6 Money-Saving Rules for Limiting Food Waste When Shopping

CC BY 2.0. Brooke Cagle

Nix food waste and save money by fighting the forces that entice us to buy, buy, buy.

There has been a lot of focus on food waste of late, and with good reason. To cite the oft-cited statistic, some 40 percent of food in America goes uneaten – what an embarrassment of luxury we have.

Fortunately, the issue is no longer being mindlessly swept aside. Ugly produce is now trendy and hopefully here to stay; and the media is increasingly rife with tips for how not to waste food at home.

But we’re kind of missing an important point – on a personal level we need to start addressing food waste before it comes into the home; that is, when we’re shopping. And this is more of an uphill challenge than may meet the eye. We have manipulative marketing thrust upon us by food manufacturers to buy their products; we have devilishly sneaky supermarket tactics that entice us to fill up our cart. I also think that there may be some good old animal instinct going on here as well – after all, procuring too much food and storing it away is a time-honored survival strategy.

With all of that in mind, having some simple rules can help steer a shopper away from buying too much food; food that may likely end up in the trash ... and in the meantime, save a little money along the way as well.

1. Don’t shop hungry
This is a well-known dieting strategy, but applies to food waste and money-saving as well. Research finds that shopping when you’re hungry leads not only to the buying of higher-calorie items, but also to buying more of everything. And incidently, this applies to shopping for non-food items too. Being hungry just naturally boosts the desire to acquire things, whether they're needed or not.

2. Don’t shop tired
A Swedish study found that sleep deprivation led to not only the purchase of higher calorie foods, but more food by weight as well. And although it was a small study, this writer's real-life experience points in the same direction. Another problem with shopping when you’re tired is that you may be more tempted to purchase convenience foods and ready-made meals – these may not lead to more food waste, but they are more expensive and often come with excess packaging waste.

3. Bring your own storage containers
In her quest to live a zero waste life, TreeHugger writer Katherine shops with jars – she brings clean empty jars to the market for bulk items and foods from the deli, meat and seafood counters. Not only is this a wonderful way to avoid packaging, but it’s also a great way to maintain portion control as you can purchase custom amounts of an item.

4. Don't buy big
Unless you know you will use all of the product, don’t fall for the “buy big and save” swindle for perishable food. The little bit of savings will mean nothing if you end up throwing the unused food out.

5. Don’t be seduced by sales
If something on your shopping list is on sale, no problem. But don’t be enticed to buy more than you need unless you are sure you will be able to use it. And especially don’t buy something that’s on sale just because it’s a good deal – impulse bargain shopping all too often ends up as wasteful shopping. If you want to take advantage of sales, use coupons or a circular and make sure to work the sale items into your shopping list at the menu planning stage. (If you have a menu planning stage.)

6. Shop frequently
While shopping every day or two may not work with the one-giant-shopping-trip-a-week-lifestyle model, it definitely has its benefits: You can be less glued to a meal plan; you can take advantage of what’s local and fresh daily; you can shop to suit what you’re in the mood for; food will sit in your refrigerator for shorter periods of time; you will need to store less food at home which is more energy-efficient, et cetera. When shopping more frequently, use just a hand-held basket rather than using a cart – a big cart does nothing but whisper secret siren songs enticing you to feed it.

And granted, living in a walkable city or European village makes shopping more more feasible, but as Katherine notes in Change your shopping habits to reduce food waste: "Unless you’re a diligent home cook, who sticks faithfully to the meal plan and then creates meals based on what’s in the fridge, it’s a good idea to buy less food more frequently. Limit your planning to the next several meals, in order to accommodate unforeseen schedule changes, and then watch your trash output shrink along with your total grocery expenses."