these parts.

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