Five ways to stop food waste

Over the weeked, I watched The Big Waste, a Food Network program featuring some well known chefs like Bobby Flay. The chefs were challenged to make gourmet meals using food that was ready for the dumpster. In my work experience, I’ve noticed that food is often wasted in households where there is no meal planning or system for keeping track of food that has been purchased.

Food that is hidden or not stored in an organized way will languish in refrigerators and pantries because it’s difficult to see what you have. When this happens, you’ll likely go shopping for those items and increase your stash. Instead, consider using the five tips below to keep food from perishing or stop it from turning into clutter. You probably use one or more of these tips already, but when combined you’ll make better purchasing decisions and have a greater chance of consuming more of your food instead of throwing it away.

Meal plan

We’ve talked about this numerous times on Unclutterer, so I won’t go into detail. (A good place to start is with our article “Creating a weekly meal plan.”) Just remember that meal planning keeps you from asking “What’s for dinner?” because you know what is on the schedule. If coming up with meal plans is difficult for you because of time constraints, check out services like The Six O’Clock Scramble, which is a program we love so much we have become users and affiliates for it.

Always use a shopping list

Using a shopping list will keep you from making spur of the moment purchases. That’s not to say that you won’t ever try something new (and put it on your list), but when you buy things that you wouldn’t normally buy, you may forget about them, particularly if you make multiple impulse purchases. So, before your next shopping trip, create a list of things that you intend to purchase and stick to it.

Track your stash with an inventory list

An inventory list placed in a very visible area of your kitchen (or on your pantry door) will help you remember what you have so that you can avoid making duplicate purchases. Record each item along with the quantity on your list or use a dry erase board so that you can easily make updates — and don’t forget your leftovers. If you tend to buy the same items, save a digital copy so you can print it as needed. Check out the Pantry Staples List created by Real Simple if you’re having difficulty getting started.

Keep your pantry and refrigerator organized

To keep your food from getting lost in the refrigerator or pantry, group items by category (dairy, beverages, left overs) and place them in the same spot all the time. You’ll want make sure that you have access to your most reached for items and that they can be easily seen. Use containers (like the Clear Handled Storage Baskets) to keep your items organized.

Check food freshness with

The website can help you determine if certain foods are still good enough to eat. The site will also tell you the best spot in your refrigerator to store certain items. For example, to keep eggs and milk fresher longer, don’t store them in the refrigerator door as the temperature fluctuates each time the door is opened or closed. For a quick reference guide, check out Hella Wella’s infographic, How Long Food Really Lasts in the Fridge and sign up for food safety alerts from to find out which foods have been recalled.

30 Comments for “Five ways to stop food waste”

  1. posted by Erin Doland on

    Great post, Deb! In our house, if we find we’re getting close to expiration dates on staples for our pantry, we like to plan a week where we eat almost all of our dinners from the pantry, refrigerator, and freezer. We try to see if we can go 3, 5, or maybe even 7 days without a trip to the grocery store or farmer’s market. We especially like to do this before going on vacation or before large holidays when we’re going to need the extra storage space.

  2. posted by squibby on

    Another for the list… if you have a vegetable garden, please plant a variety of vegetables and stagger the planting times so everything doesn’t ripen at once. And have a plan for storing, freezing or preserving the vegetables.

  3. posted by alice on

    Meal planning/scheduling can be a little hard if you’re using a CSA share, but I’ve found that keeping everything one or two layers visible in the refrigerator (i.e., don’t push things all the way to the back, unless it’s stored in a pot/pan that you’ll notice is missing) has helped immensely. Food waste is a huge pet peeve of mine, as most of my friends know.

  4. posted by Deb Lee on

    @Erin – Thanks! We do the same when we’re going on vacation. We usually use most things in the fridge before we leave and keep some non-perishable items that can be easily prepared on the day we return.

    @Alice – You’re right, if it’s hidden in the back, you’ll probably forget about it. It also helps to remove items from grocery bags when putting them in the fridge.

  5. posted by WilliamB on

    I find the idea of “meal planning” to be overwhelming – I know it’s because some people are very thorough with it, planning to catch store sales, pantry cooking, planning out amounts and side-dishes and so on. That wasn’t working for me.

    So rather than continue to fail, I now write a list of recipes I might cook in the next week or so. Then I update the shopping list with ingredients I need and after shopping I might change the recipes to take account of unplanned purchases (usually a good deal or nice produce). I decide what to cook a day in advance and maybe do some prep. Even this little bit of planning makes weekday dinners go more smoothly.

    I would like to add that some containers are more likely to lead to hidden food than others. Rectangles are better than rounds, clear better than opaque. I like TellFresh. [long paens to Tellfresh deleted.]

    Finally, I find to be too conservative. Commercially canned food lasts forever although the texture will deteriorate after a year or two. Meat that stays frozen is still healthy to eat although, again, the texture is likely to suffer. Most “use by” or “best by” dates are created and decided upon by the manufacturer – and think about where their best interests lie.

  6. posted by Karen on

    Yes, but how to you train family members to actually LOOK in the left-over containers before declaring that there’s nothing to eat? Even if the containers are clear and in front of them, they don’t see them.

  7. posted by Erin Doland on

    @alice — Our CSA sends a “what’s coming” email, and so do many of our regular stops at our Farmers Market. Any chance these are accidentally going to your spam folder? Or that they have a list and you’re just not on it? Even without the emails, it is still fairly easy to predict. This list is pretty accurate for our area: (Note: I know Alice IRL, so that is how I know she’s in my area 🙂 I’m not cyber-stalking her!)

  8. posted by Dusty @ Wine Logic on

    I always use a shopping list so I am not picking up extra. I also only buy meals for about about a half a week at a time though. Then I go to the store twice a week.

  9. posted by Susan in FL on

    As WilliamB said, “Meat that stays frozen is still healthy to eat although, again, the texture is likely to suffer.” Lots of folks think meat that has suffered freezer-burn is no longer usable, and they throw it out. All that has happened is that the surface of the meat has dried out. If the look of freezer-burn bothers you, use this meat in chili, soups, stews – in fact any wet/moist prep method will do. Don’t throw freezer-burned meat away.

  10. posted by Henave on

    This will not work for every family, but mine is happy with simple meals/foods: we not only have a meal schedule, but I make the same things from week to week (with one night on a 3 week rotating schedule). It is all nutritious and easy to prepare, I always know what to buy and how long it will take to have ready. There are only 4 of us, so when they get sick of a certain item by mutual consent, then they come up with a substitute that everyone agrees on and we switch that night of the week. I used to feel pressured to come up with new recipes all the time, but finally realized that no one really cared!

  11. posted by Letitia on

    I have made a list with simple meals in different versions with a grocery list per dinner. I have for example 6 different pasta dishes (spagetti bolognese, lasagna, penne with mushrooms, macaroni carbonara, farfalle with salmon and spinach etc.)of which I choose 1 for the Monday,
    then on Tuesday we have one of the potato, veg, meat meals (standard Dutch meals like mashed potatoes with endives and meatballs or fried potatoes with green beans and fish or chicken)
    then on Wednesday an asian or italian rice dish,
    Thursdays are pizza, wraps or pancakes,
    Fridays are leftover/take out days,
    Saturdays are hamburger or bread meal and Sundays are for longer prep meals from the oven, new recipes or gourmet potato/veg/meat meals. This way I have a variety of meals but still not so much of a puzzle to plan a weeks menu…

  12. posted by JC on

    I don’t always use a meal plan, but have a general idea of what we’re having for the week. We do have a designated “left-over” night each week. If there are not enough left-overs for a full meal for everyone, we supplement with a baked potato or more veggies.

    I do plan out consecutive meals when I cook a larger piece of meat or a whole chicken. We have the initial meal, then we have a casserole and then soup (or I freeze the meat for a later soup) over the next few days. It uses all the meat and the second day I can cook the bones or carcarss for broth for the soup.

  13. posted by Tracy on

    When we we a family of 7 I always menu planned but now the is only 2 of us at home it seems pointless anyone else got this problem? How do I get back into swing and also add some variety to our meals.
    Seems to be chilli. Lasagna ,pasta bake ,baked spuds ,roast , bolognese. Now please don’t get me wrong I am extremely thankful that I can afford to feed us this variety but please I need some inspiration.

  14. posted by Leslie on

    Due to circumstances, I currently live with my sister and her family. Having come from an environment where we were much more diligent about menu planning and making sure food didn’t go to waste, I’ve been pulling my hair out over the amount of food waste that goes on daily. From partial cups of milk (I’ve taken to pouring them back in the container if still cold/fresh) to food simply going bad, it’s been a constant battle trying to get my sibling to understand meal planning/shopping (keeping to) with lists. I even went so far as to calculate money lost of food waste. While her husband agrees with me, she is resistant to the point she becomes hostile (and her children are even worse).

    At Thanksgiving, I was successful in writing our menu down, along with what appliances would be used, amount of time to cook and what time to start each particular item. Every time my sister became overwhelmed, I would remind her to check the list. Hours later, late that night and even the next couple days, she couldn’t stop talking about how much easier it was with the list I created. While I’m not holding my breath that she’ll turn over a new leaf, I do hope that she will at least see the usefulness in pre-planning and that less food will go to waste.

  15. posted by Tamara on


    Why not look at there being just the two of you as an opportunity to expand your meal possibilities and enjoy trying out some new meals? Maybe go out and purchase a new cookbook that looks appealing? Or find new recipes for free online.

    I found that once it became just the two of us we could begin to enjoy more exotic tasting meals because I no longer had to worry about pleasing a wide variety of kid palettes. I’ve branched out into making risottos of various types, lots of new vegetarian meals, and learned how to make homemade pasta. I’m really enjoying this new phase I have to say!

  16. posted by Tamara on

    I should add that I’m diligent about doing a menu plan each week. We crash and burn otherwise.

  17. posted by adora on

    Also, almost all food can be frozen. If you really can’t eat it all before it spoils, stick it in the freezer.

    With eggs, separate whites from yolk before freezing. Milk can be frozen by the cup, so you can use it in mac n cheese or other recipes. Apples should be cut up before putting it in the freezer.

    Anyway, I just think that food is too cheap and there isn’t any real punishment for wasting food. That’s why it is getting worse. I try to give people a stink eye when they waste a lot of food, but some snobby friends actually give me the look when I pack leftovers home! They think it is low class to do so. We need to make it socially uncomfortable to waste food!

  18. posted by Alice F. on

    Just curious if there are single folks who meal-plan. I can’t imagine being locked into my meals for a whole week … one of the perks of being single is being able to choose what I want to eat on a whim. I won’t say it’s efficient, exactly, and I can certainly understand why it would be helpful when feeding a large family.

  19. posted by Jeannette on

    Adora writes:
    “Anyway, I just think that food is too cheap and there isn’t any real punishment for wasting food.”

    I don’t know where you live or shop but food is anything but cheap for everyone I know who lives in or around the Tri-State area (NY, NJ, CT). And I hear the same from friends around the country. Most of us struggle with our food budgets (and yes, we budget as we have to given our incomes and none of us is at the poverty level.)

    There IS a punishment for wasting food in terms of one’s budget. You are literally throwing away money. That is something “real” people (those who respect the value of a dollar, no matter how many they have, or do not.) Waste is waste.

    People who don’t have money to waste don’t waste food. They literally cannot afford to do so.

    Maybe what you meant to say was that people who have money to throw away have no issue throwing away food. (You have friends who “give you the look” when you pack up leftovers? Humbly, I suggest these are not “friends.” My friends are insulted if I do NOT take leftovers and they insist guests take food home because they do not want anything to be thrown away and they know they can’t eat up what’s left. I have often taken enough leftovers to share with neighbors and other friends who are DELIGHTED to have the food.)

    Also, humbly, I suggest that giving someone the stink eye is not a way to encourage a less wasteful choice. Judging people and calling them on it is not the way to encourage positive change.

    I am sure you can find some way to verbally respond to your “snobby friends who give you the look when you take leftovers. (Personally, I’d find some way to flatter them by thanking them for their extended generosity as in: I’m grateful you are extending the fun of this evening by letting us enjoy the leftovers.” or something like that (yea, there might be a tad bit of sarcasm, but you know what I mean!)

    Nobody can afford to waste food. What really kills me is when people/companies have big events and have tons of leftover food that is NOT then redistributed to the needy. That is an equally unacceptable situation than what goes on in individual homes with personal waste.

    We also need to work to make it easier for people at such events to donate food. There are so many laws and restrictions in place that caterers often end up just tossing food after sharing with waitstaff.

  20. posted by Jeannette on

    Depending on family size and eating habits, it isn’t easy to control waste unless one person takes charge of monitoring food and then shares that with whomever cooks. (Often the same person, but not always.)

    Even when you only cook for one or two, it is hard to do, especially if you work late, end up going out at last minute or are not home every night for a meal.

    In our two-person household, we make a list on a board on the fridge nothing what must be used by when and update daily. We also, when we do end up having to toss something, “penalize” ourselves by deducting that amount from elsewhere in the budget.

    We hate wasting in general but we find that the self-imposed fine really helps us to pay attention as we don’t have a lot of discretionary income. But making ourselves literally feel it, twice, in the pocketbook, as it were, really helps instill a “use it up” approach to food prep and eating.

    We track whatever we toss and that’s a very enlightening way to see the $$ we throw away and it keeps us very vigilant. I think a lot of people are just mindless of what is tossed (especially if you’re not sure another family member ate it or just tossed it out).

    I think you have to involve everyone in family in this effort and also make it literally easy to manage the food in your fridge so that stuff IS used up. (Hey, we’ve all forgotten about something stuck at the BACK of the lowest shelf every now and then, right?)

  21. posted by hazygirl on

    @leslie – Pouring the half drank glass of milk back in the container is a sure way to contaminate the entire container of milk. Ick.

    Food is the US is cheap. Do a google search and you will find dozens of articles comparing food costs in US to the past and other countries. How much of your annual budget is actually spent on food, compared to other necessities (housing) and compared to your non-necessities (smart phones and data plans, etc.)? Our food costs are a pittance compares to everything else.

    If you are taking home leftovers, then you are eating out. If instead you eat at home–or pack a meal that has the correct amount of food that you need–then you will also save money and waste less food.

  22. posted by Leslie on

    @hazygirl – Money spent in this house on takeaway runs about US $450-500/month. Money spent on food to prepare at home runs around US $1000-1200. They’ve been told that given the size of the family, they spend 2-3x the normal household. There’s only one family member who actually works. The other is waiting for u/e approval. I make up the difference at about $3-500/month (food and other basic necessities). Of that, I’ve calculated about 1/3 is wasted, which equates roughly to $500. In some parts of the country that’s rent or a mortgage payment.

    When I was single, I did meal plan. In the beginning, it was because I was making minimum wage and I would have to plan 2 months in advance in order to purchase a $7 can of paint. My weekly extravagance (pre-internet) was the Sunday paper so I could get the coupons and check out the ads. I had 2 cookbooks that I used regularly (Betty Crocker and Joy of Cooking) and I would figure out what I was going to cook up to 2 weeks at a time (w/ backups in case the farmer’s market didn’t have something in particular).

    I continued the meal planning and kept a running food inventory list as part of my weekly grocery shopping as I found that once I got good at it, I really enjoyed the planning process and I would use crockpots/large cooking pots and freeze 1/2-2/3 of what I made so I could use it 2 separate times later.

    Since I started this in my late teens/early 20s, it had evolved over a 20+ year period into something quite enjoyable as I would often look forward to a particular dish I was planning to make.

  23. posted by Alice F. on

    @Leslie: Thanks for sharing. I guess I’ve always been fortunate enough not to have to live on a super strict budget, which makes meal planning less of a necessity. I also hate cooking and don’t really know how to very well. I keep hoping one of these days I will wake up and become a person who enjoys cooking and cooks well, just by wishing for it. 😉

  24. posted by pkilmain on

    @hazygirl – taking home leftovers doesn’t necessarily mean “eating out.” If you go to a dinner at someone’s house for say, Thanksgiving, they are likely to offer you leftovers. Or if I go to a potluck dinner, I take home the leftovers of what I brought, or I may swap them for what someone else brought.

    I use a very casual meal plan. Before I go shopping I look at the calendar to see what nights we are eating at home (there’s just 2 of us, but we both have activities that require travel and thus need a “brown bag” lunch). Then I plan generally what we’ll have those nights (something with chicken, etc) and make sure there will be something for the brown-bagger to take.

    We grow a garden and freeze that produce; I buy milk by the gallon and freeze it in quarts; my DH fishes and we freeze that as well. Very little food gets wasted in our house.

  25. posted by dkenner on


    Food is cheaper relative to what people paid in past decades for comparable food stuffs. Also, food is cheaper when measured by how many hours the average worker has to work to afford a particular meal.

    HOWEVER, food has gone up as gas has gone up. It costs more to transport it. Also, if you buy organic or locally-grown food (and I do) it will cost you more.

    Food is going to cost even more in your area (NY, NJ, CT) because of higher taxes, more regulations, and the fact that many food items are transported from the middle of the country (where most of the food is produced/grown).

    Most of us struggle with our food budget, but it is important to remember how much more (and at less cost per) our modern economy produces food. I grew up on hamburger helper and NO eating out. What most people spend eating out today(or buying prepared foods in the grocery) would pay their mortgage payment.

  26. posted by Carol on

    I’m single and I meal plan. I plan for two weeks at a time since I hate shopping. The meal plans also help with portion control so I don’t overeat. If I make a dish that says “serves four” I will make sure I get four meals from it. Although I enjoy cooking I don’t enjoy cooking after a long day at work. So I usually cook during the weekend and eat leftovers during the week. I know that doesn’t work for everyone but I don’t mind it, especially since I rarely make the same recipe more than three or four times a year. Meal planning for me is less about budgeting and waste and more about reducing stress.

  27. posted by purpleBee on

    My aim is to not have leftovers. There are just 2 of us, so its easy to have half a dozen recipes that use a variation of the same ingredients, eg chicken, peppers, celery, broccoli, onions can be used in a stir fry, casserole, curry, kebabs (without the broccoli), roasted, etc

  28. posted by susan on

    I’m single, I meal plan and try not to waste food. Everything freezes. I halve or quarter recipes or make a full and freeze. I substitute ingredients often with what I have not go out an buy new food. You can make a fruit smoothie with milk, yogurt or even cottage cheese. I buy basics and make food around them. I also buy rare or lesser used spices in the bulk section and only get a tiny amount so I don’t have a $8 jar of spice when I only needed 1/2 teaspoon.
    Stir fry, soups, casseroles, and omelets use up left overs.
    My favorite Thanksgiving leftover is to put the turkey, stuffing, potatoes, green beans and gravy in a pie crust and make a pot pie. Make two and freeze one or make several individual pies and freeze for quick meals.

  29. posted by Matt Petty on

    When we go to CostCo and get cheap multipacks of things like dishwashing detergent, sandwich bags, mayo and Nutella (v important), it’s easy to forget how many more unopened containers we have stashed away at the back of the cupboard. So I write “1 more in cupboard” on the lid or bottle in Sharpie, then we know not to go out and buy more until that’s used up.

  30. posted by Kate on

    I live alone and I just started meal planning about a month ago and I love it. I only plan four dinners a week, because most recipes will stretch for several meals, or I might have plans out, or I might make up something from the freezer/pantry (like rice & beans). So far it’s working well, it’s the right combination of structure/planning and flexibilty. Planning for 7 dinners is too much for me (plus I don’t have to bring lunch so that might be different for those who bring dinner leftovers to the office!)

    I wanted to start planning to help reduce food waste and to leverage my grocery budget better. Before, I felt like I was stocking up on so many staples and then somehow week to week I wouldn’t have the actual ingredients to cook a complete meal. (Great, I can have pasta, dried beans, and coconut milk again, whee!)

    I pick out my four meals the same night I clean house (generally Thursdays), so I can pick up the items I need over the weekend.

    Of course, I plan with one eye on what I have already in the house, what’s in season, etc., but I don’t get too crazy about sales and coupons and stuff.

    So far it’s only been three or four weeks but I can tell I’m wasting less food and I feel less stressed about dinner.

    As part of my plan, I’m also using my slow cooker at least once a week. In fact, just last night I prepped ingredients, this morning I popped everything into the slow cooker, and tonight I’ll have a hot dinner waiting for me when I get home. And this will yield not only tonight’s dinner, but several rounds of leftovers for the freezer.

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