Are You Throwing Away or Wasting Food Needlessly?


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

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