10 Easy Ways to Reduce Food Waste (and Save a Ton of Money)

A four-person family loses at least $1,500 a year on wasted food—here's how to put that money back in your pocket.

If you were on your way to spend $100 at the grocery store, would you stop and just throw $20 or $30 out on the street? Of course not! Yet, because most people waste about 30 percent of the food they buy, that's effectively what's happening. In fact, a four-person family loses $1,500 a year on wasted food, says the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The good news is, food waste isn't inevitable. In fact, you can cut the amount of food (and money) you squander almost to zero by making a few simple changes in how you buy, store and eat food. We've pulled together some of the easiest adjustments to make:

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1 Buy less.

Sure, it's obvious, but even if an overstocked fridge and a bulging pantry makes you feel prepared for anything, it's actually costing you a lot of money. Of course, it's great to take advantage of 2-for-1 sales and items like that jumbo bag of bargain-priced spinach. But if you can't eat it all before it goes bad, why buy it in the first place? When it comes to perishable food, buy what you reasonably expect to eat for the next four or five days, not the next month. Bonus: Buying too much food can cause a lot of stress when it comes to figuring out how to store it all once you get home. When you buy less, you'll cut clutter and find more peace of mind!

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2 Plan meals in advance.

Menu planning makes sense for a lot of reasons. It reduces the stress of having to pull together dinner at the last minute. It helps avoid the "same thing syndrome," where we cook the same recipes over and over because we know them by heart and know how to make them quickly. It helps you see where you can use leftovers to make a second or even third meal. And of course, it saves money and reduces waste. You don't have to come up with a new recipe for every meal. Compile around 20 "go-to" recipes you already know how to make and can easily modify, then add a new meal idea every now and then—check out some of our best easy dinner ideas for inspiration! The key is to plan a week's worth of meals before you go shopping, then buy ingredients you'll actually use.

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3 Split your shopping list into "buy/don't buy."

Keep your basic shopping list within reach, either on your phone or on a pad in the kitchen. As you run out of foods, add them back onto the list. But likewise, note what you have plenty of in the "Don't Buy" column. For example, you may have four jars of peanut butter just because every time you go to the store, you think "Oh, I should get some peanut butter to have on hand." Put it in the "Don't Buy" column until you're down to one jar.

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4 Use a delivery service.

One reason why some of us buy so much food is because we're crunched for time and can only get to the grocery store once a week. We compensate by buying too much at once. But what if you used a delivery service mid-week to deliver that extra gallon of milk, fresh produce, and whatever meat or poultry you need to make it to the weekend? Many grocery stores will deliver for only a few dollars, which is a lot less than what you'd spend throwing away food you waste. And online ordering, through services like FreshDirect, makes the entire process a breeze, as you can create a streamlined digital account to purchase staples as well as add new ingredients.

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5 Keep track of what you buy once you bring it home.

Put your shopping list and the menus you planned on the refrigerator. That way, you'll be reminded of the ingredients you have and also how you planned to use them.

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6 Eat leftovers, don't lose them.

If your refrigerator shelves don't pull out, get some portable drawers that can rest on the shelves and easily slide in and out so you don't forget about the food in back. Make one night a week "leftovers night" and include leftovers in your meal planning. When cleaning up after dinner, apportion leftovers into reusable containers you can take to lunch the next day. EndFoodWasteNow.org suggests storing leftover carrot, onion, celery, herbs and other veggies in a container in the freezer. When the container is full, make a vegetable stock you can use right away or freeze for another time.

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7 Know how to store dry food.

The key to storing dry food, such as grains and cereal, is to keep the food in air-tight containers so no moisture can get in. Interestingly, wholewheat flour and brown rice are better off stored in the refrigerator. Otherwise, white flour, dried pasta, oats, sugar (brown and white), and dried beans and lentils can all be kept in the pantry. Coffee and tea do not need to be refrigerated, either.

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8 Know how to store fresh food.

Some food keeps longer when it's refrigerated, and some is fine to leave on the counter. For example, apples, oranges, grapes and berries should be refrigerated right away. But don't put avocados, pears, melons or peaches in the fridge until after they're ripe. Meat, seafood, poultry and dairy should always be refrigerated of course; so should fresh lettuce, spinach, green beans and peas. But onions and garlic can stay on the counter. You can get more food storage recommendations from SavetheFood.org.

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9 Keep condiments cold, but not spices or oils.

Mayonnaise, ketchup, wet mustard, nut butters and maple syrup should all be refrigerated. Storing most oils and spices in a dry, dark place is the best way to extend their shelf lives.

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10 Don't worry about expiration dates.

Food expiration dates have nothing to do with food safety, and almost as little to do with food quality, says the NRDC. In fact, the dates stamped on a wrapper or box can be pretty randomly assigned. Manufacturers add them to convey when the product may be at its freshest or "peak quality." This is especially true of canned, processed and packaged foods, which can usually last way beyond the date on the package. For milk, meat, seafood and chicken, you will want to consume it within a few day of its "sell by" date, or freeze it before then. A "best if used by (or before)" date refers strictly to quality, not safety, notes WebMD. For example, sour cream is already sour, but it may taste zippier the fresher it is. Milk is usually fine as long as a week after its "sell by" date. See WebMD's recommendations for interpreting other expiration notices.

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