9 Ways You’re Wasting Money on Food
1. You Don’t Meal Prep
Supporting local restaurants is great, and no one’s knocking the occasional takeout order, but cooking at home is a big money saver. Numbers from the USDA predict that food-away-from-home prices will rise higher in 2023 than supermarket prices.
An investigation published in the May 2017 American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that people who cooked dinners most nights of the week spent on average $57 less on food each month than those who prepared three or fewer dinners each week. The same study found that diet quality, including calories, sugar, and saturated fat, also improved when people ate out less — a double win.
And while meal delivery services are convenient, they, like takeout, can cost five times more than cooking the same meal at home, according to an analysis done in 2018 by Forbes.
“I’m a strong believer that meal planning is the key to eating at home more often, and to avoiding food waste,” says Poland. Results of a study published in January 2022 in the Journal of the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics back this up, finding that meal planning was associated with more than a 70 percent greater chance that the evening meal would be prepared at home.
Meal planning saves time and money by taking the guesswork out of what you’ll eat, Poland says. That means you’ll be less likely to turn to overpriced convenience foods and takeout, or impulse buys at the grocery store. To learn more about this useful and money-saving technique, see our meal planning guide.
2. You Forget the Food You Already Have
Every year, a family of four tosses an estimated $1,500 of uneaten food in the trash, according to the USDA. That’s a nice chunk of change you could be saving. It’s a good idea to do a regular inventory of your kitchen pantry, fridge, and freezer to see what might be getting old and needs to be used up, and plan a meal or meals around those ingredients. “It’s important to take the time to see what you have on hand, sit down with your recipe apps, books, online sources, etc. and write out your grocery list. Then go to the store,” says Poland. That way, you don’t keep buying tuna if you already have five cans. It may also help to rotate items in the fridge and freezer from the back to the front as a reminder to use them, or store them in transparent or clearly labeled containers with use-by dates on them. Or designate one day a week as a clean-out-the-pantry day when you make meals out of what you have on hand. You might find this forces you to get creative with your menu in a good way.
3. You Don’t Store Greens to Last
Nobody says yum to mushy baby spinach. Those tender greens in the clamshell aren’t cheap, so you want to take measures to extend their freshness. The most effective way to keep salad greens at their best is to line a storage container with a few paper towels, then scatter your greens on top. Seal shut with a lid and refrigerate. The paper towel will absorb the moisture that can transform your mesclun mix from crisp to slimy. Just be sure there is some room in the container for air to circulate.
Heartier greens like kale and collards tend to last longer than delicate ones like romaine. If you’re into premade salad kits, shredded cabbage and broccoli mixes will last longer than those based on traditional lettuce such as iceberg, says Poland.
Leafy herbs will last longer in a glass of water with a plastic bag loosely over top in the fridge. If your greens are going bad, you can always make them into pesto and freeze it in an ice cube tray for individual portions.
4. You Trash Scraps
Don’t follow your first impulse and compost those leek tops, onion skins, and asparagus ends. From mushroom stems to carrot end bits to celery trimmings, these veggies may not end up in your dinner but they definitely can be transformed into homemade broth that will cost pennies but add flavor to so many different dishes. Simply stash them in the freezer in a large zip-top bag and when you have a sizable quantity, make your own veggie broth to use in soups, chili, and sauces. If available, toss in Parmesan rinds for some umami flavor. Avoid using trimmings from cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts, though, as they can impart a bitter taste. In general, aim for a one-to-one ratio of solids to water simmering in a large pot. Vegetable broth can be frozen for up to three months. Try dividing the liquid among silicone muffin cups to freeze it in more manageable serving sizes. This is especially useful when a recipe calls for a just a small amount.
5. You Eat Mostly Animal Protein
Trading beef for beans more often is easier on your bank account. A study in the November 2021 Lancet Planetary Health that analyzed feeding patterns from 150 countries found that for wealthier countries like the United States, a diet higher in plant-based foods is 22 to 34 percent less expensive than other diets. Protein from animals, such as steak and fish, tends to be among the most expensive items on a grocery list, so buying and preparing more plant-based proteins like lentils and tofu in your kitchen as replacements for some of your meals can certainly go a long way in trimming the weekly grocery bill.
Stick to whole, minimally processed foods if you want to save money; packaged plant-based meat alternatives have traditionally been even pricier than meat. According to the Good Food Institute, plant-based burger patties cost an average of 65 percent more than beef patties, although some industry experts predict that may finally change in 2023.
Going pro-plant can be a health win as well. Data from more than 30 studies, published in July 2020 in the BMJ, linked higher protein intake overall and plant protein specifically to lower all-cause mortality risks. This is likely due to the uptick in fiber, antioxidants, and certain nutrients like magnesium, as well as slashed saturated fat, that comes with noshing on more protein from the plant kingdom.
6. You Don’t Use Your Microwave
Nuking food has gotten a bad rap, but if your goal is to save money on those monthly energy bills, a good place to start is to use your microwave more often. Microwave ovens use less energy than conventional ovens and stoves because they work more efficiently by directly heating the water in the food. A microwave also doesn’t heat up the kitchen in the warmer months the way cooking with an oven does, which can help with air-conditioning costs.
While it won’t do all the jobs that a standard oven will, you should know that the microwave is good for a lot more than just reheating leftovers and making movie night popcorn in a bag. Why fire up the energy-hogging oven to toast a handful of nuts when you can get the same toasty results in the microwave? You can steam a piece of fish and sliced veggies in a parchment paper packet in the microwave to tender perfection in less than five minutes — the true definition of healthy fast food. With a bit of know-how, a perfectly poached egg, crispy bacon, creamy oatmeal, kid-approved mac and cheese, and juicy boneless pork chops are all possible without turning on the oven or stove top.
7. You Toss Stuff Too Soon
Trashing stuff like yogurt and salad greens because you are diligently following “best by” and other suggested use-by dates is a recipe for unnecessary food waste and needless spending. If you are flummoxed about these labels you’re not alone. A study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior in 2021 found that only 64 percent of adult survey respondents understood the “best if used by” label, and a mere 44.8 percent knew the precise meaning of the “use by” label. “It’s important to understand there is no regulation for dates on the food label,” Poland says. The FDA does offer a guide, however.
So for now, you need to know that manufacturers use food-product dating to advise consumers on when the food in their kitchen is of the highest quality and best flavor, not when it’s safe to eat. The upshot is that unless an item is showing obvious signs of spoilage, such as sour milk or spots of mold on bread, you need not dispose of food once these dates on the calendar have come and gone.
One cost-saving option, if you know you’re not going to eat all of something before its expiration date, is to freeze it. Most foods can be sent to the deep freeze for future use, and the FDA has a guide to common foods and how long they will last in the freezer, as well as those that should not be frozen.
8. You’re Hooked on Disposables
Say sayonara to paper towels, plastic sandwich bags, cling wrap, and other single-use items in your kitchen. Opting for reusable towels, bags, and wraps instead is not only easier on the environment, but it will stop you from having to spend money frequently restocking. There is an initial higher cost with this approach, but over time the savings stack up. Stasher bags and Abeego beeswax food wraps are two great places to start.
9. You Don’t Do Scratch
So many of the staples you buy can be made from scratch in your kitchen with significant cost savings. Bread, grainy mustard, granola, ketchup, breadcrumbs (a great way to use up stale bread), sauerkraut, hot cocoa mix, energy bars, pasta sauce, and even yogurt are all things that, yes, you can make yourself, and are not nearly the high-flying kitchen feats you think.
“I’ve found that hummus is a store-bought item that is very expensive, but it’s easy to make homemade, saves you money, and tastes better,” Poland says. Also, you don’t have to pay a small fortune for trendy kombucha and carbonated beverages — you can start making your own for a fraction of the